This closeness has fed an impression abroad that the Orthodox Church has teamed up with the Kremlin to create a new Russian autocracy. Church officials deny this. They cite a host of differences and unresolved disputes between the church and the government, from control over religious antiquities to religious education. If the church and state are intertwined, they say, it is in a profound and complex search for a new, post-Soviet identity. In that search Russia's imperial history offers only a partial template, and the final result is far from certain.
Still, the Orthodox Church's favored status often works to the detriment of other denominations and faiths—especially those perceived, rightly or wrongly, as Western.
On the fringes of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Alexander Kirillov unlocks the gate to a large Baptist church that his community recently finished building. The authorities, the elder says, seized on a bureaucratic glitch—failure to submit an annual form—and shut down the association to which the church belongs. "We're at fault, of course. But they could just as easily have sent us a notice reminding us to file it." The real reason for the ban, he says, is that his church doesn't belong to the mainstream Baptist group sanctioned by the government.
"They're not used to the fact that there are denominations other than the 'official' ones, so they don't think we have the right to exist," Kirillov says. "The Orthodox Church is the dominant denomination, so of course they are represented in every sphere of authority. I watch the news: They open a new artillery institute, new entrants are arriving, and there's an Orthodox priest. Why?"
One reason traces back to the early post-Soviet years, when the euphoria of freedom gave way to disillusionment with the consumerism, corruption, and chaos that followed. Reactionaries in the government and the church accused the West of deliberately humiliating Russia, fueling suspicion of denominations and groups with ties to liberal democracies. In right-wing circles, the call went out for Holy Russia to return to her roots.
Some astoundingly dark and retrograde notions openly circulate in reactionary churches and on nationalist websites. One is a drive to canonize Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible, two of the more noxious characters of Russian history who have been reinvented by extremists as "defenders of Holy Russia."
Outside St. Petersburg, the decaying summer palaces of old Russia's tsars and grand dukes overlook the Gulf of Finland. Behind the ruins of one such palace stands a tiny, half-restored chapel. Inside I come face-to-face with a spectacle that makes me gasp—a large icon of Joseph Stalin. He's not wearing the halo of a saint, but a saint is blessing him.