Vladimir Putin and the revival of religion in Russia

Vladimir Putin and the revival of religion in Russia


One of the most remarkable developments over the past quarter century has been the rapid revival of religion in Russia. When the Communists took control of the new Soviet Union after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, there were 50,000 Orthodox churches, a thousand monasteries and convents, and sixty theological schools. When World War II broke out, about 150 churches remained active, all monasteries, convents and seminaries had been closed, and atheism was the government-sponsored belief system. Here in the United States ‘godless Communism’ became an American cliche during the years of the Cold War. As part of our response, in 1954 Congress inserted ‘under God’ into the pledge to the flag.

When the USSR fell apart in 1991, religion began to reassert itself. Numerous church buildings have since been restored and millions of Russians today publicly embrace the traditional Eastern Orthodoxy that for centuries had been identified with the Czars, so despised by the Communists. That version of Christianity is deeply embedded in Russian art, architecture, music, and literature. Some would add the Russian psyche. Nicholas II, the last Czar, was murdered with his family on July 17, 1918, and they along with many others are now esteemed as martyrs for the faith.

Some Russians have selective memories of their 20th century history. While the nation has bid farewell to communism, Lenin’s tomb is still in Moscow’s Red Square and his statues are numerous across the country. Pressure is mounting to remove all such reminders of the repressive Bolshevik government. Yet, many people take enormous pride in their victory over Nazi Germany, at the cost of twenty million citizens of the Soviet Union, and there are those who choose to soft-pedal the cruelty of Stalin’s regime and focus upon his dogged leadership during World War II.

The role of President Vladimir Putin in this religious revival has been important. His father was a militant Communist and atheist, but his mother was a Christian who had young Putin secretly baptized by an Orthodox priest. He showed little regard for religion until two things happened. His wife survived a serious car accident in 1993. Then, in 1996, they lived through a near-fatal house fire. When he was about to make a diplomatic trip to Israel, his mother gave him a cross. “I did as she said,” he stated, “and put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since then.”

Putin keeps in close touch with the church hierarchy, and when he ran for president in March 2012 Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Orthodox Church across Russia, openly endorsed him. Putin’s administration has pushed legislation aimed at squashing homosexuality, discouraging abortions, and requiring a course on religion in schools. In fact, such Americans as Frank Graham and Pat Buchanan have spoken approvingly of these policies, and various right-wing groups in Europe have shown increasing admiration for Putin. When he went to the Vatican last November he crossed himself and kissed an icon of the Virgin Mary before presenting it to Pope Francis. Observers suggest that Putin’s support of the Assad government in Syria stems in part from his fear that should it fall Christians there would be subject to severe persecution by radical Sunni Islamists who are creating chaos in neighboring Iraq.

There are many other facets to the religious scenario. The churches are crowded on special holy days, but only about 10 percent of the Orthodox attend worship regularly. While the majority of Russians profess belief in God, there are still many atheists, agnostics and skeptics. Sects abound and proselytize. The largest religious minority are the Muslims, numbering about ten million, including militants in such tumultuous areas as Chechnya. The Tsarnaev brothers, 2013 Marathon bombers in Boston, were of Chechen ethnicity. Now the Ukrainian crisis threatens to disrupt relations among the Orthodox.

A devout Catholic friend has a different perspective, suggesting that we may be about to witness a major revelation disclosed at Fatima take shape before our eyes. He believes firmly in the miraculous apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima to three shepherd children in Portugal in 1917. The Virgin Mary called upon the faithful to pray for the conversion of Russia, which could bring peace to the world through her Immaculate Heart. My friend is waiting expectantly for the Eastern Orthodox to “come back” to the one, true, apostolic Catholic Church after a tragic 1000-year schism.

Then, of course, there are many who regard Putin as a clever, ambitious and sinister politician who is exploiting religion with the goal of generating increased nationalism to help reestablish the Russian Empire.

My own hope and prayer is that this war-weary world can set aside prejudice and bitterness, discard shameful bigotry rooted in creed, color, caste, culture or country, and journey paths that lead away from violence and toward reconciliation.

Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is a retired United Methodist minister. Email: Ralphlroy@aol.com.


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