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As the scope of the Ukraine-Russia crisis has expanded, a diverse array of domestic and international actors have become involved, including religious communities. This week’s Cornerstone contributors discuss how clergy and the faithful have impacted the political and economic situation in Eastern Europe, including the rise of nationalist leaders, Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, and the ongoing separatist insurgency.
By: Jon Kyst
As Russian president Vladimir Putin’s popularity in the West decreases along with the value of his currency, the ruble, religious implications of his policies seem to increase. Finding himself under immense pressure, it is perhaps no wonder that Putin keeps a spiritual hotline open, for several reasons. In part, he appeals to religion in search of legitimization; but of course, religion can also at a later point become relevant for forgiveness and atonement, should that become necessary.
Summing up the most remarkable events in December 2014, Putin said in his address to the 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 baptised 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. All of this allows us to say that Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”
In this December speech, Putin avoided the metaphor of Slavic brotherhood and the notion that Russians and Ukrainians are the same, as supported by Russian right-wing nationalists. He also avoided mentioning that the Ukrainian capital of Kiev is the historical founding place of Russian statehood, as he did in his speech defending the annexation of Crimea in March. Instead, Putin addresses the notion of Kievan Prince Vladimir’s baptism as a source of “spiritual unity” for Russians.
While the most available reading of this statement would be that Putin expresses his policy as a crusade, we can also ask Putin, and his speechwriter, if the speech does not actually offer the Russian audience a chance to ask for forgiveness for the violence and hostilities that struck Ukraine in 2014. To Christians, baptism is an offer to “reset” your sins: “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” (John 3:5) Putin’s turn to the theme of baptism in Russian history could be a first sign of remorse.
Even if this was a sign of remorse and church unity, Russia’s religious landscape has also been the site of division and controversy. Among the most famous is the feminist group Pussy Riot, who have publicly challenged Putin through their critical lyrics and rock performances. One of these took place inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and they subsequently produced a documentary “A Punk Prayer.” The form they chose less than a month after Putin’s December speech, on the occasion of the verdict against opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Moscow, was that of witches. In a video that went viral in Russian social media, the same two women who were in 2012 convicted for hooliganism and hurting other people’s religious feelings flew as witches on brooms next to Kremlin’s walls. The broomsticks of the Pussy Riot witches first serve the function of cleaning the square from political corruption, and only then obtain the purpose we normally think of when witches are involved.
As these examples show, religion has a complex relationship with Russia’s political culture. While religious metaphors like baptism can be used to defend Putin’s politics, they can also be used to criticize Putin and incite opposition. This contrast reflects the tensions present in Russian society, which become especially evident when domestic and geopolitical crises occur.
Jon Kyst is a full-time professor of Russian history and culture at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad.
This piece was originally authored on January 7, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.