Communist Paper Questions Putin's Orthodoxy

by Konstantin Dushenov,
Sovetskaia Rossiia, 4 January 2002

In the recent past several of the news media, some of the habitues of Orthodox political gatherings of the capital, and even persons who wear clerical garb have exerted literally titanic efforts in order to create in our imagination the image of "Orthodox President" Putin. There would be nothing extraordinary about this; in recent years all politicians, recalling the high moral authority of the church, have tried in one way or another to demonstrate their affiliation with it even if not essentially so.

This time the propaganda campaign of the "Putinites" is directed not just at the so called ordinary voter. This "ordinary voter" does not pay attention to religious and political niceties and to have the necessary effect on him it is simply enough to show several times a staged portrayal of Putin talking with the patriarch or standing in a church with a lighted candle. Today the chief efforts of the presidential propagandists are aimed at creating a recognition of the "Orthodoxy" of Putin specifically among the churched portion of the population, the Orthodox public in the full sense of this word.

Why is this necessary to them? After all there are not very many of us! We do not occupy highly placed power positions nor influential bureaucratic responsibilities nor profitable commercial heights. We rarely turn out for elections which means that we have little effect on voting results. Nevertheless the heat of the "Orthodox Putin" image is constantly being increased. Last year its height was reached in the chorus of publications in a whole series of central and local news media of an article by the father superior of Moscow's Presentation monastery, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, under the striking title "Putin and his family are Christians; that's the main thing."

The article was published on 8 December 2001 by the leading liberal democratic newspaper of the country, Izvestiia, which usually is not at all inclined toward spreading Christian views in public. Strictly speaking, this was not even an article but a reprint of an interview which Archimandrite Tikhon gave to the Athens newspaper "Khora" in preparation for Putin's visit to Greece which happened on 7-9 December.

The contents of this rather wide ranging article can be reduced to several main theses.

First, from the article it emerges that Fr Tikhon is President Putin's official spiritual advisor. This is not just that he is a personal acquaintance with whom Putin likes to talk occasionally "about a religious matter," but a genuine, full-fledged confessor in the strict Orthodox sense of the word. This is what Izvestiia presents him as to the readers in the editorial preface; and indeed the archimandrite himself responded to the reporter's question "Is the confession of an ordinary person different from that of the president?" by saying: "The prayerful responsibility of a priest for every human soul is great," clearly giving one to understand that it is he who bears this heavy burden of responsibility for the soul of the current master of the Kremlin.

Second, Shevkunov tries to persuade the reader that Putin is a genuine Orthodox Christians and a full-fledged member of the Russian Orthodox church, and not just a "candleholder" from among the unprincipled governmental officials and sly politicians who go to church once a year on Pascha in order to stand for thirty minutes with a lighted candle before the gaze of the TV cameras. "Putin is a truly Orthodox Christian," the archimandrite affirms. "And not just a nominal one but a person who makes his confession and communion and is conscious of his responsibility before God for the high service entrusted to him and for his own immortal soul."

True, it remains not entirely clear how such a zealous Christian could publicly repudiate Christ. Meanwhile a fact remains a fact: in September 2000, during his visit to USA, Putin gave a TV interview to the worldwide television company CNN. The host of the program, Larry King, asked him literally the following:  "There is a lot of talk about your religious views. I have been told that you wear a cross. Have you been baptized? Are you a believer? What are your views on religion?"

And here is what our "Orthodox president" answered to this:  "I believe in man. I believe in his good intentions. I believe that we all have been placed here to do good. And the main thing is to achieve this and to achieve comfort." In principle, for a bureaucrat who was educated during the epoch of "developed socialism," such an answer is not at all unusual. If Grandpa Yeltsin had said this, nobody would be surprised; after all, he showed up for Pascha and had the sense to greet "dear Russians" on Christmas.

But on the lips of a man who aspires to be Orthodox, what he said was simply amazing. This is not only not an Orthodox confession, it is not even a Christian confession at all. To speak about comfort in response to a question about faith can only be done by a person who is immeasurably distant from the Russian religious tradition.

Third, Archimandrite Tikhon paints for us not simply the image of Putin the Christian but the image of an Orthodox ruler who extends his personal religious conviction to his public service as a kind of Kremlin patron for the native church.  "As a part of the church body, the president cannot but feel the problems that disturb all Orthodox people," Shevkunov affirms, and he gives what from his point of view is a pertinent example. "In our country, as in Greece also, there exists a schism that it grievous to us. In our case it is with the Russian foreign church. When he recently was in America, Vladimir Vladimirovich met with a representative of the synod of the foreign church, Bishop Gavriil, and invited him and the primate of the foreign church, Metropolitan Laurus, to Moscow. May God grant that this wound will be finally healed by our joint efforts."

This modest image of Putin as "father of the nation," as the general unifier and reconciler, began to circulate in the liberal news media a short time before. On 26 November 2001 this same Izvestiia published an expansive interview with Bishop Gavriil, who commented that the efforts of the president to unify the church were "unprecedented." Other newspapers also wrote no less enthusiastically about the "forty-minute conversation" that occurred during a special meeting of Putin with Bishop Gavriil.

It is necessary to say that they were striving for glory. Before the eyes of the reader there arises involuntarily the picture of a thoughtful and thorough exchange of opinions between the president and the church hierarch, during the course of which they discussed the most vitally disturbing problems of Russian Orthodoxy and mapped out ways for their spiritual and organizational solution.

However Bishop Gavriil himself describes what happened quite differently. "The widely disseminated report about my meeting with Russian President V.V. Putin does not accurately describe what happened," he writes in a special statement of 17 November 2001. "The first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, Most Reverend Metropolitan Laurus, received an invitation to a reception held by Russian President V.V. Putin at the Russian embassy in Washington on the occasion of the president's visit to USA. Metropolitan Laurus, for reasons not of his doing, could not go to the reception and he sent me as his representative.

"At the reception, where there were approximately 250 persons, the Russian president gave a speech which lasted about twenty minutes.  After this about forty guests were conducted into a separate room where we could be introduced directly to the president. I was among these guests. When my turn came, after mutual greetings, the Russian president asked me to convey his congratulations and greetings to the newly elected first hierarch, Metropolitan Laurus. I promised to do that and, in my turn, I invited the Russian president to visit our parishes in America and especially the Holy Trinity monastery in Jordanville. The president thanks me for the invitation and in turn invited me to come to Moscow for a visit.

"At this, the meeting with the president, which lasted not forty minutes as said in several reports but perhaps forty seconds, came to an end."

In translation from the language of diplomacy into the Russian language, this means that the first hierarch of ROCOR simply refused to meet with Putin and Bishop Gavrill whom he sent in his place restricted himself to the minimal conversation that elementary human courtesy requires. If one keeps in mind this obvious fact, then the image of the "unifying president" drawn by Tikhon and his cohorts fades substantially.

Finally, fourth, the archimandrite draws from what is said the completely logical conclusion that might be stated thus:  Putin is the Peter I of today. As if he, "our Russian Orthodox president," is taking upon himself in the conditions of the twenty-first century the sacral, mystical service of the "restrainer" of world evil which in ancient times was the proper task of the Russian emperor, God's annointed, alone. "In 1917 the thousand-year-old succession of rulers of the country who were Orthodox Christians was interrupted," Fr Tikhon says. "In this sense now the connection of the ages has been restored in the person of the current president."

The outright blasphemy of such flattery is evident to every Orthodox person. One can have different views of the autocratic form of rule, but even for an opponent of the monarchy it should be clear that the summit and magnitude of tsarist service, which was sealed by the sacrament of ecclesiastical anointing and crowned with the public profession of the Orthodox creed, is not the same as the pathetic "charisma" of the president elected by the duped masses at the so-called national election.

However, the presidential image makers can dupe the "dear Russians" as they wish.There's no point in exposing their insincerity. In the final analysis in imposing on the mass consciousness the monumental form of the "father president" they are simply earning their huge salary. But the recognition of Putin as Orthodox on the part of the church itself would mean the spiritual death of Russia because then after him everybody would be able to call himself "Orthodox" to serve their personal or political goals.

In such a case the borders of the church would be washed away and its sacramental treasures would be trampled and desecrated and thrown to the destructive behavior of the masses. And the recognition of Putin as the legal successor of the centuries-old sovereign service of the Russian "gatherers of the lands" and the heir of the special grace of the Russian autocratic anointed ones would be more fatal for the work of the Russian regeneration.

Of course, it is possible to deceive people. But God is not mocked. And thus any attempts by politicians "to play" at Orthodoxy and to use the church for their selfish ends are doomed. God is no respecter of persons. Before the face of the Almighty, the president and the bum, the banker and janitor, the marshal and private are equal. Indeed, the church was left on earth by the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of all, but it does not embrace everybody. It sets up its immutable conditions and a person, even if he is president of Russia,  who does not fulfil them is not received by the church into its gracious midst but remains outside in the perishing world no matter what he says nor how his ideologues, image makers, and advisors try to persuade everybody to the contrary.

At the same time, however, there remains the question: what goals are being pursued by those who are trying to make of Putin an "Orthodox president"?

It seems there are several main goals. For example, with the help of such a maneuver the rapacious new Russian "elite," who are immeasurably distant from their own people, could get used to the idea that the current "market Orthodoxy" is not horrible but is even useful. After all, look--Putin's become Orthodox, and it's all right. They have not stopped receiving him in either America or the European capitals. Even the Jews love him as before. Church hierarchs and representatives of the "patriotic public" are finally satisfied; the long-sought "unity of people and regime" has been achieved through their emotional unity in the bosom of the ancient Russian religious tradition.

In their turn, believers can be accustomed to the idea that a kind of special, "watered-down" version of Orthodoxy is permitted their "rulers," which does not require them to observe the canons and rules of church discipline (such as fasts, for example) nor a public confession of their faith nor a confirmation of their faith by deeds. Moreover, even public renunciation of Christ for the sake of "higher political purposes" is recognized as permissible.

Of course such a version is convenient for the rulers; without too much difficulty it is possible to appeal to the enormous, centuries-old moral authority of the holy church. But for Russia as a whole, for the church, and for the people this is simply fatal because it undermines the deepest confessional and ascetic bases of Russian national self-awareness and the church's doctrine of salvation.

This blasphemous "reduction" or, simply speaking, fatal distortion of our holy faith is convenient only to those dark forces that have labored for many centuries to make Christianity impotent and to turn it from a strict religion of intense spiritual struggle and sacrificial self-discipline into a kind of rosy cocktail for the masonic fashionable salons of the contemporary world at war with God.

Will they really be able to deceive us again? God forbid. Lord, hear, save, and have mercy upon us. (tr. by PDS, posted 7 January 2002)

No comments: