On a recent visit to Russia with a small group of Indian social scientists, I had a strange encounter. We were accommodated in a large hotel in the university area where the facilities were adequate but not luxurious. Returning to the hotel after a seminar on the second day of our stay, we found the lobby swarming with guests who were checking in. I made my way to the reception with some difficulty and retrieved the key to my room. The new arrivals were priests of the Orthodox church. They were almost all in their traditional black habits and some wore the ecclesiastical head dress and had large crucifixes around the neck.
The next morning we had to go without breakfast because the priests had taken over the dining room. It was explained to us that there were more than two hundred of them and the dining room had place for only seventy-seven. We were promised a separate table the next morning if we came at an agreed time. I did go the next morning a few minutes before eight oíclock but found the place virtually empty. I learnt that the priests had finished their breakfast by 6.30 am and left for the great ceremony in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
The ceremony took place on Ascension Day, which is an important day in the church calendar. On that day this year the breach within the Orthodox church caused by revolution, civil war and exile was healed. Those who assembled in the cathedral saw it as a day of reconciliation and reunification. Some felt that the bitterness of the civil war that had followed the Bolshevik revolution had been put to rest. It needed a religious ceremony to bring to closure a social and political division of such enormous magnitude.
The place chosen for the ceremony of reunification had its own significance. The church of Christ the Saviour had been built in the 19th century to mark Napoleonís failure to conquer Moscow. It took many years to build and it is said that all Muscovites, rich and poor, contributed to its building. It was razed to the ground in an act of unparalleled savagery by Stalin. It was rebuilt on the model of the original by Yeltsin at the end of the last century. Today it has become a strange symbol of Russian unity in a country whose constitution has no place for religion and in whose population non-Christians are not an inconsiderable minority.
The highest dignitaries of church and state were present on the occasion. It is natural that the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexei II and Laurus, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, should both be present, for without their joint blessing the unification could hardly be effective. President Vladimir Putin was also present, and very conspicuously so. Alexei presented several icons to Putin who bent over to kiss them in the patriarchís hands. Then Alexei kissed Putin three times on the cheeks and thanked him for attending the solemn service.
At the Russian Academy of Science, where I had gone to sign an agreement, the ceremony was being closely watched on television in the ante-rooms by several members of the staff. I was congratulated by some of them for having chosen such an auspicious day for signing an agreement with the Russian Academy of Science. I forgot my tribulations over breakfast the previous morning.
It is hard to tell how deeply felt the enthusiasm for the unification was among the different classes and communities in Russian society. The Russian academics with whom I had occasion to speak were on the whole sceptical about it. They said that it was no doubt wrong for Stalin to have razed the church of Christ the Saviour to the ground, but asked what need there was to rebuild it at such great expense at the end of the 20th century. One of them was very critical of Putinís public presence at the church. Putin, she told me, is not a religious man; but he obviously knew what he was doing.
After the revolution of 1917, Russia faced the same problem that we did 30 years later on the attainment of independence, namely, how to create and maintain a secular state in a society deeply permeated by religion. The ways adopted for the creation of the secular state were very different in the two countries. The Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin sought to use state power to destroy the Orthodox church. Destroying religion in order to establish a secular state was very far from the intentions of those who created the Constitution of India. To put the matter in a nutshell, Russia sought to establish secular institutions by revolutionary means whereas India sought to do so by constitutional means; each encountered unforeseen and insurmountable obstacles in its path.
The Soviet state under Lenin and Stalin failed to destroy the Orthodox church. Parts of it became scattered and sought to begin a new life in North America and western Europe. But the main body remained in the old country. It endured great privation and hardship in the Twenties and Thirties, but also made many compromises with the state. Some feel that it has come out of the long winter of socialist oppression with an accession of strength and something of the aura of martyrdom. A process of accommodation began under Yeltsin and it is now being carried forward vigorously by Putin. What form the mutual accommodation of church and state will take in Russia and in which direction it will move are as yet difficult to foretell.
Orthodox Christianity and Russian nationalism have a natural affinity with each other. They have deeper roots in the Russian consciousness than socialism. Putin is well aware of this, and many say that his accommodation of the church is motivated entirely by secular political calculations. There are, however, limits to which Orthodox Christianity can be used as a symbol of national unity in 21st century Russia. First, the church itself has its own divisions that go back beyond the Bolshevik Revolution. Second, there are large non-Christian minorities that cannot and do not wish to be accommodated within Russian Christianity. And third, there is a secular intelligentsia many of whose members are deeply troubled by the revival of Orthodox Christianity; my brief encounter with the priests in the hotel made me realize that they may have reason to be.
In western Europe, the secularization of public institutions occurred through a natural process that was slow and uneven in its progression. This process had made a slow beginning in Russia, when it was rudely interrupted by the Bolshevik Revolution which sought to establish a secular social and political order in one decisive move. The revolution not only wanted a secular state, it also wanted the church to go. The lesson of the 20th century is that the secularization of society cannot be effectively promoted by using the strong arm of the state. What secularization does in its natural course is to free certain public institutions from the control of both the church and the state. It does not require the abolition of either the one or the other.