Orthodoxy has historical and spiritual significance, as well as a strong moral influence, in Russian society. The role and importance of Orthodoxy in the media is growing. But journalists and clergy focus not so much on presenting their views on different Orthodox issues, as on promoting the image of Orthodoxy they would like to see and demonstrating how they think Orthodoxy should be perceived by the public and portrayed in the media. Roman Lunkin, director of the Institute for Religion and Law, addressed this issue at a seminar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The event was moderated by Carnegie’s Alexey Malashenko.  

Official Orthodoxy

  • The State Church: After the end of the Soviet government, Church officials began to claim that the Russian Orthodox Church suffered more than other religions, institutions and citizens during the Soviet period, and so the new authorities should show their penitence towards the Church. According to Church representatives, Orthodoxy has a historic role and importance that places it above even the secular state authorities. The Church, through its existence, lends legitimacy to the secular authorities and the state. This idea has developed even further under Patriarch Kirill: in the Church’s view, the state authorities will be able to resolve the various problems facing the country only with the Church’s support and cooperation. In Lunkin’s opinion, the Church is no longer perceived as being separate from the state. 
  • The Church’s Patriotic Image: In the post-Soviet period, Orthodoxy and the Moscow Patriarchate have been declared the custodians of Russian culture and spirituality and the bearers of true Russian patriotic values. Two federal television channels, Rossia (Russia) and Channel One, have played a big part in creating this image. Rossia shows more programs on Orthodox themes, many blatantly ideological. 
  • The Church as Stronghold: The efforts to build up an image of the Church as bearer of greatness and the chief custodian of Russian traditions have brought in their wake anti-Western and anti-democratic rhetoric, Lunkin explained. The growth of religious sects, who are perceived as frightening and threatening, is associated primarily with Western influence and the spread of democracy. Church officials frequently and openly express doubts that Russia can be a democratic country. The view is expressed that what Russia needs are not democratic values but the traditional Russian collective spirit. 
  • The Church as Preacher: Since the start of 2009, public speeches by the new Patriarch, Kirill, have grown both in number and influence. They are perceived as news items and a form of psychotherapy for society. The media gives extensive coverage to Patriarch Kirill’s trips, meetings, and comments on all manner of social and political issues. This, Lunkin contended, is the first time Russia has seen the emergence of a social preacher at the nationwide level. 

“Popular” Orthodoxy

Church officials declare the population is in general Orthodox, justifying the idea of state Orthodoxy and asserting that anyone Russian by ethnicity or in spirit, and christened in childhood, is Orthodox. However, this attempt to extend Orthodoxy to the greatest possible number of people has led to some unlikely manifestations of religion, Lunkin explained. Orthodoxy has, for broad sections of the population, taken on the form of a folk semi-pagan culture, adopting occult-influenced notions of spirituality with popular superstitions, and even elements of astrology. Lunkin described it as a folklore and fairytale-based Orthodoxy that has become a real living culture in society. 

At the same time, the general public has a superficial and clichéd vision of the real Orthodox faith. As a result, Lunkin said, most do not know about the real and serious issues affecting the Church, the Church’s mission, or even the tenets of their professed faith.

Criticism of Orthodoxy and the Church

  • Forms of Criticism: Critiques of the church or Orthodoxy often use irony to undermine the dominant image of Orthodoxy in the media, where it is portrayed as a pathos-ridden patriotic stronghold of the state and culture, contended Lunkin. 
  • Targets of Criticism: Critics assert that the Church is divorced from society and the reality of daily life, and that people who call themselves Orthodox do not see a need to follow the Church’s rules and instructions, according to Lunkin.

Transformation of the Church’s Image in the Media

The Church’s increasing influence in public and political life has not led to any radical change in the way the Church is perceived and understood, Lunkin argued.

He identified some recent trends in the way Orthodoxy is portrayed:

  • Since the enthronement of Patriarch Kirill, the secular media has renewed and developed old images of the Church as the custodian of Russian culture and traditions, the bearer of Russia’s greatness and uniqueness, and the stronghold against Russia’s enemies.
  • At the same time, thanks to the Patriarch Kirill’s numerous speeches, the Church is gaining a more dynamic and open social image.
  • The folk-occult side of Orthodoxy remains unchanged.
  • The media is gradually forming a critical stance on the Church.

Overall, in Lunkin’s view, it is not so much the deep-rooted perceptions of the Church that have changed, but rather the weaker and less clearly defined understandings of the state, which is now perceived as primarily an Orthodox state defending unique values based on Orthodox culture.