A look at the role of Russian Orthodoxy in this year’s Olympics in Sochi

By: Tori Greaves

Orthodox Christianity in Russia is dying. This statement is acknowledged by many missionaries,
scholars, and news writers in Russia today. Yet that is not what the world is seeing every time
news comes out regarding the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Instead, we hear a lot about how
President Putin and Patriarch Kirill of the Orthodox Church are working together to pass
legislation against gay people. We get the impression that they are trying to cover over Russia’s
disputes and problems and put up a stable, powerful political facade that is acceptable to the
rest of the world. Which side is true? Are the Church and State in Russia conspiring to impose a
strong and oppressive regime, or are the glories of the Eastern Orthodox Church truly fading?

To begin to answer these questions, I consulted Mark Elliott, a retired professor and expert in
the studies of religion in former Soviet states. “Russia has a long tradition of state religion,” he
told me, “beginning in the 10th century.” But it did not escape the widespread persecution of
religion that came along with Communist rule. Since the fall of Communism, Elliott shared, “the
Orthodox Church certainly has tried to reassert its monopoly and its cozy relationship with the
State, which has definitely created some problems.” However, it does not hold the same power
over the common people that it once did. Today, the ironic reality is that most Russians do
identify with the Orthodox Church, but very few actually say they believe in God. The majority of
Russians have maintained the Church as part of their cultural and ethnic identity while adopting
the atheism of the rest of Western Europe.

So what does that mean, and how does it shed light on other questions now circulating about
Russia?

Gay rights has been one major point of discussion as athletes from around the world now begin
to flock to Russia. “All of the Christian traditions in Eastern Europe and Russia are more socially
conservative than Western Christians. Orthodox Christians and Catholics are uniformly opposed
to the practice of homosexuality,” Elliott shared. It is a conflict of tradition. Though Russians may
have stopped believing in God, the morals and teachings of the Orthodox Church are still a
major part of their cultural consciousness. That being the case, Mark believes that President
Putin and Patriarch Kirill are simply and unsurprisingly in agreement. Rather than intentionally
conspiring to assert their power, the two simply coincide and reaffirm their common beliefs.

Nevertheless, that does not justify the persecution and violence being suffered by gay people in
Russia. It only serves to clarify that it is not simply the power of the Church and State which is to
blame, but also a deep and complex cultural history that will not easily or quickly be changed.

This is a hot issue around the globe that will continue to elicit popular concern and response,
but there are other, less broad-casted ways in which the Church’s current position in Russia are
influencing this year’s Olympic Games. I also spoke with Reid Lamphere, the Global Events
Director with Athletes in Action, an organization which provides Protestant Christian chaplains
and services to athletes at almost every Olympic Games. Apparently, it is mandated in the
original charter that the hosts of every Olympic Games shall provide religious guidance to the
athletes that come. Most hosts bring in chaplains from all over the world, representing all
different religions and languages. However, this year, the hosts have employed a different
system.

“We have only a small team going,” Reid admitted, “In 2008, China provided a chapel but they
were only Chinese chaplains. Russia is doing the same thing. We have preexisting relationships
and experience with athletes and different language capabilities that would be very helpful. But
Russia has gone with all Russian pastors, instead. It allows them to check the box, but it is too
bad.”

When he heard about this policy, Elliott also was saddened, but not surprised. “That sounds like
the Orthodox Church. They have a notion of territoriality and are very hostile toward Protestants
and Catholics. They believe that all Russian citizens should be part of the Orthodox fold.”
Athletes in Action is a large organization that has been doing evangelism through sports for
years, and they are especially involved in former Soviet states. They have numerous stories of
past experiences at large world tournaments and the Olympics when many athletes have come
to enjoy the support and community they offer. And they are only one of several organizations
who do similar ministries. But this year, they and those other organizations have had to cut
down on their operations due to the position of the Russian Orthodox Church. For a religion that
has lost most of its sense of devotion and faith, Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia still does exert a
large amount of cultural supremacy.

As Russia struggles to sell its Olympic tickets (30% unsold as of Jan 27), many disillusioned sports enthusiasts around the world heave a heavy

sigh. Whether for religious or social reasons, many who would normally love to be at these games will not be going this year. While the influence that the Orthodox Church has on state and political matters is not as strong or direct as many of us imagine, its
cultural hegemony is still quite a reality.

Lamphere lamented that those who will have to struggle with this reality the most this Olympics
are the athletes. They are the ones who will be traveling to foreign lands and facing foreign
perceptions of religion and sexuality. Lamphere wishes more of his own organization could go toencourage and support. “Athletes can get kinda down with no people to connect to; we want to
be there to meet their needs. Even though they are professionals in the sport, the fear, anger,
emotion, and pride are all there.”

Interviews:
Mark Elliott, Professor of History (retired) Samford University, Wheaton College (IL), Asbury
University
Reid Lamphere, Global Events Director, Athletes in Action

Sources:
http://rbth.ru/politics/2014/01/20/putin_says_sochi_visitors_will_see_a_new_russia_33373.html
http://www.eastwestreport.org/articles/ew07403.htm
http://athletesinaction.org/news/outreach-in-russia-thriving-as-olympics-arrive
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/16/tienne-bigger-harder-better_n_4610957.html?
ir=Gay+Voices#slide=3330002
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/how-vladimir-putin-helped-resurrect-the-russian-ort
hodox-church/article16361650/
http://ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/orthodox-church-s-role-russia-s-anti-gay-laws http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/sport/archives/2014/01/27/2003582246