On faith: Putin is a Christian…in a way | Perspective


It might surprise many Americans, but Vladimir Putin is a Christian…sort of. Her father was a typical Soviet atheist of his time, but her mother was Russian Orthodox. By all accounts, she had her son baptized in secret and secretly instructed him in that faith, at least to some degree. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Russian Orthodox Church, as its name suggests, is highly nationalistic. Many Eastern European Orthodox churches are strongly nationalistic and are organized under the patriarch/patriarchate system – independent of Rome and largely independent of each other. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the result of the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern Church split from the Western Church, the Catholic Church (“Catholic” simply comes from the Greek word for universal). The Orthodox churches do not have a head like the pope or a unifying governing body like the Vatican. This is actually part of the problem between Ukraine and Russia.

There has long been a lot of tension between Russia and Ukraine, and as of 1990 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was autonomous, while technically still “under” the Moscow Patriarchate. However, from January 2019 it became the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” with complete separation from the Patriarch of Moscow. About 60% of the Ukrainian Orthodox population are members of this Ukrainian Orthodox Church and are no longer members of the Russian Orthodox Church – an affront to Putin and the Moscow Patriarchate.

Many of the various Eastern Orthodox churches have long tended to become staunchly nationalistic and to work hand in hand with their respective state governments. Lucian Leustean wrote a lengthy study titled “Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe” (Fordham Univ. Press, 2014), and the book explains this link in detail.

In addition to this problem in Russia, especially under Putin, there has been a fusion of the power and popularity of the Russian Orthodox Church with the goals of the Russian government. A chilling study was recently published by Dmitry Adamsky entitled “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy” (Stanford University Press, 2019), in which the links between the Russian military and the Russian Orthodox Church are examined at length. It’s troubling.

Putin is not a “quiet, low-key Christian”. He frequently demonstrates his Russian Orthodox faith in public in front of cameras. He wears a gold cross around his neck (under his clothes), which he says was ‘miraculously saved’ from a fire in his home many years ago – claiming the event was one turning points in his life of faith. But his faith is in a supercharged version of Christian nationalism. A fact that is not known to many in the West, Putin even spent money to repair Russian Orthodox churches, a fantastic PR stunt.

Just to be clear here: I’m an equal opportunity critic of Christian nationalism — I don’t care what denomination he settles in or what country he rears his head. It’s always ugly and bad.

The Russian Orthodox Church now regards Moscow (and its Patriarchate) as “the third Rome” – Constantinople was known as the second Rome. Such identification is a double-edged sword: 1) one edge is that Moscow replaced ancient Rome; and 2) the other side is that Moscow sees itself as the head of a great empire, like the two previous Romes. It’s never good when a ruler or government starts thinking of itself as a new Rome – you can be sure that’s always a very bad sign.

Present-day Rome, the original capital of the ancient Roman Empire, is nicknamed the Eternal City, but it is now just the capital of a small country called Italy. Rome surrounds an even smaller country called the Vatican City State, which has a permanent population of less than 500 people who live in a land area of ​​about half a square mile. Not very impressive in terms of geography and demography, but it is its own independent state with Italian and international recognition as such, and it is a member of the United Nations with permanent observer status. This tiny Vatican and its pope oversee the largest Christian denomination on Earth.

Pope Francis recently had a videoconference with Patriarch Cyril who leads the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. The pope once said, “The Church must not use the language of politics, but the language of Jesus…War is never the way.” I’m no papal expert, but I know enough to know that every word Pope Francis said at this meeting was chosen with extreme care, probably well in advance. I believe that in saying this, the pope was making a diplomatic statement about the separation of Church and State and the Church can never tolerate war, period.

The problem, however, is that “the Church” divided East and West a thousand years ago, and the Russian Orthodox Church does not really accept the idea, today, of the separation of the Church and the State. The Russian Orthodox Church is now part of Putin’s empire reconstruction plan. To complicate matters even more, the Russian Church and the Russian government do not support freedom of speech, freedom of religion or democracy – and, according to events in Ukraine, do not even support the directives of the Geneva Convention for combatants engaged in war.

It always amazes and disturbs me to hear people say that we live in a post-Christian or post-religious time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Religion is linked to the horrible situation in Ukraine. The Great Schism of a thousand years ago continues to pit people against people – Christians against Christians. When an invisible wind blows against your back, you don’t always realize how much easier it is to move along a certain path. The forces of religion and religious history, sometimes almost invisible, can have a similar effect.

The sad truth is that Eastern Orthodox Christianity has long chosen to embark on the path of promoting independent patriarchates and fervent nationalism in many different parts of Eastern Europe. In unity there is strength and in disunity there is bound to be discord – this is true in religion and in many other fields. This is one of the reasons why the former Soviet Union shut down and banned these various religious groups. But it is almost impossible to ban religion. Even Russia has given up on doing so.

Not only is Russia no longer banning the Russian Orthodox Church, but Putin’s government is co-opting the Church to reclaim love of country and respect for God-ordained authority – just like Trump did with evangelical churches in the United States. God ordained Ukraine to be part of Russia and he and the Moscow Patriarchate are ordained to be responsible for it.

This is what Ukraine is facing. Christian nationalism is never very pretty. And I maintain that it is never very Christian.

John Nassivera is a former professor who remains affiliated with the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.


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