Insufficient attention has been given to the role of religion in helping to impose and reinforce the largest and fastest-growing dictatorial system in the modern world. I am referring to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is well on its way to becoming a one-party system to rival the former Communist one, with a police apparatus to match and a cult of personality as well. Such a system requires an ideological mask that is a little more sophisticated than sheer power and sheer greed, and has found it in the appeal to traditional Russian chauvinism. And which body has always been the loyal accomplice of traditional Russian chauvinism? Yes, you guessed right. The black-cowled phalanx of Russian Orthodox Christianity is back at the side of the new czar.
Most people know about this, if they know about it at all, because of the famous meeting between George Bush and Vladimir Putin where the latter wore his grandmother’s crucifix and the former was so impressed that he decided that he had gazed into the depths of Putin’s “soul.” I ridiculed this meeting on the assumption that Putin had thought our president pathetically easy to fool (and I do not by any means take this thought back). But, hypocrite though he probably is when it comes to crucifixes and clerical regalia, the ex-KGB goon Putin nonetheless understands very well that a church-state Concordat is something from which both he and the priesthood could readily profit.
Several recent reports underline my point. Russian Orthodox clerics are back in the schoolrooms, inculcating innocent children into the idea that a “true” Russian is also a member of the national church. Since this bloodstained national church underwent the trauma of a schism during the Communist period, with the traditional establishment continuing to serve Stalin and the secular power (a fact that is very often forgotten or even denied) while an even more conservative minority decamped to New York and set up a rival authority, there have recently been reunification talks aimed at healing the breach. And Mr. Putin, of course, has been prominent in hosting these negotiations and in several other ways cementing the idea that he, his party, the nation, and the church are one.
This is a very dangerous, very nasty, state of affairs. Tens of millions of Russians are either unbelievers, non-Orthodox Christians of many denominations, Muslims, or Jews. Historically, Russian Orthodoxy was a brutal henchman of forced religious conformism within the borders of the state and played an unforgettable role in the persecution and murder of, in particular, the Jewish minority. The most famous achievement of this reactionary clerical establishment—the fabrication of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion—also had implications beyond Russia’s frontiers. Spread by Orthodox White Russian priests and other émigrés after 1917, it became part of the ghastly energy of Nazism.
Today’s revived Russian and Russian Orthodox chauvinism and authoritarianism has widely ramified implications. It was Russia that reached deep into Europe to help support Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, directed at Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholics, and it is Russia that still invokes this sinister Orthodox “brotherhood” with Serbia when the question of Kosovo’s independence comes up at the councils of the European Union and the United Nations. In addition, when Russia seeks to influence or bully its former colonies in the Baltic or the Caucasus or in Eastern Europe, it is often the religious difference that is added to the nationalist one in order to intensify Putin’s appeal to domestic xenophobia. (The Russian Orthodox don’t really even want Roman Catholics, let alone Protestants, proselytizing in their territory, but, as I never tire of saying, just see how the Christians love each other.)
Secularists and infidels have become used to repeating that we are equally opposed to all three monotheisms, as indeed we are. But we sometimes forget that quarrels within these communities of bigotry, fanaticism, and stupidity can be just as dangerous as the original illusion itself. And while we have been focused on the obscurantism of the pope, the idiocies of the “Christian Coalition,” the madness of the Jewish settlers, and the ongoing hysteria of Islamism (which is undergoing its own interconfessional civil war), a specter that haunted the nineteenth century—the specter of Eastern Orthodox triumphalism—has also risen to trouble our sleep. The Parties of God never relax, and neither should we.