In Russia’s religious rebirth, Putin is a new Pope
What explains Putin’s success? Two years ago, amid plummeting oil prices, a plummeting ruble, a contracting economy, the flight of investors and sanctions over Crimea, pundits were predicting Russia’s, and Putin’s, demise. Yet Putin’s popularity at home has soared — hovering well above 80 per cent according to the Associated Press’s and other reputable polls — despite the hardships caused by rising food prices and falling employment.
Western naysayers who dismiss his popularity as rooted in false values — his control over the press, his bare-chested publicity stunts or chauvinism stirred by his military muscle — misunderstand the great respect and moral authority he commands within Russia and neighbouring countries. Putin stands for everything craved by a country debased and diminished by 75 years of communism: A principled leader who protects his country from Western aggression, Western contempt and Western values. While we in the West see ourselves as paragons of enlightenment, the envy of the people who don’t enjoy Western-style liberal democracy, only one in 20 Russians wants to become more like us. The overwhelming majority hews to Putin’s vision of Russian exceptionalism and puritanism.
Unlike almost every other country in the world, Russians have rising birth rates and growing families; unlike almost every other country in the West, Russians are undergoing a religious Renaissance. Putin, who is baptized, is arguably a greater defender of traditional Christian values than the Pope, who has been tolerant of divorce, abortion, gay marriage and the transformation of what was once an unabashedly Holy Christian Europe into a part-atheistic, part-Muslim continent.
Christianity has loomed large in most of Putin’s foreign policy decisionsPutin, in contrast, has repudiated the once-official atheism of Communist Russia and embraced the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. In diametric opposition to the trend elsewhere in the West, he penalizes divorce, prohibits advertising abortion services, outlaws pornography and campaigns against “homosexual propaganda.” Unlike the West, which has seen the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of churches or their conversion into restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, Putin has reversed Lenin’s legacy by restoring almost 25,000 churches that had been abandoned or destroyed under communism. Putin contrasts a decadent West to a profoundly spiritual and moral Russia. In his State of the Union address three years ago, he expressed disdain for the West’s “so-called tolerance — genderless and infertile.”
Russia’s Christian roots also inform its foreign policy, with the Russian Orthodox Church — allied with Syrian churches — in 2011 asking Putin to protect the Middle East’s Christian minorities. “So it will be,” Putin responded, in what would become a modern-day crusade of sorts. Syrian dictator Bashir Assad not only is a long-standing ally of Russia; he has long been the protector of Syria’s Christian community — 10 per cent of the country’s population — from the country’s Muslim extremists. The alignment of Syria’s Christians with Russia’s Orthodox Church, combined with Russia’s military and geopolitical interests in Syria, made Putin’s decision to back Assad a no-brainer.
Much of Putin’s moral authority at home, in fact, comes from his judgment abroad. Putin had supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (after 9/11, he saw the U.S. as an ally against Muslim terrorism) but he turned against the U.S. when it invaded Iraq, a war he saw as unjustifiable and sure to inflame Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. Among the Iraq war’s many tragic results has been the decimation of virtually the whole of Iraq’s once-vibrant, 1.5-million-strong Christian communities. Putin on similar grounds opposed the West’s overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi and Egypt’s Mubarak — a protector of Egypt’s Christian Copts — and supports Egypt’s new president, Sisi, another protector of Egypt’s Christians.
Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church, in fact, have loomed large in most of Putin’s foreign policy decisions. The West’s attempts to pull Ukraine away from Russia created deep resentment because of the cultural ties between the nations, not least those between their sister Orthodox Churches.
The Crimean Peninsula’s return to Russia was also deeply symbolic, as Putin explained in an address to Russia’s federal assembly: “It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus…. Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state. It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore saw themselves as a united nation … Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”
Putin’s Russia is not the soulless Soviet Union, but a major Western country that takes its religion seriously, and itself seriously, and is united in its appreciation for a leader who embodies both.
Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Toronto-based Probe International. LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com