Few Western foreign policy analysts have taken seriously Vladimir Putin’s radical reorientation of Russia from communism back to Russian Orthodox Christianity.
Putin is perhaps uniquely qualified to discern that his nation’s identity has been for centuries within a spiritual, distinctly Christian narrative and that a violent rending of Russia’s historically religious roots led to utter disaster for the Russian peoples.
Son of a militant atheist and a pious mother, Putin lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of capitalism as defined in Russian terms. Though raised a secularist, he is now a devout Christian in the Russian Orthodox tradition and has devoted himself to the advancement of Christianity and the repudiation of what he sees as Western decadence. While some may be dismissive of Putin’s Christian beliefs, there is no doubt that Christianity informs the way he now chooses to shape his own narrative and the story of his country.
Putin’s religious values are rooted in Russian Orthodoxy and personal religious experiences, including his wife’s car accident in 1993 and a life-threatening house fire in 1996. Just before a diplomatic trip to Israel, his mother gave him a baptismal cross. He said of the occasion, “I … put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.”
By his own testimony, Putin has had the personal conversion experience so often ridiculed by the communist regime in which he was embedded for so many years. He now is putting his recently found faith to work in Russia and abroad.
Perhaps nothing more powerfully symbolizes Putin’s attempt to transition back to Russia’s religious heritage than the recent installation of a huge bronze statue of Vladimir the Great on Borovitskaya Ploshchad, right next to the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Why is St. Vladimir suddenly important enough to warrant a place right in front of the Kremlin, a place where the nemesis of Christianity, Joseph Stalin, once reviewed Soviet might parading in front of him? A place where Molotov, the communist zealot who gave gasoline-filled bottles his name, once posed for photographs with Nikolai Bukharin, author of the Soviet Union’s bible, The ABC of Communism?
The saint is important because he is the equivalent of Vladimir Putin’s patron saint. The Orthodox Christianity he founded now informs Putin’s domestic and foreign policy. The communist narrative that gripped the Soviet Union for a hundred years is being replaced, along with that narrative’s symbols.
Example: Putin, during his annual address to the country’s political elites last December, said Crimea was sacred for Russia due to St. Vladimir’s baptism there. The president said:
The peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralized Russian state. It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus … that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus.
Putin added that St. Vladimir’s baptism means that Crimea has “invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”
While skeptics may sneer about the possibility that a former KGB agent is now a devout Christian whose faith informs policy, some in the global community welcome Putin’s change of heart as authentic, particularly when they see his defense of the faith put into action. It is no secret that the Eastern Orthodox Church has asked him to protect Christians worldwide. Putin evidently has agreed.
While some in the West are looking askance at Russia’s support of Assad’s regime in Syria, seeing only the realpolitik of Russian expansionism, others who are concerned about the eradication of Syria’s ancient Christian community tend to see as legitimate Putin’s concern that the Christian minority in that country will be persecuted if Assad is toppled. The beleaguered Christians in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East doubtless see the very recent Russian bombing of ISIS headquarters as a gift from God, and Putin as their potential deliverer from martyrdom.
Is there more to Putin’s intervention in Syria than the desire to save Christians?
Of course. Even Putin admits that, characterizing his policies as having a heavy dose of “common sense” plus faith. Nor should anyone discount his immersion in the deadly and murky politics of the Kremlin.
But again, Putin’s historic view is long. For him, Moscow is the second seat of Eastern Orthodoxy, the first having been Byzantium under the rule of Emperor Justinian. He will not have forgotten that the Byzantine Empire, which was profoundly informed by Christianity, at one time straddled two continents, Europe and Asia. He will also will not have forgotten that the Syrian Church, marked for extinction by ISIS, has been led by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch – Antioch, the apostle Paul’s home base for his missionary journeys and the first place disciples of Christ were called Christians. In other words, Putin’s view, shaped by Eastern Orthodoxy, is Eurasian, not just Russian. Putin sees a geographic component to Christian Orthodoxy that includes the Middle East.
As a recent article in Foreign Affairs has noted, Putin owes many of his views to a Russian political and religious thinker by the name of Ivan Ilyin:
Ilyin espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Germanely, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin is unconcealed: he has mentioned him in several major speeches and he had his body repatriated and buried at the famous Donskoy monastery with fanfare in 2005; Putin personally paid for a new headstone. Yet despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not many Westerners have noticed.
Putin has explained the central role of the ROC by stating that Russia’s ‘spiritual shield’ – meaning her church-grounded resistance to post-modernism – is as important to her security as her nuclear shield.”
An opponent of both Soviet communism and Western democracy, Ilyin envisioned a ‘special’ path for Russia, based on the promotion of the Orthodox Church and traditional values that would bring about a spiritual renewal of the Russian people, who at the moment he believed were under the influence of Western political and social constructs.
Putin, likewise, has spoken of the need for religious revival and the valuable role that the Orthodox Church plays. Says Putin: ‘The Russian Orthodox Church plays an enormous formative role in preserving our rich historical and cultural heritage and in reviving eternal moral values. It works tirelessly to bring unity, to strengthen family ties, and to educate the younger generation in the spirit of patriotism.’
Has anyone yet heard Barak Obama speak in similar terms about the Christian church in America? Has anyone noted him speaking about “preserving our rich historical and cultural heritage and reviving eternal moral values?” To ask the questions is to answer them.
Further, is it any wonder that Putinism finds consonance among America’s Christian conservatives? His speeches, largely ignored by the anti-religious Western elite, who consider matters of faith as irrelevant or who openly despise the devout, have included the following points, many of which resonate with Christians in Europe as well:
Euro-Atlantic (the West) states have rejected their own roots, including the Christian roots which form the basis of Western civilization. In these countries, the moral basis and any traditional identity are being denied—national, religious, cultural and even gender identities are being denied or relativized.
The excesses and exaggerations of political correctness in these countries leads to serious consideration for the legitimization of parties that promote even the propaganda of pedophilia.
People in many European states are actually ashamed of their religious affiliation and are indeed frightened to speak about them. Meanwhile, Christian holidays and celebrations are abolished or “neutrally” renamed as if one were ashamed of those Christian holidays. With this method one hides away the deeper moral nature of those celebrations.
Without the moral values that are rooted in Christianity and other world religions, without the rules and moral values which have been formed and developed over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity and become brutes. We think it is right and natural to defend and preserve these moral Christian values.
We must protect Russia from that which has destroyed American society.
How matters have changed since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s! How ironic is it that Russia, once so invested in tearing down Christianity and replacing it on every level with Marxism, is now under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, who sees himself as a Christian savior of Western civilization?
In the meantime, the United States, once the defender of the Christian West, is under the current administration busily tearing down Christianity while uplifting a progressivism heavily influenced by Marxism with a large dose of the sexual revolution.
What a reversal! It boggles the mind. It certainly reinforces the idea that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.
Putin has found from personal experience and from observation of his and other countries’ experiences with variants of Marxism that the pitifully weak and reductionist ideology finds virtually no consonance among his or the world’s peoples, who overwhelmingly comprise people of faith. These peoples resist the current version of Marxist ideology found in radical progressivism, a “progressivism” that has elevated sexual deviancies, destroyed families, reduced the meaning of the human being to that of genderless robots, and elevated multiculturalism as a quasi-religion, a “religion” that holds no values whatever.
Putin has publicly professed his faith in Christ and is reorienting Russia to its Christian roots. He is defending Christians. In contrast, Obama has stated that “We [America] are no longer a Christian nation” and openly attacks Christianity and its values at every turn.
Indeed, Vladimir Putin represents everything Obama and his elite cadre of fellow progressives hate. As John Schindler writes:
Simply put, Vladimir Putin is the stuff of Western progressive nightmares because he’s what they thought they’d gotten past. He’s a traditional male with “outmoded” views on, well, everything: gender relations, race, sexual identity, faith, the use of violence, the whole retrograde package. Putin at some level is the Old White Guy that post-moderns fear and loathe, except this one happens to control the largest country on earth plus several thousand nuclear weapons – and he hates us.
Putin and Obama are on opposite sides of a great ideological chasm. It isn’t too extreme to think Christians in America may properly conclude they would like to see and hear more of what Putin believes from our leaders and less of what President Obama and his elite circle of radical progressives believe and enforce at every turn.