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Putin’s playbook

"Putin’s playbook" Continued...

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

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. 

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