Guest article: Church building and politics in today Russia

The question of public space in Russia has always been a major issue in national political discourse. In Soviet Union all the space was considered as public but its use was limited with ruling party’s restrictions. The normative understanding of public turned out to be ‘private’ in terms of communist ideology. Today in Russia civil society is actively trying to break the silence, which has mantled public space, imposed by historical heritage and fight for its right for city. The major problem is that citizens are obliged to struggle with such opponents as municipality or church, which are highly supported by state. Land conflict in Moscow park ‘Torfyanka’ is an apt illustration of this process. In this paper I aim to reveal a link between Russian government urban policy and current political situation in the country and answer the question: “How does the autocratic political tendency in the actions of the authorities in Russia leads to the encouragement of Orthodox church expansion and to the social protests (land and space conflicts)?” I discovered that several interconnected reasons could provoke this particular land conflict.

One of the major transformations of public space in Russian capital in the last decade is the “The Program 200” aiming to build 200 Russian Orthodox churches in Moscow within 10 years. By 2023 every citizen will find a church no further that 1 kilometer away[1]. The Program provoked controversial reaction of locals who perceive building-up of these churches as ideological expansion[2]. Moscow already counts almost 1000 churches with a high density in the center-city[3]. New churches are supposed to cover all territory of the capital and overlap more than 70 natural landscapes of the city [4]. Demolition of parks and other green zones became one of the main arguments against the project. Local citizens even named the Program 200 churches – «The Program minus 200 parks»[5]. The real struggle started in Torfyanka Park at the North of Moscow in 2015 and is still ongoing. In 2013 Government of Moscow issues permission for construction of a church of 0,2 ha and changes the legal status of public territory to “the territory of limited use” on the basis of public hearing 2012 [6]. Local citizens believed that public hearing was held with violation[7] and started the campaign against the construction. Manifestations, active agitation led to the engagement of other participants in this land conflict such as liberal political opposition, left-wing parties and the media. Locals blocked the entrance to the park for construction site equipment and workers started the building-up without it. Police arrested several opponents for unrelated with their protest reasons[8].  On 31 July 2015 District Court granted an appeal to the public hearing[9]. The press secretary of the Patriarch, deacon Alexander Volkov, responded to the court’s decision with a report about the readiness of the Moscow city diocese “to consider the possibility of building elsewhere – in the same district, within walking distance”[10]. Currently, the conflict remains unsolved; government doesn’t assume any measures to stop this disputable construction and the Orthodox Church still hasn’t chosen a new location.

The interaction in this conflict happens between four main actors: the Institution of Orthodox Church, the Government of Moscow, local citizens and opposing parties and movements. The very reason of conflict is the use of public space. The argument of the Orthodox Church is based on the extreme need of churches for parishioner as rehabilitation of orthodox religion after being oppressed in the times of USSR. However, if only you give a cursory look at data analysis of Moscow church popularity and their holding capacity, it becomes evident that there are several unpopular churches in the north of Moscow[11]. Taking into account this fact, the conflict can be interpreted in several ways. Firstly, considering the government ignorance towards local citizens and silent support for the Church, it could be supposed that Church expansion is beneficial for modern political concept of Russian government. Church certainly supports ultra-conservative policy of the president by spreading traditionalistic ideas and concepts. The Orthodox Church is perceived as a salvation that limits amoral Western influence; one of the most impressive argument supporting this fact is a recently introduced legislature according to which “insulting of religious freedom” will be punished[12]. It’s important to notice that the Russian Federation is declared to be secular state[13]. Nevertheless, in fact, it’s very difficult to get permission for a mosque construction: similar conflict happened with the mosque construction in public space in 2011 and ‘government revoked the permission given by the municipal authorities’[14]. Thus, government reliance on the Orthodox Church provokes civil protest and mobilizes politically opposed groups to take part in this particular land conflict. Secondly, this land conflict can be framed only with the activity of the Orthodox Church and publicity reaction to this. The Russian Orthodox Church gives real reasons to be considered as a powerful growth machine, which is getting more and more influence in Moscow. In 2016 budget financing of the Church was equal to 34 million of US dollars[15]. The Russian Orthodox Church, in addition to its spiritual mission, is also an enormous corporation that owns several businesses and makes venture investments. Moreover, unlike most Russian NGOs, the Church is exempted from taxes. Such a fabulous wealth leaded to controversial attitude to Church activity among citizens. Consequently, citizens’ perception of the Russian Orthodox Church as an organization dealing with matters out of its competence provoked public protests reflected in this particular land conflict.

All in all, it can be stated, that the conflict described in this paper can be explained at least in two ways. The first is the classic one, as it is covered in mass media: Russian Orthodox Church seeks to expand its power by all means, including through the increase of the number of churches, so through its political lobby the leaders of the Church managed to make Moscow government to accept program which is only needed for the Church itself. This unprecedented impudence made citizens to take up arms against clerics.

The second approach, which can be described as “innovative” and which seems to me more realistic can be described in this way: Leaders of Russian government, who are seeking to limit public space in general in order to prevent citizens from using it as a place to gather and organize a political meeting or anything in that kind, used (as it had been doing many times before this particular land conflict happened) Orthodox Church as an instrument to achieve their goal. Of course, almost all of the angry charges connected with this case will fall on the heads of the high clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church, which does not have a perfect reputation. Nevertheless, the Russian Orthodox Church will also have its benefits. This situation turned out to be the best possible variant for the Russian government. So, this explanation seems to be plausible enough: government’s desire to leave as little public space as possible, for the reasons covered above, caused not only a good possibility for the Russian Orthodox Church to expand its influence, but also citizens’ discontent with this situation and, obviously, their negative reaction. This explanation perfectly fits theoretical basis of this paper.

Theoretically the public space is supposed to create a common ground for every individual to be a part of society and offer kind of social vacuum where these individuals could consciously construct their identities. However, in practice public space is never a neutral space. H. Lefebvre famously argues that space doesn’t exist until it’s appropriated by someone[16]. Appropriated space emerges its own ideas and makes groups of individuals act accordingly. This creates a system where fighting for space means fighting for ideas. The construction of churches in the city consequently denies the neutrality of public urban spaces. The preponderance of Orthodox Churches in the capital limits the use of public space for other confessions and non-believers. Public space, that initially was made in order to create an opportunity of public self-determination, is being constantly politicized. The right for the city is not laid down in the law but it exists in everyday life. D. Harvey argued that city belongs to the citizens[17]. Right for the city is directly connected with the political will of citizens, reflects the mechanism of decision-making in the state and is a marker of successful or unsuccessful use of democratic instruments of state management. Right for the city is a right to make political decisions.

written by Polina Topolyan

*This guest article was published in 2017. All the opinions belong to the author alone and do not engage the owner of this website.

Original Sources:

  1. Government permission. 13.04. 2013. – URL: http://losinka.mos.ru/upload/07.05.2013_РД-78_3_Собянин_С.С._Сергунина_Н.А..pdf
  2. Determination of the Babushkinsky District Court of Moscow on the termination of proceedings in the case on invalidation of public hearings. – URL: http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=news&id=115140
  3. The constitution of the Russian Federation. – URL:http://www.constitution.ru

Litterature:

  1. E. Moscow’s ‘Program 200’: You’ve got to have faith, faith, faith. 6 October, 2017 // The Architectural review, – URL: https://www.architectural-review.com/rethink/moscows-program-200-youve-got-to-have-faith-faith-faith/10023970.article?blocktitle=Program-200&contentID=19439
  2. Conflict over plan for church in park. 08.02.2017 // DW, – URL: http://www.dw.com/en/conflict-over-plan-for-church-in-park/av-36619224
  3. D. The Right to the City. 2003, – URL: https://davidharvey.org/media/righttothecity.pdf
  4. H. La production de l’espace. L’Homme et la société. 1974. Volume 31. Numéro 1. P. 24, – URL: http://www.persee.fr/doc/homso_0018-4306_1974_num_31_1_1855
  5. Moscow mayor allocates land for dozens of Orthodox churches Published time: 24 Mar, 2011// RT, – URL: https://www.rt.com/politics/sobyanin-moscow-orthodox-church/
  6. Sacred Ground: Muscovites Protest Church Construction In Park. 26.06.2015. // RadioLiberty. – URL: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-moscow-church-protest-torfyanka-park/27095836.html
  7. The expansion of Moscow’s Orthodox churches – in pictures. 16 January 2015. // The Guardian. – URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/jan/16/the-expansion-of-moscows-orthodox-churches-in-pictures
  8. The rise of the Russian Orthodox Church. 30.03.2017 // CNN.– URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/30/europe/russian-orthodox-church-resurgence/index.html
  9. Церковь готова рассмотреть возможность строительства храма на «Торфянке» в другом месте. 31.07. 2015// Новостная служба. – URL: http://www.pravmir.ru/tserkov-gotova-rassmotret-vozmozhnost-stroitelstva-hrama-na-torfyanke-v-drugom-meste/
  10. Теперь здесь церковь: Почему москвичи воюют со строителями храмов // The village. http://www.the-village.ru/village/city/ustory/217797-no-church
  11. Расследование РБК: на что живет церковь. 02.2016 // RBK. – URL: http://www.rbc.ru/investigation/society/24/02/2016/56c84fd49a7947ecbff1473d

Text references:

[1] E. Beaumont. Moscow’s ‘Program 200’: You’ve got to have faith, faith, faith. 6 October, 2017. The Architectural review.  – URL: https://www.architectural-review.com/rethink/moscows-program-200-youve-got-to-have-faith-faith-faith/10023970.article?blocktitle=Program-200&contentID=19439

[2] The expansion of Moscow’s Orthodox churches – in pictures. 16 January 2015, – URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/jan/16/the-expansion-of-moscows-orthodox-churches-in-pictures

[3] Attachment 1 (Church locations). Source: Urban Sacred project, – URL: https://medium.com/quadratura-circuli/данные-и-их-источники-2590cbec8ce

[4] Attachment 2 (Church construction and natural landscapes). Source: Urban Sacred project, – URL: https://medium.com/quadratura-circuli/данные-и-их-источники-2590cbec8ce

[5] Теперь здесь церковь: Почему москвичи воюют со строителями храмов // The village. http://www.the-village.ru/village/city/ustory/217797-no-church

[6] Government permission. 13.04. 2013. – URL: http://losinka.mos.ru/upload/07.05.2013_РД-78_3_Собянин_С.С._Сергунина_Н.А..pdf

[7] Sacred Ground: Muscovites Protest Church Construction In Park. 26.06.2015. RadioLiberty. – URL: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-moscow-church-protest-torfyanka-park/27095836.html

[8] Conflict over plan for church in park. 08.02.2017. – URL: http://www.dw.com/en/conflict-over-plan-for-church-in-park/av-36619224

[9] Determination of the Babushkinsky District Court of Moscow on the termination of proceedings in the case on invalidation of public hearings. – URL: http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=news&id=115140

[10] Церковь готова рассмотреть возможность строительства храма на «Торфянке» в другом месте. Новостная служба. 31.07. 2015, – URL: http://www.pravmir.ru/tserkov-gotova-rassmotret-vozmozhnost-stroitelstva-hrama-na-torfyanke-v-drugom-meste/

[11] Attachement 3. Populary (red) and holding capacity (blue) of churches. Source: Urban Sacred project, – URL: https://medium.com/quadratura-circuli/популярность-храмов-москвы-c49f3d379229

[12] The rise of the Russian Orthodox Church. // CNN. 30.03.2017 – URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/30/europe/russian-orthodox-church-resurgence/index.html

[13] The constitution of the Russian Federation. – URL:http://www.constitution.ru

[14]Moscow mayor allocates land for dozens of Orthodox churches Published time: 24 Mar, 2011// RT, – URL:  https://www.rt.com/politics/sobyanin-moscow-orthodox-church/

[15] Расследование РБК: на что живет церковь. // 24.02.2016. – URL: http://www.rbc.ru/investigation/society/24/02/2016/56c84fd49a7947ecbff1473d

[16] H. Lefebvre. La production de l’espace. L’Homme et la société. 1974. Volume 31. Numéro 1. P. 24, – URL: http://www.persee.fr/doc/homso_0018-4306_1974_num_31_1_1855

[17] D. Harvey. The Right to the City. 2003. – URL: https://davidharvey.org/media/righttothecity.pdf

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