Discussions about amending the Russian constitution continue. As I mentioned previously, the Russian government has submitted a formal proposal to the State Duma, providing details on how the government believes the constitution should be changed. The proposal has already passed its first reading. In the meantime, however, all sorts of other people have thrown out all sorts of other ideas to tack onto the government’s proposal. Many of these are being discussed in the commission that Vladimir Putin set up to discuss the issue, and it seems possible that some of the ideas will end up before the Duma when the bill to amend the constitution comes up for its second reading in the coming weeks.
Today, for instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad reported that Putin had reacted positively to a suggestion by the Director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovskii that the constitution should be amended to strengthen the idea that ‘culture is Russia’s unique inheritance, which is preserved by the state.’ Responding to Piotrovskii, Putin said that culture ‘is the nation’s DNA, which makes us the multinational Russian [Rossiiskii] people, and shows our originality. We’re thinking of how to do that.’
One integral feature of most cultures is religion. And so it should perhaps not come as a surprise that some people want to include God in the Russian constitution. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church made this proposal a week or so ago, and it rapidly gathered support in influential circles. TV talk show host Vladimir Solovyov, for instance, boosted the idea on his evening show, and now the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, has said that he has no objection. Asked about including God in the constitution’s preamble, Zyuganov commented that,
It’s an image that is in line with the main moral and spiritual values of our state. … When I studied the Bible, the Epistles of Paul the Apostle […] it contains the main slogan of communism: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat.’ As a matter of fact, we borrowed a lot in the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism from the Bible. And if anyone tries to say otherwise, they just have to put those documents side by side.
It may seem odd that the Communists are turning to God, but it’s hardly the first time Zyuganov has done this. In fact, he’s been attempting to fuse communism and Christianity for the best part of three decades. And back in 2014 Patriarch Kirill recognized the Communist leader’s devotion to the Church by awarding him an order ‘for glory and honour’. With the Communists on board (or at least not opposed), the Patriarch’s proposed constitutional amendment has at least some chance of success.
I think that this case is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows what happens when the Russian government invites the public for input into fundamental issues connected to the nature and purpose of the state. The government’s own proposal pretty much preserves the liberal autocratic nature of the constitution. But once civil society, including Mr Piotrovskii and Patriarch Kirill, were asked for their ideas, they started introducing matters which the guardians of the liberal autocracy had never considered – most notably, issues of culture and religion start raising their head. It perhaps gives one a sense of the direction Russian politics might take if it indeed became less autocratic.
Second, much has been written in the past 20 years about the alleged political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Academic studies which I’ve read on the topic suggest that this influence isn’t nearly as great as often claimed. The fate of Patriarch Kirill’s proposal to include God in the constitution will, therefore, be a very valuable case study to determine just how much pull the Church really has. Far from everybody supports Kirill’s amendment. According to Interfax, ‘Russian State Duma Committee on State Building and Legislation Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov has opposed this initiative.’ Putin himself has remained silent on the matter. It will be interesting to see who wins.