TAG | Russian Orthodoxy
Russia’s fusion of nationalism, Russian Orthodox Christianity and reverence for (heavily sanitized) aspects of the Soviet past continues to evolve in less than reassuring ways
As voters in most of Ukraine prepare to go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, the rebels in the east are planning their own vote a week later. For many of the pro-Russian rebels, both local and Russian volunteers, their political vision for the region is the creation of “Novorossia”, a kind of new, improved Russia.
“We are fighting for the liberation of all Russian lands and we are ready to march all the way to the Danube,” says Alexander Matyushin, a rebel field commander.
“We must restore the historic injustice which befell the Russian people in the 20th Century. We need to take land which is ours by right and bring it back into the fold of Holy Russia.”
Matyushin’s fighters – just over 100 of them – are stationed in his native Makiivka, a suburb of Donetsk, which is the largest city under rebel control in eastern Ukraine. The great irony of this conflict is that 10 years ago Mr Matyushin was on the other side of the political divide which now splits this country in two.
He used to work with a far-right Ukrainian nationalist, Dmytro Korchynsky. “We had the idea of a Christian Orthodox revolution back then,” explains Mr Matyushin. “Our ambition was to create an Orthodox al-Qaeda.”
A legacy of communism, in Ukraine as well as Russia, was civil society in ruins, a gap that was—and is—an invitation to the extremes.
Back to the BBC:
The rebels say they have 18,000 volunteer fighters, mostly from Russia, and that more are keen on joining. Several far-right organisations are involved in the online recruitment process. One of them is the Eurasian Movement, a far-right political group with an international reach, founded by ultra-nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin. Close to the Ukrainian border, in the Russian city of Rostov, one of Dugin’s Eurasian activists, Mikhail Uchitel, is working with Russian volunteer fighters who have been signed up online in preparation for their journey into Ukraine. Although the recruitment process is taking place in Russia, Mr Uchitel is adamant that the rebels do not answer to Moscow.
Yes and no, I’d say. And sometimes, I suspect, puppets just don’t see the strings.
A senior adviser to rebels in eastern Ukraine has confirmed that extrajudicial killings have been carried out “to prevent chaos”. Igor Druz told the BBC such “executions” sent an important signal to the rest of the rebel forces. He also said Ukraine’s government was a “terrorist” organisation, committing war crimes against civilians….
Igor Druz is advisor to the rebels’ military commander Igor Strelkov, and a senior spokesman for the rebel-held territories of Donetsk region. He is in charge of the ideology of the eastern Ukrainian rebel movement. In an interview with the BBC in Donetsk he outlined his vision of the so-called ‘state of Novorossia’ they hope to build here.
He says heis a strong supporter of Orthodox Christian morality and family values, and opposed to homosexuality. He hopes to legalise death penalty for the most serious crimes and he is sure that most rebels will support him in this initiative.
… Mr Druz said the rebels wanted to establish a socially responsible state that would protect Christian values.
The use of the term “rebels” to describe these men, a good number of whom are simply invaders who have crossed over the border from Russia, can, to put it mildly, be questioned. And the ideology being described by Druz is quite clearly an echo of that which has been adopted by Putin (to the applause, regrettably, of some on the American right), an ideology descended from the nineteenth century idea of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”.
And that “Nationality” is not Ukrainian.
The picture behind Druz in the photo that comes with this story says plenty too. Lenin, it seems, has been replaced by another icon.
Cross-posted on the Corner:
Here’s Radio Free Europe with a reminder of how “traditional” values are playing out in today’s Russia:
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church has awarded Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov with an order for “glory and honor.” Patriarch Kirill gave the order to Zyuganov in Moscow on June 27, one day after the longtime communist leader celebrated his 70th birthday.
Kirill said Zyuganov — who in 2010 called for the re-Stalinization of Russia and has called the Soviet Union “the most humane state in human history” — deserves the award as “one of the most famous Russian politicians who has expressed interest in the welfare of the nation and the protection of traditional moral values”.
And to think there are those who still believe that Pussy Riot was the problem.
Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves tweets:
Syncretism: the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.
Pause to consider the outrage if a similar icon, but bearing the picture of Hitler, had been included in a march in Germany.
And here’s Serge Schmemann writing in the National Geographic back in 2009:
…Some astoundingly dark and retrograde notions openly circulate in reactionary churches and on nationalist websites. One is a drive to canonize Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible, two of the more noxious characters of Russian history who have been reinvented by extremists as “defenders of Holy Russia.”
Outside St. Petersburg, the decaying summer palaces of old Russia’s tsars and grand dukes overlook the Gulf of Finland. Behind the ruins of one such palace stands a tiny, half-restored chapel. Inside I come face-to-face with a spectacle that makes me gasp—a large icon of Joseph Stalin. He’s not wearing the halo of a saint, but a saint is blessing him.
The icon depicts a legend in which Stalin, at the outbreak of World War II, secretly visits St. Matryona of Moscow, a blind and paralyzed woman to whom many people came for spiritual guidance until her death in 1952. According to the legend she counseled the Soviet dictator not to flee Moscow before the invading German Army, but to stand firm against the onslaught.
The chapel’s pastor, Evstafy Zhakov, is a fiery nationalist highly regarded by his flock for his charismatic sermons. In an interview with the right-wing newspaper Zavtra, he defended the icon by explaining that Russia has a long tradition of saints blessing warriors before battle.
“But Stalin was an atheist,” the interviewer interjected.
“How do you know?” Father Evstafy retorted. Two wartime patriarchs proclaimed Stalin a believer, “and I will believe them before I believe all these liberals and democrats.”
The Aviationist reports:
A Tupolev Tu-214SR, used as a communication relay aircraft often dispatched by the Russian Air Force to accompany Putin’s presidential aircraft or other Moscow’s VIPs on their trips, has departed from St. Petersburg and it is currently circling near the border with Finland.
The orbit RSD49 (the radio callsign of the aircraft) is flying, centered on the island of Valaam, the largest in Lake Ladoga, where Putin is visiting his “spiritual mentor”, brings the Tu-214 as close as 20 km from the Finnish border.
There’s something nastily appropriate about that. The Valaam monastery is in a part of Karelia that was Finnish territory until stolen by Stalin in 1940.
In other Russian Orthodox news, note this detail from the recent account of a visit to “separatist”-occupied Slavyansk (eastern Ukraine) by the Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Halko:
[T]hey are in complete control of the city; Slavyansk is occupied.
Q: And what do they call themselves, these armed men?
A: They do not introduce themselves. They have signs everywhere saying “Donbas People’s Militia.” But no one introduced himself to us. No one said anything about himself.
The only person who spoke to us was a civilian who was standing at these roadblocks with a ribbon of St. George [symbol of loyalty to Russia] and without a mask. Some kind of hardcore Orthodox fundamentalist. Only with him was it clear who he was, that he was a local; he even showed his passport – he has retained a Soviet passport in which there was a column for nationality; in it was written: “Russian.” He is proud of this. And he says that we are all Orthodox Russians here. That means, we do not want this “European plague.”
Only he spoke with us in a normal way, and told us about his motives at least. Incidentally, among these people there are many with beards, but not because they have not shaved for many days, but really long beards, as if they were some kind of Orthodox brotherhood. Many say they are from Slavyansk, I do not know.
Here’s a thought-provoking take on, if you like, “Vladimir Putin, conservative”, from John Schindler. The piece covers too much ground to be summarized in a few excerpts, so I’ll focus on just one aspect of it, the way that Putin is looking to base the legitimacy of his regime on older, far older, notions of what the Russian state should be:
[T]he reconquest of Crimea has caused a clear change of tone in Moscow, with celebration of old fashioned Russian nationalism coming into fashion. In his speech to the Duma announcing the triumphant annexation of Crimea, when speaking of Russians, Putin specifically used the ethnic term – russkiy – not the more inclusive rossiyskiy, which applies to all citizens of the Russian Federation. This came among incantations to the full Great Russian program, with a Moscow-centric view of Eastern Europe seemingly endorsed by mentions of great Orthodox saints. Unstated yet clearly, this was all of a piece with “Third Rome” ideology, a powerful admixture of Orthodoxy, ethnic mysticism, and Slavophile tendencies that has deep resonance in Russian history.
Westerners seemed shocked by this “Holy Russia” stuff, but Putin has been dropping unsubtle hints for years that his state ideology includes a good amount of this back-to-the-future thinking, cloaked in piety and nationalism. Western “experts” continue to state that a major influence here is Aleksandr Dugin, an eccentric philosopher who espouses “Eurasianism,” an odd blend of geopolitical theory and neo-fascism. While Dugin is not irrelevant, his star at the Kremlin actually faded a decade ago, though he gets some Kremlin attention because his father was a GRU general. Far more important to divining Putin’s worldview, however, is Ivan Ilyin, a Russian political and religious thinker who fled the Bolsheviks and died an emigre in Switzerland in 1953. In exile, Ilyin espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Germanely, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin is unconcealed: he has mentioned him in several major speeches and he had his body repatriated and buried at the famous Donskoy monastery with fanfare in 2005; Putin personally paid for a new headstone. Yet despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not many Westerners have noticed.
They should, however, because Putinism includes a good amount of Ilyin-inspired Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism working hand-in-glove, what its advocates term symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state. Although the Russian Orthodox Church… is not the state church, de jure, in practice it functions as something close to one, enjoying a privileged position at home and abroad…
Ilyin is a complicated figure, and perhaps more of ‘liberal’ (these things are relative) than the synopsis above might suggest, but he does play an important symbolic role in what has become the key intellectual project of the Putin regime, the reconciliation of imperial and Soviet Russia, an idea that is (I’d argue) at its core, absurd, but comes with the advantage that it spares the Russian people the necessity of a full reckoning with what was done to, and by, them in the Soviet era.
As to what Putin actually believes, well, that’s anyone guess, but there should be no doubting his willingness to make use of the ideological position he has developed to support his agenda at home, in the territories of the former USSR (‘the near abroad’) and even further afar than that. Schindler has plenty to say about what the implications of that could be, none of them reassuring.
As the saying goes: read the whole thing.
Pat Buchanan, writing in Human Events, appears to suggest that Vladimir Putin may, so to speak, be on the side of the angels:
In his Kremlin defense of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin, even before he began listing the battles where Russian blood had been shed on Crimean soil, spoke of an older deeper bond.
Crimea, said Putin, “is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”
Russia is a Christian country, Putin was saying.
This speech recalls last December’s address where the former KGB chief spoke of Russia as standing against a decadent West:
“Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”
Heard any Western leader, say, Barack Obama, talk like that lately?
…Author Masha Gessen, who has written a book on Putin, says of his last two years, “Russia is remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world.”
But the war to be waged with the West is not with rockets. It is a cultural, social, moral war where Russia’s role, in Putin’s words, is to “prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.”
Would that be the “chaotic darkness” and “primitive state” of mankind, before the Light came into the world?
This writer was startled to read in the Jan-Feb. newsletter from the social conservative World Council of Families in Rockford, Ill., that, of the “ten best trends” in the world in 2013, number one was “Russia Emerges as Pro-Family Leader.”
In 2013, the Kremlin imposed a ban on homosexual propaganda, a ban on abortion advertising, a ban on abortions after 12 weeks and a ban on sacrilegious insults to religious believers.
“While the other super-powers march to a pagan world-view,” writes WCF’s Allan Carlson, “Russia is defending Judeo-Christian values. During the Soviet era, Western communists flocked to Moscow. This year, World Congress of Families VII will be held in Moscow, Sept. 10-12.”
Will Vladimir Putin give the keynote?
In the new ideological Cold War, whose side is God on now?
On the corruption of the Russian Orthodox Church: nothing.
On the bullying of other (non-Orthodox) Christian denominations: nothing.
And on so much else: nothing.
People believe what they want to believe and they see what they want to see.
The latest issue of the British magazine, Standpoint, has a fine profile of Pussy Rioter Nadezhda Tolonnikova by Rachel Polonsky.
The whole piece is well worth reading, but this, in particular, caught my attention:
The dissident priest Gleb Yakunin regards the performance in the cathedral as a miracle in the full Christian sense of the word. Pussy Riot’s words “black cassock, gold epaulettes” drove “to the very heart of Patriarch Kirill”, he said. During their imprisonment, Yakunin composed a verse cycle in Pussy Riot’s honour, The Pussiniad. He too did time in prisons and labour camps in the Soviet period. In 1993, five years after his amnesty, the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him for exposing its infiltration by the KGB. Yakunin had unmasked Kirill as a high-ranking agent codenamed Mikhailov.
Let’s scroll back to the controversy last year involving remarks by two Republican congressmen, Steve King and Dana Rohrabacher, over Pussy Riot, a controversy that led Rohrabacher to write a comment over on NRO’s corner that included this:
The group snuck its way onto the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior without permission and performed a punk rock song with vulgar lyrics. Their stunt was disrespectful and completely irreverent…There is a distinction between a group engaged in outrageous acts for the sake of notoriety and those engaged in political speech. This group’s activities certainly appear to fall in the former category.
Yakunin or Rohrabacher? It’s not a difficult choice.
Having long lost out in his efforts to woo Russia’s liberals, and increasingly struggling with opposition in Russia’s metropolitan centers, Vladimir Putin has instead being appealing to Russia’s ‘silent majority’.
I wrote about this for National Review a week or two ago, noting how this latest pivot by Putin has been winning him some (mistaken) approval on the right over here too.
Meanwhile, the Washington Times has more on Vladimir Putin, conservative:
“Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a recent keynote speech. “Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”
In his state of the nation address in mid-December, Mr. Putin also portrayed Russia as a staunch defender of “traditional values” against what he depicted as the morally bankrupt West. Social and religious conservatism, the former KGB officer insisted, is the only way to prevent the world from slipping into “chaotic darkness.”
…Mr. Putin’s views of the West were echoed this month by Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church, who accused Western countries of engaging in the “spiritual disarmament” of their people. In particular, Patriarch Kirill criticized laws in several European countries that prevent believers from displaying religious symbols, including crosses on necklaces, at work.
Well, Kirill may be a thoroughly disreputable figure but he is (broadly speaking) right about the stupidity of not allowing people to display religious symbols at work. That said, this claim, to put it mildly, is a stretch:
… Other figures within the Orthodox Church have gone further in criticizing the West. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a church spokesman, suggested that the modern-day West is no better for a Christian believer than the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities executed some 200,000 clergy and believers from 1917 to 1937, according to a 1995 presidential committee report. Thousands of churches were destroyed, and those that survived were turned into warehouses, garages or museums of atheism.
To argue that Christians in the West today are treated in a manner in any way comparable to that is to insult the memories of those murdered (not to speak of the countless others subjected to ‘lesser’ persecution) for their faith in the Soviet Union, and to trivialize their fate.
Back to the Washington Times:
…The Kremlin’s encouragement of traditional values has sparked a rise in Orthodox vigilantism. Fringe groups such as the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers, an ultraconservative movement whose slogan is “Orthodoxy or Death,” are gaining prominence.
Patriarch Kirill has honored the group’s leader, openly anti-Semitic monarchist Leonid Simonovich, for his services to the Orthodox Church. The Banner Bearers, who dress in black paramilitary uniforms festooned with skulls, regularly confront gay and liberal activists on the streets of Moscow.
Although Mr. Putin has never made a secret of what he says is his deep Christian faith, his first decade in power was largely free of overtly religious rhetoric. Little or no attempt was made to impose a set of values on Russians or lecture to the West on morals.
However, since his inauguration for a third presidential term in May 2012, the increasingly authoritarian leader has sought to reach out to Russia’s conservative, xenophobic heartland for support.
It has proved a rich hunting ground.
Indeed it has.