Although there is no such relationship between Orthodox Church and economics as the one observed by Max Weber regarding Protestantism and the work ethic a century ago, one can observe many connections between Orthodox religion and entrepreneurial activities in today’s Russia, writes Tobias Köllner (Otto-von-Guericke University, Magdeburg, Germany) in Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (February).
This may contradict both Western perceptions of Orthodox Churches and the poor image of Russian corrupt businessmen. However, field research conducted in Russia over several years convinced Köllner that local entrepreneurs are not only concerned with maximizing profits. While they are eager to earn money, a growing number of small- and medium-sized businesses give a good deal of significance to religion and moral discourses in their work. He finds that the moral framework of the Soviet times has been replaced with the one provided by the Church.
Entrepreneurs also have religious concerns, even if there may be a dimension of ambivalence, with partly utilitarian considerations. During interviews, the German researcher observed how many of them share widespread beliefs on dark powers or are afraid of divine punishment for misdeeds. Thus they ask priests to come and bless their houses, or hope that priestly blessings will help their business to prosper.
In return, businessmen are also willing to support the Orthodox Church financially, especially when it comes to building or maintaining churches, since results are visible. Such donations are also a way to keep at bay the greed of State institutions by showing that a rich businessman is already taking his share of financial responsibility for the good of society.
Köllner has also observed how pilgrimages of entire firms have become popular in Russia since the late 1990s. While one may suspect such travels are made only for entertainment, the reality is more nuanced and rather shows a combination between religious and leisure activities. Quite often, religious motives are prevalent during travel to the pilgrimage place, while tourist motives dominate during the return trip.
For entrepreneurs who organize such pilgrimages for their staff, various elements are playing a role. They are a way to continue the excursions on the pattern of the socialist brigades as practiced during the Soviet period. But entrepreneurs also assign a moral and educational role to such pilgrimages, seen as a way to bring their employees closer to the Orthodox Church. They present that as part of their individual duty for contributing to social improvement. Ambivalence between one’s own interests and religious as well as social motivations interweave such activities.
A primary source of religious inspiration for businessmen with religious leanings is the priest whom they consider as their confessor and/or spiritual father. This matters more to them than community life. The spiritual teacher is chosen based on personal preferences. The link to him is strong and tends to be a lasting one. Much more than the formal teachings of the Church, the advice received in personal interaction with one’s spiritual father will matter. This allows for a flexible adjustment to each person’s specific circumstances.
(Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zürich, Switzerland, www.g2w.eu. Köllner is also the author of a book in English: Practicing Without Belonging? Entrepreneurship, Morality, and Religion in Contemporary Russia, Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012.)