Church-State Relations and Property Restitution in Modern Russia

By Mikhail Strokan, Intern, CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program

The last few years have seen a substantive transformation of Church-State relations in Russia. The State became significantly more sensitive to the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and more willing and able to accommodate those interests. The Church receives increasingly substantial and wide-ranging support from all governmental levels, from direct funding for church-building programs on the regional level to positive portrayal by federal and local politicians, mass media, and President Vladimir Putin himself. Even an event as important to Russians as the Victory Day Parade has included religious symbolism the last two years. These indicators of closer Church-State relations demonstrate a growing emphasis on the role of religion in modern Russian society as envisioned by the current Russian leadership.

However, what has made this period truly different from previous decades is the Law on the Transfer of Religious Property to Religious Organizations, passed by the Federal Assembly of Russia in 2010. The law allows religious organizations to claim almost any state-owned (federal, regional, or municipal) property in the country that has or has ever had any religious significance. If a religious organization is interested in claiming a certain piece of state property, it is required to send a request to the governmental body that owns the property explaining and proving its religious significance. Then, this governmental body discusses the possibility of and potential issues with the transfer. If all conditions are satisfied, the religious organization is granted private ownership or free use of the property.

Despite the State’s increasing support for the Church, we should not forget that, according to the Constitution, 1) “The Russian Federation is a secular state,” and 2) “Religious associations shall be separated from the State and shall be equal before the law.” This sounds quite reasonable in the context of a “law-bound state,” but what do certain key words in these provisions mean for the current Russian leadership? In 2012, President Putin gave his interpretation of a secular state: “If we are talking about the separation of Church and State, in the current state of affairs, we need to talk about a different essential meaning of secularism, and, in my opinion, a completely different relationship paradigm should be established between the State and religious organizations – a paradigm of partnership, mutual assistance and support.” This is in fact the opposite of how a secular state is normally understood.

The Church has been steadily recovering as an institution since the collapse of the USSR. However, after the adoption of the 2010 law, it started a massive campaign for the “restitution” of religious properties across the country confiscated by the Soviet government. Though the word “restitution” has been used many times in connection to this law by the media and the clergy, it is not mentioned in the text of the law. Technically speaking, restitution would not even apply to the ROC, which was considered part of the state in Imperial Russia, which, unlike the modern Russian Federation, was not a secular state in any sense. In Imperial Russia, the ROC had almost no autonomy and its property was owned by the state and managed by the Most Holy Synod, the governmental body that replaced the Patriarch in 1721. The cost-free transfer of state-owned property to the Church was therefore controversial from the start. Moreover, in certain cases it became even more problematic. According to Anton Ivanov, the Deputy Head of the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments: “for some reason, profitable structures are subject to ROC demand, but not the abandoned cathedrals which need to be restored — that is, to be invested in.”

One recent case that provoked active discussion was triggered by Metropolitan Varsonofiy‘s letter to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev initiating the restitution process of three main tourist attractions in St. Petersburg: the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Saint Isaac's Cathedral, and the former nunnery of the Smolny Convent.

The first two form a part of a museum, which is among the top three most visited sites in Russia. The St. Petersburg city administration is concerned that “the only profitable museum in Russia may lose tourists” after the transfer of its buildings to the ROC. Church spokeswoman Natalya Rodomanova, however, argues: "Tourists will have similar access to it as they do now, except that the entrance will be free of charge. St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome belongs to the Catholic Church, doesn't hurt the tourist flow."

The third structure, the left-wing of the Smolny nunnery, has been utilized for more than two decades by one of the most prestigious universities in Russia, St. Petersburg State University, and is home to three humanities departments. For the greater part of the Soviet era, the Smolny Convent was abandoned; only the right-wing remained in use after the Bolsheviks moved the Petrograd Soviet to the Smolny area in 1917. This wing is still home to a segment of the St. Petersburg municipal government. In 1990, the Smolny Cathedral began to be used as a concert hall. This central element of the convent was already transferred to the ROC earlier this year. Anxious professors, students and citizens of St. Petersburg responded with petitions to the governor asking to prevent the transfer of the university and the St. Isaac's Cathedral State Museum properties to the Church. To date, the petitions have gathered nearly 95,000 signatures in total. 

One of the reasons why people see the Church’s claim to the Smolny nunnery as particularly inappropriate is because this site in fact lost its practical religious significance as early as the 18th century. In 1764, it was transformed into the first institution of higher education for women in Russia with a primarily secular curriculum. Nevertheless, the State Property Fund (Rosimushestvo) recently stated that it would not contest a transfer of the buildings to the Church. 

This case is among many demonstrating the seriousness with which the State takes its role in maintaining a close partnership with the Church. However, what are the benefits for the State? The Russian leadership uses measures like the 2010 law to strengthen the informal alliance between the modern Russian state and the Church, which in turn helps to ensure regime stability in the country. In exchange for funding, property, and broader support from the State as well as a positive portrayal in the media, the Patriarch and the clergy promote the policy and positive image of Putin, disseminating them to millions of parishioners. As the share of adults in Russia identifying as Orthodox Christian has more than doubled since the 1990s (in 2010, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center estimated that 75% of Russians were Orthodox), the Church has become a valuable strategic resource which the State co-opted for its own ends. This approach ensures that the Church remains a pillar of the status quo rather than being allowed to float freely or even worse – to take the side of the opposition.

In addition to its pragmatic uses, the ROC is also valuable to the Russian state for ideological reasons. The Church is actively involved in the re-unification of the “Russian World,” that is, the worldwide community of Russian-speakers (especially those in the post-Soviet space), a group Putin called the largest divided nation in the world. In this capacity, the ROC is one of Russia’s most potent foreign policy soft power tools. The importance of Orthodox heritage is frequently referenced in the statements of Russian officials, including Putin’s famous Crimea speech, where he emphasized the religious symbolism and significance of Crimea for the Russian people. Crimea is where “Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

The 2010 law cements an unspoken agreement between the Church and the State: the State appeases the Church’s demands by increasing its institutional well-being and, in return, the Church stays loyal to the government’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. A closer partnership between the Church and the State, as demonstrated by the current and continuing process of property restitution, illustrates the growing significances that the State affords the Church’s role in society.