Despite some bad press in recent months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has no shortage of fans. Thanks to an endless stream of propaganda and countless Kremlin-sponsored photo shoots (often bare-chested), the leader’s image has been transformed over the years from a cold Soviet KGB officer into a sporty and masculine head of state worthy of leading Russia into a new era.
Look closely at photos of the Russian leader and you’ll find another symbolic reason for his popularity: He often wears a chain with a gold cross and claims to have been secretly baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) by his mother when he was a child. More than the leader whose rise to power in 2000 brought about an era of economic gains and regional clout, Putin is heralded as the protector of Christendom.
While the West declares sanctions against Moscow for its destabilizing activities in Ukraine, Putin defenders are applauding his moves: His approval rating among Russians rose to 80 percent following the annexation of Crimea. Many buy the claim their leader is simply trying to protect ethnic Russians from the ever-encroaching depravity of the West.
Pravda columnist Xavier Lerma wrote: “In the East there is someone that causes the western liberal’s maniacal laughter to stop. Vladimir Putin. He has real world power, which causes the liberal media to fearfully ignore or warp his image. Like a good Christian King he leads a nation to Christ.”
Last summer, the Russian leader made a pilgrimage to Kiev to commemorate the 1,025th anniversary of the region’s conversion to Christianity, and on Easter, he received a personal blessing from the Patriarch Kirill, the head of the ROC.
In the West, some conservative Christians share high regard for Putin, citing U.S. support for gay marriage and abortion at a time when Russia—under Putin’s leadership and the blessing of the ROC—has passed laws ostensibly designed to bolster the traditional family.
But Christians in Ukraine and Russia are issuing a strong warning against blindly following a leader whose track record includes more than a decade of eroding democratic freedoms and whose definition of Christianity includes but one church: the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarch, a church that became a puppet of Soviet leaders during the Cold War.
When Maidan protests in Kiev began last November, Andre Barkov remembers that some of the initial resistance was from Christians. Barkov, managing director of a micro-loan company, spoke with a woman representing the Union of Evangelical Baptists—the largest evangelical denomination in Ukraine and Russia—who explained that she was against the European Union because it is the “one world government” from the book of Revelation in the Bible. Barkov encountered also a British man, a senior partner at Oliver Wyman, a prominent consulting firm, who claimed to be extremely conservative and openly supportive of Putin as the only hope for the West in his support for traditional values and stands against the American and European liberal and homosexual agenda.
Barkov—who says he was “terribly surprised” when his Russian staff voiced support for the Russian leader—explains that the majority of Ukrainian churches supported Maidan from day one, and the Union of Evangelical Baptists eventually joined the rest of the churches after the government’s response to peaceful protesters turned deadly in January. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, kept its distance.
Now Ukraine has moved onto bigger problems and the church divide is growing, particularly between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches.
Moscow denied the arrival of Russian troops on Feb. 27 in Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula, and Ukrainians began calling the soldiers “little green men.” Russia has since annexed the region and now “little green men” have been sighted stirring up unrest in eastern Ukraine.
HOW DO CHRISTIAN SUPPORTERS OF PUTIN justify the takeover of government buildings in the sovereign territory of another country? (Putin has since admitted the true identity of the “little green men” in Crimea but still denies the existence of Russian operatives in eastern Ukraine).
Larry Jacobs, Managing Director of the World Congress of Families (WCF), said his U.S.-based nonprofit planned a September pro-family summit in Moscow. But the group suspended planning for the event last month for logistical reasons related to sanctions. Focus on the Family, an original sponsor, already had backed out of the event in March, citing “the recent political events,” and other organizations also dropped out early on, including Concerned Women for America and Alliance for Defending Freedom.
Don Feder, WCF communications director, made his pro-Putin sympathies clear in an article published in American Thinker in March: “But don’t I care about a possible Russian annexation of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine (with its Russian-oriented, Orthodox population), conservatives who are still fighting the Cold War ask me? Not really.” Feder cites Putin’s sponsoring a bill passed in Russia last summer criminalizing homosexual propaganda targeting youth, bolstering Moscow’s image among some circles as the protector of the traditional family.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the number of Russians who identify themselves as Orthodox has risen to between 70 and 80 percent, and there are now close to 30,000 churches across the country. The incredible popularity of Everyday Saints—a book by the head of the Sretensky Monastery who has reportedly served as a spiritual advisor to Putin—has amplified the re-Christianization of Russia. The book has sold more than 1 million hard copies, and Russians voted it the most popular book in Russia in 2012.
Putin—who could run for another six-year term as president in 2018—proclaimed in a recent keynote speech that the West has moved away from its Christian roots, carving out a “path to degradation.”
Protestant Christians in Russia respond, “Putin? Christian? I would say he knows that a country needs a big idea in order to be united. So did Prince Vladimir in 988, who forcefully made people get dunked in the Dnipro waters in Kiev,” said Andre Furmanov, a pastor in Vyborg, Russia. “Putin is really pushing ‘Christian’ religion—a set of rules and regulations to achieve something more important, not Christian faith as a personal relationship with God—to get more power and more support from those who are either ‘illusioned’ or have no time to stop and think.”
Furmanov said some members of his church were initially swept away by Russian propaganda, but church members were able to guide them to a more balanced view.
RUSSIAN IDENTIFICATION WITH THE ROC may be on the rise but only 2 percent of the population regularly attends church. John Bernbaum, who has worked in Russia since 1990, says that despite the rebirth of the ROC, Russia remains even more secular than Europe: “Most of those people who say they’re Orthodox don’t believe in God.”
Anatoli, a Russian Christian from St. Petersburg who asked that I not use his real name due to security concerns, said few churches in Russia speak out against the government because they know they will be shut down. He teaches his kids about democracy and history in the privacy of their home but cautions them against participating in controversial topics about “democracy, freedom, human rights or USSR history” at school.
Some journalists have attempted to confront the rolling back of post-Soviet freedoms and have paid the price with their lives. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Russia as the fourth deadliest nation for the press, following Iraq, the Philippines, and Algeria. Fifty-four people have been killed in journalism-related deaths in Russia since 1992, including outspoken human rights activist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.
Those who voice dissent risk being labeled spies, and a new law that would redefine “cults” is being considered by Russia’s State Duma and could put Protestant Christians at further risk, Anatoli said.
Those are the trends Kostya Farkovets worries about when he sees signs of Russian influence in his hometown of Horlivka in eastern Ukraine, where even some of his Christian friends have bought the Kremlin line.
“Russians are our brothers and Obama is not,” read one slogan. “That’s the sort of mentality that’s been hammered in by Russian propaganda and it’s hard to beat,” Farkovets explained to me. “Who are your brothers—the Canadians who live next door to you or the Chinese although they turn the wheels of your economy in a certain way?”
ACCORDING TO RECENT POLLS, only 18 percent of residents in nearby Donetsk, a city of 1 million, want to be part of Russia, but the group is well organized. Pro-Russian separatists and Kremlin-backed special forces remained firmly in control of more than a dozen cities in Ukraine in late April, and Ukrainian television stations in several towns have been replaced with stations from the Russian Federation.
NATO estimates at least 40,000 Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s border, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned on April 25 that Moscow is trying to occupy his country and start a third world war. After the unraveling of mid-April talks in Geneva, Washington threatened new sanctions against Russia for its refusal “to take a single concrete step in the right direction,” according to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Fear is rising that Russia could use the deaths of pro-Russian separatists during renewed Ukrainian anti-terrorist operations aimed at freeing the East as a pretext for invasion prior to Ukraine’s national elections scheduled for May 25.
But Christians in Ukraine have not lost hope. Sergey Kukushkin says he has witnessed newfound unity among eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants in his southern town of Kherson. However, the Russian Orthodox Church will not participate in events where other churches are present—such as the Maidan protests or interdenominational gatherings—because they claim to be the only true church.
But even in the ROC there are small signs of reform, say observers. Metropolitan Hilarion—the head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church—is “under a lot of heat from the conservative wing of the church” because he talks to evangelicals, says Bernbaum.
Hilarion meets every few months with a men’s Bible study launched three years ago by Bernbaum’s ministry, the Russian-American Institute, that 25 business executives attend.
IN VOLATILE EASTERN UKRAINE, Sergey Kosyak, a pastor in Donetsk, said the prayer tent in his city commemorated its 50th day of prayer on April 23 by holding communion, and he sees these difficult times as an opportunity for God to work in the lives of the people.
“It was very unusual because different denominations have different theological views and order for Holy Communion, but after 50 days of standing together in prayer, dealing with threats, bad weather, and fear, we have learned to cherish each other,” Kosyak wrote on Facebook (his English is limited, but a friend translates the online updates).
Kosyak told me he lives each day trusting God, and when he takes written prayers to pro-Russian separatists, he prays he won’t be beaten. So far he has escaped numerous dangerous situations unharmed. At a separatist checkpoint in Donetsk on April 23 he escaped the usual questioning heading into the former regional administration building: “I had learned that one of the separatist commanders was a former youth director of one of the major churches of our brotherhood.”
The two men greeted each other happily and Kosyak asked his old friend to consider God and return home. “I hope he heard me,” said Kosyak. Outside he encountered people passing out Christian literature to the separatists and praying prayers of repentance.
Opportunities to show forgiveness and mercy may be the salve that heals the massive divisions plaguing both Ukraine and Russia, and the stories abound.
When pro-Russian separatists tore down the Ukrainian flag from the Donetsk prayer tent on April 14, a group of men tracked them down and beat them up. Two Christian leaders led the bruised and battered separatists back to the prayer tent, patched up their bloodied faces, and gave them copies of the New Testament.
“There are people on both sides of the fence who need God,” Kosyak wrote. “The church stands as an unbroken outpost, calling on the whole city to prayerfully humble ourselves before God.”