Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Freedom of Conscience of Russian Government Officials

Listening 7 May 2008 to D. A. Medvedev's speech during the procedure of his entry into the office of President of the Russian Federation I directed my attention to his following words:

"I will devote special attention to the fundamental role of the law…We must achieve genuine respect for the law and overcome the legal nihilism which seriously impedes modern development".

Golden words! In light of this completely justifiable statement one wants to recall what Point 4 Article Four of the law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations" says:

"Officials of federal government bodies, other government bodies, and local government bodies and also servicemen do not have the right to use their official position to form a particular relationship with a religion".

The desire to remember this has come because this regulation, which is completely obligatory for all Russian officials, is not being observed by a great many of them; they are all hardly ignoring the law because they are powerless to curb an indomitable religious faith bursting out from within themselves. Where does it, so unstoppable, come from in people who grew up in Soviet atheist society and its system of indoctrination and education? I think that here the largest if not decisive role is being played by an willing or unwilling inclination toward corporative cohesion by a certain category of citizens around their leadership which has remained since Soviet times, a respect for authority, and a fear of losing the favor of more senior officials, who in turn are guided by the same principle in relations with people who occupy still higher positions. Following this hierarchy to the very top it is not hard to see that following the example of the first person of the State, the President, plays the decisive role in the conspicuous religiosity of Russian officials. If an atheist or even a person simply indifferent to religion occupied the post of President the picture would be completely different, as history and contemporary foreign practice shows.

B. N. Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation, who grew up in the bowels of the Party and served it devotedly (otherwise he would not have risen to be a member of its leadership), after some time began to disown Communist ideology in every way. It appears as if his unconcealed dislike for General Secretary M. S. Gorbachev played a certain role in this. One way or another, but having twice given him the votes in elections out of a fear of the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation becoming President, the people hardly expected that they were electing as head of state not only an anti-Communist but also a person who was ready when he came to power to become the state protector of the Church. This protection was expressed not only in standing in Church during services soon after his inauguration with a candle in hand (hence the apt folk expression which has become since that time of "candlesticks") and the declaration of Christmas as a government holiday, but in the generous financing (open, or slightly disguised) of church construction. The freeing of the ROC from taxes on its profitable commerce (primarily alcohol and tobacco) served the same purpose.

All the same under Yeltsin the union of Church and State still had not managed to reach the scale which it obtained under his successor V. V. Putin. And this, too, was not expected, for little was known about Putin before the elections as a consequence of the nature of his previous work. When serving with the KGB he of course could not have failed to have been a Party member but this means he swore to his atheism (according to their charter, they did not accept believers in the CPSU). Nevertheless, at Yeltsin's will, having become the President of the Russian Federation at the start of 2000, in February in response to a telephone call to a reader of Komsomol'skaya Pravda he said that he had begun to visit church quite frequently because even as a youth he had been baptized in the Orthodox Church secretly from his father, a Party member. But one of his first steps as full President was the approval of the text of the Russian [State] Hymn with Mikhalkov's words, "native land preserved by God", which no one wants to sing except the Presidential choir.

Of course, a President like any citizen, has the right to a personal view of the world and to change it if he wishes or needs to, and this is enshrined in the Constitution. But according to the law cited above, being elected to government service, moreover as head of state, he is obliged to keep his faith to himself and is not allowed to advertise it in the mass media. But if he needs to talk with the Head of "the other world" so badly then he always has an opportunity to do this out of sight of all the people. No priest will refuse to cancel a public service for this sacrament whether in the Kremlin or outside it; one can also pray during the general service but in a separate area isolated from journalists; one can hang icons in the "Red" corner of a Kremlin office; and one can build a little private chapel. If worst comes to worst, as experience has shown, one can pray even right at work "without discontinuing production", even while traveling, and what is more on the run. Any believing soccer player hanging a cross on himself when running on the field of a stadium will confirm that it is just as effective as prayer in a cathedral. God, if there is one and also if He wants, listens to appeals to Him everywhere, even completely silent ones. Such is a trait ascribed to him which every believer knows and it means that a believing President ought to know it. And there cannot be doubt that it is known.

Why have the Russian presidents preceding the newly-elected one prayed not in secret but publicly (and at times also unhygienically kissed icons), in front of everyone, before the television cameras in the floodlights? The reply which they have given, it is not voluntary, would be wrong. Who could force them? It means that they themselves wanted the entire country to see this and take an example from them of how religion needs to be respected, that is, they have consciously chosen for themselves the role of religious, more specifically, Orthodox Christian missionaries.

They say that Russian presidents are not believers but that they participate in Church ceremonies only formally because they are obligated to be the President of all the people, both believers and nonbelievers, in order to promote popular unity. If, they say, they had not done this then this would have offended the believers and they do not consider them their own. But in demonstrating formal unity with believers visiting the church the President cannot fail to understand that he thereby isolates himself from the overwhelming majority of the people, even according to the data of VTsIOM [the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center] and the lamentations of the ROC itself, that they do not go to church although part of them say they are Orthodox (like Moscow Mayor Yu. M. Luzhkov, who said: "I do not believe in God, but I am Orthodox"). Hence the violation of the law of freedom of conscience by the President under the pretext of a desire to rally together citizens with different world views for the sake of "unity of national spirit" is unpersuasive. Then they need to honor a gathering of believers of all faiths and organized atheists, too, with their participation. But this would also be a violation. One thing is left - to steadfastly obey the requirements of the existing law.

It is respect for the law, which President D. A. Medvedev called for, that follows from the opening speech. One would hope that this is not just talk. But the television coverage of the head of state's visit to the Annunciation Cathedral which followed the inauguration ceremony and the appeal for a blessing from the head of the ROC (with an expression of confidence that "special confidential relations with the ROC would develop") was chilling.

An Orthodox (largely, assumed) person might breathe a sigh of relief but was it really right for the President to demonstrate a disregard for the feelings of the rest of the voters? His kneeling before the head of the Church clearly degrades the post in which he was placed by the people's will to solve problems which are not at all clerical. It would be interesting to know, was Zor'kin, the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, present at the time? Did he, too, really kiss the icon in front of everyone?

Gennady Shevelev

Translated by Gary Goldberg

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