The position of the Russian Orthodox Church in modern Russian society remains unclear. There is a disconnect between the general population—which is disinclined to listen to the Church’s appeals—and the Church, which has a poor understanding of the society it is addressing. Hegumen Pyotr Meshcherinov, rector of the metochion of the Danilov Monastery near Moscow and a member of the staff of the Patriarchal Center for the Spiritual Development of Children and Youth at the Danilov Monastery, spoke at the Carnegie Moscow Center about the reasons behind this tension between the Church and Russian society. The event was moderated by Alexey Malashenko. 

Society in the USSR and Modern Russia

  • Soviet era: The spiritual and moral state of Russian society has changed dramatically since 1917. The Revolution and subsequent Soviet rule interrupted the natural evolution of Russian history and broke traditional way of life. Hegumen Pyotr suggested that one of the serious consequences of the Soviet era was that the best qualities in people were destroyed, while their worst qualities—such as a lack of responsibility, a lack of respect for the individual, and lack of solidarity—were cultivated and developed to an extreme degree. The political terror of those years divided people on a mass scale and instilled complete distrust in each other, he said. 
  • Modern Russia: The collapse of the totalitarian regime did not help renew society and improve its moral state, in Hegumen Pyotr’s view. Instead of a revival of spiritual and moral values and pre-revolutionary traditions, the Hegumen described the post-Soviet period as characterized by a general movement toward consumerism, evidently to compensate for the enforced asceticism of the Soviet years. The negative qualities that took root during the Soviet period have not been overcome and have taken even greater hold. In his view, society remains deeply divided and undermined by societal mistrust, and a pervasive atmosphere of amorality, cynicism, and political passiveness has spread throughout Russia.

Indicators of the Russian Society’s Problematic Moral State

  • Low charity activity: Russia ranks 138 out of 153 countries for charity and volunteer work and aid given to strangers, according to data from the international organization Charities Aid Foundation and from the Gallup Institute.
  • Corruption and poor law enforcement: The amount of the average bribe which individual pays almost doubled from 2006-2010, increasing from 5,048 rubles to 8,887 rubles. Furthermore, 82 percent of Russians think that police abuse of power is a problem that needs to be addressed urgently
  • Alcohol consumption, drug addiction, and other social problems: The Ministry of Health and Social Development puts alcohol consumption in Russia at an annual of 18 litres per capita, which is double the level the World Health Organization defines as dangerous for lives and health. Almost 7 million Russian citizens regularly use drugs, which were responsible for almost 103,000 deaths in 2009 alone. According to the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, the country ranks first in the world for abortions, abandoned children, and annual level of deaths from alcohol.  
  • Amoral outlook: More than half of young Russians are ready to break moral norms for the sake of success and thereupon consider such things as taking bribes, prostitution, conjugal infidelity, and racial intolerance acceptable, Hegumen Pyotr asserted.

Russian Orthodox Church and Society: Challenges for the Church

The problems facing Russian society make the issue of its relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church particularly acute. Hegumen Pyotr listed the following challenges that the Church must overcome:

  • Assessing the Soviet past: The Church’s official view is that the Soviet period hurt both the Church itself and all of Russia. However, this position is rejected by many people both outside and inside the Church, and the Church leaders are forced to take into account the views of those who support the legacy of the Soviet period.
  • Lingering Soviet mentality: Soviet values have unfortunately transformed into something akin to religious values, Hegumen Pyotr stated. For example, social and civic passiveness is seen as humility and acceptance and a lack of a sense of responsibility becomes obedience. In the Hegumen’s view, this mentality explains the moral indifference and blindness of many Orthodox believers. He warned that secularism is replacing spirituality within the Church itself. Religion and the Church are losing the battle to be a part of daily life and becoming a sub-culture in Russian society. 
  • Service: The idea of “serving the people” has dominated among the clergy since Soviet times, but Hegumen Pyotr said this conception risks undermining the supranational message in the gospels. The Church does not exist to serve the people, he said, but to serve Christ, and must therefore be above the people.
  • Moral differences between Church and society: Although Hegumen Pyotr described modern society as immoral, he nonetheless sees a high demand for moral evaluation of the current state of affairs. The Hegumen said the Church should not stand aside from society. Rather, he argued, it should use purely Christian principles and, without a political bent, draw attention to people’s vulnerability and violations of their rights, to the arbitrariness and lawlessness that characterize too much of Russian law enforcement, and blame those responsible. But, he conceded, the Church has been unable to formulate a clear position not only on interpreting past events, but on how to address the present situation, too.  
  • Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church in the public opinion: Most of Russians view Christ as an unquestionable example and figure of influence, but today a large number of people see Christianity as such and the Russian Orthodox Church as two separate things. Hegumen Pyotr said that the Church is insufficiently aware of how the public really perceives it. 

Despite all of these problems, Hegumen Pyotr noted that society is now able to openly and clearly formulate its questions for the Church, unlike in the past. Furthermore, science allows the Church to break away from its traditional role as a source of medicine and other necessities of life and to draw people who are truly motivated by spiritual concerns. Hegumen Pyotr concluded that this moment is thus the best time for the Church.