The Russian Orthodox Church and freedom of expression: 2016 update

Olga Shvarova explores how the Russian Orthodox Church’s interpretation of traditional moral values and spiritual security affects freedom of expression in Russia.

In early 2016, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, made several public announcements with regards to civil freedoms and liberties, demonstrating the increasing influence of the Church on public discourse. The desecularisation of Russia and the growing involvement of the Church in the affairs of the government and policy-making divert the official rhetoric towards celebrating traditional values. The use of religion and religious values as a method of protecting public morality and spiritual security impacts on the state of freedom of expression in the country.

In 2012, the Pussy Riot case brought the attention of FreeSpeechDebate to the influence of the Church on freedom of expression in Russia. The trial and the consecutive imprisonment of the Pussy Riot band members for the violation of religious morality standards were a prime example of the encroachment on freedom of expression by the combined forces of the Russian state and the Church. Since 2012, the Church has become further involved in the affairs of the state, leading to a curious situation resembling the M. C. Escher’s famous lithograph where two hands draw each other into existence.

In this situation, where the state and church together are pursuing the protection of morals and spiritual security, it seems important to ensure that freedom of expression is not being sacrificed. As usual, it is hard to define where the line should be drawn. Freedom of expression is crucial in a democracy as it helps to inform political debate. As defined in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, freedom of expression taken broadly includes the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. However, the same Article 10 points out that the exercise of these freedoms may be subject to restrictions which are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of, among other things, protection of morals.

Could the involvement of the Church in putting such restrictions in force be seen as beneficial for the society? I would argue that the answer is no. The right to free expression becomes meaningless if only “priest-approved” types of expression or behaviour are allowed. From this point of view, the deeper involvement of the Church in the policy making is alarming. If the convergence of state and church leads to the merging of religious morality and state reforms, ideas which are deemed threatening to public morality or “un-Orthodox” will inevitably become restricted.

Looking at more general categories rather than individual cases, we find that the Church finds ideas and opinions traditionally associated with western civil liberties, for example same-sex marriage and women’s rights, threatening to public morality and contradictory to traditional values. More so, even the idea of freedom in its western interpretation is questioned: “the idea of the absolute value of and priority given to freedom, the freedom of choice, and the refusal of the priority of ethical standards have become some sort of a time bomb for western civilisation,” Patriarch Kirill said in 2015. Though this statement does not expressly refer to freedom of expression, the Pussy Riot case shows that the Church does not consider this freedom valuable either. The trend of restricting freedom of expression in favour of traditional values, propagated by the Church and supported by the state, has been beneficial to both parties according the opinion polls. A poll by the Levada Center, conducted on 19 February 2016 in 48 regions, showed that 56% of Russian citizens support the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church and religious NGOs in the affairs of the state (up from 42% in 2014) as it leads to “improvement in morality”.

It is particularly poignant that official rhetoric increasingly broadcasts the term “Russian traditional values”. For example, since 2014 the notion of traditional values has been used to justify the military operations in Ukraine, which began with the occupation and annexation of Crimea, and continued with the invasion of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas industrial region. The Kremlin, with the support of the Church, has evoked spiritual security to reframe these military operations on Ukrainian territory as a civilisational conflict between “Holy Orthodox Russia” and an overly secularised, morally degraded West.

I would argue that these developments, together with shifts in public opinion, reveal the nationalistic flavour of the spirituality of modern Russia. The government and the Church have created the sacralised vision of Russia as a unique society with a unique set of values, believed to be divinely inspired and as such superior to others. This view is shared by a significant part of the population, which made it possible for Church and state to use religion and religious identity for shaping the militaristic mindset of its citizens in the last two years.

Citizens disagreeing with the spiritual security imposed on them by the Church form social media groups to broadcast the most outrageous violations of their freedom of expression. Cases selected by these groups are usually examples of state-imposed censorship, such as the Roscomnadzor’s ban on religious cartoons, or criminal court cases frequently opened on the grounds of the “violation of the feelings of the believers” (Article 148 of the Criminal Codex of Russian Federation).

On March 21, Patriarch Kirill denounced human rights that contradict the bible as “heresy”: “Today we are [dealing with] a global heresy of worshipping the human, the new idolatry that removes God from human life… It is specifically at overcoming this present day’s heresy, the consequences of which can become apocalyptic, that the church must aim the force of its protection, its word, its thought.” Though the Patriarch has not explicitly stated which human rights he found unworthy, it would be safe to assume that these human rights relate to the same western liberal values which have been denounced by the Church in the past.

The danger of such rhetoric, when it comes from the highest spiritual authority in the country, cannot be underestimated. The citizens, agreeing with the need for spiritual security and the supremacy of “Russian traditional values” do not just passively support the war in Ukraine and the growing involvement of the Church in policy making. There are active groups in Russia, loosely affiliated to the Church, devoted to restricting behaviour which is not aligned with the views of the Church. An extreme example is the militant Orthodox Banner Bearers of the radical religious right, whose motto is “Orthodoxy or Death” and who are known to attack LGBT and opposition rallies in order “to stop western liberalism corrupting Russia’s traditional values”.

In a secular state, which the Russian Federation is according to its own constitution, the laws should be determined by human rights and freedoms, not by God’s word. The contradiction between the involvement of the Church in the affairs of the state and Article 14.2 of the constitution of Russian Federation is an important issue and is the matter of much public debate in Russia and abroad. But there has not been enough debate about how freedom of expression is affected by the use of arguments relating to the protection of morals and spiritual security, made to serve the state’s agenda. One question is whether we can still call the Russian Federation a secular state. The other, and arguably the more important one, is what happens to freedom of expression in a society where public opinion is shaped by aggressive rhetoric portraying the outside world as spiritually and morally unworthy.

Dr Olga Shvarova has worked for FreeSpeechDebate and the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom under the leadership of Professor Timothy Garton Ash in 2011-2013. She still writes occasionally for The Calvert Journal about innovation in Russia, and contributes to Poem and New Humanist. The rest of her life is spent in the investment management industry.

Read more:

Leave a comment in any language


Swipe left to browse all of the highlights.

Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

The University of Oxford