Putin, the Pope, and the Pa­tri­arch

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s years as a KGB of­fi­cer taught him how to take ad­van­tage of oth­ers. In Steven Lee My­ers’ ex­cel­lent new bi­og­ra­phy, The New Tsar, the for­mer New York Times Moscow bureau chief de­scribes how, when Putin was posted in East Ger­many in the wan­ing years of com­mu­nism, he used his op­po­nent’s weak­nesses to ad­vance the Soviet cause.

The his­toric meet­ing be­tween Pope Fran­cis and Rus­sian Ortho­dox Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill in Cuba is an­other oc­ca­sion that Putin will seek to turn to his ad­van­tage. The meet­ing is the first be­tween a Ro­man Pon­tiff and a Rus­sian Pa­tri­arch since Chris­tian­ity’s Great Schism in 1054, when the­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences split the faith into its Western and East­ern branches. Since then, the Ortho­dox Church (in Rus­sian, Pravoslavie, lit­er­ally the “right wor­ship”) has been con­sid­ered the only cor­rect form of Chris­tian­ity in Rus­sia, with other de­nom­i­na­tions dis­missed for their sup­port of in­di­vid­u­al­ism and in­suf­fi­cient rev­er­ence of the hu­man soul.

For nearly a mil­len­nium, the an­i­mos­ity has seemed in­sur­mount­able. In mod­ern times, it took the threat of nu­clear war to spark ef­forts to mend ties be­tween East and West – and even then the rap­proche­ment was spear­headed pri­mar­ily by Rus­sia’s sec­u­lar au­thor­i­ties. In 1963, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, a de­vout athe­ist, sent his son-in-law and ad­viser Alexei Adzhubei for a his­toric au­di­ence with then-Pope John XXIII.

But the real break­through came in 1989, when Soviet Premier Mikhail Gor­bachev met with Pope John Paul II, a Pol­ish priest who had spent the past decade fram­ing his pa­pacy as part of the op­po­si­tion to the Soviet’s athe­is­tic to­tal­i­tar­ian rule. Af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union, re­la­tions con­tin­ued to warm, as Boris Yeltsin, the first Pres­i­dent of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion, vis­ited the Vat­i­can in 1991 and 1998. Ob­jec­tions from the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church, how­ever, pre­vented the pope from ac­cept­ing in­vi­ta­tions to visit Moscow.

Re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia and the Holy See took on new sig­nif­i­cance af­ter Putin be­came Pres­i­dent. Un­like the of­fi­cially athe­ist Sovi­ets, Putin works closely with the Ortho­dox Church, cham­pi­oning con­ser­va­tive so­cial val­ues at home and seek­ing to ex­pand Rus­sian in­flu­ence abroad.

In 2007, the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church re­united with a break­away branch, the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church Out­side Rus­sia, which had split off in protest against close ties with the Bol­she­viks. “The re­vival of church unity is a cru­cial con­di­tion for re­vival of lost unity of the whole ‘Rus­sian world,’ which has al­ways had the Ortho­dox faith as one of its foun­da­tions,” Putin said at a cer­e­mony mark­ing the oc­ca­sion.

The Cuban meet­ing pro­vides Putin with an op­por­tu­nity to be­come the Rus­sian leader who over­saw the start of a di­a­logue be­tween the Catholic and Ortho­dox churches. The i mpor­tance he places on this event is re­flected in its very im­prob­a­bil­ity. Af­ter all, Putin and Kir­ill have presided over ris­ing anti-Western an­i­mos­ity and turned the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church to­ward con­ser­vatism, na­tion­al­ism, and in­tol­er­ance. The Pa­tri­arch (ru­moured to have served in the KGB him­self) has called the war in Syria “a holy strug­gle,” adding that, “to­day our coun­try is per­haps the most ac­tive force in the world to com­bat [it].” In con­trast, Fran­cis is not only clearly pro­gres­sive, re­fus­ing even to speak ill of ho­mo­sex­u­als; he has re­peat­edly called for a peace­ful so­lu­tion in Syria.

In al­low­ing the meet­ing to take place – and there can be no doubt that Putin had given it his bless­ing – Rus­sia’s pres­i­dent is seek­ing religious val­i­da­tion and political pop­u­lar­ity. The meet­ing also al­lows him to nee­dle the West, which he re­sents for im­pos­ing sanc­tions on Rus­sia over the con­flict in Ukraine and for crit­i­cis­ing his in­ter­ven­tion in Syria.

Hold­ing the meet­ing in Cuba is a clever cal­cu­la­tion. Given the sanc­tions on Rus­sia, Europe was out of bounds. But Cuba, where the Soviet Union pro­vided es­sen­tial fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance in ex­change for Fidel Cas­tro’s slav­ish loy­alty, of­fers a pow­er­ful re­minder of Rus­sia’s claim to global rel­e­vance.

The is­land’s lead­ers never de­nounced Chris­tian­ity as fully as the Sovi­ets did, and over the last 20 years it has been the site of three pa­pal vis­its: John Paul II in 1998, Bene­dict XVI in 2012, and Fran­cis in 2015. Raúl Cas­tro, Fidel’s brother and suc­ces­sor, had al­ready in­vited the Pa­tri­arch to visit, to see first-hand that Com­mu­nism and Chris­tian­ity are com­pat­i­ble.

For Putin, the meet­ing could not come at a bet­ter time. Plung­ing oil prices, the dra­matic de­cline in the value of the rou­ble, on­go­ing sanc­tions, and the in­creas­ingly bloody im­ages com­ing out of Syria have left him des­per­ate for pos­i­tive news. And what bet­ter photo op­por­tu­nity than hav­ing the Vicar of Christ stand­ing side by side with your close spir­i­tual and political ally?

Heal­ing one of Chris­tian­ity’s old­est divi­sions is a noble goal. But when Fran­cis met Putin’s Pa­tri­arch, he would have been wise to re­mem­ber the old English dic­tum: “He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.”

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