Moscow on the Dnipro
Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses his words carefully. Unlike the leaders of some countries, he does not make faux pas. One does not rise through the ranks of the KGB dropping careless remarks. Moreover, he is an unusually intelligent man. Thus, his words deserve careful scrutiny.
Mr. Putin was in Kyiv last July for the celebrations of the 1,025th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’. As the “Economist” noted, the event was rife with political implications, particularly with the prospect of Ukraine’s upcoming choice between an Association Agreement with the European Union and a Customs Union with Russia. And as Sophia Kishkovsky remarked in the New York Times,Mr. Putin’s trip was also “the latest sign of the deepening ties and common agenda of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.” The anniversary had received considerable attention in Russia, “reflecting the Kremlin’s embrace of the church and its spiritual leader, Patriarch Kirill I.”
Representatives of all of the world’s Orthodox churches had travelled to Kyiv, along with fragments of the cross on which the Apostle Andrew is believed to have been crucified. The cross had been exhibited on a tour across Russia sponsored by Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the Russian railway company, who is said to be close to both Mr. Putin and the Russian Church. In his remarks, Patriarch Kirill stressed the idea of Holy Rus’, which unitesRussia, Ukraine and Belarus in a single Orthodox sphere. (Sophia Kishkovsky,“Putin in Ukraine to Celebrate a Christian Anniversary,” New York Times, July 28, 2013). Thus, the spiritual and temporal authorities cooperated in promoting, respectively, the ideas of Holy Rus’ and the “Russian world.”
In connection with these events, Mr. Putin made three significant statements. “We are all spiritual heirs of what happened here 1,025 years ago,” he told church hierarchs at the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv “And in this sense we are, without a doubt, one people.”Second, in a film called “The Second Baptism of Rus’,” aired on Russian state television, the president credited the choice of Christianity with “building a centralized Russian state.”Third, he described Communism as “just a simplified version of the religious principles shared by practically all the world’s traditional religions.”(Ibid.)
One cannot dispute the notion that the Russians and Belarusians are, along with the Ukrainians, the “spiritual heirs” of the Baptism of Rus’. But does it follow that they are “one people”? In a family – if we look at the source of the metaphor -- heirs are separate individuals, not a single person. The French, Germans, Spaniards and Italians are all “heirs” of Rome, but they remain separate nations. And just as the Italians can assert a certain priority in their claim to the Roman legacy, so the Ukrainians can make a pre-eminent claim to the legacy of Kyivan Rus’. It is significant that, as the report in the “Economist” noted, the Russian representatives to the commemoration wore badges that omitted the inconvenient word “Kyivan” from that term.It seems that in Mr. Putin’s view, it was Moscow that was baptised in the river Dnipro.
On the second point, did the choice of Christianity result in the creation of a “centralized Russian state”? It is true that it helped Grand Prince Volodimer (Vladimir) bring together a disparate collection of pagan peoples. But Mr. Putin appears to be conflating Kyivan Rus’ with the centralized Muscovite state formed three or four centuries later, which became the basis of the Russian empire founded by Peter I in the eighteenth century. Kyivan Rus’ never forged the kind of centralism practiced by Moscow. And Moscow’s subjugation of city-states like Novgorod in its “gathering of Rus’” had little to do with Christianity.
Finally, the notion that Soviet Communism was “just a simplified version” of universal religious principles is both a distortion and an exaggeration. The communal sharing of worldly goods was indeed practiced by early Christians, and can be found in other religions. But to sever it from other religious principles is to distort its meaning. For Christians, such sharing was voluntary, and inseparable from the other teachings of Jesus Christ. The forcible confiscation and redistribution of property conducted by the Bolsheviks was hardly consistent with those teachings. Nor, obviously, was the atheism and philosophical materialism that was essential to Communist ideology. Christians shared their goods because they believed in love and awaited the Kingdom of Heaven; Communists forced people into collectives because they cultivated class hatred and believed only in the material world.
These three statements seem to suggest that President Putin is a poor logician, a shaky historian, and a dreadful theologian. But he is more intelligent than that. More likely, he expects that most people will not analyze his words. Skilled propagandist that he is, he realizes that people will believe nonsense if they want to. And there are plenty of people who want to believe that the glorious successor of the Soviet Union will be none other than Holy Rus’, reincarnated as the new Russian World.