Role of religion in Russia’s “culture war”


In recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church has tried to become an international influencer spreading conservative moral values. This is the result of research by Kristina Stoeckl, sociologist of religions. Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, many religiously-inspired right-wing groups have moved away from Moscow, at least for now. It remains to be seen whether this rejection will last.

While major socio-political advances have been observed in recent decades, for example in terms of the recognition of gender identities or same-sex partnerships and marriages, a strengthening of morally conservative values ​​of religious inspiration has also been observed for many years. In parts of the United States, for example, the right to abortion can no longer be taken for granted, and in EU member states such as Poland or Hungary, hostile attacks are being launched against developments liberal socials.

In this growing web of retrograde worldviews that deviate from so-called Western values, Russia is an important player. Over the past decade, a reactionary and anti-minority vision of society has taken hold in this country that Vladimir Putin rules in an increasingly authoritarian manner. His regime wants to be perceived as the antithesis of the liberal West and tries to export its “traditional values” all over the world. In this context, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a key actor and supporter of the Kremlin, acting in many ways as an international opinion maker, for example through NGOs and various lobbying activities.

“Contractor of the Conservative Standard”

Supported by a START prize from the Austrian Science Fund FWF, sociologist of religions Kristina Stoeckl from the University of Innsbruck studied the role of the Russian Orthodox Church as an “entrepreneur of conservative norms” within a worldwide network, religiously motivated and morally conservative. several years. The Church did not renounce this claim even when Russia degraded into a dictatorship in the context of its attack on Ukraine. On the contrary: Patriarch Kirill I supports Putin’s story and in his sermons, among other things, declared that the war served to “protect against Gay Pride parades”.

“The church leadership legitimizes the war using the same arguments as Putin. Kirill I talks about the harmful influences of the West and the Nazis who are said to be in power in Ukraine,” explains Stoeckl. “It is true that there are opposing voices within the church. A letter of protest against the war is published and signed by 300 priests. Some also demonstrated in the streets and were imprisoned, but their bishops did nothing to defend them.

A struggle for leadership in the Russian Orthodox Church

Kirill I came to power in 2009. At that time, the Russian Orthodox Church was already well advanced in reorganizing its institutional organization after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Around 2000, we first noticed the effort to influence the socio-political situation,” notes Stoeckl. She explains that three opposing groups became noticeable in the following years: one wanted to make the church a liberal place of civil society. A second fundamentalist wing strove to isolate itself completely from the West and modern achievements. The third group also propagated a set of conservative values, but wanted to see Russia as a crucial player in world politics. Among these last traditionalists, it is necessary to count Kirill Ier who wins finally. “From 2012, when Putin became president again, the Russian Orthodox Church served as a laboratory from which the Kremlin obtained ideologies and turned them into laws,” Stoeckl explains.

Orthodoxy has become part of a new conservative cultural self-image in Russia. Nevertheless, the country remains a fundamentally secular state and, as in the West, the Church has limited power to shape social values. “There is a good example to illustrate the limited influence: as a morally conservative group, the Russian Orthodox Church rejects both homosexuality and abortion. A large part of the population agrees when it comes to homosexuality – this attitude was already found in Soviet times,” notes Stoeckl. “But abortion was commonly practiced during the Soviet Union. In this regard, the church is not significantly successful in enforcing a ban. The legal situation is still similar to that in Western Europe – not comparable to bans in Poland or the United States.

Schism of the Ukrainian Church

Although the Church serves as a purveyor of ideology to the ruling power, it enjoys no significant political influence in the Kremlin. At the same time, the Russian Patriarchate has faced a huge problem since the war in Ukraine: “After Kirill, I turned against Ukraine after the war started, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke with the leaders of the Russian Church,” explains Stoeckl. “It is quite relevant for the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian church community is large and Patriarch Cyril I considers Ukraine to be part of his canonical territory. There is no answer yet on the consequences of this long-term schism.

Another topical issue concerns the consequences that the Russian Orthodox Church’s loyalty to Putin will have on its global standing as a morally conservative influencer. About a decade ago, a “religious shift” was seen among a number of right-wing parties in Europe – from the Italian Lega Nord to the Austrian FPÖ. This was triggered on the one hand by immigration from Muslim-majority countries, but on the other hand, as Stoeckl points out, it was a narrowing of traditional values ​​in order to stand against the liberal world. . “Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church play an important role in this context. Because unlike his two morally conservative predecessors, the new Roman Catholic Pope Francis, who took office in 2013, has placed a pontifical focus on issues such as migration and the fight against poverty. The resulting morally conservative void was filled by orthodoxy.

Following the attack on Ukraine and the subsequent ostracism of Russia, European and global right-wing groups have moved away from the “center of ideology” in Moscow. It is still unclear whether this situation will persist in the long term. “For Russia, at least, the war in Ukraine is also a ‘culture war’ involving conflicting values,” Stoeckl said.

Liberal values ​​need to be better communicated

What could liberal Western states do to stem the tide of illiberal and often discriminatory tendencies of a globally networked moral-conservative scene? “It would be particularly important to better communicate their own canon of values. A policy of non-discrimination is a value in itself that benefits everyone,” says Stoeckl. “It’s the only way to rain down on the parade right-wing party rhetoric, which presents the issue in a simplified way and focuses, for example, on the LGBT community.” At the same time, we must avoid demonizing conflicts over social issues. “Debates between conservative and liberal positions must remain possible. A democracy must be based on compromise. Unfortunately, the growing polarization of society leaves an increasingly narrow ground where different positions can meet.

personal details

Kristina Stoeckl is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Innsbruck. The sociologist of religions obtained her doctorate at the European University Institute in Florence. She was, among others, Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and APART Fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at the University of Vienna. For her research project on post-secular conflicts, she received in 2015 a START Award from the Austrian Science Fund FWF for young researchers, endowed with nearly 1.2 million euros, as well as the ERC Starting Grant from the Council European research. At the end of 2022, Kristina Stoeckl and Dmitry Uzlaner will publish the book “The Moralist International. Russia in the Global Culture Wars,” which analyzes Russia’s role as an exporter of morally conservative values.



  • Stoeckl, Kristina, Uzlaner, Dmitry, (Hg.): Post-Secular Conflicts. Debating tradition in Russia and the United States. Innsbruck University Press 2021
  • Stoeckl, Kristina: Russian Orthodoxy and Secularism. Monographic issue of Brill Research Perspectives in Religion and Politics 1/2, 75 pages, 2020
  • Stoeckl, Kristina: The Rise of the Russian Christian Right: The Case of the World Congress of Families, in: Religion, State and Society, 48/4, 222-238, 2020
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