The Russian revolution Vladimir Putin would rather forget

The revival of the Orthodox Church and tsarist devotion has complicated the 1917 centenary

The Russian October Revolution in 1917 took place in November of that year. The apparent contradiction lies in a difference of calendar systems – the Julian and Gregorian – and, in some ways, symbolises the mystery and unpredictability of 20th-century Russian history.

Church and state is certainly a case of, at least, contrast.

Early in 1917, in February, a popular uprising against austerity and oppression led to the fall of Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs, and the establishment of a transitional but unelected government.

However, the regime did not deliver for the people – on issues from Russia’s involvement in the first World War to land reforms – and this provided the opportunity for the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.


In October they seized power after storming the Winter Palace in St Petersburg (then Petrograd), the royal palace that had been taken over by the provisional government.

It was because of the close association of the Orthodox Church with the tsars – as the other half of the ruling equation, as it were – and the rejection of religion by Marx and Lenin, that religion became anathema to the Soviet state that would emerge following the revolutions of 1917.

Yet, although the Soviet Union was aggressively atheist, the Russian Orthodox Church survived.

Orthodox renaissance

The vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created the opportunity for the Russian people to reflect on their history and destiny and, perhaps given the continuity of the Orthodox Church from tsarist times through the godless Soviet era, there was to be an Orthodox renaissance of a kind.

The qualification is necessary here because while post-1991 there has been a considerable growth in the number of Russians identifying as Orthodox, this has not translated into actual church attendance.

It is a familiar story. Indeed, there are parallels with the results of the 2016 Irish census which showed that, despite the clear secular trend in social attitudes, just over 87 per cent of people identified as religious.

Regarding Russia, the Washington-based, independent Pew Research Center has reported that, between 1991 and 2008, the share of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox Christian rose from 31 per cent to 72 per cent.

Number of adherents

It is significant to note that, according to Pew, other Christian denominations and religions saw an increase in the number of adherents in Russia in the immediate post-Soviet collapse, during the 1990s, but, unlike Orthodoxy, the rise did not continue.

For Putin, Russia is in the remaking and it is a course that can do without popular distraction

Allied to the overall rise of religious sentiment is a revival of tsarist devotion in some quarters in Russia. In the year 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church declared Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and family to be saints. They had been executed by firing squad in 1918.

However, in approaching the issues that the centenary of 1917 raises, President Vladimir Putin has tried to keep it all "low key" in order not to destabilise the nation which is still coming to terms with its past and seeking to find its place in the future.

It is a dumbed-down stability that Putin reaches for because he knows the dangers of popular emotion. For him, Russia is in the remaking and it is a course that can do without popular distraction.

In Ukraine, the alliance with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is strategic and illustrative of how the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin have built a co-operative relationship.

Despite this, however, the Russian president has signed confusing and highly restrictive legislation compromising wider religious freedom. As Victoria Arnold of the Oslo-based Forum 18 agency reported, on July 6th last year he signed "amendments imposing harsh restrictions on sharing beliefs, including where and who may share them, and increased 'extremism' punishments, introduced with alleged 'anti-terrorism' changes".

It may well be that Putin fears religious freedom because he knows religion has an immense power and longevity of its own, as Russia has seen in Orthodoxy itself.

Canon Ian M Ellis is rector of Newcastle, Co Down, and was editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette from 2001 until earlier this year.