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  • The Surprising Future of the Religious Party in Russia
  • Bulat Akhmetkarimov (bio) and Bruce Parrott (bio)

"The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country."1

Jerry Falwell

"Christian truth does not need constant protection. Excessive protection weakens it, rather than strengthens it."2

A.S. Khomyakov


In January 2012 Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, ignited a controversy in the Russian blogosphere with a post that quickly made national headlines and triggered a broad public debate. Chaplin's provocative post asked whether it was time to establish an Orthodox Christian political party in Russia.3 Strong public reaction to the clergyman's suggestion revealed the fragile, yet dynamic and intricate nature of the relationship between religious and secular authority in contemporary Russia. About a month later, several members of the Russian feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot staged a performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Advertised as an explicit demonstration of disagreement with the Putin regime and [End Page S-55] the politicization of the Church, this act brought the issue of Russian political religion into headlines across the world.

Since the late 1990s, observers of Russian religious affairs have increasingly raised concerns about religious freedom and political pluralism in the country. On the one hand, the post-Soviet Russian Constitution firmly guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, separation of church and state, and equal legal standing of all relireligions.4 On the other hand—since around the end of the turbulent 1990s—secular state authorities have shown a certain degree of favoritism toward the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and official establishments of three other major confessional traditions in Russia (Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism), while departing dramatically from democratic principles.5 At a time when expert and popular opinion in Russia about the nature of the country's political system has become highly polarized, we attempt to assess past efforts to create religious parties in Russia and the possible outcomes of such efforts in the future.

This article will show that certain structural and cultural aspects of Russian politics and society make the establishment of religious parties in the country improbable for the foreseeable future. There are three arguments against this outcome in the short-to-medium term. First, mass mobilization of religious voters would depart from the dominant historical pattern of the relationship between religious and secular authority in Russia and would not easily fit into the post-Soviet Russian political culture. Second, the weakness of Russian civil society and the shortage of social capital would restrain the efforts of religious activists and limit their ability to mobilize believers. Third, the establishment of religious parties looks improbable because of the diversity of Russia's religious marketplace and deep disagreements among and within religious communities.

However, careful examination of tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet dynamics also hints that religious parties might indeed become a reality in Russia in the long run. This article shows that despite certain constraints, the gradual transformation of Russian society along religious, demographic, socioeconomic, and technological lines, may facilitate the emergence of religious parties on the domestic political scene in the long term. In the following sections we present our analytical framework and discuss the limits and opportunities for the establishment of a religious party or parties in Russia. We conclude with an exploration of possible models for the direct engagement of religious communities in politics.

Religious Parties in Russia: Framing the Debate

Since the late 1970s, numerous studies have identified a religious renaissance in many parts of the world. This renaissance has discredited secular theories [End Page S-56] of modernization, which predicted a decline of religion due to the massive advances in socioeconomic development that have occurred since World War II.6 The Iranian revolution, the rise of the Christian Right in the United States, and the involvement of the Pope and the Catholic Church in Polish politics during the 1980s convinced many skeptical social scientists of the "hidden power of faith" and triggered academic interest in "religious revivalism."7 Toward the end of the century, the disintegration of the USSR, the world...


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