“Orthodox Belt” in Russia tracks loyalty to traditionalist values and Putin

An ”Orthodox Belt,” running across central and southern Russia and the Volga region, has and will likely continue to form a firm base of loyalty to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin as well as conservative and traditionalist values, according to researchers Andrey Shcherbak and Maria Ukhvatova. Writing in the journal Nationalities Papers (online in June), the researchers point out that the regional base of support for Putin and his traditionalist campaign has often been overlooked by social scientists. Constructing an index of religiosity on the regional level, they are able to locate an Orthodox Belt that is also associated with Kremlin loyalty as shown in voting behavior between 2011 and 2018. Two key regions in the Orthodox Belt, Lipetsk and Tambov, which rank among the highest in Orthodox and Kremlin loyalty, both show a combination of grassroots activism and higher-up coalitions between church and state.

Vladimir Putin celebrates Christmas with orthodox Christians in St Petersburg, January 2019 (source: Presidential Press and Information Office).

The diocese of Lipetsk has vast influence in many areas of society, signing agreements with the regional departments of justice, healthcare, and culture, and partnering with the region’s several educational institutions, while the diocese of Tambov is a leader in pro-life activities in the region and the introduction of Orthodox instruction in schools. But the making of the Orthodox Belt relies not only on grassroots initiatives but also top-down command, with the Russian Orthodox Church building partnerships with regional authorities but not with church NGOs and activist groups. Ironically, the Orthodox Belt includes the same regions that were part of the so-called “Red Belt” that had showed the strongest Communist loyalty. Shcherbak and Ukhvatova are uncertain how the Orthodox Belt will affect Russian politics after Covid’s weakening of churches and do not mention the impact of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on this trend.

(Nationalities Papers, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/nationalities-papers)