Venerating Putin: Is Russia’s President the second Prince Vlad?
by- 26th August 2015
FOR RUSSIA, this year marks the thousandth anniversary of the ‘repose’ of the warrior-prince and saint named Vladimir.
Nicknamed the Baptiser of Russia, and generally considered the founding figure of Russia as a Christian nation, St Vladimir is known under the formal title, The Holy Great Prince Vladimir, Equal of the Apostles.
St Vladimir’s namesake, Russian President Vladimir Putin, budgeted 530 million roubles – roughly US$10 million – for celebrations of the anniversary.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, commemorating the anniversary in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, emphasized the immediate implications of the event: ‘Kneeling down before the memory of Prince Vladimir, we ask him to be with us, to enlighten our people, to help our youth realize the feats of all those who created Holy Rus and those who are ready to strive for this Rus in our time.’
There’s a small Russian Orthodox sect that, as Time magazine reported in 2011, considers Russian President Vladimir Putin a saint.
It’s an all-female sect called The Chapel of Russia's Resurrection, and its members venerate Putin as a sort of second coming of the Apostle Paul.
The group’s founder, Mother Fotina, explains: ‘According to the Bible, Paul the Apostle was a military commander at first and an evil persecutor of Christians before he started spreading the Christian gospel.
'In his days in the KGB, Putin also did some rather unrighteous things. But once he became president, he was imbued with the Holy Spirit, and just like the apostle, he started wisely leading his flock. It is hard for him now but he is fulfilling his heroic deed as an apostle.’
The focus, then, is not so much on Vladimir Putin as on Russian nationalism. And while the sect itself is small and obscure, the concept of Putin symbolizing Russian nationalism of a specifically spiritual sort is a potent one in Putin’s own projected image
One of the West’s keenest observers of Putin, John Schindler – himself both an Orthodox Christian and an ex-NSA intelligence analyst and counterterrorism officer – has both the religious and intelligence credentials to evaluate Putin’s situation.
He notes: ‘Putin is a complex character himself, with his worldview being profoundly shaped by his long service as a Soviet secret policeman; he exudes what Russians term Chekism – conspiracy-based thinking that sees plots abounding and is reflexively anti-Western, with heavy doses of machismo and KGB tough-talk.‘
He also recognizes, however, the difficulty of reading the heart and mind of another human, writing in the same piece, titled Putin’s Orthodox Jihad of Putin’s actual beliefs: 'This knotty question is, strictly speaking, unanswerable, since only he knows his own soul. Putin’s powerful Chekism is beyond doubt, while many Westerners are skeptical that he is any sort of Orthodox believer.’
Schindler continues with more biographical details: ‘According to his own account, Putin’s father was a militant Communist while his mother was a faithful, if quiet, Orthodox believer; one wonders what holidays were like in the Putin household.
'He was baptized in secret as a child but was not any sort of engaged believer during his KGB service — that would have been impossible, not least due to the KGB’s role in persecuting religion — but by his own account, late in the Soviet period, Putin reconciled his Chekism with his faith by making the sign of the cross over his KGB credentials. By the late 1990s, Putin was wearing his baptismal cross openly, for all bare-chested photo opps.’
Putin is undeniably pious in his outward appearance. He is close – some would say, uncomfortably close – to Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. He attended Easter Eucharist celebrated by Patriarch Kirill, but that might well be considered a photo oppportunity of the highest level.
He has made a pilgrimage to the monastic colony on Mount Athos, Greece.
More personally, he sought absolution from Abbot Ephraim of Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, when the latter brought relics of Saint Maximus to Russia in 2011.
He has personally returned an icon of Saints Nicholas and Spyridon, looted during World War II by a Nazi officer, to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for repatriation.
He has also personally received a delegation of monks from Vatopedi bearing the Sacred Belt, a relic of the Virgin Mary. The relic will be shown on tour at centres in Russia where pregnant women receive counselling.
But his grasp of the theology of relics leads some to question his piety. When the suggestion came up that Lenin’s mausoleum should be removed from Red Square, Mr Putin argued against the proposal, appearing to compare Lenin's relics with those of Christian saints.
‘Go to the Kiev Caves Monastery [in Ukraine] or look at [Russia's] Pskov monastery or Mount Athos [in Greece]. There are relics of saints there. You can see everything there.’
Mr Putin is known to quote the philosophers Nikolai Berdayev and Vladimir Solovyev. David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, ‘To enter into the world of Putin’s favourite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions.’
He is also close to Tikhon Shevkunov who runs a monastery in Moscow where all the monks have iPads.
According to an interview in FT magazine, Fr Tikhon is convinced Putin ‘really is an Orthodox Christian, and not just nominally, but a person who makes confession, takes communion and understands his responsibility before God for the high service entrusted to him and for his immortal soul.’
It is said it was Fr Tikhon who brought Putin into the Orthodox Church, and is his godfather.
John Schindler concludes his piece on Putin’s Orthodox Jihad, quoted above, saying that ‘what ideologically motivates this Kremlin is the KGB cult unified with Russian Orthodoxy.
‘Behind the Chekist sword and shield lurks the Third Rome, forming a potent and, to many Russians, plausible worldview. That this take on the planet and its politics is intensely anti-Western needs to be stated clearly.’
A recent headline in the Independent read, Now Russia and Ukraine are at war over the ownership of St Vladimir the Great.
It’s an unhappy situation, and one that is the direct result of the close collaboration between church and state in Russia today.
As Forbes puts it, the Orthodox Church has become ‘the Russian state’s soft power arm.’
A war of disputed national status quickly becomes a war over religious identity as well – which brings its own fierce conflicting loyalties into play.
And religious loyalties in conflict, as we see elsewhere around the world today and indeed witnessed during the European Wars of Religion, are highly flammable.
In a piece entitled 'Renewing the Power of Holiness' Lapido Media recently compared the Dalai Lama and the Pope: two religious leaders who are widely viewed as people of exceptional moral stature and global influence.
It is a status Vladimir Putin would dearly love to be accorded.