Putin finds an ally in Rus­sia’s resur­gent Ortho­dox Church

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MARC BEN­NETTS

MOSCOW | How times have changed in Rus­sia.

Ear­lier this year, on the 145th an­niver­sary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, the head of the present-day Com­mu­nist Party com­pared the founder of the of­fi­cially athe­ist Soviet Union to Je­sus Christ.

Speak­ing at a cer­e­mony on Red Square, where Lenin’s em­balmed body re­mains on pub­lic dis­play, Gen­nady Zyuganov said both Lenin and Je­sus Christ had preached a mes­sage of “love, friend­ship and broth­er­hood.” Mr. Zyuganov also de­clared that the Soviet Union had been an at­tempt to cre­ate “God’s king­dom on Earth.”

Mr. Zyuganov’s con­tro­ver­sial state­ment was the cul­mi­na­tion of a dra­matic up­turn in for­tunes for the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church, which has seen its re­li­gious re­vival in the post-Soviet era matched by a grow­ing, be­hind-the-scenes po­lit­i­cal clout, most re­cently by — lit­er­ally — giv­ing its bless­ing to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s de­ci­sion to es­ca­late the coun­try’s mil­i­tary mis­sion in Syria.

Un­der the Soviet au­thor­i­ties, at least 200,000 mem­bers of the clergy were mur­dered, ac­cord­ing to a 1995 Krem­lin com­mit­tee re­port, while mil­lions of other Chris­tians were per­se­cuted.

“The more rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the re­ac­tionary clergy we shoot, the bet­ter,” Lenin once said. Al­though Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin per­mit­ted a care­fully con­trolled re­vival of the Ortho­dox Church to boost morale dur­ing World War II, an­tire­li­gion pro­pa­ganda was com­mon un­til the mid-1980s.

To­day, with some 70 per­cent of Rus­sians iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as Ortho­dox Chris­tians, no se­ri­ous politi­cian can af­ford to be seen as lack­ing in be­lief. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, a for­mer KGB agent, fre­quently at­tends re­li­gious ser­vices at the re­con­structed Christ the Sav­ior Cathe­dral in cen­tral Moscow — the orig­i­nal was de­stroyed by Stalin in 1931. Mr. Putin also seeks to de­pict him­self as a de­fender of “tra­di­tional val­ues,” and ac­cuses the West of aban­don­ing its Chris­tian roots on is­sues such as gay mar­riage.

The Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church has been happy to en­ter into an al­liance with the Krem­lin.

In 2012 the pow­er­ful head of the Ortho­dox Church, Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill, pub­licly en­dorsed Mr. Putin for a con­tro­ver­sial third term, and de­scribed the ex-KGB of­fi­cer’s rule as a “mir­a­cle of God.” His state­ment came shortly af­ter Mr. Putin had granted the pa­tri­arch res­i­dence at the Krem­lin and in the wake of a num­ber of lu­cra­tive real es­tate rul­ings in fa­vor of the church.

Al­though the Rus­sian Con­sti­tu­tion stip­u­lates the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, se­nior church of­fi­cials openly speak of their de­sire for an even closer re­la­tion­ship with the Krem­lin. Arch­priest Vsevolod Chap­lin, a prom­i­nent church spokesman, has fre­quently called for a “har­mo­nious” co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the church and the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties.

Signs of the mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties and the Ortho­dox Church are every­where. Priests reg­u­larly sprin­kle Rus­sian space rock­ets with holy wa­ter ahead of liftoff, while the Ortho­dox Church has even held a re­li­gious ser­vice in honor of the na­tion’s stock­pile of nu­clear weapons. In a de­vel­op­ment that would have made the heads of Soviet space pi­o­neers spin, Rus­sian cos­mo­nauts on board the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion are fre­quently pho­tographed wear­ing re­li­gious icons.

Sup­port for Syria

So when the Krem­lin or­dered airstrikes in Syria in late Septem­ber, the church was quick to lend its sup­port. Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill blessed the use of the Rus­sian armed forces to “pro­tect the Syr­ian peo­ple,” while Rev. Chap­lin, the church spokesman, called the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion part of a “holy bat­tle” against ter­ror­ism.

“The fight against ter­ror­ism is a moral strug­gle, if you like, a holy strug­gle, and our coun­try to­day is prob­a­bly the most ac­tive in the world that re­sists terror,” Rev. Chap­lin said re­cently.

“This state­ment … demon­strates the com­plete and fi­nal merger of the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church and the state,” said Valery Os­tavnykh, a the­olo­gian and Krem­lin critic.

Last month it was the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties’ turn to re­turn the fa­vor, when the In­ves­tiga­tive Com­mit­tee, an FBI-style law en­force­ment agency that an­swers only to Mr. Putin, or­dered the ex­huma­tion of the re­mains of Czar Alexan­der III. The Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church said the move was nec­es­sary to con­firm the iden­tity of two of his royal grand­chil­dren, who were mur­dered along­side their fa­ther, Czar Ni­cholas II, in 1918. Czar Ni­cholas II was can­on­ized by the resur­gent church in 2000.

The de­ci­sion to ex­hume the re­mains of Czar Alexan­der III went against the ad­vice of re­spected his­to­ri­ans, who said there were no grounds to doubt the iden­ti­ties of the grand­chil­dren, Maria and Alexei. But in­ves­ti­ga­tors made no se­cret about the rea­son for the con­tro­ver­sial move.

“At the ini­tia­tive of his ho­li­ness the Pa­tri­arch, a de­ci­sion has been made to open the tomb of Em­peror Alexan­der III,” said se­nior in­ves­ti­ga­tor Vladimir Solovyov. “The In­ves­tiga­tive Com­mit­tee is al­ways ready to help the church.”

Rus­sian in­ves­ti­ga­tors say new DNA tests con­ducted at the re­quest of the Ortho­dox Church con­firm that the ex­humed re­mains of Rus­sia’s last czar, Ni­cholas II, and his wife, are gen­uine.

The Nov. 11 state­ment by foren­sic ex­perts from Rus­sia’s In­ves­tiga­tive Com­mit­tee creates a greater pos­si­bil­ity that all seven mem­bers of the Romanov czar’s fam­ily — who were ex­e­cuted by the Bol­she­viks in Yeka­ter­in­burg in 1918 — can be buried to­gether.

The Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church has also pitched in to sup­port Mr. Putin’s grad­ual re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Stalin’s rep­u­ta­tion. In hotly de­bated com­ments ear­lier this month, Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill praised what he called the “un­doubted suc­cesses” in in­dus­try and the mil­i­tary sphere dur­ing Stalin’s rule. He made no direct men­tion of the gu­lags or the mil­lions mur­dered by the Soviet au­thor­i­ties.

“Yes, Pon­tius Pi­late also had un­doubted suc­cesses,” re­sponded An­drei Ku­rayev, a con­tro­ver­sial dea­con who is of­ten at odds with church lead­er­ship. “Plumb­ing was in­stalled in Jerusalem [un­der his rule].”

Oth­ers warn, how­ever, against an overex­ag­ger­a­tion of Rus­sia’s re­li­gious re­vival since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union. Al­though vast num­bers of Rus­sians claim to be Ortho­dox be­liev­ers, only a tiny pro­por­tion ac­tu­ally at­tend church ser­vices. One pub­lic opin­ion sur­vey by the in­de­pen­dent Moscow-based Le­vada Cen­ter sug­gested that around 30 per­cent of “Ortho­dox Chris­tians” do not be­lieve in God.

“As far as faith is con­cerned, there are pre­cious few in Rus­sia who at­tend ser­vices, fast dur­ing Lent or draw on priests for moral author­ity,” said Maria Lip­man, a Moscow-based an­a­lyst at the Euro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

“The Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church it­self is much more a pil­lar of the Rus­sian state­hood and a loyal part­ner of the state than a source of moral author­ity [and] spir­i­tual com­fort. For many, be­ing an Ortho­dox Chris­tian sim­ply means be­ing Rus­sian.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Amid a for­merly strongly athe­is­tic so­ci­ety, Rus­sia’s Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has lately been cozy­ing up to the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church.

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