MOSCOW, Russia — The Russian Orthodox Church is expanding its influence in what was once an officially godless state — and President Vladimir Putin appears eager to harness that resurgent power of faith to promote his own agenda.
Long consigned to society’s margins in the Soviet era of “scientific atheism,” religious activists in today’s Russia can get theater performances banned and exhibitions closed. Their next target is to end state funding for abortion in a land where nearly half of all pregnancies end in termination.
Putin has condemned recent attacks on art exhibitions and efforts to hound performers from the stage. But he says owners of galleries and theaters mustn’t provoke society by showing works that could cause offense.
“Any freedom has another dimension: responsibility,” Putin told arts and entertainment figures gathered this month in St. Petersburg. “There is a very narrow edge between dangerous buffoonery and freedom of expression.”
The moral authority of the Orthodox Church has grown steadily under Putin, who sides with the church in promoting traditional family values and opposing gay rights. He, in turn, cites Russia’s Christian roots to justify the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, noting that a prince of medieval Russia was baptized there more than a millennium ago.
Analysts say Putin sees an alliance with church interests as a way to bolster nationalism with belief. They say the approach seeks simultaneously to fill the ideological void left by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and to block any inroads by Western liberalism.
“Since people who are now in power take their roots in the Soviet past, they’re trying to find an equivalent of that ideology so that they can use it to manipulate the public, explain their policies by this ideology,” said Boris Falikov, professor of religious studies at the Russian State University for the Humanities .
Faith is growing in national image if not personal practice. A 2013 poll found that nearly 70 percent of Russians identify themselves as members of the church, a 14-point gain from the early days of Putin’s reign. The same polling recorded weekly church attendance at a static 14 percent.
Putin this summer put a more openly Christian veneer on his government by promoting two figures who wear religion on their sleeve.
Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva has publicly allied herself with the Orthodox primate, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, meeting him soon after taking office in August. The new commissioner for children’s rights, Anna Kuznetsova, is married to an Orthodox priest, a first for a senior government official in Russia.
Kuznetsova and the patriarch both have signed a private petition seeking a ban on abortion, which since 2011 has been legal in most cases only up to the 12th week of pregnancy. The petition has attracted more than 300,000 signatures, far short of the 1 million required for Russia’s parliament to give it formal consideration.
The United Nations’ most recent report on abortion trends found that Russia experiences the world’s highest abortion rate. Russia’s Health Ministry says 48 of every 100 pregnancies were terminated in 2014, triple the rate in most Western nations, but substantially lower than in Soviet times.
Opinion polls in Russia consistently register more than 70 percent support for keeping first-trimester abortions legal. However, those same surveys show increased backing for restrictions on taxpayer funding for such procedures. Church officials say cutting state aid for abortion is their next goal.
“As part of comprehensive medical insurance, abortions are endorsed as a social norm,” said church spokesman Vladimir Legoyda. He said the church faced a “moral obligation” to push for the withdrawal of taxpayer-funded abortion services as the next logical step in minimizing the practice.
Over the past five years, a church-run charity has opened more than 40 shelters nationwide for pregnant women who reject family pressure to have an abortion and for homeless mothers with young children.
“Of course I’m against abortions,” said one resident of a Moscow shelter, Lilya Rakheyeva, who told of how she left her previous home when her boyfriend demanded she terminate her pregnancy. Instead the jobless 29-year-old gave birth to a baby girl and said she found her way to the shelter after living rough, including in an apartment hallway.
She said Russia needed many more such shelters and higher child benefits before the nation could consider banning abortion. Otherwise, she said, “I fear that it will be like before, when children got thrown out into rubbish bins.”
Russia’s parliament, the Duma, is helping the Kremlin suppress voices that challenge the rise of social conservatism.
In 2012, three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after they staged a protest concert inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The band had sought to highlight the Orthodox Church’s backing for Putin’s election campaign. All three were imprisoned, one for seven months, the others for two years.
Putin in 2013 signed two bills making so-called “gay propaganda” and actions that “insult religious feelings” both crimes. A crackdown on gay rights protests and online support groups has followed.
One of the country’s highest profile activists, Yelena Klimova, has been charged three times with violating the law as authorities seek to block her website, Children-404, where gay teens are encouraged to discuss their experiences of homophobia.
The site still can be accessed outside Russia, but inside the country the site displays an October closure order.
Xenia Loutchenko, a Moscow commentator who writes on church affairs, says Putin and an inner Orthodox circle are driving the air of social retrenchment, not any grass-roots desire for a sterner, more judgmental Russia.
“There is a demand for an ideology, and they’re beginning to build one,” she said. “I don’t think it reflects in any way what the society wants. More likely it reflects the ideological sentiment higher up.”
This year the worlds of entertainment and the arts have found themselves facing increased pressure from the religious right.
When a private Moscow art gallery in September opened an exhibition on New York photographer Jock Sturges, lawmakers protested in the Duma and vandals operating under the banner “Officers of Russia” stormed the building, dousing framed black-and-white images with a bottle of urine.
The children’s rights commissioner, Kuznetsova, called for an investigation into why the gallery featured “immoral” images of naked teenagers.
Sturges went on Russian television to explain that his work documented decades in the lives of California families in nudist colonies, all with their consent. The gallery shuttered the show.
In October, authorities in the Siberian city of Omsk banned a planned performance of the 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” A protest petition organized under the banner “Family, Love, Fatherland” had attracted 2,500 signatures behind the contention that the musical represented “an endless blasphemy and mockery of sacred notions.”
Last month, Orthodox activists launched a campaign to ban “Matilda,” a Russian-produced movie scheduled for release in 2017 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution that toppled Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II.
The film dramatizes Nicholas’s 1890s affair with a ballerina. A member of the Duma’s security committee, Natalya Poklonskaya, called the movie’s depiction of the tsar — who was canonized as an Orthodox saint in 2000 — “a threat to national security.”
When Putin hosted entertainment and arts figures in St. Petersburg on December 2, one of the film’s stars, Yevgeny Mironov , challenged him to defend creative freedom in the face of rising intolerance.
Putin said authorities were investigating such threats, but warned that organizers of public events must bear a share of blame if their work provokes violence.
“We must keep that in mind,” he told the silent room, “and make sure we do not let society come to this.”