The elections in Russia are over, but the post-elections tensions are still high (if not higher) than during the February and March demonstrations. Now that Putin is officially the new president, society has clashed over the statements and direction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian society has actively split into haves and have-nots, liberals (anything but Putin) and conservatives (better Putin than unknown), and internationalists and nationalists. How did it happen?
Two events have emerged into the spotlight simultaneously. The Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch Kirill have been actively supportive of Putin and made statements during and after the elections that have reached far beyond church's business. As a response, on March 3rd, members of a controversial band, "Pussy Riot," stripped naked in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, making a statement that their behavior was equally inappropriate inside the church as is the church's behavior in public. They were arrested and are still being held in jail awaiting a closed trial. In another situation, there was no jail time for a much more serious offense. A United Russia member of parliament Alexey Zheludkov, while driving drunk in Saratov Oblast last week, hit and killed a 13-year-old boy on a bicycle. The MP is back home, stripped of his rights to international travel, and faces five years in prison as the highest measure of punishment. In addition to the aforementioned controversy and injustice, the public also had a chance to recall that Patriarch Kirill (legal name Vladimir Gundyaev, former KGB code name "Mikhailov") in fact is a billionaire who made his fortune in alcohol and tobacco imports in the Nineties using Orthodox Church's non-profit tax-exemptions status.
All of the above was placed into the internet and media "blender" and created the unforeseen headache recipe for the church and for the ruling party.
After multiple statements denouncing the protests and Russian liberals and glorifying Putin and his party, this Sunday, the Russian Orthodox Church is hosting a special nation-wide service against the protests and "inappropriate behaviors." While scores of babushkas and bold-headed nationalists will surely show up for the services, Russians at large are beginning to wonder. Patriarch Kirill/Oligarch Gundyaev may finally have a problem: Russians are starting to connect the dots of His Holiness' history of tobacco and alcohol sales, billions in foreign assets, former KGB membership alongside Putin, and recently-surfaced Moscow luxury apartment with step-step-sister living in it (Russian and Ukrainian tabloids boiled her role down to simply "mistress").
A country, starving for true Faith after nearly a century without Christianity, deserves better than that. One of my Russian friends, who recently went back to her Siberian hometown, approached a local priest after the service for a blessing. The pastor asked my friend whether she went to church when she lived in America. She said "yes, but not Orthodox." The priest condemned her as sinner destined to living in hell. My PhD-level-educated friend told rather loudly to the Orthodox priest that, in fact, she knows that Jesus is the only way to salvation which He had specifically made clear through the book called Bible, and that the Father of the Orthodox church may be the one heading to a hot dark place himself if he keeps up his unholy behavior inside of the holy place. Friend's loud statement was heard by many at the church and caused a long-lasting pause and silent, red-faced rage of anger from the priest.
Tsar Putin and Father Kirill may have Russia's best interests at heart. However, they need to understand that people travel, read, communicate, and Catherine the Great's times aren't coming back. They really cannot control nation's mindset through empty promises and faulty religious statements. Putin, as a politician, can afford doing it. Russian Orthodox Church should beware.