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ECPR Futures Lab 2020

Conservatism in Russian Orthodoxy and its Relation to Politics on the Local Level

Europe (Central and Eastern)
Local Government
Tobias Köllner
Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg
Tobias Köllner
Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Vladimir between 2013 and 2016 this article analyzes conservatism in Russian Orthodoxy in its relation to politics. In so doing, attention is drawn to the relation between politics and Russian Orthodoxy on the local level by drawing on Lipsky’s (2010 [1980]) concept of ‘street-level bureaucracy’ which has been successfully applied to the Russian Federation by Detelina Tocheva (2017). This is particularly relevant for future research because nationalist and fundamentalist leanings in Russian Orthodoxy gained ground in the last years and marginalized liberal clergy, with repercussions for the political sector. In addition, I will relate to two prominent discourses in recent research. On the one hand, dominates an understanding that emphasizes the instrumental use of Russian Orthodoxy by the political sector (Anderson 2007; Curanović 2012: 141; Laine 2016; Mitrofanova 2005). Second, there is an understanding that stresses the close, harmonic and mutually beneficial relations between politics and Russian Orthodoxy. This is based on the Byzantine notion of harmony (symphonia) which has been widely applied in social and adjacent sciences (Anderson 2007; Ghodsee 2009; Hovorun 2018; Knox 2003; Meyendorff 1982; Warhola 2004). Both debates seem to have reached an impasse. For this reason an assessment of Orthodox religion “in its own right” (Stoeckl 2016: 132 in her analysis of the Russian Orthodox Church) is demanded that, first, pays attention to different factions inside Eastern Orthodox groups (see Papkova 2011; Richters 2013; Verkhovskii 2003) and, second, addresses the agency of Russian Orthodoxy in a more realistic perspective. In so doing, I hope to be able to provide a more accurate and detailed picture of Russian Orthodoxy in its relation to politics on the local level in contemporary Russia (Köllner 2019). Based on ethnographic examples, attention will be drawn to entanglement, cooperation, conflict and unintended consequences in the relationship. In particular, I will show the participation of clergymen during sport competitions commemorating the victory in World
War II where the Russian army is glorified and new recruits are selected. In addition, the introduction of pre-military training in religious education will be described which was based on the local initiative of an Orthodox priest in the city of Vladimir (Köllner 2018). Moreover, the last years bear witness for an expansion of Cossack groups – a religiously inspired militia – all over the Russian Federation. Recently, these groups gained state recognition what improved their standing in Russian society considerably. To conclude, however, the image of a successful and harmonious cooperation has to be balanced. The attempts of the Russian state to promote the Russian Orthodox Church as the leading patriarchate in Eastern Christianity or as a leading advocate in conservative circles were not fulfilled (see Stoeckl 2017). In particular the conservative circles within the Church were not willing for compromise of for cooperation with Protestant movements and organizations. So the future development of the new conservatives (Bluhm & Varga 2018) and their precise consequences for Russian politics remain an open question.
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