At an Orthodox Easter service in April, a “somber looking” Vladimir Putin joined with other worshippers in saying, “Christ is truly risen.”
He probably believes this. Mark Hollingsworth has detailed how Putin’s religious allegiance has infused his life. He concludes that his Russian Orthodoxy is an essential part of his intense nationalism. For Putin, he writes, “promoting the mystical belief that Russia is the Third Rome, the next ruling empire of the earth, has been part of his appeal to the masses.”
This mystical belief has caused Putin to believe he, himself, is imbued with the spirit of his nation. Shortly before Lent, one of his business associates asked Putin about asking forgiveness before a priest. Putin responded, “‘I am the President of Russia. Why should I ask for forgiveness?’”
When a leader believes he is the personification of the state itself, specially chosen by God to lead his country to conquest and triumph, trouble looms — as the people of Ukraine have learned with great pain.
The German philosopher G.F. Hegel claimed that the state — a centralized government with power over every institution and person within the borders it controls — “is the march of God on earth.” This is precisely the approach taken by the Nazis concerning Adolf Hitler. The so-called “Fuhrer (leader) principle” was made clear by one of Hitler’s lapdog apologists, Rudolf Hess: “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler. Whatever he does is necessary. Whatever he does is successful. Clearly the Führer has divine blessing.”
This is why negotiating with Putin has proven so difficult. If he is filled with the spirit of his nation, and if Russia is uniquely a Christian space, then how can he be held accountable for anything he does? Using his reasoning, his purity of vision and action is axiomatic. He is incapable of error, a secular pope speaking from a place of political ex cathedra.
How does this factor into the invasion of Ukraine? That nation, Putin said in a speech last year, is “an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.” It is true that the leader of Kyiv “accepted Christianity in 988 and established a devout kingdom that became the predecessor to the modern states of Ukraine and Russia.” But it is not true that Ukraine has always been part of Russia, nor does it follow that Russia’s affirmation of Eastern Orthodoxy for 1,000 years justifies the violent and vicious assault on Ukraine today. This last proposition is so illogical it does merit lengthy refutation.
Putin gets heavy political backing from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I. Kirill, reportedly once a KGB agent under the guise of his priest’s habit, has done quite well for himself for a man of the cloth. In 2006, prior to his accession to his church’s highest position, the Moscow News estimated he had a personal fortune of about $4 billion. As journalist Jason Horowitz reports, “Kirill has in recent years aspired to expand his church’s influence, pursuing an ideology consistent with Moscow being a ‘Third Rome,’ a reference to a 15th-century idea of Manifest Destiny for the Orthodox Church, in which Mr. Putin’s Russia would become the spiritual center of the true church after Rome and Constantinople.”
Late last year, Kirill said in a sermon of those Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine: “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.” This is not unlike the Islamic promise that to die for Allah gets you into the Muslim heaven, a promise used to induce terrorists to tie bombs to their bodies and fly planes into buildings.
A “third Rome?” Putin’s enablers in his church benefit right along with the Russian president. “Putin has allowed the (Russian Orthodox) Church to return to prominence and supported it in a way unheard of since the Revolution,” writes religion scholar Ben Ryan. “The Church has, in turn, provided some of the intellectual and cultural backing for Putin’s Statist vision for Russia and the wider Russian sphere of influence.”
Putin could well believe in essential Christian teachings and even practice the rites of his church. He speaks fondly of his mother. “Mama gave me my baptismal cross to get it blessed at the Lord’s Tomb,” he once reported. Yet his faith is not the faith of the New Testament. It’s a perverse version of what Scripture teaches, one that “has a form of Godliness but denies the power thereof” (II Timothy 2:6).
Putin’s affirmations of certain biblical truths do not mean he has ever personally come to repentance and trust in a Savior Who alone can redeem. Until he does, he can, like the Pharisees of old, perform all the rituals and recite all the creeds of his tradition, but “neglect the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23-34). The suffering people of Ukraine can speak potently of this truth.
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