Orthodox Russia – an Ideology of Exclusivity

The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.

The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.

The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.

Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.

This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.

Bjorn Ihler on Extremism

‘He committed an evil act, but he is not an evil man’.
You would be hard-pressed to find many people in agreement with the above assessment of Anders Breivik. Breivik, the far-right Norwegian terrorist, left an indelible mark on Norwegian and European society on the 22 June 2011. First detonating a car bomb in central Oslo, before proceeding to fatally shoot 69 participants at a Norwegian Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the island of Utoya, Breivik’s heinous acts took the lives of so many, and irreparably damaged those of so many more. Further, Anders Breivik has since shown a defiant lack of remorse and repentance for his crimes, boastfully asserting he had rightfully acted in accordance with his ideology. All of which could reasonably lead us to believe that the ‘Norway Attacks’ were not merely an evil act, but an evil act committed by an inherently evil man.
Which brings us to the opening quotation. Not only was it actually said, but it was said by a survivor of the unspeakably barbaric acts of Breivik on Utoya. Bjorn Ihler, then a 21 year old member of the Norwegian Labour Party, was enjoying his time at the summer camp; flirting with girls, engaging in outdoorsy activities, while deepening his affiliation with his political party. And then Breivik happened.
As the people on the island looked across the water to Oslo and saw smoke rising from one of the city’s many buildings, they did not suspect that the building was a governmental office, and that this was the result of an act of terrorism by a man heading their way. As word filtered through that the threat was drawing near, there was a sense of confusion, but none of these wide eyed children and students was really able to compute the severity of the situation. Ihler recounts that, on seeing Breivik come out of the woods with gun in hand, he took him to be a member of the police, coming to provide safety and protection. But then Anders Breivik opened fire. Ihler saw friends drop dead at his feet, as the crazed gunman went on a killing spree. After finding a makeshift place to hide, an overhanging shrub on the water, Bjorn Ihler saw Breivik coming towards him, and made for the water. Breivik saw him, took aim, and shot at him, from about 4 metres away. In the chaos of the moment, Ihler though he had been hit, and stayed submerged. And, clearly, Anders Breivik though he had hit him as well, for as Ihler resurfaced, the gunman had turned his back on him and walked away.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Bjorn Ihler must feel a burning hatred towards Breivik, the mass murderer who has dared to complain about the abuses of his own human rights. Yet he talks about him with a real sense of compassion: rather than a violent sociopath, he is a ‘complicated human being’; rather than a man who justly felt the wrath of public opinion, he is a man who has been ‘unfairly dehumanised’ by society. Ihler wants to understand what it was in society that made Breivik so impressionable, and so easily radicalised by such an extreme ideology. Having experienced first-hand the effects of such radicalisation, Ihler has made it his mission to try and engage with people on the fringes of society, listen to those to whom society turns a deaf ear, and to try to engage with them and treat them as fellow human beings. For the most important thing is that something like the events of 22 July 2011 never has to happen again. He uses social media as a way of tracking vulnerable and potentially dangerous people, searching for traces left behind in radical rants on personal profiles and on online groups, as well as working with communities whose socioeconomic situation leaves its members more vulnerable to radicalisation. He speaks to them, hears and listens to their vision of what life is like, and tries to enter into a dialogue with them.
When asked about the societal and political reaction to Anders Breivik’s attacks in the six years since, Ihler makes a point of addressing the political dimension. Indeed, he tells us that he is no longer a member of the Labour party, and has in fact moved away from politics. This is principally down to what he considers to have been a slightly underhand politicisation of the attacks by Norwegian Labour. Ihler criticises what he sees as the party’s ready willingness to hold the victims up as martyrs of the Labour party, thus bestowing a political quality onto a distinctly human tragedy. For the events of 22 July 2011 should be felt and mourned on a human level, not be caught up in political spin. To best position itself to guard against such threats as Breivik, society ‘must come together not as politicians, or even as Norwegians, but as people’.
Ihler’s views on Breivik make him a somewhat controversial figure back in his homeland. In a wounded country desperate either to forget or to publicly vilify a man who committed such a barbaric act on his own people, Ihler’s desire to opt for a policy of reconciliation does not sit well with many. With a sense of humour apparent throughout the talk, Ihler jokes that he has been branded a ‘freedom of expression fundamentalist’ in Norway. He even states his pride that Breivik took the Norwegian state to court over his enforced isolation in prison, complaining about an abuse of his human rights, and won. No wonder that Ihler comes in for criticism back home: there will be many, not just those directly affected by his acts, who consider Anders Breivik’s complaints about human rights abuses to be the absolute height of hypocrisy. But, as Ihler points out, it is this willingness on the part of the Norwegian state to treat everyone as a human being with equal rights, in spite of what they may have done, that allows Norway to boast the lowest recidivism rate in the world: whereas 70-80% of released convicts in America end up back in prison within five years, in Norway the figure is down at just 20%. He may be divisive in his conciliatory approach to even the most remorseless criminals, but what can’t be denied is that Bjorn Ihler is an immensely courageous individual, with vast resources of human empathy, who has devoted himself to changing the world for the better.