Putin Says Russia is the "Guardian of Christianity"
Russia is "the guardian of Christianity," President Vladimir Putin said Monday, following a visit to a monastery in the Solovki islands, in the White sea, Russian agencies reported. Recalling that his country was traditionally known as "Saint Russia," Putin said the "country is bestowed with a special role as the guardian of Christianity." Without the Orthodox religion, "Russia would have difficulty in becoming a viable state. It is thus very important to return to this source," said the former head of the KGB -- which massively persecuted the clergy and faithful during the Soviet era. But Russian leaders have once again given prominence to the Orthodox church, after decades in which atheism was imposed by the Communist rulers. Putin rarely misses an opportunity to make public church appearances. The Solovki monastery is famous not only as a place of pilgrimage, but also for housing one of the Soviet Union's first prison camps. According to the president, the Orthodox church, unlike the Roman Catholics during medieval times, has always insisted on the equality of all peoples before god. "Our spiritual prayers have taught us over the centuries to respect all peoples. It is important to remember that today," said Putin. Human rights activists have denounced Moscow's discrimination against minority groups, particularly those from the Caucasus. Russia forces have fought two wars against Chechen separatists. People from the Caucasus are frequently labeled "black arses" by the population. Putin is currently on holiday in the north of the country. ((c) 2001 Agence France Presse)
Russia's Orthodox church regains lost ground
As its influence grows, the church seeks to retake Bolshevik-seized property. More than 6,000 sites have been returned, but hundreds more are in dispute.
Ryazan's dazzling kremlin, the ancient town fortress considered a gem of Russian architecture, seems like an unlikely venue for a bitter social conflict. But for the past three years a subterranean battle has raged here over the 26-hectare complex seized by the Bolsheviks last century. The increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church is pressuring political leaders in Moscow to return the property to church stewardship, and public passions are running high. "Society is split over this issue," says Sergei Isakov, a deputy of the regional legislature. "We need more time to listen to the people about this." It's a struggle taking place across Russia. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, about 6,000 sites nationalized by the communists have been returned to the church, but hundreds more remain under dispute. Critics say the church's appetite exceeds its ability to restore old buildings, or fill them with worshipers, and its aims are increasingly politicized. "Lately the church's ambitions have grown, and clericalism is creeping into state institutions and public organizations," says Anatoly Pchelintsev, editor of Religion and Law, a journal published by the independent Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow. "We have elections coming, and the state finds it convenient to actively court the Church's embrace and seek its support."
Church's campaign for influence
The Orthodox Church has been – and remains – closely linked to the Russian state. Even before the Bolsheviks nationalized all its property and took full control over the priesthood, the church acted as the main ideological support for Russian czars. And since the fall of communism, Russian leaders have sometimes turned to the church, which has baptized some 60 percent of Russians, to boost their legitimacy. "The Russian state is undergoing a crisis of values," says Alexander Dugin, who heads the International Eurasian Movement, a nationalist group that favours stronger church influence. "Soviet ideas have been destroyed, while the democratic values of the West have been completely discredited in post-Soviet Russia. The only real source of [spiritual] support for the new Russian state is the Orthodox Church." In addition to seeking the return of its property and assets, the church has mounted an active campaign to raise its profile, lobbying for – among other things – mandatory "Orthodox culture" classes in schools. In addition, a newly formed wing of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi has held several rallies recently to "propagate religious values" among young people. "The greatest achievements of Russian history were made in the name of Orthodoxy," says Boris Yakimenko, head of Nashi's Orthodox section. "Society needs a clear spiritual orientation, and this is our calling." Though President Vladimir Putin has frequently stressed that Russia remains a secular state, he and other state leaders prominently take part in Orthodox festivals and he is often seen in company with the patriarch, the head of the Orthodox Church. In a press conference on the reunification earlier this year of the US-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad with the mother church in Moscow, Putin equated Russia's "traditional faiths" with its nuclear missile shield as "components that strengthen Russian statehood and create necessary preconditions for internal and external security of the country."
Roots of the battle
Ryazan's hilltop kremlin, a favorite local spot for promenades and picnics, has been a national park for decades. The workers at its five museums, backed by a community group that's gathered 26,000 signatures opposing the church's takeover bid, say the struggle is not just over who gets the real estate. The church already has use of two cathedrals, but few worshipers come, they say. They argue that the real goal is to evict the museums and turn the palace into a residence for its regional head, Archbishop Pavel. "The kremlin is the heart of Ryazan, the place our city sprang from, and it has great historical meaning for all citizens," says Alexander Nikitin, spokesperson for the Public Committee in Defense of Ryazan Kremlin, which lobbies against the transfer. "If you hand it to the church, the character of the place will change from a historical monument that belongs to everyone into a functioning center for a particular religion." In a telephone interview, Archbishop Pavel didn't deny that the palace is earmarked for his residence, but said the public would be welcome to continue visiting the kremlin. "We are going to open it and restore the cathedrals," he said. "People are the foundation of our Church, so regardless of nationality or religious persuasion, people may all come." Vladimir Vigilansky, head of the press service of the Church's headquarters in Moscow, says that returning property to the church will address a "moral dimension" as well. "Over the years many things were stolen or confiscated from the Church, so many museums are really just storage places for stolen items."
A struggle for Russia's soul?
The museum workers insist they are willing to cooperate with the church, whose records indicate about 60 percent of Russians are Orthodox, but oppose granting it full ownership. Some say they see themselves on the firing line in a wider struggle for Russia's post-Soviet soul. "We definitely perceive a threat to the secular state, to civil society and democracy," says Vladimir Sokolovsky, deputy director of the museum. "The church wants these buildings because it seeks a return to its traditional place as the upholder of the state, with a monopoly on the meaning of patriotism and spirituality." Giving the Church a bigger ideological role may not be a bad thing, say others. "The church can bring positive influences," says Nikolai Bulicher, a deputy of Ryazan's city council. "Our country wasn't ready for the democracy we were dreaming about. Instead we got crime, corruption, and drug abuse. Only the revival of our spiritual traditions can reverse that, and this means we must put the church back at the heart of our lives."
Putin's Reunited Russian Church
The Russian Orthodox Church was torn in two by revolution and regicide, by the enmity between communism and capitalism, nearly a century of fulmination and hatred. That all formally ended on Thursday in Moscow. Thousands of the Russian Orthodox faithful — including several hundred who flew in from New York — lined up under heavy rain to get into the Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. There, they witnessed the restoration of the "Canonical Communion and Reunification" of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which claims more than 70 million adherents, and the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR), which is believed to be 1.5 million strong. Many among the clergy and laity wept at the end of the 86 year-old schism brought about by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and the ensuing murder of the dethroned Tsar and the forced emigration of hundred thousands Russians defeated in Civil war. While the sumptuous ritual was clearly an emotional and pious event, the reunification has political resonance as well because the Russian Orthodox Church is increasingly a symbol and projection of Russian nationalism.
Indeed, rather than first give thanks to God in his speech, the head of the ROC, Patriarch Alexy, paid homage to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Patriarch emphasized that the reunification could happen only because the ROCOR saw in Putin "a genuine Russian Orthodox human being." Putin responded in his speech that the reunification was a major event for the entire nation. Nationalism, based on the Orthodox faith, has been emerging as the Putin regime's major ideological resource. Thursday's rite sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state's main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument. In February press conference, Putin equated Russia's "traditional confessions" to its nuclear shield, both, he said, being "components that strengthen Russian statehood and create necessary preconditions for internal and external security of the country." Professor Sergei Filatov, a top authority on Russian religious affairs notes that "traditional confessions" is the state's shorthand for the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Church's assertiveness and presence is growing — with little separation from the State. The Moscow City Court and the Prosecutor General's Office maintain Orthodox chapels on their premises. Only the Orthodox clergy are entitled to give ecclesiastic guidance to the military. Some provinces have included Russian Orthodox Culture classes in school curricula with students doing church chores. When Orthodox fundamentalists vandalized an art exhibition at the Moscow Andrei Sakharov Center as "an insult to the main religion of our country," the Moscow Court found the Center managers guilty of insulting the faith, and fined them $3,500 each. The ROC had an opera, based on a famous fairy tale by the poet Alexander Pushkin, censored to the point of cutting out the priest, who is the tale's main protagonist. "Of course, we have a separation of State and Church," Putin said during a visit to a Russian Orthodox monastery in January 2004. "But in the people's soul they're together." The resurgence of a Church in open disdain of the secular Constitution is only likely to exacerbate divisions in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russia.