Text resize: A A
Change contrast

Religion in Russia’s Foreign Policy

This is a shortened version of an essay originally appearing in New Eastern Europe Issue 3(VIII)/2013 “Why Culture Matters. For the full article please see the print edition here.

August 4, 2013 - Alicja Curanović - Articles and Commentary



Religious diplomacy allows a state to use certain aspects of religion and religious symbols in international affairs. The instrumentalisation of religion for political aims has a long and rich tradition in Russia, which is evidenced in Russia’s foreign policy today.

In April 2012 a scandal broke out surrounding a photo of the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church – Patriarch Kirill – wearing a gold Swiss Breguet watch worth 30,000 dollars. The Church had altered the photograph using Photoshop in an attempt to hide this luxurious accessory, until some sharp-eyed bloggers were quick to point out the reflection on the table, sparking a public debate about the role of the Church and its influence in the public sphere.

Contrary to feelings which may arise as a result of news collected by the Russian media, the significance of the Patriarchate of Moscow in the Russian public sphere should not be reduced to the luxuries of its leader, nor this 30,000-dollar watch. Nor should it be reduced to the Pussy Riot issue or even the declaration of commitment to the Orthodox Church by key Russian politicians, including Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

Let’s be partners

The growing activity of the Orthodox Church is a part of a wider phenomenon – beginning with the mid-1990s rapprochement between the state and selected religious institutions in Russia, and the majority of the former Soviet republics. Gradually, cooperation mechanisms (called social partnership) were created in the public sphere, primarily in education and welfare. This social partnership was meant to give a stronger role to Russia’s “traditional” religions – those religious institutions granted a privileged status by the authorities in Russia: the Orthodox Church (represented by the Russian Orthodox Church – ROC), Islam, Buddhism (only the Gelug school) and Judaism. The intensity of cooperation of the Kremlin with a given “traditional” religion depends on the number of its followers. Therefore, the Russian Orthodox Church (41 per cent of Russians) holds the most powerful position; while Muslim institutions, the muftiates (6.5 per cent), Buddhists living mostly in Buryatia and Kalmykia (0.5 per cent), and Jewish organisations play a much smaller role.

This trend of the growing presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the state has led researchers such as Sergey Filatov and Dmitry Furman to write about the phenomenon of the politicisation of religion or even the “orthodoxisation” of the public sphere in Russia. The dominance of one religious tradition is not only undesirable but also dangerous for the multi-ethnic and multi-faith state, struggling with growing xenophobia and going through a national identity crisis. However, it should be admitted that so far, the Kremlin has been pulling all the strings regarding the conditions of participation of “traditional” religions in public life, and basically controlling the scope of this potential orthodoxisation.

Roots of Russian religious diplomacy

Religious diplomacy is made up of a set of mechanisms which allows a state to use aspects of religion, such as ideas, slogans, symbols and even religious organisations in international affairs. The instrumentalisation of religion for political aims has a long and rich tradition in Russia. As a result of reforms by Peter the Great, the clergy was de facto transformed into civil servants educated at public universities and paid salaries by the state. In return they were obliged to serve Russia. The clergy would take the oath of loyalty to the tsar and religious institutions were assigned specific targets, for example, cultural assimilation of conquered territories. The significance of the Russian Orthodox Church in this field is plainly visible by the absorption of a separate Kyiv metropolis by ROC structures, and the elimination of the Uniate Church.

This facilitated the strengthening of Russian influence throughout the region. A similar tactic was applied in the case of orthodoxy in Georgia. Several years after its annexation in 1801, the autocephaly of that Orthodox Church was eliminated. During the second half of the 18th century, Russian rulers would more often activate the Muslim minority in politics. An ukaz (an imperial imposition) from 1773 prohibited the Orthodox Church from interfering in internal affairs of Islamic communities. Hence, cooperation with the authorities was perceived by Muslims as a chance to gain some autonomy from the Church. Among the followers of Islam, Tatars were the most loyal, and were often used for persuading fellow believers from Central Asia to the benefits resulting from being subjects of the Russian Empire.

The activities of the Russian Orthodox Church outside the empire facilitated the creation of a positive image of Russia (for instance, as a defender of the nations of the Orthodox Church), as well as broadening its influence. Additionally, the clergy carried out diplomatic activities and became messengers for the rulers in Moscow. Missionary centres became places that would strengthen the Russian presence in a given region. The rulers would acquire property for the Church and facilitate the promotion of a positive image and create a system of precious contacts, in countries such as China, Japan, North America and the Middle East. It must be strongly emphasised that the religious aspect was a tool used by Russian rulers for the realisation of pragmatically defined interests. An example of such behaviour might be the wars with Turkey, which were justified by the need to protect Orthodoxy. On the other hand, Russia supported Turkey twice in the 1830s against the Egyptian Mamluks.

During the 20th century, the Soviet Union also took advantage of the Russian tradition of religious diplomacy, despite conducting forceful atheisation inside the country. It is no coincidence that under the Soviet Union, the Department for External Affairs was established in the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1946. This department contributed to the development and professionalisation of the Orthodox Church’s diplomacy. The Soviet Union would use the Church for propaganda purposes (it claimed that the Soviet Union was a state respecting religious freedom), and as an additional informal diplomatic channel including relations with other Orthodox countries, primarily with NATO member Greece and Middle Eastern countries. The ROC’s activity in international religious circles (including the World Council of Churches) was also vital for the Soviet Union.

In the rapprochement of the state with the “traditional” religions, which took place after the fall of the Soviet Union, both parties expected mutual benefits. Boris Yeltsin, struggling with the State Duma opposition, wished to improve his image and strengthen legitimacy with the support of institutions that had social trust. Likewise, the traditional religions sought state support as they faced the growing activity of non-traditional religious movements (for example, Pentecostals and Jehovah Witnesses). This was the origins of the social partnership, while a key moment in the development of Russia’s contemporary religious diplomacy took place in 2003, when Patriarch Alexey II paid a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Following that meeting, a joint Church and foreign affairs working group was established, which continues to meet regularly even today (Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been an outspoken advocate of strengthening ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and diplomacy, as well as using the Orthodox Church in Russian foreign policy).

The potential of Russia’s religious diplomacy

The instrumentalisation of religion for political reasons is not specific to Russia. It is a universal phenomenon. Nevertheless, the Russian case deserves special attention for three reasons: first, the rich Russian tradition of using religion in promoting its image abroad; second, the wide-ranging potential of Russian diplomacy; and third, the presence of religious institutions capable of conducting their activities outside the country. It is this third reason that determines the state’s ability to perform religious diplomacy. The transnational potential of the Russian Orthodox Church is significant. The canonical territory of the Church (i.e. the territory over which jurisdiction is exercised) spreads over the entire post-Soviet area – except for Georgia and Armenia; and the Church has a physical presence on all inhabited continents.

In the context of Russian religious diplomacy, it is crucial that the Orthodox Church, unlike the Catholic Church, is not subject to any non-Russian structure. There is no Orthodox equivalent of the Vatican; the ROC is therefore independent in its international activity. The Patriarchate of Moscow participates in international organisations, including the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and UNESCO. The Church is effective thanks to support from Russian diplomacy. Joint lobbying of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the ROC led to tangible results in the form of a consultative group named “Dialogue and Peace of Cultures” under the auspices of UNESCO, created in 2009, with a mandate to bring together representatives of world religions.

No other “traditional” religion of the Russian Federation may claim international activities on the level as that of the Orthodox Church. Such a significant advantage of the ROC in the international arena makes it a dominant force in Russian religious diplomacy. Nevertheless, the muftiates’ efforts to build their transnational potential (taking their inspiration from the ROC) should not be overlooked. The biggest progress has been made by the clergy of the Russian Council of Muftis (RCM), especially Ravil Gaynutdin, the Grand Mufti of Russia, who aims to represent the whole of the Russian ummah (the nation of Russian Muslims) globally. Thus, in order to professionalise its activities the Russian Council of Muftis established its own Department of International Relations.

Functions of religious diplomacy

It is the Orthodox Church, however, that has the image of being a specific representative of the Russian authorities, which plays the largest role in Russian diplomacy. But the starting point of religious diplomacy is not faith, but rather national interests. In Russia, the religious aspect is used for strengthening cultural sovereignty and religious security. It is also understood as the state’s ability to maintain cultural “resistance” towards foreign influence from both the West, and the East or South (i.e. Islamic extremism). The religious factor also plays a role when designating a zone of Russia’s cultural influence, more and more often called russkiy mir.

Outside the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), religious diplomacy seeks to strengthen Russian soft power through the promotion of a positive image of Russia and its new international identity – promoting the image of the Russian Federation as an incarnation of Russian civilisation that for hundreds of years has been an example of a peaceful coexistence among different religions for centuries. The image also argues that Russia is the country that can prevent the fulfilment of Samuel Huntington’s vision regarding the clash of civilisations, as well as a country which for centuries has been a stabilising and balancing the global order.

Religious diplomacy is also used by Moscow in relations with Muslim countries. Following the footsteps of the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church maintains good relationships with Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Palestinian Hamas; whereas Russian muftis focus on building cooperation with states that symbolise so-called moderate Islam (Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia). A joint success of Russian diplomats, muftis, and the Orthodox Church has been Russia gaining observer status at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now known as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, OIC).

Religious diplomacy is an effective instrument of the Kremlin’s policy, particularly in the post-Soviet area. It is in line with the concept of Russia’s “near abroad”, and assumes strengthening the Russian presence, for instance through maintaining the dominance of Russian culture, easing religious tensions and fighting religious extremism. A priority of the joint projects of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs and the Orthodox Church is the integration of the Russian diaspora and keeping them in touch with the homeland. The flagship initiative of the Church and state diplomacy is the Russkiy Mir Foundation, established in 2007, which supports projects that promote Russian culture, “values and spiritual foundations”.

Another important part of the Church’s activities in the CIS, especially since Kirill became patriarch in 2009, has been emphasising the role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a trustee of the legacy shared by all post-Soviet nations. It is the depositary of shared memory concerning the glory (victory in the Second World War), as well as that relating to persecutions by the Soviet authorities. A good example is the attitude of the Patriarchate of Moscow towards Holodomor (the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933), a subject which strongly separates Kyiv and Moscow. The Orthodox Church honours the memory of the Ukrainian famine victims but places it in the wider framework of sufferings which include other nations from different parts of the Soviet Union such as the Volga Region, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. In this way, the ROC avoids classifying Holodomor as a Bolshevik genocide of the Ukrainian nation, but acts as a patron of the all post-Soviet nations – forming a kind of “fellowship of suffering peoples”.

Can the altar influence the throne?

Despite religion being a tool in Russian diplomacy, it does not necessarily indicate that religious institutions are being forced to cooperate with the state. “Traditional” Russian religions perceive supporting the state as their obligation. This attitude is strongest within the Orthodox Church whose opinions are strikingly parallel to Kremlin policy. Both the state and the Church share the same view on the post-Soviet space (the near-abroad equals canonical territory), identity and Russia’s role (a separate civilisation supporting dialogue among cultures), a desirable international order (multi-polarity), potential alliances (strategic partnership with China and India), as well as sources of threat (US domination and westernisation).

Support for the Church by the Russian authorities, on the other hand, does not change the fact that it is the state that is the dominant party in foreign policy. In the latest official policy (the “Concept of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Policy”) published in February 2013, there are several phrases which could indicate the impact of the Orthodox Church on Russian foreign policy discourse. The policy concept provides specific examples of how the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as other main religions, play a role in Russia’s foreign affairs. The authors state that the Church can help “facilitate dialogue and partnership between cultures, religions and civilisations” and “support relevant initiatives”.

Explicitly mentioning the Russian Orthodox Church in the official policy document strengthens the Church’s image as an institution closely cooperating with the Kremlin. In the context of religious diplomacy, however, the most striking is the following phrase: “A true consolidation of efforts of the international community requires a set of common values as a foundation for joint action, a common moral denominator, which major world religions have always shared, including such principles and concepts as the pursuit of peace and justice, dignity, freedom and responsibility, honesty, compassion and work ethic.” Combining common values with the teachings of world religions might be explained by the fact that the Kremlin has copied the rhetoric of the Church and included it in its foreign policy conceptualisation.

The long view

This explicit approach, however, will make the use of religion as a foreign policy tool more complex in the long run. It may in fact weaken the pragmatism as well as the effectiveness of Russian religious diplomacy. The lack of the Kremlin’s flexibility thus far in its policy concerning Syria is an indication of the growing impact of the Church not only in the Russian ministry of foreign affairs but among political elites in general. There are numerous factors that might explain the Kremlin’s approach to Syria. Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace believes, however, that one of the reasons behind the Russian position on Syria is the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church perceives Bashir Assad as an assurance of safety of the Christians living in Syria. Since the US intervention in Iraq in 2003, the Patriarchate of Moscow has been trying to convince the Russian authorities to play a greater role as protector of Christians living in the Middle East (in Syria’s case, Sergey Lavrov has already demanded security guarantees for Christians several times).

Thus, it really is not about the Patriarch Kirill’s 30,000-dollar Swiss watch. The watch is a mere triviality. Religion in contemporary Russian politics is deeply rooted in centuries of Russian politics. What’s more, religion touches on the foundations of Russian policy: identity, security, stability and development. Understanding its role in both Russian domestic and, in particular, foreign affairs will help better understand the motivations and rationality behind Russian diplomacy – which can sometimes be extremely hard to decipher.

Translated by Justyna Chada

Alicja Curanović, PhD, is an assistant professor with the Institute of International Relations at the University of Warsaw.

Image for slideshow



Terms of Use | Cookie policy | Copyryight 2024 Kolegium Europy Wschodniej im. Jana Nowaka-Jeziorańskiego 31-153 Kraków
Agencja digital: hauerpower studio krakow.
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active
Poniższa Polityka Prywatności – klauzule informacyjne dotyczące przetwarzania danych osobowych w związku z korzystaniem z serwisu internetowego https://neweasterneurope.eu/ lub usług dostępnych za jego pośrednictwem Polityka Prywatności zawiera informacje wymagane przez przepisy Rozporządzenia Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady 2016/679 w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (RODO). Całość do przeczytania pod tym linkiem
Save settings
Cookies settings