Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘Vladimir Putin as a Religious Type’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 18 – A century ago, the Russian religious thinker Sergey Bulgakov wrote a seminal essay entitled “Karl Marx as a Religious Type” in which he outlined the ways in which that self-proclaimed atheist was in fact someone profoundly affected in his thinking by the religious tradition of which he was a part.

            Now, Vadim Shteppa, one of the leading Russian regionalists, has published an essay entitled “Vladimir Putin as a Religious Type” in which he traces the evolution of Putin from someone committed to Russia’s integration into Europe to a leader who wants to restore a Russian empire (

            Shteppa argues that Putin’s references to Russian religious philosophers like Ivan Ilin, Konstantin Leontyev and Nikolay Berdyaev makes Bulgakov’s observations about Marx in which the philosopher “treated the world through the prism of religiosity” especially relevant for an understanding of Putin’s approach and policies.

            The Russian president’s evolution on religion has been striking.  In September 2000, when asked about his religious views, Putin said that he “believes in man” and “in his good intentions. “We came in order to do good, and the main thing which we will achieve by so doing will be comfort.”

            Many people at the time made fun of Putin’s reference to comfort, but “paradoxically,” Shteppa says, “it sounded not simply as an inheritance of Soviet atheism but also completely within the framework of European (or even more North European) norms” where talking about religion is not done. In that context, “comfort” could be interpreted “as the absence of religious conflict.”

            Early on in his presidency, Shteppa continues, “Putin made numerous absolutely European declarations.” Asked for his book, “From the First Person,” if Russia needed to “search for a special path,” he responded that there is no need as it has already been found: “the path of democratic development.”

            “Of course,” Putin said, “Russia is a more varied country but we are part of West European culture ... Wherever our people live – in the Far East or in the south, we are Europeans.”

            With the passage of time, however, Putin’s rhetoric changed and now has been completed replaced by the exact opposite.  The Customs Union is “completely incompatible with the European [Union].” And the recent placing of Iskander rockets in Kaliningrad shows that Moscow now views Europe not so much as a model but as a potential enemy.

            The reason for this change is not that Europe has changed but that Russia has and as a result, “it is today imply illogical” to equate Russia and Europe.  “If the EU is a unique synthesis of a confederation and federation of various countries, then Russia during these years has turned out to be only a nominal federation which is being converted into a unitary state with a constructed single nation of [non-ethnic] Russians.”

            Such states cannot be equal partners, all the more so because of the difference in population: the EU has 500 million residents; Russia 140.  But those mechanical differences are only a manifestation of deeper philosophical ones, Shteppa argues, something that is reflected in Putin’s speeches.  

            In his most recent message to the Federal Assembly, Putin said that Europe had become indifferent to issues of good and evil.  That is “an obvious shift from political language to a religious-ethical one,” and reflects a shift away from European countries where the main issue is the observation of norms preventing force to something else entirely.

            “From an historical point of view,” Shteppa suggests, “today we are watching a certain strange rebirth of Byzantinism” in Russia, where ceasaro-papism was the norm.  (As an aside, the regionalist notes that some forget that “Byzantium fell much earlier than the West” and that it was destroyed “not by Western conquerors but by those from the east.”)

            And the reason Putin is turning to or making use of religion is that his goal is to restore the empire.  “A reborn empire cannot maintain the priority of civic equality over a religious tradition.” To do so would be to make such an empire “meaningless” and set the stage for its “destruction.”

            Shteppa concludes by noting that Putin began his political career by taking down the Soviet flag in St. Petersburg at the time of the August putsch. But now that he is in the Kremlin, he appears to be affected by its specific energy and that fact that “unlike in European countries, only in Russia does the presidential residence remain a medieval fortress.”

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