Russia’s ‘Orthodox Crusaders’: A growing threat?

Russia’s ‘Orthodox Crusaders’: A growing threat?

A film about a royal love affair would not normally raise many eyebrows. But in Russia, the upcoming release of Matilda – in which director Alexey Uchitel explores the liaison between Tsar Nicolas II and a ballerina – has led to a spike in violence from an unexpected source. Orthodox extremism is on the rise, the indirect result of a conservative patriotism sown by the Kremlin in reaction to mass protests that followed the Duma elections of 2011.

Burn for Matilda

It started with a campaign by State Duma member Natalya Poklonskaya to ban the film, on the basis that it offended Orthodox believers. Tens of thousands of Russians signed her petition, angered by the alleged depiction of the Tsar, who is considered holy by the Orthodox church. The hashtag #StopMatilda spread across social media. Uchitel started to receive threats. Then, in August, the anger spilled over into violence.

At 3.30am on 31 August, police were called to Alexey Uchitel’s studio in St Petersburg. Molotov cocktails had been thrown at the building in an apparent arson attack. A few weeks later, in the early hours of 10 September, vehicles belonging to the director’s lawyers were set on fire in front of their Moscow offices. Leaflets reading “Burn for Matilda” were left at the site.

Cinemas also came under dramatic attack. The same shadowy organisation that was persecuting Uchitel, “Christian State – Holy Russia”, sent bomb threats to cinema chains. On 4 September, a man drove a car into the Kosmos theatre in Ekaterinburg, causing significant fire damage to the entrance. Local media reported that investigators believe the primary motive was a protest against Matilda. Now, two leading cinema chains have said they will not screen the film.

The peak of the recent disturbances came in mid-September, when Russian media reported that more than 20,000 people had been evacuated across the country following anonymous bomb threats against shopping centres, universities, and nightclubs in dozens of cities. The leader of Christian State, Aleksandr Kalinin, later claimed to know that the ‘telephone terrorism’ was the work of Orthodox activists.

Stoking the flames

The rise of Orthodox extremism is a by-product of several trends in Russian society: rising conservatism, the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church in politics and everyday life, and perhaps most importantly, policies pursued by the Kremlin over the past five years.

When Putin and the ruling United Russia party came under pressure during mass protests in winter 2011-2012, it became clear that the informal social contract, by which the population accept growing illiberal tendencies in exchange for economic growth, had been undermined by the financial crisis and falling oil price. A new strategy was needed to keep the elites in power. This took the form of a narrative in which the conservative Russian state was pitted against the liberal, morally depraved West. Propaganda has been coupled with ever-tightening control of the media and the internet.

In this censorship battle, the Orthodox church has been a natural ally in banning blasphemous plays, musicals, and operas. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar was cancelled in the Siberian city of Omsk in October 2016 after protests organised by the Orthodox movement “Family – Love – Fatherland”. A year earlier, a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Novosibirsk was stopped after a priest compared the production with Hitler’s attempt to destroy Russian culture. Protests erupted, calling on Putin to intervene, and opera director Boris Mezdrich was dismissed.

The beginning of this trend can be traced to the well-known 2012 trial of Pussy Riot, when the state’s case against the band members highlighted the sacred location of the group’s performance in Moscow’s central cathedral. A law against offending religious sensibilities was passed in 2014, and 13 sentences have been issued. Most recently, a young man received a suspended sentence for inciting religious hatred. The reason? A YouTube video, showing him playing Pokémon Go in a church in Yekaterinburg in May 2017, while making anti-religious comments.

This is the environment that has fostered the rise of extremist religious groups such as Christian State, whose founder explicitly positions the organisation as a response to the Islamic State. Christian State’s page on Russian social network VKontakte endorses “holy war”.

A turning point for Russia?

There’s a meme being shared by anti-Matilda campaigners that shows a still from the film, with the slogan “This is not just a film! It’s a key event that will determine the course of the country’s history.”

However, current indicators suggest that fundamentalist views are not gaining traction. Poklonskaya’s inflammatory posts on VKontakte have attracted up to 50,000 views, but fewer than 2,000 ‘likes’, suggesting her opinions may not be shared widely, at least among the demographic of social media users.

The followings of groups like Christian State and Tsar’s Cross are small, in the low thousands, if not less. One of the larger conservative Orthodox youth groups, Sorok Sorokov has around 20,000 followers on VKontakte. For comparison, RosPil, Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption movement, has nearly 300,000. Protests against Matilda have been sparsely attended, and at the preview in Novosibirsk this week, only four demonstrators turned up, whereas the cinema had to open three additional screens to meet demand for tickets.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is walking a tightrope – it reaps social benefits from conservative, religious propaganda; but a violent extremist movement is a potential threat to stability. As a result, we’ve seen contradictory responses. The police refused to investigate the threats made against the cinemas, despite requests. Once violent acts were committed, two United Russia MPs called on the FSB to investigate Christian State and Sorok Sorokov, and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that the attacks were unacceptable. But he also said that it was a “two-way street” and the filmmakers should make clear they did not intend to offend.

The incidents around Matilda are symptomatic of a Russian society that has become used to the silencing of voices critical of the official narrative. The authorities’ lenient and ambiguous handling of this and similar manifestations of conservative nationalism were contributing factors to emboldening the Orthodox extremists. The Kremlin will seek to keep the genie in the bottle when it comes to this new phenomenon, and has more than enough resources to prevent it from becoming a destabilising force. However, a reluctance to alienate believers will result in half-measures that leave space for similar protests and isolated acts of violence in the future.

Categories: Politics

About Author

Tobias Vollmer

Tobias Vollmer focuses on Russian and post-Soviet politics as well as EU external relations. He has worked for the European Department of the German Ministry of Finance, in the Political Department of the German Embassy Moscow and is scholar of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. At the moment, he is completing a double MA programme in International Economic Relations and Security Studies at University College London and the Higher School of Economics Moscow, and is working for a London based political risk management company.