Why Does the Russian Orthodox Church Support Vladimir Putin?
The question for this post came from students in my world history class at Westmont College. They also helped me edit an early draft. I am thankful for all their help.
One of the best known things about Vladimir Putin is his chest. In 2009, the Russian press published photos of their country’s leader riding a horse in Siberia with no shirt on. The pictures weren’t likely to make the cover of a men’s fitness magazine, but they weren’t bad for a man in his fifties. More shirtless images have followed—Putin wading in a river, Putin hunting, Putin spearfishing. They tell the world not to mess with Russia’s macho leader.
In all the photos, Putin is wearing a silver cross around his neck. It was a gift from his mother, who had young Vladimir baptized secretly in the Orthodox Church. That was back when Russia was Communist, and public displays of religion were risky. Today, however, Russian television regularly shows Putin in church. You can even watch a video of him submerging himself in an icy lake to celebrate the Russian Orthodox festival of Epiphany, his cross clearly visible.
There’s nothing new about politicians flaunting their religion. It suggests that they have integrity, and maybe even divine support. It may come as a surprise, however, to learn that Putin’s love for the church has been reciprocated. Orthodox priests have held ceremonies to bless Putin, and the church’s senior leader has called him “a miracle of God.”
Why does the Russian Orthodox Church support Putin? After all, he hardly has the cleanest reputation after Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
You have to go back more than a thousand years to get the answer. The answer has several parts. Think of it like a set of Russian nesting dolls, where each doll opens to reveal another of smaller size. Putin embracing a priest is the image on the smallest doll, but that figure is shaped by the contours of all the larger dolls that went before. To get the full story, you need to unpack six dolls.
The first, biggest doll bears the face of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. He controlled the lands around Kiev (the capital of modern Ukraine) in the 900’s and is usually considered Russia’s first ruler. In 988, Vladimir made the most important decision in Russian history: he adopted Eastern Orthodoxy as Russia’s official religion. (For a quick introduction to Orthodoxy, look here.)
In choosing Orthodoxy, Vladimir set Russia on a different course from the rest of Europe, which was Catholic. The Renaissance and Reformation, which invigorated Catholic Europe, passed Russia by. For centuries now, Russia has felt different from Germany, Poland, or France.
The second doll is the new kingdom that emerged in the 1500’s, as Russia finally banished the Mongols who had ruled them for 200 years. Political and religious leaders started to call the country Holy Russia. They claimed that God favoured their land and that he would bless the rest of the world through them. This idea has never gone away. In the 1800’s, the author Dostoevsky claimed that it was the destiny of Russia “to revive and save the world.”
Next comes Tsar Peter the Great, whose face is on the third doll. He ruled Russia at the start of the 1700’s and shaped our story in two crucial ways. First, he tried to turn Russia into a modern, European state. He required his noblemen to cut off their beards, learn French, and live in palaces designed by Italian architects. Not everyone was enthusiastic, and ever since Russia has struggled to decide whether it is a European power or something different. Second, the Orthodox church lost its independence. Peter made it a branch of government. He didn’t tell people what to believe but from now on the tsars controlled the church and its money. Peter required priests to report treasonous words, even if they heard them in the supposedly secret confessional.
You may recognize the faces on the fourth doll. Like Dostoevsky, they believed that Russia would save humanity, but their faith had no place for Christianity. The date is 1917, the two men are Lenin and Stalin, and our story has arrived at the revolution that made Russia the world’s first Communist state. The plan was that there would be no more chapters in the story of Christian Russia—the Communists of the Soviet Union executed Orthodox priests and closed 99% of the country’s churches. However, many people held on to their faith and passed it on to their children—Putin’s family was just one example.
Painted on doll number five is 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s hard to overstate how traumatic that event was for the people of Russia. Whether they had criticized Communism or supported it, they could take pride in being citizens of one of the world’s strongest countries. After 1991, Russia tumbled into the second tier. Millions faced unemployment as Russia’s aging factories lost out to the international competition that freedom brought. Grandmothers lined the streets to sell whatever they could, after inflation had made their pensions worthless. The only people doing well were crooks and former Communist officials who had made good by fair means and foul when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Russia had lost its way.
The sixth and final doll is the one that depicts Putin and the Orthodox priest. It may be smaller than the others but it has a weight to it that you have to respect. Together, Putin and the Orthodox church have restored dignity and hope to millions in Russia.
It started with the economy. Putin’s government extracted and exported more oil and gas, which brought in billions and ensured that people received their salaries and pensions. But that didn’t provide a purpose for Russia—something that every successful country needs. That was where Orthodoxy came in.
Putin had been an officer in the Soviet secret service. Stung by his country’s humiliation, he refused to accept that its only option was to settle quietly into the ranks of the world’s second-rate powers. But was there anything to be salvaged from the wreckage of Communism to make Russians stand tall again?
Putin found one substantial plank from Russia’s past that he could build with: Orthodoxy. His government made a deal with the church. The state would help rebuild the church that had made Russia special for more than a thousand years, and the church would support the government, conservative values, and even Putin’s questionable foreign interventions in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.
Putin ordered state oil and gas companies to fund the rebuilding of Orthodox churches. On average, more than 1,000 have opened every year since the fall of Communism. They are usually empty—6% of the population attends church weekly—but their presence throughout Russia reminds people that Russia has a special identity that has endured since long before England’s Magna Carta, let alone the American and French Revolutions.
We now find ourselves in a world where Russian politicians say their country, not the West, stands for Christian civilization. On this view, the West has traded its Christian heritage for secular values. Some Russians resist this narrative, and call for more democratic and personal freedom. But they struggle to compete with a government that controls the media and a church that provides essential social services and tells the people that Russia still has a distinctive role to play in world affairs.
Expect more photos of Putin’s chest and the cross around his neck. For him, church and state may be separate, but “in our souls as well as in our history, we are together. So it is and shall be forever.”
Photo credit: www.kremlin.ru