Political preferences of at least 21% of Orthodox voters in Russia may be influenced by the clergy and their fellow believers. Based on an online survey of 2,735 respondents,HSE University sociologists Kirill Sorvin and Maksim Bogachev concluded that religion has a considerable impact on people’s political choices. The scholars assume that the share of those who vote ‘in an Orthodox way’ may be higher: many respondents were under 34, and young people are a minority among Orthodox believers in Russia.
Orthodox clergy are not allowed to engage in politics, including election campaigning, due to a ban put in place by the Orthodox Church, although the clergy are permitted to give moral evaluations and express the Church’s position publicly, as well as their personal opinions. Formally, this is not propaganda, but rather a mechanism to influence believers.
This mechanism is actually used. In 2014, most priests from 20 Moscow churches admitted in their responses to sociologists that election propaganda and recommendations are possible in their parishes.
Such practices are characteristic not only for Russia. In the year of recent presidential elections in the U.S., for example, 64% of believers who attend church sometimes (once every several months) heard clergy at their church speak about political issues, and 14% heard their clergy speak directly in support of or against a specific presidential candidate.
In addition to speaking publicly from the pulpit, priests turn to politics in their private talks with parishioners. According to a survey in the Sverdlovsk Oblast, over 15% of Orthodox believers in Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Tagil, and Kirovograd had consulted their priests on political issues at least once.
HSE University researchers Kirill Sorvin and Maksim Bogachev administered an online survey of 2,735 Orthodox believers on VK social media. The study confirmed that the clergy are no strangers to political propaganda, that their parishioners listen to it, and that they listen to the opinions of their fellow churchgoers.
In contrast with their American colleagues, Russian priests turned out to be less politically engaged. According to Bogachev and Sorvin’s survey, 18.4% respondents witnessed political expressions during services at Orthodox churches. ‘Expressly or implied, such expressions push the parish to support certain candidates or parties, so we can talk about an existing, systemic impact of the clergy on believers’ electoral preferences,’ the researchers said.
The more the respondents attended services, the more they witnessed propaganda. 8.8% of those who attend services rarely (once a year or less) witnessed propaganda at church, while this number was 26.8% among those who go to church weekly. In the cohort that is closest to the American sociologists’ respondents – people who go to church once a month – 22.7% heard political speeches from the clergy, which is almost three times less than in the U.S.
14.5% of respondents heed their priests’ advice when making decisions about how to vote.
Half of the respondents had not heard political speeches during sermons, which means that they got the recommendations in private talks with their priests.
Committed churchgoers take clergy’s opinions into account the most: 22.6% of those who attend services weekly.
In reality, the share of those ‘guided’ by the clergy might be higher, the researchers assume, as the majority of respondents in the sample were aged 18 to 34, while most Orthodox churchgoers in Russia are older.
In these terms, it is probable that the Russian situation might be closer to that in Georgia, where the opinions of the clergy and the parish impacts the political choices of 35% of voters.
Russian Orthodox voters also take advice from their fellow parishioners: 6.6% of respondents surveyed by HSE sociologists make voting decisions without consulting a priest but taking into account the views of other members of the community. Among active churchgoers, every fifth person (22.7%) considers the opinions of both the priest and the parish more broadly.
The share of those who make the decision independently, but consider the attitudes dominating among the community, also depends on the frequency of church attendance: it ranges from 8.3% among those who go to church once a year or less to 21.2% among those who do so weekly.