Piety's Comeback as a Kremlin Virtue

Editor's note: This article, the third in a series about President Vladimir Putin's legacy, examines his role in the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The warrior saints Alexander Nevsky and Dmitry Donskoi serenely look down at the nave of the church where a new generation of defenders of the Russian fatherland comes to pray.

Renowned for their victories over foreign invaders, the two saints are depicted in frescoes at the Church of St. Sofia of God's Wisdom, a small structure off Lubyanskaya Ploshchad that happens to be the official church of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

"It is the agency's church," said a policeman guarding the church who declined to give his name. "But I'm not going to tell you anything else."

When the church was blessed by Patriarch Alexy II in 2002, in a ceremony attended by FSB director Nikolai Patrushev, it reflected a historic reconciliation between two longtime foes: the Russian Orthodox Church and an agency that had killed thousands of Orthodox priests and monks during its previous incarnation as the Soviet secret police.

But it was hardly an exceptional event in the eight-year presidency of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who is also a professed Orthodox Christian.

Under Putin, government officials have become more pious -- at least outwardly -- and have deepened their contacts with the church hierarchy, according to both supporters and critics of the church.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the church's main spokesman, said the Putin era had brought an end to the 1990s phenomenon of podsvechniki, a slang term for politicians who held candles at televised Christmas and Easter services but had only a superficial knowledge of the Orthodox faith.

"This doesn't exist anymore," Chaplin said. "Among politicians, there are now more and more people who read the Gospels and serious evangelical literature, teach their children about faith, go on pilgrimages and attend church services."

The apparent rise of clerical influence has alarmed secular critics, who charge that it threatens the separation of church and state mandated in Russia's 1993 Constitution.

"Soon the church will be represented in all the places where there used to be cells of the Soviet Communist Party," said Vitaly Ginzburg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and outspoken critic of the church. "It wants to be everywhere."

Yet at the same time, Putin has restrained some of the church's more controversial initiatives, such as an effort to add an Orthodoxy class to the nationwide school curriculum. Following an outcry, Putin said the class should be changed to become "acceptable for all of society."

Putin has also met frequently with Muslim clerics -- a political necessity in a country with up to 20 million Muslims, many of them in the volatile North Caucasus -- as well as rabbis, Buddhist lamas and Protestant pastors. In his speeches, he has often referred to Russia's "multiconfessional" nature.

Even the fiercest critics of the church see little chance of Russia returning to some sort of pre-1917 arrangement, in which Orthodoxy was an established religion and closely associated with the Romanov monarchy.

"That won't happen because the church itself doesn't want it," Ginzburg said. "The church knows what that led to in tsarist Russia. It wants to penetrate everywhere and influence everything, but it does not want to bear any responsibility for it."

Ultimately, the president's role is a balancing act that reflects the contradictory nature of Russia itself. He governs a population split among various faiths -- but mainly Orthodox Christianity and Islam -- with a culture shaped by traditional religion and by seven decades of Soviet atheism.

But simple political calculus suggests that Putin must lean toward Orthodoxy, given that 63 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, according to a 2006 survey conducted by VTsIOM. Even if the number who actually go to church is much lower -- less than 10 percent attend services weekly -- this presents a base of support that no politician can ignore.

Itar-Tass / Reuters
President Vladimir Putin pointing inside the newly opened Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral in Moscow on June 1, 2000, as former President Boris Yeltsin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II look on.

Putin himself has admitted as much. "The most populous of [Russia's traditional religions] is the Orthodox Church," he said at a 2003 news conference. "And I, of course, must take this into account."

Many political experts would add that Putin's own religious views have resulted in friendlier church-state relations.

"Putin likes the Orthodox hierarchy because his view of the world corresponds closely to theirs," said Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. "And unlike Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin], he knows that you're supposed to cross yourself with your right hand and hold the candle with your left hand. This skill has assisted him very much."

The President's Soul

The son of a devoutly Orthodox mother and an atheist father, Putin has said the crucial moment in his spiritual life came in the 1990s when a fire consumed his dacha outside St. Petersburg, nearly killing his two daughters. Cleaning up in the wake of the fire, a worker found a small aluminum cross that Putin had received from his mother and that he had gotten blessed during a visit to Jerusalem.

It was a "revelation" when he realized that the cross had survived the fire, Putin told CNN's Larry King in 2000.

Putin later repeated the story to U.S. President George W. Bush -- another avowed believer -- inspiring Bush to make his famous remark that he had gotten a sense of Putin's soul.

In Russia, people got a sense of Putin's soul immediately after he assumed power. When Yeltsin abruptly resigned on Dec. 31, 1999, making Putin the acting president, news agencies and television channels reported that Patriarch Alexy II came to the Kremlin for the transfer of power and that Putin had specifically asked for Alexy's blessing.

Days later, he made comments on Orthodox Christmas Eve that suggested he was the real deal, and not just another politician using the church for photo ops. "Why did Christ come into the world?" he said, apparently speaking without a prepared text or a teleprompter. "To liberate people from sickness, troubles, from death."

The presence of a believer in the Kremlin marked a historic shift. While Yeltsin had enjoyed good relations with the church, he was not publicly pious. That made Putin the first Russian leader to profess his faith in God since 1917.

In his eight years in power, Putin has made numerous visits to Orthodox holy sites in Russia and abroad, including the renowned Mount Athos monastery in Greece. It has also been widely reported that Putin has a personal confessor, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, prior of the Sretensky Monastery in central Moscow.

Chaplin, the church spokesman, said there was nothing wrong with politicians professing their religious beliefs.

"President Bush refers to the word of God in his speeches much more often than President Putin," Chaplin said. "This is normal for a Western politician. The separation of church and state does not mean that religion has to be chased out of the public sphere."

As president, Putin also promoted a number of professed believers into top jobs in the government and state-owned companies, such as Vladimir Yakunin, a close ally of his from St. Petersburg.

Yakunin now heads Russian Railways, the country's second-largest corporation, and generously funds Orthodox causes. A passionate advocate of the church's role in society, he has close links to the church hierarchy. His Soviet-era resume indicates that he had a career in the KGB.

For that reason, analysts have put him at the center of a faction called the Orthodox Chekists. The term "Chekist" refers to a member of the secret police.

Another avowed believer in Putin's circle is Georgy Poltavchenko, the presidential envoy to the Central Federal District and a former KGB official. In 2002, Poltavchenko told a university audience that Russia was "God's chosen country," according to the Orthodox news agency Blagovest-Info.

The growing ties between ex-KGB men and Orthodox priests were no surprise to church critics, who say the church was thoroughly infiltrated by the secret police during the communist era.

In the 1990s, documents from the KGB and Party archives revealed that many church leaders had been recruited by the secret police, including Alexy himself, whose KGB pseudonym was "Drozdov." Alexy offered an apology to the Izvestia daily in 1991 but said he had been "compelled."

The church's Soviet mentality still shapes its relations with the state, said Father Gleb Yakunin, a priest and former dissident who left the Moscow Patriarchate in 1993.

"Ever since the collapse of the Soviet regime, the church has been striving to get closer to the state," said the priest, who is no relation to Vladimir Yakunin.

Under Putin, the church has made progress in another sensitive area: cooperation with the military. Though Russia has no law permitting military chaplains, Orthodox priests minister to soldiers on a voluntary, unofficial basis. More than 2,000 priests conduct such services, a spokeswoman for the Moscow Patriarchate's military liaison department said last year.

Putin has endorsed the practice, while saying that freedom of religion should be protected. Some Protestants and Muslims have complained that the military discriminates against non-Orthodox faiths.

The church continues to push for legal recognition of military chaplains, which exist in the armies of the United States, France and other countries with a separation of church and state. "We aren't asking for anything more than what churches and religious communities get in most European nations," Chaplin said.

Cooperation between the church and the Defense Ministry even extends to military hardware. Last August, a priest sprinkled holy water on a new S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile system in a ceremony broadcast on national television.

Ginzburg expressed puzzlement at the practice. "What is this for?" the physicist asked. "Will missiles kill more people if you pour holy water on them?"

A Stalwart Ally

Despite its growing muscle, the church has failed to get many of the things it wanted at the beginning of Putin's presidency, said Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the Sova center, an organization that monitors religious freedom.

"The church wants a lot from the state," Verkhovsky said. "But it gets only the minimum that the state is willing to spare."

As an example, Verkhovsky cited the church's effort to bring Orthodoxy into public schools, which has stalled after resistance from religious minorities and secular groups. (See sidebar.)

Still, church leaders seem perfectly willing to lend their support to the Kremlin. They have consistently backed Putin as he has retreated from Western liberal values, cracked down on critics and built up the power of the state.

In 2004, after Putin criticized human rights activists in his state-of-the-nation address, his words were echoed by Metropolitan Kirill, a leading candidate to succeed Alexy. "We are mainly talking about people who are professionally fighting the Russian Orthodox Church; who don't love Russia, to put it mildly," he said.

Kirill was responding to a question about the confrontation between the church and the Sakharov Center, which had organized a controversial art exhibition called "Caution, Religion!" the previous year.

After Orthodox activists vandalized the exhibition, calling it blasphemous, they were put on trial and acquitted. Prosecutors then turned the tables on the Sakharov Center and charged two exhibition organizers and an artist with inciting religious hatred. The ensuing trial --which ended in a guilty verdict -- raised questions about freedom of speech and the power of the church.

Church leaders backed Putin's efforts to tighten control after Ukraine's Orange Revolution of late 2004, which Moscow viewed as a Western plot to overthrow a pro-Russian government in Kiev.

In 2005, Chaplin addressed a gathering of Nashi, the pro-Putin youth movement widely seen as a Kremlin-orchestrated project to prevent an Orange Revolution in Russia. "Russia has already lived through one color revolution -- a red one," Chaplin said, Interfax reported.

The church has also cracked down on dissenters within the clergy, such as Sergei Taratukhin, a Siberian priest who was defrocked by his bishop after declaring that jailed Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a political prisoner.

Putin's supporters view the overall trend as positive. The church aided Putin's efforts to lift Russia from the chaos of the 1990s, which had been psychologically ruinous for Russians, said Olga Vasilyeva, an expert on church-state relations at the Presidential Academy of Government Service.

"He gave people a sense of pride in themselves and their country ... and the church helped him with this," Vasilyeva said.

Political analysts say the church has also helped Putin with his latest project: putting his preferred successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, into the Kremlin after Putin's presidency expires later this year.

In December, the day after Putin backed Medvedev as his preferred candidate in the March 2 election, Alexy told reporters, "If Vladimir Vladimirovich puts him forward, this is a carefully reasoned decision, and we welcome it." Two weeks later, Alexy offered his Christmas greetings to Medvedev in a service at Christ the Savior Cathedral that was prominently featured on state television.

It was Alexy's first endorsement of a presidential candidate since 1996, when the patriarch supported Yeltsin over Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov in a tightly contested election, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank.

Even after Putin leaves, nothing is likely to change because church deference to the state is a tradition dating back to the Byzantine Empire, said Yakunin, the dissident priest.

"In principle," he said, "it is very hard for the Orthodox Church to be in opposition."

Previous reports in the Putin's legacy series can be found online at www.themoscowtimes.com.