As we cross the threshold of a brand new year, it’s human nature to ponder what sorts of crises lie ahead. One of the questions that comes to mind (mine, at least) is: What will Putin do now with the rouble dropping so dramatically and inflation rising? How will the wounded ‘Russian bear’ react? We can’t say, of course. It’s helpful, nevertheless, to look at what Putin has already done.
One of Putin’s most striking achievements of the past fifteen years, and one not given the attention it deserves, is the former KGB officer’s ‘re-Christianization’ of Russian society. Putin believes that Russia can be truly Russia only if it affirms its Russian Orthodox roots. In 2000, Putin visited one of the holiest Orthodox sites in Russia: the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery in north-western Russia, one of the few to remain open during the Soviet Era. In the monastery’s guestbook, Putin provided important insight into his personal philosophy with the following entry: “The revival of Russia and growth of its might are unthinkable without the strengthening of society’s moral foundations. The role and significance of the Russian Orthodox Church are huge. May God protect you.”
Under Putin, the role and significance of the Russian Orthodox Church have expanded indeed. Stalin had virtually eliminated the church as a public institution. Under atheistic Communism, some 200,000 clergy were killed and 41,000 churches were destroyed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church began to rebuild to the point that, today, there are 30,000 parishes, 800 monasteries, and more than 100 theological schools and seminaries. Thousands of church buildings have been restored to their former glory. In a matter of two decades, the Russian Orthodox Church has become Russia’s largest and most important non-governmental organization. Russia is one of the few places in the developed world where people report that religion is becoming more important to them. Today, 90% of ethnic Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, and their leaders present themselves as Orthodox Christians as well. (They may be genuine Christians; I don’t know one way or the other.) President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev frequently appear at civic functions flanked by church dignitaries. Putin is reported to even have his own personal confessor: Archimandrite Tikhon, head of the 14th century Sretensky Monastery. On the walls of the room in which Tikhon conducts his interviews hang the portraits of a saint and a czar. Tikhon, not surprisingly, is an enthusiastic supporter of Putin.
It’s really quite something to see how Putin has welcomed the Russian Orthodox Church into the very halls of power. In 2004, for example, the Duma (Russia’s Parliament) passed a law to return to the church all its pre-revolutionary property, making the Orthodox Church potentially the largest landowner in Russia. Putin recently pushed a law through the Duma requiring all immigrants seeking to reside or work in Russia to learn Russian and to become well-versed in Russian Christian history. The Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, in his turn, declared his support for Putin in the March 2012 presidential election. (And it’s this sort of closeness between church and state that is making a lot of people nervous both inside and outside of Russia.)
Returning Russia to its former might and glory is Putin’s stated goal. It’s interesting how the coat-of-arms of the former Russian Empire portrays a double-headed eagle as does the Byzantine Empire.
Russian Empire coat-of-arms
After the fall of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) in 1453 to the Muslim forces of Mehmet II, Russia was nominated by some Eastern Orthodox Christians to be the “New Rome.” In 1510, the Pskov monk Filofei sent a letter to the grand prince of Moscow, Grand Duke Vasili III Ivanovich, further elaborating upon this idea. In his letter, the monk writes: “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom.” Filofei identified the Third Rome with Muscovy (the country) rather than Moscow the city. The spiritual and political centre of Orthodox Christianity did indeed shift to the Russian Muscovite tsardom after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. An interesting coincidence: All three ‘Romes’: Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow–are situated on seven hills. Putin believes that Russia occupies the moral high ground now in contrast to the decadent West. If Putin views Russia as the Third Rome, then perhaps he sees himself as the divinely-appointed leader of this ‘renewed Third Rome’ as well.
Although 90% of ethnic Russians now identify with the Russian Orthodox Church, fewer than 10% say they attend church with any regularity. And of that 90%, a full 30% admit that they don’t believe in God. (An atheist Orthodox Christian is an oxymoron.) Religion may have made a come back in Russia, but in too many cases–not all, of course–it appears to have more to do with nationalism, patriotism, and support for Putin than with matters of faith.
When three members of the feminist group called Pussy Riot recently performed a song in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow in which they called upon the Virgin Mary to “chase Putin out,” Patriarch Kirill, close friend of Putin, said they should be punished, and Putin saw to it.
Putin sees the Russian Orthodox Church as playing a vital role in restoring Russia to its former glory days. I hate to be cynical, but Putin is not the first Russian leader to recognize the value of the Russian Orthodox Church. When the USSR was invaded by Nazi Germany, Joseph Stalin relaxed the restrictions on the church, seeing in this a way to unit the Russian people to fight the enemy. Putin is a shrewd politician. He gains; the Russian Orthodox Church gains. But, as history has shown, religion and nationalism are a dangerous mix.