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By John Helmer, Moscow

The end of the Soviet Union, and the election in 1991, then re-election in 1996 of Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation, are usually depicted in Russia as a kind of election defeat for the Communist Party as well as of leftwing, socialist or communist policy.  Yeltsin’s destruction of the Russian parliament, elected in 1990, by artillery and special forces units loyal to the Kremlin, wasn’t  electoral. The constitution Yeltsin then drafted wasn’t an electoral mandate either: it was preceded by Yeltsin’s dismissal of the Constitutional Court and followed by a rigged and fraudulent vote to enact  the document.  

For a commentary in Vzglyad  last week to describe the political outcomes of the 1991-93 period as “the rejection by our country of the Communist ideology” is fake history. Just how feeble the fake is in current political terms is revealed by the efforts of the principal anti-communist elements in the country to make themselves appear to be representative, even comprehensive politically under the President, Vladimir Putin, and Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Last week they combined to stage a 25th anniversary of the World Russian People’s Council (Всемирный Русский Народный Собор).  Council in the secular sense of the English word isn’t quite the meaning of the title in Russian. Its traditional meanings are religious – a cathedral, an assembly of churchmen, a religious holiday, and three centuries ago, an administrative body  appointed by the tsar from among clerics and noblemen he trusted to follow his orders.     

According to the Sobor’s website, this one was set up just before the Kremlin launched its military assault on the Russian parliament. “The World Russian National Council (VRNS) has been created in May 1993. The birth of VRNS has taken place during the difficult period of national history when the Russian people were in great need in association.” That the current patriarch claims personal credit for starting the sobor as an anti-parliament operation is declared by Kirill’s supporters: “During this period the initiative of association of all Russian people, irrespective of the country of accommodation and political views, was undertaken by Russian Orthodox Church. The Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, nowadays the Head of VRNS, the  Most Holy Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.  Kirill became the inspirer, the spiritual leader of the Council.”

Left, the Sobor logo: https://vrns.ru/  Right: Kirill and Putin on stage at the Kremlin assembly last week. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/    The display of the Christian symbolism is deliberate. The selection of green was also deliberate, since yellow and black were the colours of the Romanovs; red the colour of the Communist Party; and blue the colour of the former nobility. Green is the outcome of mixing the tsar’s yellow with the boyars’ blue.

In Putin’s speech to the Council on November 1, he repudiated Russian secularism with an attack on the Communist period and promotion of the Patriarch’s agenda. “This Kremlin hall”, Putin started, “that used to be unofficially known as the Palace of Congresses is now hosting the Russian People’s Council. This is indeed a sign of fundamental change in our society.” Built during Nikita Khrushchev’s time as head of the Soviet Union, the building opened in 1961 with the 22nd congress of the Communist Party; the party’s last congress there was the Komsomol’s 20th congress in 1987. Since 1991 the building has been used to stage pop concerts and ballet. Putin wasn’t referring to those when he meant “fundamental change”.

“Brazen and unbridled interventions are being made into the life of the church,” Putin went on to describe one of the threats to “destroy the traditional [Russian] values and the cultural and historical spaces that have been forming for centuries. The goal is to create various bleak ‘protectorates’ because it is easier to rule peoples who are disconnected, have no national memory and are turned into simple vassals, and to use them as bargaining chips.”

The reference to interventions in the “life of the church” was Putin’s way of describing last month’s  secession of parts of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow patriarchate; for details of Putin’s handling of this issue, read this.   His November 1 remark is contradictory. If Ukrainian autocephaly, the clerical term for secession, is “brazen and unbridled intervention”, what is the “intervention” of the Russian president on Kirill’s side in the controversy over whose religious authority should prevail among believers?  In earlier remarks on the issue, Putin has claimed his “personal sympathies” are with Kirill’s side, but his presidential position requires him  “to ensure the opportunity for every person to express their position.” That is the president’s duty, according to the secular state and freedom of belief articles in the Yeltsin constitution.  

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) meets with Filaret (right), head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, in Kiev on October 11, 2018.  Filaret had been excommunicated in 1992 by councils of bishops of the Ukrainian and Russian Churches for offences against the prevailing church authorities, including “public slander and blasphemy against a Bishops’ Council…[and] causing a schism in the Church.” 

Putin’s “sympathy” wasn’t strong enough for the Patriarch, so on October 31, in a speech  to the 6th World Congress of Compatriots Living Abroad, Putin declared: “I must also say a few more words about the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church and other traditional national confessions, including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. I can see many representatives of these religions in this hall, and I would like to welcome them. I want to thank them for their efforts to strengthen cultural and humanitarian ties between our compatriots abroad and Russia. Unfortunately, some are now trying to sever these ties, one way or another, and to force these people to stay in their respective countries. I would like to note one thing: political intrigues in this sensitive sphere have always spelled dire consequences, primarily for those who are doing this. It is our shared duty (to the people, in the first place) to do everything possible to preserve spiritual and historical unity.”

The Kremlin version is less precise than the wire services; they translated Putin as speaking emphatically on one side of the church schism.  “I want to stress one thing: political maneuvering in this sensitive area will always lead to the most serious of consequences, especially for those who do it.”

The next day at the Patriarch’s Sobor, Putin was more explicit ideologically. The Ukrainian break from the Russian church isn’t a case of freedom of belief, he said. It’s a “policy [which] can have very serious consequences. It is dangerous.”  The president then contradicted himself again. “The voice of Russia…is defined by both  our tradition and internal spiritual culture, our identity and finally, by the history of our country as an authentic civilisation, a unique one, but one which does not assertively and aggressively claim its exceptionalism.”

Kirill has been less inhibited in making the Church’s case for its exceptionalism. Its authority towards Ukrainian autocephaly dates from rulings of the Council of Antioch (341 AD),  the Council of Carthage (397), and a decision by the Constantinople patriarch in 1686 which, the Patriarch  now insists,  cannot  “be reviewed. The decision to ‘repeal’ it is canonically negligible. Otherwise it would be possible to annul any document defining the canonical territory and status of a Local Church, regardless of its antiquity, authoritativeness and common ecclesial recognition.”

At the Sobor Putin endorsed Kirill personally: “I would like to thank Your Holiness for the big contribution to the activity of the council, and its participants for the mission that you have been doing for the past 25 years, a very important mission for our society and the state.”

A search of Russian radio, television, print and internet media has found many endorsements   of Putin’s Sobor speech, and one sardonic review in English. The author, an anonymous blogger using the Latin call-sign Yalensis (from Yale University in Connecticut), acknowledges that Kirill’s “forum” had been “founded by the Russian Orthodox Church leadership with the purpose of providing the masses with a new ideology, and a new purpose, other than Communism.” The media search has not found a single published objection to Putin’s identification of the national ideology of Russians with the Church. 

This is unusual because opinion surveys by the state-funded Russian Public Opinion Centre (VTsIOM) have found no evidence that Russians share Putin’s religious convictions or Kirill’s soborific representations. In fact, according to VTsIOM’s report of November 2, the symbols of national identity which are strongest among Russians aren’t political, religious or ideological at all. They are the military victory over Germany in 1945, and the potato, meat and mayonnaise combination, first invented by a Belgian chef in St. Petersburg a century and a half ago, and known as Olivier Salad.


KEY: VTsIOM asked a nationwide sample to say “what Russia represents for you, what is its symbol?”  Without cues, the open-ended questioning also invited responses on nationally defining books, literary characters, films, songs, foods and Russian historical events. Source: https://wciom.ru/

What unites us? VTsIOM’s poll headline asks.  “Russians believe that we are primarily united by [Lev Tolstoy’s novel] War and Peace, [Ivan Goncharov’s fictional character] Oblomov, [the Soviet movie of 1976] Irony of Fate, the national anthem, Olivier Salad, and victory in the Great Patriotic War.”

In percentage terms, the largest proportion of Russians making national identifications named the war (63%). In order of importance, the next most important symbols of national identity are Olivier Salad (51%); Herring Salad (Селедка под шубой  — 28%); pelmeni (25%); the national anthem (20%);  borsch (17%); the recovery of Crimea (12%); and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (8%).  The Russian flag, the state coat of arms, the army, Yury Gagarin’s space flight, and several books, films and popular songs were mentioned by single-digit percentages.

As a recognized national symbol among Russians, no mention was reported by VTsIOM of the Church, the Patriarch or the crucifix.


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