To receive Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here.
The Russian Orthodox Church pushes back against the pushback against the construction of a church in a Yekaterinburg park. Is it just "waving its fists after the fight," as the saying goes, or could it still overcome opposition? Either way, Russia's dominant religious organization has something to lose.
Three Times Daily
In 2008, as Vladimir Putin was steering him into the Kremlin for a stint as a placeholder president with a more liberal cast, Dmitry Medvedev made a statement that he said should have been obvious but was worth saying out loud: "Freedom is better than unfreedom."
More than a decade later, a comparison that may capture the tenor of times in Russia is this: "Churches are better than sex shops."
That's the word from the spokesman for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on the standoff over plans to build a church in a Yekaterinburg park that opponents say is one of the few green spaces left in the city -- or at least, that's an Interfax headline's encapsulation of his remarks.
The comments from Kirill's press secretary, Aleksandr Volkov, were part of a pushback by the Russian Orthodox Church against the pushback against the project, which has been put on hold -- but not yet scrapped, apparently -- following days of protests earlier this month.
"What person of sound mind and adequate moral condition would be against building a church? Why aren't we hearing the same people...agitating against opening beer bars or 'shops for adults?'" Volkov said. "So many have opened, you get the feeling that all our country does is go to 'shops for adults.'"
That's an exaggeration, but his choice of examples may be apt: After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, churches and sex shops seemed to proliferate fast as Russia made up for lost time. In formal terms, communism had effectively replaced religion for decades and -- as a participant in a 1986 U.S.-Soviet telecast said but did not really mean -- there was "no sex" in the U.S.S.R.
Still, though, opponents of the church project might have the right to think Volkov was making the wrong comparison. Why not ask whether a church is better than a park -- particularly in a city that residents say has plenty of the former and precious few of the latter. Similar questions have been asked by residents of several Russian cities in recent years.
'Hearts And Minds'
Evidence, if gathered, would seem likely to show that the number of new openings of sex shops in Russia has fallen off since the 1990s. That may not be true of churches: Kirill, after blessing a new Russian Orthodox church in Strasbourg, France, on May 26, said: "we're building three temples a day -- I am not mistaken: every 24 hours. Thirty thousand temples in 10 years."
Kirill's math may be off: His figures suggest something closer to eight churches a day. But his point seemed to be that for Russia, no number of churches is too high.
"It's not because we have a lot of money and don't know what to do with it," the patriarch said.
"Having gone through the years of atheism, our people have understood, in their hearts and minds, that nothing is possible without God," he said, adding that "our technologically developed civilization needs places where a person can feel close to God."
Polls suggest that may not be the case -- or at least, that many Russian believers don't need to be at church to feel close to God.
According to poll results cited in a 2017 report by the Pew Research Center, 7 percent of Russians attend religious services weekly, 30 percent monthly or once a year, and 61 percent seldom or never. The same survey showed that 71 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians.
The dispute in Yekaterinburg and Kirill's three-churches-a-day remark sparked an array of responses, including calls for the Russian Orthodox Church to do more charity and questions about the proliferation of churches in a country that needs more hospitals.
The Last Tsar
There's also been some wry commentary, like the Twitter post imagining "Yekaterinburg in 2030" as a shining sea of golden onion domes. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Moscow was known as the city of "the 40 40s," an inexact reference to the numbers of churches it contained -- but this vision of the future would take it to another exponential level: 40 cubed.
It's all but certain that Yekaterinburg will get a church to replace St. Catherine's Cathedral, which was razed by the communist state in 1930. But it appears unlikely to be built in the park as planned.
President Vladimir Putin weighed in after a few days of protests, saying that the opinions of residents must be heeded and suggested a poll. The project was suspended after state pollster VTsIOM suddenly said it found that 53 percent of residents surveyed wanted the church built somewhere else in the city.
Meanwhile, the pushback from the church took on a sharper edge in comments from another Kirill, the metropolitan who is the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Yekaterinburg and regions nearby. In comments after a service, he likened opposition against the church project to the killing of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by a Bolshevik firing squad in the same city in 1918.
"Today the church faces a challenge. This challenge thundered out from Yekaterinburg -- as 100 years ago the shots thundered out and the blood of the royal martyrs was spilled," Kirill said.
A final decision on the fate of the project may come next week, or not. City officials said on May 31 that nearly 10,000 residents had responded to a survey conducted in recent days and submitted a total of 53 suggestions for a site, including the planned location in the park. They said a vote would be held to choose between the top five or six picks -- but gave no time frame.
Whatever the outcome, the Russian Orthodox Church stands to lose, because the dispute has underscored its involvement in less-than-spiritual scraps over property and may foster the perception that it is, at some level, just one of the interest groups vying for power and Putin's backing.
In an article published on the website Raam Op Rusland, analyst Mark Galeotti suggested that the Russian Orthodox Church could be called RosBog -- RusGod in English -- likening it to the massive and moneyed but Kremlin-dependent state corporations and security agencies with names such as Roskosmos and Rosgvardia.
By allowing itself "to become in effect another state-controlled enterprise," Galeotti wrote, the Russian Orthodox Church arguably "risks both losing its moral mandate and alienating the very power structure to which it has sold itself."
"At a time of resource-scarcity and heightened political competition, when the very future of the Putin regime is beginning to come under question, the invisible shareholders of RosBog are beginning to wonder whether it is providing value for money," Galeotti wrote.