In recent years, religion and the state in Russia have tended to be closely intertwined, with the state using the church as an instrument of manipulation. This is evidenced by the recent conflict over the staging of Tannhӓuser at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater. IMR legal expert Ekaterina Mishina analyzes the relationship between the government and the church in today’s Russia and draws parallels with totalitarian and fascist regimes of the recent past.
In 2003, Free Inquiry magazine published an article by political analyst Lawrence Britt titled “Fascism Anyone?” that defined 14 characteristics of a fascist political regime. The article evoked all kinds of reactions, ranging from positive to extremely negative. Particularly harsh criticism was offered by an anonymous commenter who wrote under the pseudonym “Fascist Heart.” Brimming over with enthusiasm, Fascist Heart (here referred to as “he” for ease) tried to tear to pieces both the article itself and its author. His main point was that Britt was an unpleasant and suspicious person because he was not a doctor of political science, but a former manager at such companies as Allied Chemical, Mobil, and Xerox Corp. According to Fascist Heart, no one could be interested in a former manager’s opinion on fascism and its characteristics, because that opinion would by definition be wrong. Apparently, if Britt had worked for some time as a dictator in some small fascist state and gained some experience there, the harsh critic would have approved of his conclusions.
Meanwhile, there are many examples to prove that you can be an outstanding political scientist even without a formal political education: Dmitry Oreshkin, for one, graduated from the Department of Geography at Moscow State University, with a Ph.D. in geography, while Vladimir Pastukhov was trained as a lawyer. I see no reason to dismiss Britt’s views just because he studied business, not political science—especially because the characteristics of a fascist regime defined by Britt generally do not contradict the definition of fascism outlined in the constitutional law of many countries.
According to Britt, fascism has the following features:
- Powerful and enduring nationalism
- A disregard of universally recognized human rights
- A tendency to look for enemies and use the idea of atoning sacrifice as a unifying framework
- A dominant position in society of the armed forces
- Strong gender-based discrimination, homophobia, and condemnation of abortion
- The exertion of state control over the media
- A maniacal obsession with national security
- The merging of religion and state
- Protection of corporations
- Harassment of trade unions
- A contempt for intellectuals and the arts that results in the freedom of artistic expression coming under attack
- An obsession with the idea of crime and punishment, often leading to the police having almost-unlimited powers
- Rampant nepotism and corruption
- Rigged elections
That said, Britt does not mention the following characteristics of fascism:
- A fundamentally different political meaning of the concept of head of state as a result of the dramatic expansion of that role’s actual authority
- Abandonment of the concept of electivity of the head of state, even under a republican form of government
- The existence of only one legal political party (in Nazi Germany, the German National Socialist Workers’ Party; in Italy, the National Fascist Party; and in Spain, the Falange of traditionalists and nationalist-syndicalist juntas), with the head of that party (Fuhrer, Duce, Caudillo) usually having full state power
- An open merger between the dominant fascist party and the state apparatus, resulting in the party becoming the core of a dictatorship
- A dramatic reduction in the role of the parliament, with the parliament either being abolished (as in Italy, once the fascist regime stabilized) or degenerating into a purely decorative institution, deprived of any features shared by parliaments of democratic states (as in Germany or Portugal until 1974)1
In the constitutional law of many countries, fascism is defined as the most blatant, cynical, and severe form of totalitarianism.2 Therefore, some of the attributes set forth by Britt are common to the majority of fascist as well as a number of totalitarian regimes. One such common feature is the merging of religion and state. As Britt explains this concept, “fascist states use religion as an instrument to control public opinion. State leaders resort to religious rhetoric and terminology even when the basic principles of the religion are completely opposite to the actions or policies of the government.”
Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini was a pioneer in building meaningful dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation between the fascist state and the church. In 1929, Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gaspari, who represented the Holy See, signed three documents (the Conciliation Treaty, the Financial Convention, and the Concordat) that went down in history as the Lateran Treaty. This treaty stated that Roman Catholicism was the only state religion of Italy, that the Supreme Pontiff was sacred and inviolable, and that “any attempt against his person or any incitement to commit such attempt” was “punishable by the same penalties as all similar attempts and incitements to commit the same against the person of the king. The Concordat defined a wide range of rights and privileges of the Roman Catholic Church, and Article 1 of the Financing Convention provided for generous payments to the Holy See in exchange for ratification of the Conciliation Treaty.
The recent conflict surrounding the production of Tannhäuser has revealed a new dimension of the relationship between religion and the state in today’s Russia. It clearly demonstrates that if, contrary to the expectations of the state, the church does not act with sufficient toughness, Orthodox activists can be used to manipulate public opinion.
In his book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, David Kertzer writes that Pope Pius XI worked closely with Mussolini for more than a decade, giving the fascist regime the institutional power and moral legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church. According to Kertzer, this alliance was particularly remarkable because of the fact that Mussolini was a staunch supporter of secularism. However, the deal turned out to be beneficial for both sides.3
When, on April 1, 1939, the nationalist leader Francisco Franco came to power in Spain and the Second Republic fell, the winner turned out to be primarily the Catholic Church, which had suffered heavily during Republican rule in the 1930s. Article 3 of the Constitution of 1931 separated the church from the state and declared that there was no official religion in Spain, thus putting an end to the centuries-old power of the church in that nation. Article 26 of the Constitution introduced a series of harsh restrictions on religious communities. In particular, organizations considered to pose a threat to national security were abolished and their property nationalized. Once in power, Franco immediately banned all the reforms of the Second Republic that had had an extremely negative impact on the spiritual and social role of the church in Spain. The church regained its privileged status immediately after the end of the civil war: in June 1941, the rights of the church were formally recognized in an agreement between the Vatican and the government of Franco and then finally formalized in the Concordat signed in August 1953. The church fully adapted to the conditions of the Franco dictatorship, with Cardinal Goma, the Archbishop of Toledo, coining the famous phrase “divine totalitarianism.”
Soviet-style totalitarianism, by contrast, was not so kind to the clergy. The first conflict emerged in December 1917, when the decrees “On Civil Marriage, on Children and on Keeping Civil Registry Books” and “On Divorce” made marriage and family relations exempt from the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Soviet Criminal Code of 1922 clearly demonstrated the attitude of the Bolsheviks to the church. It criminalized the “use of religious prejudices of the masses to overthrow the workers’ and peasants’ government, or to incite resistance against its laws and regulations” (Art. 119); “commission of fraudulent acts to incite superstition among the masses of the population, as well as to benefit in such a way” (Art. 120)“; “teaching religious beliefs among minors in public or private educational institutions and schools” (Art. 121); and “practicing worship in public institutions and enterprises, as well as placement of any religious images in such buildings” (Art. 124).
It wasn’t until the post-Soviet period that the relations between the Russian authorities and the church started to warm up, and gradually this relationship morphed into something that is very reminiscent of the “merging of religion and state.” In this sense the Pussy Riot case is symbolic. Instead of being prosecuted under Article 5.26, part 2, of the Code of Administrative Offenses for “insulting religious feelings of citizens or desecration of articles, marks and emblems relating to the world outlook symbols thereof,” members of the punk group were convicted of criminal offenses under Article 213 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism). The conviction of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina is a classic example of the genre of selective enforcement. Apparently, in order to avoid accusations of religiously based prosecution, Russian lawmakers decided to create a respectable legal framework to prosecute those who offend the religious feelings of citizens. On June 29, 2013, Article 148 of the Criminal Code, which until then had modestly criminalized “illegal obstruction of the activity of religious organizations or of the performance of religious rites,” was expanded to include new provisions. The revised article criminalized “public actions expressing obvious disrespect for society and committed to insulting the religious feelings of believers,” as well as the commission of such acts “in places specially designated for worship and other religious rites and ceremonies.” It thus became much easier and more convenient for the state to protect the feelings of the faithful.
The recent conflict surrounding the production of Tannhäuser has revealed a new dimension of the relationship between religion and the state in today’s Russia. It clearly demonstrates that if, contrary to the expectations of the state, the church does not act with sufficient toughness, Orthodox activists can be used to manipulate public opinion. After all, except for Metropolitan Tikhon, who filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office, none of the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church called for any action to be taken against the director of Tannhäuser or the director of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater. On the contrary, on March 5, the official website of the Russian Orthodox Church published an explanation by Vladimir Legoyda, head of the Synodal Information Department, in connection with the situation. His words were correct and encouraging: any believer or priest, he wrote, who notices something in the public sphere that he considers blasphemous or insulting to his feelings should not immediately rush to the Prosecutor’s Office. “A sinner is not only the one who blasphemes God, but also the one who falsely accuses someone of blasphemy,” claimed Legoyda. However, these words were ignored by Orthodox activists. A prayer event held in the center of Novosibirsk on March 29 looked quite menacing. Slogans like “Down with American quasi-occupation” did not make this rally look like something peaceful, and appeals to “protect the sacred and save Russia” sounded very much like the infamous “Kill the Jews and save Russia.”
In today’s Russia, the government actively uses religious communities to manipulate public opinion, even though religion and state are legally separated in accordance with Article 14 of the Constitution. Protection of religious feelings is increasingly being used as an argument to justify harassment and escalate criminal persecution. It could also come in handy for officials seeking to justify the reintroduction of censorship.
- See. А.А. Мишин, Конституционное (государственное) право зарубежных стран. Москва, “Статут”, 2013, pp. 149–157.
- Ibid, p. 150.
- David I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (New York: Random House, 2014).
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