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Religion Counts: Russia

Religion Counts: Russia

In this first piece launching Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series, George Lapshynov explores the complex role of religion in Russian politics ahead of the presidential election. 14/03/2024

Some 114 million Russians will go to the polls this week for the 2024 presidential election, which will be held this weekend (15 to 17 March). There are four candidates on the ballot: Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov, Liberal Democrat candidate Leonid Slutsky, Progressive ‘New People’ candidate Vladislav Davankov and independent candidate Vladimir Putin, who is running for a fifth term in office. The winner will be inaugurated in two months’ time, on 7 May 2024.

The choice for Russian voters (for those who vote – turnout in the September 2021 parliamentary elections was only 51.7% [i]) will essentially be between different economic policies. All but Kharitonov are right–of–centre, although even his Communist Party is nationalist and patriotic. And with the disqualification last month of the only anti–war candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, all the candidates on the ballot support, to varying degrees, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Among the many factors that will determine whether and how Russians vote this week, religion will play a vital role. While faith is unlikely to determine the outcome of the presidential election itself, with 81% of the population believing in God or practising a faith [ii], political rhetoric and even the content of the candidates’ agendas are all shaped by the role of religion in Russia’s complex interplay of identity, politics, and societal values.

Religion in Russian politics

Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has undergone a profound transformation in its approach to religion. In the 1990s, in the space of a decade, the state moved from violently enforced atheism to actively seeking cooperation with religious organisations – particularly the Russian Orthodox Church – as part of its state–building. In this desecularisation process, religious beliefs have become so socially significant that today, religion cannot be excluded from any serious study of political life in Russia. [iii]

Despite its constitutional secularism, the state holds religion in special esteem. The 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, passed over the then–President Boris Yeltsin’s veto and against his will, gives legal recognition to the cultural importance of religion in Russia. The 2020 constitutional amendments, supported by the Interfaith Council of Russia and signed by the Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Adventist, Pentecostal, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, as well as Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist leaders, further emphasised the role of faith in the nation’s identity by adding a reference to God to the Constitution: “The Russian Federation… preserves the memory of the ancestors who handed down to us their ideals and their faith in God.”

However, while religion is central to Russia’s secular civic identity, deliberate efforts have been made to prevent its direct influence on political life. The state allows religious institutions to exercise political influence at the national and federal levels, but prohibits the formation of political parties, or indeed the organisation of political activity, on religious or ethnic grounds. This is largely because religion, and particularly its potential for politicisation, is seen as a security risk with the ability to destabilise society.

Still, notwithstanding de jure restrictions on the role of religion in Russian politics, religion plays a significant de facto role in Russian political life.

The Russian Orthodox vote

The symbiotic relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin is a well–documented aspect of Russian politics. Putin’s regime draws on the seniority and moral influence of Orthodoxy, while the Church receives state support. In this way, the Russian state benefits from the Church’s high level of approval in Russian society – the ‘pro–Orthodox consensus’ – while the Church’s own socially conservative agenda, couched in the language of ‘traditional morality’, influences the agenda of Putin’s regime. [iv]

This is not to say that Putin is universally loved by Orthodox Christians (which represent 42.5% of the population [ii]). By emphasising morality, the Church places itself above the law and casts the state as a potentially immoral actor to be viewed with scepticism. Putin has partially overcome this hurdle by promoting a conservative nationalism since his third term, which has increased the Church’s proximity to the state, bolstered support for him among Orthodox believers, and allowed the official Church hierarchy to soften criticism by emphasising the state’s role as a credible protector of traditional values. 

Putin’s drift towards social conservatism has not only affected the Orthodox Christian vote. The aforementioned Interfaith Council has also backed constitutional amendments to enshrine marriage “as the union of a man and a woman” and “to protect traditional family values” in 2020, demonstrating a broader trend among religious Russians towards increased social conservatism. This explains some of Putin’s unwavering and sometimes growing support among religious Russians.

The Russian Muslim vote

The influence of Islam in Russian social and political life, particularly among traditionally Muslim populations and Central Asian immigrants (of which millions reside in Russia), is also growing, adding further complexity to the religious–political landscape. [v] The post–USSR Islamic revival, driven by foreign missionaries, has affected the Caucasus through the reintroduction of Islamic customary practices (adat) and Islamic law (sharia), affecting education, medicine, the economy, and family structures. A notable example is the resurgence of polygamy in Dagestan. [vi]

While radicalisation among Russian Muslims has been limited, extremism and ethno–religious nationalism are on the rise, especially in the Muslim–majority republics. And because Islam is viewed with suspicion by the state and the wider population, despite some cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, Muslims are torn about further integration into civil society. [iii]

The Russian Muslim Ummah is thus caught in a dilemma, torn between cooperating with the Kremlin for greater social conservatism and aspirations for independence from Moscow.

* * *

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to find a common basis for a civic identity that could unite its more than 190 ethnic groups. Religion, especially in the form of a cultural and religious synthesis based on the shared traditional values of its many different faiths, was a natural candidate and thus became politically and socially significant.

As this article has shown, there is no doubt that the political views and choices of millions of Russians in this week’s presidential election will be guided by religion – either by their personal faith or by the wider religious dynamics that animate Russian politics. Anyone interested in politics in Russia would be well advised to consider this.

On Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series

This blog is part of a larger series of blogs written by experts exploring the links between religion, values, identity, and democracy in countries around the world. Theos is also working on a major new series of briefing articles on the impact of religion on voting patterns in the UK. Watch this space and follow Theos on social media to be updated on their release.

Could you help uncover the impact faith can make in this election year by giving to our Religion Counts election appeal?

[i] For reading on political apathy and non–participation in Russia, see: Mark Steinberg, ‘Emotions History in Eastern Europe’, in Doing Emotions History, S. J. Matt and P. N. Stearns, eds (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013), pp. 74–100; Maryana Prokop & Arleta Hrehorowicz, ‘Between Political Apathy and Political Passivity: The Case of Modern Russian Society’ Torun International Studies 1:12, p. 121; Anna Zhelnina, ‘The Apathy Syndrome: How We Are Trained Not to Care about Politics’, Social Problems 67:2 (2020), p. 362; Eugene Kukshinov, ‘Discourse of non–participation in Russian political culture: Analysing multiple sites of hegemony production’, Discourse & Communication 15:2 (2021), p. 169. 

[ii] Russian Atlas of Religions and Nationalities (2012). 

[iii] Yuri Pochta, ‘Religion and Politics in Post–Soviet Russia (The Example of Islam)’ (Религия и политика в постсоветской России (на примере мусульманского фактора)), RUDN Journal of Political Science (Вестник Российского университета дружбынародов. Серия: политология) 21 (4) (2019), pp. 621. 

[iv] Alexander Agadjanian, ‘Tradition, morality and community: elaborating Orthodox identity in Putin’s Russia’, Religion, State & Society 45:1 (2017). 

[v] Marlène Laruelle, ‘Central Asian Labor Migrants in Russia: The “Diasporization” of the Central Asian States?’, The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 5:3 (2007), pp. 101–103. 

[vi] See: Anrietta Vereshchagina and Elvira Zagirova, ‘Polygamy in Dagestan in Public Opinion Optics’, Sociological Studies (Социологические исследования) 2 (2022); Elvira Zagirova, ‘Polygamy in the family and marital sphere of the modern Dagestan society’, Journal of the Maykop State Technological University (Вестник Майкопского государственного технологического университета) 14:1 (2022). 

Image by BUTENKOV ALEKSEI on Shutterstock

George Lapshynov

George Lapshynov

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is interested in the place of wisdom in contemporary politics and has published articles on the history of sacred music.

Watch, listen to or read more from George Lapshynov

Posted 14 March 2024

Democracy, Election 2024, Religion, Religion Counts, World Politics


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