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Financial Post | 13Oct2016 | Lawrence Solomon

In Russia’s religious rebirth, Putin is a new Pope

Via the Russian Orthodox Church, Satan challenges God

[W.Z. The very title of this article by Lawrence Solomon is misleading. It should be reworded as "Via the Russian Orthodox Church, Satan challenges God", where we have equated  Putin = Evil = Satan versus Pope Francis = Good = God. Below, we have inserted conmments in the color fuchsia enclosed in square brackets to rectify some of Mr. Solomon's misleading statements.]

What explains Putin’s success? Two years ago, amid plummeting oil prices, a plummeting ruble, a contracting economy, the flight of investors and sanctions over Crimea, pundits were predicting Russia’s, and Putin’s, demise. Yet Putin’s popularity at home has soared -- hovering well above 80 per cent according to the Associated Press’s and other reputable polls -- despite the hardships caused by rising food prices and falling employment.

Western naysayers who dismiss his popularity as rooted in false values -- his control over the press, his bare-chested publicity stunts or chauvinism stirred by his military muscle -- misunderstand the great respect and moral authority he commands within Russia and neighbouring countries. Putin stands for everything craved by a country debased and diminished by 75 years of communism: A principled leader who protects his country from Western aggression, Western contempt and Western values. While we in the West see ourselves as paragons of enlightenment, the envy of the people who don’t enjoy Western-style liberal democracy, only one in 20 Russians wants to become more like us. The overwhelming majority hews to Putin’s vision of Russian exceptionalism and puritanism.

[W.Z. Then why do the majority of ethnic Russians want to come to Canada or the U.S. to work and live? Why do all the Russian "elite" have foreign bank accounts, establish residences, buy property and send their children to foreign schools? Why does Vladimir Putin have to decree that all his Oligarchs and bureaucrats must repatriate their families studying and living in foreign lands back to "Mother Russia"? (Is it to protect them from WWIII that he threatens to initiate, or is it to preclude rats leaving a sinking ship?) The amount of funds that Putin's Oligarchs have siphoned out of Russia's resource-based economy into secret foreign bank accounts is staggering. Is this Mr. Putin's vision of "exceptionalism and puritanism"?]

Unlike almost every other country in the world, Russians have rising birth rates and growing families; unlike almost every other country in the West, Russians are undergoing a religious Renaissance. Putin, who is baptized [When? Where? By whom? Who are/were his godparents?], is arguably a greater defender of traditional Christian values than the Pope, who has been tolerant of divorce, abortion, gay marriage and the transformation of what was once an unabashedly Holy Christian Europe into a part-atheistic, part-Muslim continent.

[W.Z. On the contrary, the population of ethnic Russians is projected to decrease for the forseeable future; whereas the population of many other ethnic groups (including Muslim) comprising the Russian Federation is projected to increase. It is estimated that less than 2% of ethnic Russians attend religious services regularly. It appears that Pope Francis and other Christion religious leaders are willing to modify ancient intolerant religious practices to reflect changing circumstances; whereas Mr. Putin wishes to reimpose the tyranny of the Russian Orthodox Church prevalent during the Tsarist Russian Empire of the middle ages.]

Putin, in contrast, has repudiated the once-official atheism of Communist Russia and embraced the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. In diametric opposition to the trend elsewhere in the West, he penalizes divorce, prohibits advertising abortion services, outlaws pornography and campaigns against “homosexual propaganda.” Unlike the West, which has seen the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of churches or their conversion into restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, Putin has reversed Lenin’s legacy by restoring almost 25,000 churches that had been abandoned or destroyed under communism. Putin contrasts a decadent West to a profoundly spiritual and moral Russia. In his State of the Union address three years ago, he expressed disdain for the West’s “so-called tolerance -- genderless and infertile.”

[W.Z. Mr. Solomon makes simplistic references to "Russia" and the "Russian Orthodox Church" from the present date back to ancient times. Thus, in reverse chronological order, the nomenclature should read:
"Russian Federation" of which Russia is a small geographical component (since 1991);
"Communist (Bolshevik) Russian Empire" comprising 15 so-called independent republics (between 1991 and 1922);
"Tsarist Russian Empire" (between 1922/1917 and 1721, when Peter the Great proclaimed himself Tsar of all his conquered lands;
"Muscovy + Kyivan Rus lands" (prior to 1721 and 1328, when Moscow became the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Moscow or 1147, when Moscow allegedly was founded by Yury Dolgoruky; 
"Muscovy + Kyivan Rus lands" (between 1328 and 1240, when the Mongol invasion led by Batu Khan destroyed Kyiv and "Kyivan Rus" disintegrated; and
"Kyivan Rus" (between 1240 through 988 when prince Volodymyr the Great adopted Christianity, and 482 when Kyiv was allegedly founded by prince Kyi.

Indeed, Dr. Myron Petriw, author and scholar of Ukrainian history, has argued that upon the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the geographical component of the Russian Federation, which is now designated as "Russia", should have reverted to its original name as "Muscovy". Russia did not exist prior to 1721; and only the "Tsarist Russian Empire" (as declared by Peter the Great) existed after that date. So, when Lawrence Solomon uses the term "Russia" is he referring to "Muscovy", the "Russian Federation" or the lands of the "Tsarist Russian Empire" as envisioned by Vladimir Putin? Does Mr. Solomon acknowledge the existence of  non-Russians on the lands of the "Tsarist Russian Empire"?

The history of the "Russian Orthodox Church" is even more problematic. Since I was born in Canada from parents of Ukrainian ethnic origin, I expect a complete separation of "church" from "state", as do the vast majority of Canadian citizens. Furthermore, I expect "autocephaly" of all religious institutions in Canada. Although foreign contacts may be maintained to co-ordinate questions of religious dogma; no foreign individual, organization or government can interfere on questions of property rights, finance, Canadian laws and other "state" matters. Only Canadian citizens have that right and responsibility.

Historically, the "Russian Orthodox Church" has always been an instrument of the Russian state authorities to control the inhabitants under their dictatorial rule. Although religion was officially banned during the  Communist era, Stalin lifted the ban during the German invasion in 1941 in an effort to mobilize popular resistance to the German invasion. But it is well-known that all the church hierarchs were either NKVD/KGB agents or reported to the NKVD/KGB. This was the reality during the Tsarist era and it continues into the Putin era today. The "Russian Orthodox Church" has always supported the interests of the Russian state authorities at the expense of the inhabitants and even its own parishioners.

The reference to Ukraine in the short paragraph below indicates that Mr. Solomon is well-aware of the controversy raging between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), the Ukrainian Orhodox Church - Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). Many UOC-MP hierarchs have proven to be supporters of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine. The obvious solution is the unification of all three of these Orthodox churches into the UAOC with no connection to Moscow.

Historically, since the adoption of Christianity in 988 by Volodymyr, Kyiv was the centre of the Orthodox Church in Kyivan Rus with connections to Constantinople. After the conquest of Ukraine by Muscovy in the mid-1600's, this centre was usurped non-canonically by Moscow in 1686 to the detriment of the Ukrainian people. It is time for Ukraine to regain control of its religious affairs.]

Russia’s Christian roots also inform its foreign policy, with the Russian Orthodox Church -- allied with Syrian churches -- in 2011 asking Putin to protect the Middle East’s Christian minorities. “So it will be,” Putin responded, in what would become a modern-day crusade of sorts. Syrian dictator Bashir Assad not only is a long-standing ally of Russia; he has long been the protector of Syria’s Christian community -- 10 per cent of the country’s population -- from the country’s Muslim extremists. The alignment of Syria’s Christians with Russia’s Orthodox Church, combined with Russia’s military and geopolitical interests in Syria, made Putin’s decision to back Assad a no-brainer.

Much of Putin’s moral authority at home, in fact, comes from his judgment abroad. Putin had supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (after 9/11, he saw the U.S. as an ally against Muslim terrorism) but he turned against the U.S. when it invaded Iraq, a war he saw as unjustifiable and sure to inflame Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. Among the Iraq war’s many tragic results has been the decimation of virtually the whole of Iraq’s once-vibrant, 1.5-million-strong Christian communities. Putin on similar grounds opposed the West’s overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi and Egypt’s Mubarak -- a protector of Egypt’s Christian Copts -- and supports Egypt’s new president, Sisi, another protector of Egypt’s Christians.

Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church, in fact, have loomed large in most of Putin’s foreign policy decisions. The West’s attempts to pull Ukraine away from Russia created deep resentment because of the cultural ties between the nations, not least those between their sister Orthodox Churches.
[W.Z. See comments above. Secondly, it is Ukraine (not the "West") who is attempting to pull away from Russia and establish closer relations with Europe.]

The Crimean Peninsula’s return to Russia was also deeply symbolic, as Putin explained in an address to Russia’s federal assembly: “It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus…. Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state. It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore saw themselves as a united nation … Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”

[W.Z. If the myth that Grand Prince Volodymyr was baptized in Crimea in 988 rather than in Kyiv is true, and since Russia, Moscow and Muscovy did not exist at that time and for centuries thereafter, then Crimea is of more "sacral importance" to Ukraine than to the Russian Federation.]

Putin’s Russia is not the soulless Soviet Union, but a major Western country that takes its religion seriously, and itself seriously, and is united in its appreciation for a leader who embodies both.

[W.Z. We must conclude that the Mr. Solomon's simplistic parroting of Vladimir Putin's "hybrid" propaganda is a disservice to humanity and to the Financial Post's readers. The Financial Post would be well advised to approach Ukrainian and other knowledgeable historians to present a more balanced analysis of the issues involved.]

Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Toronto-based Probe International.