Vladimir Putin won’t find many great presents under the Christmas tree this year.
Orthodox Christian religious leaders worldwide are weakening an important institution that gave him outsize power and legitimacy.
The Russian Orthodox Church is being broken up, and an independent Ukraine Orthodox Church will be established. The Ukrainian flock soon will be led not by the Moscow-based church and Patriarchate, but rather by its own independent church and youthful leadership. Ukraine and its political class are suddenly freed from an influential Russian institution that has been fiercely loyal to Putin.
This was not on Putin’s Christmas list. Instead, the news is like a lump of coal in his stocking.
Russia’s wider designs on — and power over — Ukraine have included a wide hybrid war from the Donbass to the recent naval blockade in the Black Sea. Moscow has its fingerprints on the shoot-down of the Malaysian MH-17 passenger plane over Ukrainian territory and its paw prints on an annexed Crimea. Every step of the way, Putin has found legitimacy in his actions and the nation’s military activity through reignited Russian nationalism and the silent acquiescence of Moscow’s spiritual leadership and clergy.
Religion did not always play a central role in Russia. Not long ago, when Communism ruled the Soviet Union’s people and territories, an officially encouraged atheism led to secularized churches and iconoclastic behavior. Marxist ideology did not support both a Communist system and religious beliefs. But people continued to worship, both privately and surreptitiously. Putin himself admitted to being a closeted Christian during those dark days.
By the end of the Soviet era, however, when Mikhail Gorbachev was making overtures to the West and meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome during a state visit. Gorbachev saw religion as a means to bridge a godless Soviet Union to a secularized West, that nevertheless respected religion and religious freedom. As a Newsweek reporter, I traveled to Sicily with Raisa Gorbachev and Russian Patriarch Alexey II for a symbolically important trip that highlighted a mutually beneficial Russian church-state relationship.
That relationship grew and strengthened after the Soviet Union collapsed — a relationship I observed while a Moscow correspondent living next door to Alexey II’s Arbat residence. Putin now openly embraces the church, its power, and, seemingly, his faith.
For a while, it seemed that the Muscovite church was unstoppably ascendant. Tax-free revenues, powerful patrons and Putin-primed subsidies made it a rich realm. In a post-Soviet Russia, the enriched Moscow Patriarchate imagined a new, unique role and envisioned the glory and opportunity to take the spiritual crown from an Eastern Orthodox church, whose Ecumenical Patriarch lives and works in an increasingly inhospitable Turkey. Moscow’s religious hierarchs and political leaders believed that Russia’s time had come to fulfill its historic destiny: Moscow as the “Third Rome.”
The Third Rome doctrine asserts that Moscow picks up the Christian mantle following the fall of Rome and after Constantinople (known as “New Rome”) succumbed to Islam’s Ottoman Empire. The updated version of the doctrine continues to drive Moscow’s belief that its time for ascendance is now.
Except it’s not.
Constantinople still holds sway. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople — today it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople in modern day Turkey — decided affirmatively that Ukraine needed to be ecclesiastically free and independent. Politically, this move weakens Moscow’s claims, but it also shores up the Ukrainian leader’s fortunes. In his annual marathon press conference this week, Putin said he considers the decision to split Eastern Orthodoxy as gross political interference directed by Washington and the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate. Putin further warned that the breakup could lead to “difficult, even bloody” conflict over things like church property ownership.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose popularity was recently sagging, has hitched his wagon to the fast-moving Kiev church’s new status. If Putin, Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church today see themselves as inseparable and unitary, then Poroshenko, too, wants to tie himself tightly to an increasingly popular Ukrainian Orthodox Church with loyalties to Kiev, not Moscow, able to name its own leader and not under the authority of an outside patriarch.
Russia celebrates the winter’s big religious holiday not on Dec. 25, but on the 12th day that follows and concludes with the Jan. 6 Epiphany. That soon-arriving day will mark the end of the Russian Orthodox Church’s monopoly over the Slavic-speaking Christian world and end Russia’s dominance over Ukraine’s believers. The breakup of the church is the greatest Christian schism in a millennium. Eastern Orthodoxy now becomes a church in the lurch.
Putin recognizes this holiday-season development both as a strategic threat and a political blow. Despite the bad news, Putin may have just received a nice little Christmas gift from President Trump’s abrupt decision to call for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Assad’s Syria, where Russia maintains troops and keeps a naval base. This, perhaps, unexpected gift gives Putin increasing influence and access to the warm waters and oil-rich fields of the biblical Middle East.
Merry Christmas, after all, Vlad.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “Spin Wars & Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering.”