The return of ‘Holy Russia’

The religious underpinnings of a global power struggle..

Last semester, I taught a course on the politics of Russia and northern Eurasia, an area studies course made all the more relevant by the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the disputed Crimean peninsula, as well as by Moscow’s efforts to recoup its position as a world power. That these developments have led to tensions with the West have prompted some to remark on the resurgence of a new cold war.

If there is a cold war between Russia and the West, it is very different from the one that lasted between 1945 and 1989. Communism is a spent force in Russia, having failed to realize its elusive goal of the classless society. Even if some of the old methods of repression are back, they are now being employed in the interest of a vision much older than that of Lenin, namely, the reconstitution of “Holy Russia.”

After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in the 15th century, Russian Orthodox prelates began to assert that their own country was now the centre of Christ’s kingdom on earth. They claimed that the Greeks had apostatized by cozying up to Rome, and God had punished them by turning their city, the Second Rome, over to the Sultan. Now Moscow was the Third Rome, and its monarch the Tsar, or Caesar. In fact, many Russians saw and continue to see their own country as the last holdout of true Christianity, with the rest of the ostensibly Christian world having fallen into heresy.

In 1589 the Metropolitan (i.e., bishop) of Moscow was raised to the status of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, thereby attaining for that city the same status as the ancient patriarchal sees of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. But between 1721 and 1917 when there were no patriarchs, the Church effectively became an arm of the state. Even after the patriarchate was restored following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist-dominated state infiltrated the Church, with clergy expected to parrot the platitudes of the party.

Vanguard of Christian civilization?

Vladimir Putin has now ruled Russia for 16 years, both as president and as prime minister. During this time he has employed many of the strong arm tactics of his KGB training, effectively eroding the brief experiment in democracy begun a quarter of a century ago. Moreover, he has done so with the blessing of the Church, led by Patriarch Kirill and his right-hand man, Archpriest Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, whom one observer has labeled “the Kremlin’s holy warrior.” According to Fr. Chaplin, “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle. . . . And today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it.”

Such rhetoric is echoed elsewhere within the Church’s hierarchy, thus incurring the wrath of Islamist groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), which effectively controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Russia’s bombing mission in Syria, which some are touting as an effort to protect Syrian Christians, is in reality intended to prop up President Bashar al-Asad’s régime, a traditional ally of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. In October ISIS claimed responsibility for the crash of a Russian civilian passenger jet returning from Egypt. The following month Turkey downed a Russian military jet which it accused of straying into its airspace near the Syrian border. Because Turkey is a member of NATO, this act further exacerbated existing tensions with the West.

Cheered on by Kirill and Chaplin, the Russian government responded with anger and threatened retaliation. But the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s Parliament, offered a tongue-in-cheek olive branch which it must have known Turkey would never accept: return the 1500-year-old Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, to the Orthodox Church in Istanbul, and all would be forgiven! Russia is obviously drawing on its 19th-century role as protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire and adapting it for the 21st, much to the consternation of a West in the grip of what Chaplin calls the “dead ideology of secularism.”

In the new – or perhaps old – Russian worldview, Putin is a man of “deep Christian faith,” holding the line against satanic influences from a decadent West. At the government’s invitation, Patriarch Kirill now resides within the Kremlin’s walls, thereby further solidifying the cozy relationship between state and church. With ISIS threatening more attacks on Russia, a crusade mentality has overtaken the country, now seemingly in the vanguard of Christian civilization, a shining light and final hope for a confused humanity.

Holy Russia is back.


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