Putin Stumps for the Orthodox Church in a Film Celebrating the Kievan Rus Anniversary

How recent documentaries show Russia's tilt toward Eurasianism and Byzantinism.
After Igor Svyatoslavich's fighting with the Polovtsy (1880) is exhibited in the Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow. (Wikimedia Commons)

This week, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus celebrate the 1,025th anniversary of the Christianization of Kievan Rus, a medieval state that existed between the 9th and 13th centuries, which, depending on one's historical and political stance, is seen as the precursor of these three nations. In Russia, the celebration of this important anniversary included the release of a documentary entitled The Second Christianization of Rus. This film, along with other recent events, shows how the political culture of modern Russia is tilting towards Byzantinism and Eurasianism, the political trends that juxtapose Russia and the West and emphasize the role of Eastern Orthodox Church in the construction of Russia's identity. While Byzantinism portrays Russia as a political and cultural heir of the Byzantine Empire, Eurasianism allots Russia a messianic role in connecting the East and West. Both schools of thought isolate Russia from the world.

Produced by the metropolitan of Volokolamsk, the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, Hilarion Alfeyev, The Second Christianization of Rus was shown last week on the state owned TV channel Rossia-1. The title speaks for itself: the years after the fall of the Soviet Union are portrayed as the time of the great religious revival in Russia, i.e., the return of Russian Orthodox faith. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, talks throughout the film about the significance of the Eastern Orthodox Church for the building of Russia's new spiritual identity. Putin says that as a child he was baptized by his mother secretly from his father and that this event affected him for the rest of his life. "There was a spiritual vacuum after the fall of the Soviet Union... true values are religious values... the return to religion marks the natural revival of the Russian people," he says in the film.

Patriarch Kirill, who also speaks throughout the film, is portrayed as a spiritual leader of the Russian nation. Both Putin and Kirill explicitly abandon the principle of the separation of church and state by proposing collaboration between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian State. Russia's alleged religiosity is juxtaposed to the decay of religion in the West. The Patriarch proposes building 200 more churches in Moscow: No mention of the fact that Moscow today is the largest Muslim city in Europe after Istanbul.

Paradoxically and in spite of its understandable criticism of the Soviet period (when religion was brutally oppressed by Communist authorities), the film is reminiscent of Soviet propaganda. Not a single critical comment is made about the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in history. The support of serfdom, the burning of books, participation in pogroms, and the excommunication of Leo Tolstoy must have all been insignificant events. The Patriarch speaks at length about the importance of building Russian Orthodox churches in Siberia without mentioning the post-Soviet revival of indigenous religions and identities in that part of the country. And of course, the attempts of Kiev to redefine their relations with the Moscow Patriarchate are portrayed as betrayal.

This film is in line with another documentary shown on the same TV channel a few years ago. Entitled The Fall of an Empire: The Lesson of Byzantium, it draws parallels between Byzantium and Russia. The author of the film, Arkimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, is alleged to be the priest to whom Vladimir Putin comes to confess. Shevkunov, who narrates the film, postulates that Byzantium was superior to the West both in culture and in economy. The "barbarian" West, according to him, became "civilized and capitalist" only after the systematic plundering of Constantinople. The Russians are argued to have grasped the main treasure of Byzantium: the Orthodox faith. Thus, in order to prosper, Shevkunov argues, Russia should trust neither the West nor the East. The West is argued to have an inherited hatred towards Russia's values. Shevkunov even makes an implicit reference to the institution of the U.S. presidency by ridiculing those Byzantine emperors who stayed in power for only four years. Neither is it wise, according to him, to join big international organizations. The analogy that he cites is the permission given by the emperor Alexios Komnenos to Venetian merchants to conduct free trade in Byzantium: Shevkunov asserts that it led to the destruction of production and agriculture in the empire.

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Peter Eltsov is Washington-based political analyst.

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