Archimandrite Cyril Govorun’s Freedom Speech at Boris Nemtsov Forum 2018

Prague, October 9, 2018
Cyril Hovorun
Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles

I am grateful to the organizers of Boris Nemtsov forum for inviting me to address this distinguished audience. I don’t take this invitation for granted. It is still not a custom in Europe, when theologians or clerics are invited to lecture to politicians and civil activists from a tribune like this one. Nevertheless, I perceive this invitation as a part of the process, which the great European Jürgen Habermas called post-secularity. In his opinion, this process succeeded the period, which was dominated by ideological secularism. This ideology denied religion any right to have voice in the public space.

I should acknowledge that there were good reasons, why modern society developed suspicion about political and public involvement of religion. Since the Antiquity, religion has often endorsed different sorts of autocratic rule and abuses of human rights. However, autocracy did not disappear after religion was separated from politics in the modern era. On the contrary, it reached new heights. The most striking examples are Stalin, who systematically persecuted the church, and Hitler, who marginalised and instrumentalised it. Both of them effectively substituted religion with inhuman ideologies. The day before yesterday I had a chance to visit Auschwitz. There I saw with clarity how hundreds of thousand human beings were treated as if they were animals without soul. When I tried to compare this giant plant of death with “normal” life, the closest thing that came to my mind was a farm with a slaughterhouse attached to it. The evil minds who created Auschwitz, certainly did not look at the human nature from the religious perspective.

In parallel to Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes, there were minor authoritarian regimes in Europe, which continued relying on religion, such as Franco’s in Spain, Antonescu’s in Romania, or Metaxas’s in Greece. The contribution of Deutsche Christenor Romanian legionnaires of Archangel Michael to the holocaust did not add credit to religion either. These and other cases of collaboration of the churches with authoritarian regimes, after the World War II created a climate of intolerance to religion, especially to its presence in the public space.

Habermas suggested to overcome this intolerance. He encouraged secular and religious intellectuals to engage in conversation, instead of continuing endless polemics with one another. Habermas showed a pattern of such conversation in his dialogue with Cardinal Ratzinger, later pope Benedict XVI, in the book they co-authored and titled The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion.[1]What made Habermas’s suggestion particularly important was the fact that it came from an icon of secularism and only a few days after the terrorist attacks by the Islamic radicals in September 2001.

Another great European, who passed away recently, Umberto Eco, followed the same train of thought. Being a secular thinker, he engaged in a dialogue with Cardinal Martini of Milan. They also published together a book known to the English-speaking readers as Belief or Nonbelief?: A Confrontation.[2]The original Italian title of the book is In cosa crede chi non crede?[3]—What believe those who do not believe? I personally enjoyed Eco’s deliberations on religion, when he in 2013 came to Yale University, where I was at the same time. I recorded him saying then: “Man is a fundamentally religious animal, why should I disturb man? I have no right to do that.”[4]I think this typically Italian relaxed attitude to the confrontation between secularism and religion is a good addition to Habermas’s insistence that dialogue should substitute this confrontation.

The final glimpse at post-secularity, which I would like to share with you here, comes from José Casanova, a Spanish sociologist of religion who works at Georgetown University in Washington DC. For him, to return to the public square, the church should first learn to behave there. In particular, it should not jeopardise individual freedoms and modern social and political structures that emerged in the process of secularisation.[5]I think this respect to secular institutions that emerged as a result of public consent is a condition sine qua non for healthy post-secularism.

Thisfeature is missing in modern Russia. Some Russian scholars have interpreted the so-called “spiritual revival” after the decades of the Soviet state-sponsored atheism as a Russian edition of post-secularism. However, in my opinion, the concept of Russian post-secularism is manipulative; it is similar to the concept of sovereign democracy. As the latter is opposite to proper democracy, so the former is opposite to proper post-secularism. The evolution of the Russian post-secularism was similar to the evolution of Russian democracy. Initially it was well-intended, but later on transformed to a simulacrum.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church re-entered public space victoriously, with the reputation of a church that had been persecuted. Indeed, in the Soviet era the church was under the anathema of the atheist state. This anathema dragged the church through the painful process of catharsis from the earlier sins of its close collaboration with the tsarist state. As a result, for many late-Soviet Russians, unlike for early-Soviet Russians, it was not anymore an established church of the empire, but a church of new martyrs and confessors.

These Russians were not aware that the Soviet ban on religion was not total. The church, even under the condition of unfreedom, continued serving the Soviet regime. It had developed what I would call Soviet symphony[6]—a modus con-vivendi with the state, which can be traced back to the Byzantine emperors Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian. In other words, there was not a complete separation of the church from the state in the Soviet Union, but a form of symbiosis that benefitted both the state and the church, or at least the administrative part of the latter.

Notwithstanding this, the Russian Orthodox Church entered the post-Soviet era without the heavy burden of previous enthusiastic support to inhuman regimes that many other churches in the twentieth century had to carry on their shoulders. At that stage, the Russian Orthodox Church was also spared of attacks from secularism, because the latter was too closely associated with the Soviet atheist propaganda. In the early post-Soviet period, the Russian Orthodox Church felt a novice in the public space, which itself was at the early stage of formation. At that time, the behaviour of the church in this space, I believe, could be characterized as post-secular, in the Habermasian sense of the word.

In this period of time, the first attempts to articulate the basics of the Russian publicand politicaltheology were made. I distinguish between these two kinds of theology. Public theology stands for the relations between the church and society, while political theology focuses more on the relations between the church and state. Therefore, I want to emphasize it, the Russian church promulgated not only political theology, which is traditional for the world of post-Byzantine Christianity, but also approached a new field of public theology. The key proponent of both theological discourses was then Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill. I think he can be nominated a father of the Russian public theology.

He initiated and contributed to a landmarking document adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, the Basis ofits Social Concept.[7]This was a remarkable text. Probably not with the clarity of Habermas, but certainly with his good intentions, the Basistried to describe and to prescribe a new modus vivendi of the church in the post-Soviet society. The church acknowledged not only the traumas of the Soviet era, but also, more or less explicitly, the democratic choice of the Russian people at that time. It expressed its respect to the democratic institutions, however immature they were.

The Basis of the Social Conceptof the Russian Orthodox Church was left as an open set of documents, which could be supplemented with new documents at any time. In 2008, a new concept was added to it, known as The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights.[8]Although it was supposed to continue the ethos and rationale of the Basis of the Social Concept, it eventually deviated from the latter document. The document of 2008 does not show the same respect to the secular democratic institutions as the document of 2000 did. In particular, the former document has questioned the concept of human rights. Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad was again behind the new way, in which the Russian Orthodox Church imagined its presence in the Russian public square. I believe the document of 2008 marked the process of transformation of the European sort of the Russian post-secularity to its simulacrum. This simulacrum does not respect the democratic institutions and substitutes dialogue with monologue. The church gradually ceased to engage with the society through conversation, but instead embarked on the language of prescriptions and judgements.

Even before the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church at its session in 2008 adopted the Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights, a preliminary version of the same document was promulgated in 2006 by the World Russian People’s Council. This version was even more critical of the human rights and “western civilization,” which promotes these rights. The World Russian People’s Council became the main platform for the engagement of the Russian Orthodox Church with the society. It also set up a new agenda for this engagement. Its main concern became the promotion of the original (самобытная) Russian civilisation, which was also rendered as the “Russian world.”There was a special session of the council in 2001 entitled “Russia: Faith and Civilization.” President Vladimir Putin addressed this session personally. I believe that the version of the Russian world, which had been elaborated upon by the Russian Orthodox Church, was eventually adopted by the Kremlin and became an ideological platform to launch aggressive attacks against Ukraine and other countries in the world.


Let me render what I have just described as Russian post-secularism in alternative language. This is the sociological language, which is based on the notions of political and civil religions. Although they are called “religions,” they are not religions as such. They are political ideas and ideologies, which propagate themselves in religious terms or with religious zeal. They are intrinsic phenomena of the modern age, which has marginalized religion in the proper sense and instead embarked on secular politics as if it was religion.

The idea of “political religion” was developed in the 1930s as a reflection on the rise of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, by such thinkers as Carl Schmitt, Eric Voegelin, Karl Löwitz, Raymond Aron, and others. Political religion became a term applied to any totalitarian ideology produced by modernity. Emilio Gentile defined it as “the sacralization of a political system founded on an unchallengeable monopoly of power, ideological monism, and the obligatory and unconditional subordination of the individual and the collectivity to its code of commandments. Consequently, a political religion is intolerant, invasive, and fundamentalist, and it wishes to permeate every aspect of an individual’s life and of a society’s collective life.”[9]Inother words, despite their ideological differences, political religions, such as Communism or Nazism, commonly tend to impose collective will over the will of individual.

In contrast to political religions, civil religions do not violate individual freedom. They instead touch religious strings in the soul of individuals and thus encourage them to act in accord for the common good of a secularised society. The term was coined by the father of the European secularism Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[10]The concept of civil religion became a necessary supplement to his concept of social contract. As we all know, Rousseau suggested a new model of common political action for individuals, which differed from the medieval model. The latter was based on the obedience to the will of a monarch, who represented the divine will. The former excluded from the equation of social cohesion the will of God and the will of monarch. Instead, Rousseau rebalanced the equation of political power with the concept of civil religion, which had to encourage citizens to act in accordance with one another and with the society.

In the 1960s, this concept was elaborated upon by the American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, who applied it to describe the political culture of the United States. According to Bellah, this culture is intrinsically religious. Religious enthusiasm of the Americans about their country and its political institutions is shared not only by the Evangelicals and other religious groups, but also by the American secularists. It helps preserving cohesion of millions without violating their freedom.

I believe both political and civil religions can help us describe and better comprehend the political culture of Russia. I should confess that when Robert Bellah came to Yale in December 2012, just a few months before his death, and presented on “Religion in Human Evolution,” I missed an opportunity to ask him personally whether his concept of civil religion is applicable to Russia. Nevertheless, I am quite sure that his answer would be positive.

Since Peter the Great, under whom Russia entered the age of modernity, the Russian society and Russian church have been facing the kaleidoscope of political and civil religions. As a matter a fact, there was always more political than civil religion in the Russian history. Only a couple of periods in this history can be regarded as relatively free from both of them. One was the period of short-lived Russian republic from February to October 1917. In this period, the church was able to convene its great council without obligation to serve any political agenda, be it connected with political or civil religion. Another was the period of the 1990s, when the social cohesion did not have a religious colouring and the church did not invest itself to any political program.

This did not mean that the church did not want to invest itself to any political agenda. It tried and eventually found a political program to associate itself with. This was the program of political conservatism and civilizational nationalism, known as the above-mentioned Russian world. I would like to make a remark here that there is a difference between ethnic and civilizational nationalism. One is associated with ethnically homogeneous groups, while the other, with supra-national groups, which Lev Gumilyov called super-ethnoses.[11]In my judgement, the Russian world is a civilisational type of nationalism. Given that any nationalism can be regarded as a civil or political religion, the civilisational nationalism of the Russian world became a particularly Russian edition of civil religion, which soon turned to political religion.

One of the dangerous features of any civil religion is that sooner or later it tends to mutate to its more violent version, which we earlier identified as political religion. At least this seems to be a rule for civil religions in the Orthodox countries. Russia is not an exception from this rule. Soon after it was reintroduced to the public discourse, the Russian civil religion transformed to the Russian political religion. I believe the turning point of such transformation was the episode with the punk group Pussy Riot in February 2012. After that, the civil religion in Russia rapidly evolved to political religion. This evolution reached its peak in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and launched the war in the east of Ukraine. In the process of transition, the pantheon of the two religions changed. The key figure in the pantheon of the civil religion was tsar Nicholas II Romanov. In the new political religion, he was replaced by more powerful figures of tsar John the Terrible and Joseph Stalin.

Thedifference between the figures of tsar Nicholas and tsar John is their attitude to violence: the former figure was less violent than the latter figure. This is also the main difference between civil and political religions: the former is based on persuasion, while the latter, on coercion. Coercion has become an intrinsic part of the church culture since its merge with the Roman empire. Only in the periods of crises the church came to understand the incompatibility of coercion with the Gospels. This happened to the Western churches, for instance, in the process of secularization of the western societies. In the case of the Russian Orthodoxy, the Soviet period taught some to avoid coercion. Some, but not all.

Coercion triumphantly returned to the Russian church and encouraged it to embark on political religion. Coercion even became a theologoumenon—a theological opinion widely believed, but not necessarily dogmatised,—expressed by many official and non-official speakers of the church. At the core of this theologoumenonis the belief that human will is weak and human beings are incapable of making right choices. The choosing faculty of the human nature, its freedom, should be therefore substituted by the coercive power of the state.

I personally observed the tendency to undermine the faculty of human freedom as early as during the work on the document The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights. In the working group, which was presided by then Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, of which I was also a member, we had heated debates on the issue of freedom. One of the group’s member, Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, for instance, insisted that freedom is a diabolic device, which should be neglected altogether. I think I do not act incorrectly by revealing what he said in the internal discussions more than ten years ago, because he has gone much further than that in his more recent public statements.

To conclude, I would like to share with you the arguments that I brought to the mentioned group in favour of freedom as an intrinsic and probably the most important faculty of the human nature. I discovered those arguments by reading the Fathers of the church. For them, freedom is a distinctive feature of the human nature. Together with intellect, freedom distinguishes humans from the rest of the created world. The Cappadocian Fathers, who lived in the fourth century, paid particular attention to the issue of freedom. Thus, according to Gregory the Theologian, human beings have been created free. They cannot be subordinated to nobody and nothing except God and his commandments.[12]For him, freedom is something that humans should be proud of. It is their honour.[13]Basil of Caesarea brought this idea even further. For him, freedom is a Godlike part of the human soul.[14]To Gregory of Nyssa, human beings are honoured by freedom. Freedom makes them enjoying beatitude.[15]Gregory went as far as affirming that human beings, owing to their freedom, are equal to God.[16]

Ithink these statements by the church Fathers about freedom can inspire us all at this forum, whether we believe in God or not. I thank again Zhanna Nemtsova and other organizers of this gathering for providing an excellent platform for exchange and dialogue—very much in the spirit of Jürgen Habermas and Umberto Eco.

[1]Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularization: on Reason and Religion, London: Ignatius Press, 2007; original German edition:Dialektik der Säkularisierung: über Vernunft und Religion, Freiburg: Herder, 2005.

[2]Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Belief or Nonbelief?: a Confrontation, New York: Arcade, 1997.

[3]Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, In cosa crede chi non crede?, Roma: Atlantide, 1996.


[5]José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

[6]I explore the Soviet symphony in the context of the Byzantine traditions in my article Cyril Hovorun, “Is the Byzantine ‘Symphony’ Possible in Our Days?.” Journal of Church and State59, no. 2 (2017): 280–96.



[9]Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. xv.

[10]Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Essential Rousseau: The Social Contract, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, The Creed of a Savoyard Priest, trans. Lowell Bair (New York: Penguin, 1975), 17, 20, 107–8, 110.

[11]Lev Gumilev, Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere (Moscow: Progress, 1990).

[12]De pauperum amore35.892.10-12.

[13]In theophania36.324.21.

[14]Sermo de contubernalibus30.817.2-5.

[15]De mortuis non esse dolendum9.54.2-3.

[16]De mortuis non esse dolendum9.54.10; see also De creatione hominis sermo primus29a.6-7.