Mr. Perfect goes to church

Putin met with Pope Francis last week, but just before that

In a rare newspaper interview ahead of his state visit to Italy, Vladimir Putin has claimed he never makes mistakes because God “built his life so he’d have nothing to regret”.

Which inspired this drawing by the well-known Russian political cartoonist who goes by Yolkin (Elkin).

Yulia Latynina, by turns sensible and unhinged but usually entertaining, hypothesizes that Putin may have offered Pope Frances a “PR church union.”

What could it be? “Your Holiness, I guarantee you the Russian church will recognize your primacy by the end of the year if you support me on Ukraine and especially on World Cup 2018?” Sounds crazy: another Russian schism à la 1653 would be all but inevitable. Eschatologically-minded literalists rebelled when Russia introduced taxpayer identification numbers in the early 2000s, interpreting them as the Antichrist’s seal.

Putin is probably hoping that papal support (which I don’t think will ever be provided) would come at a price the Russian church will be able to pay if pressured by the Kremlin. Moreover, I suspect that the Kremlin would like to take down the Russian Orthodox Church a notch or two, distrustful of its loyalty and fearful of its potential influence if led by independent and risk-taking bishops.

Curiously, Patriarch Kirill’s detractors in the ROC have long accused him of Roman Catholic sympathies, to the point of calling him a “secret cardinal” (cardinal in pectore), an accusation previously reserved for Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov, 1929-1978).

These accusers tend to be isolationist obscurantists and reactionary purists but their extravagant claims are not all rubbish.

Apart from purely theological grounds, suspicion of the ecumenical movement is grounded in the KGB infiltration of it. In the past, the Kremlin has used interchurch dialogue to influence public opinion in the West; Latynina claims it was the case after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the ensuing boycotts. Why not again?

Within Russia, Kirill apparently wanted his church to play the same role as the Catholic church once did in some European countries – Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and to some degree France — before secularization and urbanization enervated its influence. If Kirill is “popish,” it means he would like to have the powers and independence the bishop of Rome enjoys (significantly greater than any Eastern patriarch’s) with the social and institutional power of a firmly established Russian church greatly expanded.

The author of this 2010 piece, the Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov, is anything but a reactionary. This was written before Kirill was elected Patriarch:

But by all accounts what attracted Nikodim was not the church as such, but the Vatican’s administrative machine…

Kirill really does want to reform the Russian Orthodox Church as an organization, possibly even on the Vatican model, and he is capable of doing so. He wants to make the church more “telegenic” and open it up to the Internet, which is inevitable if the Russian Orthodox Church really wants to become not simply a cover and friend of the authorities in Russia…

But from the theological and social standpoint, this apparent reformer remains an arch-conservative… He is, in fact, the John Paul II of the Russian church, a man who is not afraid of television cameras or crowded stadiums, who can express himself not just on religious topics, but also on history and politics.

But there is one key difference: The Russian patriarch is not the pope. Kirill, however, refuses to admit this fact. He is trying to subordinate to himself the entire administrative machine of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The last Moscow patriarch to be suspected of Pope-grade ambitions was Nikon, and Tsar Alexei did not take it lightly: Nikon was deposed and banished to a monastery. It is rumored that Putin does not like Kirill, who has not been heard much on state TV since the Crimean invasion. (His silence may have to do with the risk of the Ukrainian church shifting from autonomy to full independence.) If it’s true that Kirill is ambitious and sees his role as different from the minister of religious propaganda, it’s natural that the Kremlin is wary of him.

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