Putin Enlists the Church in His Power Grab

Putin and Kirill have also seemed to move in tandem when cracking down on dissent within their ranks. Putin has abolished the election of regional governors, wiped out opposition parties in the parliament, and crushed critical voices in the media. Most recently, he’s seized the right to open any letter in the Russian mail, a directive that shamelessly ignores a right to mail privacy spelled out in the Russian constitution (even state-sponsored propaganda project Russia Today was appalled). Yet Kirill routinely gives Putin cover on such decisions, praising and blessing his government at every opportunity.

The church has not been shy about playing the role of enforcer, leading many to see it as just another Kremlin ministry of power. It defrocked a priest who dared to question the show trial and conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky after the oil baron began making noises about seeking the presidency. It demoted another priest when he questioned whether the patriarch had too much power. And it excommunicated a third who participated in a government commission that exposed a large number of Soviet-era clerics as KGB informers.

At the same time, there is increasing nationalism on open display among the clergy. Even as Putin has been moving to rehabilitate nationalist figures like the mass-murderer Josef Stalin by creating new history books that rationalize Stalin’s tactics, one St. Petersburg cleric went as far as to create a holy icon depicting the homicidal dictator -- a reflection of a growing movement within the church to canonize the Soviet overlord. For his part, Putin’s many public appearances with Kirill make it absolutely clear which religion Putin approves of.

In a genuinely stunning development, at a recent outdoor religious rally in Tehran, a throng of Iranian worshippers shouted back in unison “Down with Russia!” when called upon by the cleric to chant “Down with the USA!” Iranians are outraged by the unqualified support the Kremlin has provided to their existing government, as they risk their lives challenging their recent national elections as fraudulent. It’s clear that religion is turning into a real powder keg where Russia is concerned and that the rise of Orthodoxy places Russia on a collision course not only with the West but also with the Muslim world -- an increasingly significant player in Russian society.