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Putin's Unorthodox Orthodoxy

Pundits from both America and Europe have recently ascribed religious motivations to the actions of Vladimir Putin. Is Orthodox Christianity to blame for his militant incursions, reactionary policies, or anti-Western rhetoric?

Absolutely not.

The notion that the Ukrainian crisis has religious causes is both factually wrong and religiously offensive. What’s worse, it is politically foolish, playing directly into Putin’s preferred narrative of a culture war.

Nonetheless, the idea is gaining a foothold among powerful Western politicians. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently asserted that Putin’s efforts to destabilize the Ukraine and his “anti-Western and anti-decadent line” have been “building on deeply conservative orthodox ideas.” The irony is that both Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin, who have opposing political goals, are employing a strikingly similar misrepresentation of Orthodox Christianity—that it is incompatible with the modern West.

Mr. Bildt is not the only global leader to presume the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and modernity. Since the early 1990s, US and European foreign policy has been profoundly shaped by a political thesis first advocated by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. Huntington argued that both the Slavic-Orthodox and the Islamic “civilizations” were incapable of embracing Western-styled democracy. Their religious and cultural traditions were supposedly too primitive to accept the Enlightenment principles championed in the West. Foreign policy consultants Molly A. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis have sounded similar notes, recently linking Mr. Putin’s “revitalization” of “orthodox morality” to his “expansionist vision” and repressive domestic policies.

Only the most superficial of analyses can claim that Mr. Putin’s actions are motivated by Orthodox Christian faith. He is, in fact, doing little more than masking his own political objectives behind the veil of a moralizing principle. Mr. Putin’s efforts to criminalize homosexuality or public swearing are a function of his political calculus, not the inevitable legislative outcome of Orthodox Christian faith.

Throughout history in both East and West, political activists have routinely attempted to solidify their bases by demonizing a religious other. Mr. Putin seeks to present himself as a valiant defender of traditional Russian values against a vacuous and immoral West precisely because he believes that linking himself to the cause of a self-made Christianity will authorize him to enact his stated desire to reintegrate the ancestral Eurasian lands of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

This is not Orthodox Christianity, but classic political showmanship. And it’s far from unique to Mr. Putin. Dressing up political ambition in the clothes of traditional values goes back as far as Caesar Augustus—and for good reason. This rhetorical move is often, unfortunately, effective.

Mr. Bildt should know better, and perhaps he does. But a more sophisticated parsing of the religious rhetoric is not useful to him and his neo-conservative American supporters. It would undermine their desire to paint the Ukrainian crisis as an exaggerated clash between East and West, wherein the West is modern and good and the East is dangerously religious and totalitarian.

The “clash of civilizations” viewpoint also relies on flawed assumptions about Orthodox Christian history and doctrine. Over the past decade, scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that the supposed cultural divide between Christian East and Christian West was largely a political invention that reaches back centuries.

From opposing sides, then, both Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin exaggerate the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and the modern West because it allows them to paint the political unrest in Ukraine as something other than it actually is—a political crisis brought on by the interconnection and fierce competition within the global debt and commodity markets.

The significance of these issues stretch beyond the current crisis in Russia/Ukraine because Orthodoxy is the dominant expression of Christianity in many other global hotspots, including the Balkans and the Middle East. If the economic and political interests of the West in these regions are going to be well served, then we must resist the facile characterizations of the Orthodox world and Orthodox/Western difference. They originate from an outdated and dangerous colonial vision that assumes the rest of the world should be measured according to an imaginary Western European standard. Ironically, though, the foundations of democracy, international trade, and Christianity originate from the very locations that are presented by Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin as incompatible with the Western world.

Our world—both West and East—offers enough real examples in which religious convictions misguide public policy and foreign affairs. We need not create a new one by believing the rhetoric of Mr. Putin.

Co-authored by Fordham Professors:  Aristotle Papanikolaou, Archbishop Demetrios Chair of Orthodox Theology and Culture, and George E. Demacopoulos, Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center

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boris Goodenough
Well there are morsels of truth to what the Swedish diplomat has said but from a very peculiar perspective. Vladdy baby as we call him was my US colleague's language instructor at LGY in the seventies. That same colleague ran into religious advisors to Vladdy at MT Athos at Magna Lavra. They, visionary monks, recently espoused a forced reconciliation of recalcitrant Orthodox bodies ( temporary non canonical ones) thereby paving the way in their view to an enriched future control of Byzantium. People who follow Vladdy closely are aware of this. It does not make mainstream news but is known to the diplomatic core and to some in the academic environment. Now take this information and put it into the hands of a Nordic diplomat and you get an interesting statement that means different things to different people. This is a very specific reference and not meant to be as broad as the replies imply.
Posted on 7/14/14 11:44 PM.
George Petrulakis
This post was quite interesting.

Could you provide a reading list for this portion: "Over the past decade, scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that the supposed cultural divide between Christian East and Christian West was largely a political invention that reaches back centuries."
Posted on 7/16/14 1:49 AM.
Lia Lewis
Good Article. I find it very sad that Russia is headed this way. But it was to be expected after 1990 with the KGB's inability to accept a new Russia. The KGB went from being spies to many of them being crime bosses. Russians still don't have many of the western freedoms that 1990 promised them. And it's sad that the Russian Orthodox Church is the way that it is in Russia. Personally, I'm confused as to where they stand on all of this. If tradition dictates then they agree with Putin on everything. If they're being independent of that, we can expect persecutions in the near future. The fact that the Russian government allegedly assassinated one of their most critical journalists says a lot about Putin. It's very sad.
Posted on 7/16/14 5:10 PM.
Demetrios Rhompotis
Although it's a very well written article and I consider its basic points to reasonable, it omits the fact that traditionally Orthodox Christian hierarchies have very eagerly put themselves and the church at the service of various despots and nationalistic/expansionist policies. That "tradition" continues to this day in Russia and to a lesser extent in Ukraine and Serbia (because it's no longer necessary) and FYROM (among other "Orhtodox" manifestations, the nationalist prime minister is building some huge Crosses on mountains surrounded the capital Skopje with the blessings of the Orthodox Church of course - although schismatic, it's still Orthodox in this and other traditions). Regarding the conflict in Ukraine, the truth is that its deeper roots are to be found in the so-called Union of Brest, a couple of centuries ago - which became the template for the Uniat undertaking - and the resistance to this move on behalf of the Orthodox with the Cossack population leading the struggle (even today Cossacks fare prominently in the Ukrainian crisis). This last point is key to understand the conflict, but the highly respected authors of this article coming from a Roman Catholic Institution, it's expected that they wouldn't like to touch ...
Posted on 7/18/14 4:26 PM.
DIMITRIOS ROMPOTIS
Although it's a very well written article and I consider its basic points to reasonable, it omits the fact that traditionally Orthodox Christian hierarchies have very eagerly put themselves and the church at the service of various despots and nationalistic/expansionist policies. That "tradition" continues to this day in Russia and to a lesser extent in Ukraine and Serbia (because it's no longer necessary) and FYROM (among other "Orhtodox" manifestations, the nationalist prime minister is building some huge Crosses on mountains surrounded the capital Skopje with the blessings of the Orthodox Church of course - although schismatic, it's still Orthodox in this and other traditions). Regarding the conflict in Ukraine, the truth is that its deeper roots are to be found in the so-called Union of Brest, a couple of centuries ago - which became the template for the Uniat undertaking - and the resistance to this move on behalf of the Orthodox with the Cossack population leading the struggle (even today Cossacks fare prominently in the Ukrainian crisis). This last point is key to understand the conflict, but the highly respected authors of this article coming from a Roman Catholic Institution, it's expected that they wouldn't like to touch ...
Posted on 7/18/14 4:32 PM.
Radomir Plavsic
Interesting article but you incorrect about "Mr. Putin’s efforts to criminalize homosexuality". The law that is in place now does not ban or criminalize homosexuals or homosexuality it merely says the homosexuality cannot be propagated to minors in schools or in public. Also, whether it's his Faith or political agenda, V.V.Putin has been better for other Orthodox countries as well as Russia. If we look at Serbia, the EU has placed so many prerequisites for it to join: Recognize Kosovo as a country, must allow gay pride parades, promote/allow single sex "marriages", easily available Abortions (besides bombing Serbia in 1999) and others, while Russia's EuroAsian Union doesn't put any such moral prerequisites for joining a political/economic Union. For traditionally Orthodox countries, the choice becomes clear.
Posted on 7/19/14 1:39 AM.
Allie anonymous
I don't know. Perhaps we should look at the log in our own American society and politicians' eyes before we judge the speck in Russia's eyes?
The USA I once knew is no longer the same God fearing USA and beacon of virtue that it once was, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union and 'evil empire' and we were the virtuous ones. Our involvement in world politics these days, and the mess it is making everywhere, especially for Christians, is not praiseworthy for sure. We are not the 'judge' of the world, only God is judge!
It is the American society that is now spiritually sick, morally and politically corrupt, increasingly Godless, sexually deviant and sexually obsessed, and we should not wish to impose those 'values' of 'freedoms' on other countries.
This obsession with Vladimir Putin in this country is not a good thing and seems, to me at least, to be bordering on hysterical propaganda. No one knows what a politician's heart really is, but if he or she can promote Christianity and Christian values in a society, then we should be happy that something positive is happening contrary to increasing neo-paganism on the one hand (in the USA and West), and radical Islamic domination and terror on the other.
Posted on 7/19/14 2:56 AM.
N. Cornelia
Demetrios, thank you for bringing up the Brest Union. The authors of the above are, in my opinion, making a near criminal omission by completely leaving out the role that the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) church and the schismatic Ukrainian "Patriarchate" played on the Maidan, and are still playing. Catholic periodicals write freely about how Greek-Catholic priests were handing out a "rosary prayer" on Maidan. The aim was overthrow of the government. According to Fr. Jacek Dudka on Sunday Catholic Weekly, "Many regimes subdued to the Rosary." Although there were protesters from all faiths, the Orthodox did not unite on either side in the name of Orthodoxy. The western part of the Ukraine, which strove to oust the lawfully elected president, was historically under the Polish empire, then the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Catholicism was forced upon them. The eastern part had always been part of Russian empire, and remained Orthodox. So, that Fordham professors would completely omit this essential information leaves me dumbfounded. Furthermore, they trample upon what we have no reason to believe are not the sincere religious feelings of not only the president of Russia, but of the whole Russian Orthodox populace. Why did these Greek Orthodox authors do that? I find it hard to understand.
Posted on 7/22/14 3:27 PM in reply to Demetrios Rhompotis.
Taras Dobko
Of course, one should not exaggerate the disjunction between Orthodoxy and modernity. But it is striking nonetheless that Orthodox imaginary is so prone to political manipulation of people like Putin. We have to ask ourselves tough question of why it happens so often historically and nowadays that Orthodoxy and anti-modernism enter into this kind of political marriage. And where is an alternative, i.e. a convergence of Orthodoxy and modernity that is powerful enough to counteract countless examples of Orthodoxy's repudiation of modernity in general and Putin's abuse of religion in particular. The absence of powerful alternative makes the claim about divergence of Orthodoxy and modern civic values indeed very plausible (even if not metaphysically or essentialistically true).
Posted on 9/11/14 7:32 PM.
iannis carras
Those interested in this post might be interested in my article on the subject: https://www.academia.edu/10189335/Can_Ukraines_divided_church_help_heal_the_divided_country
Iannis Carras.
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