I just listened to a Radio 4 documentary on the increasingly tight relationship between the Putin government and hardliners in the Russian Orthodox Church. It revolves around the Pussy Riot case but highlights a trend in Russian society that is extremely scary.
A series of religious figures and politicians declare that any criticism of the church threatens Russian society and amounts to a crime and deserves some serious punishment. It all sounds faintly deranged and medieval, spoken in the quiet voices of those confident in their authority, and it’s made worse by the fact that they have the support of a big proportion of the public and they are slowly getting their way. One of the most powerful nations on Earth is absorbing the church into an increasingly oppressive autocracy.
For years I’ve sympathised with liberals and religious sceptics in the States, who if they live in the wrong part of the country endure some serious stick for not going along with the fundamentalist orthodoxy. But at least they’re living in a democracy, and for now at least the framework of law in the country is relatively sane. What’s going on in Russia is worse, the criminalisation of secular expression, not least because a large part of the population seems ready to go along with it.
Those of us who live in secular, civilised societies can shudder, turn away and get on with our lives, comfortable in knowing that we can criticise a church without ending up in court. But Russia’s still a major power, it has economic and military influence, and if the church begins to dominate the country’s ethical dialogue it can plant some dangerous seeds for the future. Just think of Iran with a larger army, a nuclear bomb, and a bunch of billionaires pressing flesh with the powerful all over the world.
I don’t know what we in the West can do about it, and suspect the answer is nothing – but I hope it doesn’t last.