When Kommersant reported a few days ago that the Russian Orthodox Church was planning on creating Orthodox militias to patrol Russia’s streets, the story was immediately seized by the Russian media, including this blog.
Now according to RIA Novosti, the Church has denied such claims. “The church is not setting up a private army and would never attempt to do so. It is nonsense. The Russian armed forces already consist of 80% Orthodox believers,” said Dmitry Smirnov, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s military relations department. He also rejected Kommersant‘s claims that the Church had any discussions with the MVD on the subject.
Smirinov did add that if there are such militias they are of local initiative only. “It could be a private public initiative put forward by local parishes. If they want to patrol the streets – let them do it. If they want to sweep the streets – even better.” This seems to be the case in this instance.
Local manifestations of “people’s militias” aren’t unprecedented. One such militia called the “Veterans of North” appeared in Novovinsk, Arkhangelsk province this past summer. The group, which numbered in the tens, engaged in a variety actions from cleaning cemeteries and playgrounds of garbage to making citizens’ arrests. This year alone, the group was responsible for the arrest of ten people suspected of criminal activity, about a hundred local administrators for violation of the law, seventeen people for traffic violations, and around sixty people in connection of domestic disputes. The group also functions as security during Church holidays and celebrations. The Veterans however aren’t the first church inspired militia. A similar one was created in Krasnsoyarsk in 2006.
So yes, the Church might not be creating them from the center. But they are forming in localities. This isn’t surprising. If the Soviet period in any indication, experimentation with volunteer groups always began locally, and if they showed promise were adopted by central authorities (even to the point where the authorities took credit for them). Often establishing central control was done to focus and subordinate local group activity to central concerns, or to get control over locals who took their initiative too far. One might suspect that something similar is potentially at work here.
Another thing must also be said about these “church militias” and other social forms like them. The Russian public is often portrayed as politically passive and that Russian civil society is weak. But if such militias are forming locally and are targeting crime and corruption, perhaps we should rethink how we talk about Russian civil society. As the local church militias show, there is a Russian civil society. It just isn’t the “civil society” (i.e. liberal, inclusive, cosmopolitan, tolerant, etc.) that many liberals desire.