Putin’s mother may or may not have been a closet Orthodox Christian who had her son secretly baptized. Metropolitan (head of a major diocese) Tikhon, friend of Putin, first trained as a screenwriter, is known for his ultraconservative nationalist theology, his opposition to democracy and support for censorship as well as his promotion of Orthodoxy as the antidote to ‘Western decadence’. The friendship between Putin and Tikhon dates from the late 1990s and developed into a close relationship as their careers blossomed. Tikhon reached the status of Archimandrite (Grand Abbot) in 1998 and became Rector of the restored Stretensky Seminary in Moscow in 1999. Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 2000 in time to oversee the rebuilding of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
I went to Moscow in 1991 to talk to Gorbachev’s religious advisers and to visit a little catholic church and its community in the shadow of the Lubyanka. Two surveillance cameras were trained on the door. The parish priest was a resilient Ukrainian who had spent many years in prison. Catholicism is not Russia’s favourite brand of Christianity.
Gorbachev’s religious advisers wanted to talk about life after communism. They were worried about what would fill the vacuum and hold society together. “Now our communist ethics [sic] have gone what is going to replace it?” Enter Christianity seen by them as the only available solution to providing the glue for Society. I told them things weren’t quite that simple, they would need to accommodate different varieties of Christianity. I wondered privately about the future role of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Thirty years on and Russia is 70% Orthodox with quite a high level of observance. Pentecostals and Plymouth Brethren are given a very hard time and there is little love wasted on the Catholics. Orthodoxy in Russia has largely become a politicised religion.
It is difficult to assess what the Russian Orthodox Church means today for Putin’s life, thinking, imperial ambitions and legitimacy. Until Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent denunciation of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s collusion with the war in Ukraine, Putin’s thinking about religion hardly featured in UK media analysis of his motivations. The question remains unanswered whether Putin is simply using religion as a political tool seeing war as “a mere continuation of policy by other means."
There is nothing exceptional in a Head of State attending a thanksgiving service after their inauguration – in this instance in 2000 - Putin went straight to prayers in the Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin. We do know that Putin makes diplomatic use of his relationship with Orthodoxy. During a visit to George W. Bush in June 2001 Putin drew attention to the baptismal cross his mother allegedly gave him. “This was a very good meeting”, Bush enthused. “And I look forward to my next meeting with President Putin in July. I very much enjoyed our time together. He's an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values. I view him as a remarkable leader”. Trump was not the only President to be enamoured. Putin knew which buttons to press.
Archimandrite Tikhon has on several occasions accompanied Putin on foreign visits and Putin has visited the impressive Russian Orthodox monastery of St. Panteleimon on the Greek peninsula of Athos at least twice. The first time was in 2005 and the last in 2016 when, with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, he joined celebrations of the thousandth anniversary of Orthodox monks establishing themselves on Athos. Recently a friend of mine on pilgrimage to Mount Athos saw about thirty men, in a small taverna in the ferry port of Ouranoupolis all in their late 20’s with shaved heads, eating supper in silence. Next day he watched them disembark in orderly fashion at the first Russian monastery on the peninsula. His immediate thought was that they were Russian soldiers from a military academy.
There is other evidence of militarisation of religion. In June 2020, Defence Minister, Sergei Soigu, opened the main church of the Russian Armed Forces on the outskirts of Moscow. The khaki-coloured Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ was dedicated for the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Its metal floor is made from melted down Nazi ordinance and armour. It has icons of martyrs who fought for Russia, most strikingly that of Fyodor Ushakov, ‘righteous commander of the Black Sea Fleet’.
The Ukrainian capital has religious significance for Russians. In 988 Prince Vladimir was baptized in the Crimea. The conversion. of the Rus people began when he returned to Kyiv. An equally significant date for Putin is 1686 when the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was brought under the Moscow Patriarchate, only to split away in 2019 – supported by the then Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko - when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul granted it ‘autocephaly’. Patriach Kirill’s view of Kyiv as the Jerusalem of Russian Orthodoxy might explain why central Kyiv has not been shelled.
According to the Christian Think-tank, Theos, Putin does believe Grand Prince Vladimir’s ‘spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy’ “predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus”. And Patriarch Kirill sees his role as being “concerned with the maintaining and strengthening of spiritual ties between people living in these countries for the sake of preserving the system of values which the one Orthodox civilization of Holy Russia reveals to the world.” In short, for Putin, the old canonical boundaries of the Russian Orthodox Church provide the template of Russia’s rightful political boundaries, and after the catastrophe of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, justification for the resurrection of ‘the Russian World’ (Russki Mir) to challenge and defeat the ‘secular political project’ of Ukrainian politicians who are backed by a 'degenerate' Western world.
Does Putin really believe his barbarism in Ukraine is a Holy War promoting a glorious expansive, ethnic vision of Holy Mother Russia? Or is he simply instrumentalising religion? If so there are signs it is backfiring. On 13 March 2022, distinguished members of the Russian Orthodox Church signed and circulated A Declaration declaring Russki Mir a heresy. At time of writing, it has 1,280 signatories including theologians and others from different Christian traditions around the world. Some have compared it to the Declaration of Barmen which described the Nazi ‘Christian Movement’ as a heresy.
Perhaps the secular West should consider that some atavistic part of Putin really does believe in this perverse religious vision. The militarisation of Russian Orthodoxy is obvious and worrying. It has policy implications for the West, Ukraine – and the world.