Putin’s piety: public, personal, political

By Brian Cooper

If, as expected, Vladimir Putin wins Russia’s presidential election on Sunday 18 March, after the formal inauguration he will – if precedent is followed – receive a special Orthodox blessing from Patriarch Kirill.

Epiphany this year saw him among thousands of devout Orthodox at a festive liturgy in Moscow’s huge Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the skyline-dominating symbol of Christian resurgence in post-Soviet Russia.

He also joined hardy faithful in the age-old epiphanic custom of crossing himself three times while standing half-naked in icy water – Russian muscular Christianity! On Easter Sunday he will doubtless join Patriarch Kirill at overnight festivity in a thronged cathedral – and throughout the year mark Orthodox saints’ days at holy shrines.

Are such displays of faith for political image-making? Such public association with the Orthodox Church certainly helps Putin sustain his popularity among believers and tradition-oriented Russians. Yet evidence suggests this piety is no mere formality, but rooted in genuine faith.

Although publicly declaring his Orthodox faith early in his presidencies, private adherence came much earlier. When born in 1952 Leningrad, his devout mother arranged his secret baptism at its Transfiguration Cathedral. Years later his baptismal cross – blessed at Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Church on his first Israel visit – was the sole object to survive when fire destroyed his dacha – an event he and Orthodox friends deemed ‘miraculous’.

He seemingly never embraced Communist atheism: as a KGB officer, he astonished Marxist colleagues by wearing a cross, saying he “neither hid nor flaunted his faith”. During the Beslan school terrorist crisis, his Kremlin prayers were on nightly TV.

Influenced by Orthodox thinkers Nicholas Berdyaev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he has authorised ‘national homage’ to the latter for this birth centenary year. On an official visit to Greece,he made retreat at Mount Athos.

At a populist level, Putin’s ‘macho image’ rides with tough Night Wolves bikers identified him with their Orthodox ultra-patriotism.

More than any ruler since the Tsars, Putin is deeply conscious of Orthodoxy’s key role in Russia’s centuries-long saga – and publicly invokes it. He cites saints Sergius of Radonezh and Seraphim of Sarov alongside heroic ‘prince saints’ Vladimir of Kiev Rus and Alexander Nevsky as inspirations for the ‘Great Patriotic War’ [World War Two] victory.

Dedicating the Moscow statue of Vladimir with Patriarch Kirill, he invoked the ‘spiritual covenant’ binding today’s Russians with previous generations. In 2013 he declared: “At all the most critical moments in our history, our people look to their roots, moral foundations and religious values.” He views this early post-Soviet era as such a moment.

It is little understood in the West that, unlike Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Putin saw USSR’s collapse as both a huge geo-political crisis – and one of existential meaning for millions of Russian ex-Soviet citizens. Twenty-seven million of their forbears had died to save the Soviet Motherland, but almost overnight it had vanished, along with moribund Marxist-Leninism.

Fully acknowledging its dark side, Putin yet saw vast ideological emptiness needing to be filled – doubly so since Yeltsin’s economic chaos had wrought disillusion with Western democracy and free markets. Echoing Berdyaev’s prophecy Russia’s future demanded ‘religious renaissance’ and ‘spiritual struggle’, for over a decade Putin has prioritised “the rebirth of the moral and ethical foundations of our culture, at the base of which, of course, lie Christian values.”

Putin’s new national narrative – Orthodox identity, patriotism with Great Patriotic War inspiration, cultural intellectualism, advancing positive Soviet endeavours [especially in space] and social conservatism – closely aligns with Orthodox Church commitment for post-Soviet ‘re-Christianisation’ and ‘moral regeneration’.

In Russia today, Church and state are much closer than in most major countries: Putin and the country’s local authorities have directed huge sums towards reopening many thousands of churches ruined under Communism.

Orthodoxy now has 30,000 churches, over 700 monasteries, and many educational and social foundations across Russia.

This epic revival, morally expressed in firm adherence to ‘family values’ and rejection of ‘Western decadence’, is at the heart of Putin’s[and the Patriarch’s] hopes for a 21st-century ‘Holy Russia’.

Brian Cooper