by Janne Suutarinen

“Unfortunately, ‘zone of accordance’ or ‘zone of tolerance’ in the terms of religion dialogue in Russia seems to be moving away more and more from the present time.”

Associate professor Victor Khroul (Moscow State University, Journalism Faculty) has extensively studied media and religion in Russia. He is the author of the book Religion and Media in Russia: Functional and Ethical Perspectives (2012) and currently he is researching religious factor in mass communication with focus on religious content in the texts in the net.

Why did this topic spark your interest?

Religion belongs to maybe the deepest level of personal understanding of the world and personal convictions. For many, it is the core of identity. Therefore, I found interesting to study the role of media in the formation of religious identity in religious practice.

The interplay between religions, the power and the public in the sacred/profane remapping in post-communist societies, up to my observations, seems to be underexposed by journalists. The lack of transparency, consequently, leads to the chaotic mixture of the sacred and the profane in mass consciousness and weakens the purely religious impact on this process.

The recent debate on ‘Matilda’, a film directed by the Russian film-maker Alexei Uchitel, which tells a story of a romance between the future Nicholas II, canonised by the Russian Orthodox church in 2000, and Mathilde Kschessinska, a teenage prima ballerina at the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg, is a good example of the ‘sacralisation’ trend in Russian public sphere, supported by media. Radical Russian Orthodox movements warned that “cinemas will burn” if Matilda was screened, because the film portrays the “holy tsar” in love scenes. And the largest network of cinemas in Russia in September 2017 has refused to screen it because of safety reasons.

Another sacralisation case – implemented from media campaign into reality – happened in October 2016, when the first-ever monument commemorating Ivan IV (Grozny) was erected near the sacred place Bogoyavlensky sobor in Russian town Orel. Despite Ivan IV is known in Russia as “Grozny” (the Terrible) because of the brutal massacre of Novgorod in 1570 and killing his own son, local government strongly lobbed the project ignoring the residents in the city campaign against the monument. There are even voices – widely spread by mainstream media – in favor to proclaim Ivan the Terrible as a saint of Russian Orthodox Church. The Church representatives’ voices against this proposal are not heard in Russian public sphere.

From another hand, some spontaneous, grass-roots public initiative in Russia (the icons of Stalin painted with the nimbus as a saint, protests against digitalisation in order to avoid the “number of devil” in the documents, etc.) are not in line neither with Church teaching nor the government intentions, but widely covered by media inspiring the sacralisation of Stalin.

My particular subject is the religious factor in mass communication, and to what extent mass communication is determined by religious factors – from personal level (how people choose and perceive news) – to institutional level, which holds the religious organisations’ participation in media regulation and other processes.

Generally speaking, media and religion as social institutions of civil society often find themselves in conditions of competition – and conflict – because both claim to be value-based referees in public life.

How do Russian mainstream media cover religion?

Covering religion in mass media is becoming more important and at the same time more problematic. There are at least three trends important for understanding Russian journalistic practices: 1) the debate on religion and religious values in mainstream media is narrowing; 2) the possibility for journalists to make public their position in cases when it differs from the position of media managers is being reduced; 3) the dialogue on values is being removed into uncensored and free area of Internet resources, mostly to social networks, blogs and forums.

Therefore, media framing, gate-keeping and agenda-setting studies are essential for understanding of the religion mediatization in Russia. The comparatively notion mediatization in the context of religion describes vibrant and complex relations between media and religion as a social sub-systems and influent institutions – interaction, dialogue, cooperation, competition, conflict. Danish scholar Stig Hjarvard suggested that religion can no longer be studied separately from the media, because a) media are for most people the primary source of their religious knowledge and religious imagination; b) some social functions of religion are now primarily the functions of media and c) religious institutions use media logic and media framing for their actions.

Why then still there are so many conflicts between media and religion?

Media scandals on coverage religion are rooted in misunderstanding of basic principles and basic freedoms of speech and faith. If you think that freedom of speech has no limits, including the sensitive domain of religious feelings, sooner or later you will face problems and you will see aggressive fanatics on the streets or in your editorial office. You might remember some cases of such kind. The newspaper Jyllands-Posten published in 2005 the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, and several months later protests erupted throughout much of the Muslim world. The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s office has been attacked as well after it published cartoons disliked by Muslims.

From the other hand, if you consider journalists as servants of religious institutions without the right to criticise them – sooner or later these institutions will dominate in the public sphere silencing those who has other point of view.

Therefore, the media and religion conflicts call both academia and practitioners to rediscover the basic normative principles of mediatization of religion, based all three stages: pluralism – dialogue – consensus. Religions should have values transparency, availability of texts representing their normative models; correct articulation, the use of adequate symbolic systems, language and cultural codes and recognition of the possible existence of other normative systems. Journalists, from their side, have to guarantee representativeness, qualitative and quantitative completeness of the spectrum of values and norms and optimisation of broadcast channels.

From the dialogue perspective, tolerance and mutual respect to other religious systems and commitment to participate in the dialogue is expected from religions with active presence of their advocates and experts in the public sphere. Media professionals must search for new subjects of the dialogue, present new models, create new forums for discussion and moderate them. Both – religions and media – must put forward the seeking of common good as a basic principle.

Unfortunately, ‘zone of accordance’ or ‘zone of tolerance’ in the terms of religion dialogue in Russia seems to be moving away more and more from the present time.

How big is the impact or Orthodox church in Russian media?

Paradoxically, despite that the Russian Orthodox Сhurch claims that 70–80 per cent of Russian population are Orthodox Christians, the Сhurch’s power in media is not so strong. The reason for this is firstly the Russians’ religiosity that is nominal – not many practice it. Secondly, the religious institutions prefer to solve problems and have impact NOT via discussions in public sphere but institutionally – through negotiations with the government. Normally they achieve their goals, but the audience remains largely unaffected.

The Orthodox church’s impact on secular media is still low. If one conducts a content analysis on secular media content, the results would not be very pleasant for the church. This is to large extent the reason why the Orthodox church has made many protests against for instance programs and movies that violate Christian values or are against them.

What does the future of the Russian Orhodox Сhurch look like?

The main problem of the church, which I hope is well presented in my research, is the conflict of formats between religious communication and secular communication. Secular media expects the religious organisations to explain their values in simple forms that are understandable to general audience. Religious organisations do not understand this is an urgent need, and they continue to be non-transparent in many cases – not only in their liturgical service but sometimes in their social activities.  The liturgical language in Russian Orhodox Сhurch is old Slavonic, not understandable to contemporary Russian speaking people. That could be used as a metaphor of the situation.

“If you have freedom of speech and no investigative journalism – journalists are not watchdogs of the government – there’s something wrong with your understanding of freedom of speech.”

In his research, Khroul proposes a normative model on how to optimise the media and religion -communications. He thinks that religious movements should be pluralistically represented in public sphere and therefore available for people to choose from and discuss about without bans or restrictions. All these processes of expressing and discussing ideas should be in the atmosphere of will to consensus: to reach common good and agreement.

Peaceful dialogue is something that is now missing in Russia. The dominant strategy is a combative strategy – that of warfare and defeating your enemy. It doesn’t presume this enemy or ‘other’ the right to exist. This militant spirit is continuously more visible in Russian public sphere.

Are you saying that a militant state of mind has been on the rise?

Yes. It is mostly visible in political acts and Russian foreign policy. It has consequences in the public sphere, and even in some fragile and personal spheres such as the religious one.

I would say the problem is not in power, not even in intentions or will of being militant. The problem is within the Russian general audience whose media-literacy is low. If it would be high, the propaganda’s affect might not be so big. The media-literacy training should start from the very childhood.

What are your general thoughts on the state of freedom of speech in Russia?

We used to have the golden age of freedom of speech in the 1990’s. In 2000’s it decreased, but not because of some legal restrictions. We still have the same law on media that was adopted in 1991, and it is a very liberal law. It was designed immediately after the fall of communism, and its intention was to defend freedom of speech and journalistic freedom. Nowadays, these rights are used less and less.

Khroul says that the amount of investigative journalism in Russia is small and getting smaller. The agendas are being set outside of the editing offices.

As we understood from the research conducted in spring, around 30 per cent of all news items in the press and TV are based on press releases. This means that you simply are fed with agenda by big enterprises.

I think the amount of investigative journalism correlates very strongly with freedom of speech. If you have freedom of speech and no investigative journalism – journalists are not watchdogs of the government – there’s something wrong with your understanding of freedom of speech.

Khroul wrote his bachelor’s and master’s theses about political jokes. Would you like to conclude the interview with a fitting one for the theme?

Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte have been invited by Russian president to see the military parade on Red Square.

“If I had such tanks”, says Alexander the Great, “I would have been an invincible commander”.

“If I had such planes”, says Julius Caesar, “the Great Roman Empire would never have fallen!”

“Eh,” says Napoleon Bonaparte, “would I have a Russian press, no one would know that I have lost the battle of Waterloo.

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