Something remarkable, though little noticed outside Russia, happened during the massive Victory Day parade and celebration held in Moscow last month. With troops assembled in Red Square awaiting his inspection, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, standing in the back of an open car, was driven through the gate in the Spasskaya Tower.
As the car passed beneath the tower’s giant icon of Jesus it slowed and Shoigu, with the portrait above him and the massive edifice of St. Basil’s Cathedral to his right, made the sign of the cross.
This was remarkable because Shoigu, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, neither is an ethnic Russian nor is he even a Christian. Born in the Siberian region of Tuva, Shoigu is widely believed to be a Buddhist.
The gesture was emblematic of the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church under Putin. Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books on Russia, called it “Carefully crafted but perfect for this climate.”
The idea was not to suggest that the Defense Minister, a very popular figure in Russia, had converted to Christianity, so much as to underline the growing importance of the church – all but driven underground during Communist rule – in Putin’s Russia.
Putin, who served in the KGB during the waning years of Communism when atheism was state policy, has since embraced the church as a unifying force in Russian society. He revealed in 2012 that he was illicitly baptized as an infant, the rite performed in secret at the behest of his mother and against the wishes of his staunchly Communist father.
He has spoken very publicly about his Christian faith, with stories sometimes tending toward the miraculous, such as one he tells about a small aluminum cross, given to him by his mother that was recovered from the ashes of a burnt-out building.
Putin’s public religiosity should be seen as a sort of “construct” said Gaddy. Many of the stories are likely based in truth, but at the same time, are being used to remind the Russian people of Putin’s historical vision of a greater Russia with roots that extend far beyond its recent Communist past.
“One of his hallmarks is the way [Putin] rewrites history,” said Gaddy. “Everything that would suggest there were schisms or splits in Russian society…this is to be rejected.”
In Gaddy’s view, having Shoigu make the sign of the cross in Red Square was a sort of masterstroke of symbolism – the head of the Russian military, himself neither Russian nor Christian, making obeisance to the church less as a statement of faith than as a statement of allegiance to greater Russia.
Gaddy, who coauthored a book about Putin, notes that during Putin’s years at the KGB, a department known as the Fifth Directorate undertook a close study of Russian society to see where Communism was failing to address the wants and needs of the people. The effort was aimed mainly at squashing dissent before it took form, but according to Gaddy, one of the things that become clear within the agency was that the Communist regime had seriously miscalculated when it attempted to banish religion – particularly the Russian Orthodox Church – from public life.
In later writings about the KGB, one former senior agent in the 1990s wrote about the simmering discontent within the agency during Putin’s time there, and the increasingly prevalent disconnect between the intelligence officers, who saw themselves as servants of the “eternal” Russian nation rather than of the Communist Party.
“He’s learned the lessons of the past,” said Gaddy, “and from the failure of the Communist Party to tap the deep support that certain national and nationalist institutions have.”
Many have suggested that Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and his increasing belligerence toward states on Russia’s borders suggests a desire to restore the former Soviet Union – the dissolution of which he has called a “tragedy.” But Communism does not seem to be Putin’s preference, as his efforts to rehabilitate the Orthodox Church show.
Since his ascent to power, Putin has overseen the reconstruction or refurbishing of some 23,000 Russian Orthodox churches that fell into disrepair or disuse under Communist rule. He has signed orders restoring to the church its massive landholdings that were seized under Communist rule, making the church one of the largest – and richest – landowners in Russia.
Increasingly, in the past few years, Putin has hewed ever closer to the church’s position on social issues, including conservative stances on homosexuality and abortion.
Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has publicly praised Putin’s rule over the country, calling it a “miracle from God.”
For his part, Putin also got plenty in return. Kirill has railed against Putin’s opponents and the specter of “Liberalism” in public remarks. The church has also reportedly used its influence in Ukraine to help advance Russia’s cause in both Crimea, which Russia forcibly “annexed” last year, and in the eastern Donbas region, where Russia-backed rebels are fighting for independence from the government in Kiev.
At an Easter Mass in April, Putin praised the Church for creating a “spirit of patriotism” in Russia.
In some respects, the return to influence of the Russian Church represents a reversion to normal for Russia. With the exception of the Communist era, the Church has historically played a major role in defining Russian society and, some would argue, the very idea of what it means to be Russian.
“Russian orthodoxy is central to the notion of Russianness,” said Gaddy.
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