Putin’s Unorthodox Orthodoxy

by Aristotle Papanikolaou and George Demacopoulos  |  ру́сский

Yesterday, the New York Times published an essay exposing and critiquing the ways that Vladimir Putin is exploiting Orthodox Christianity in order to project international significance.  In the summer of 2014, we raised these issues in an op-ed piece we wrote for a blog hosted by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and examined why both Orthodox and Western audiences readily consume a flawed understanding of Orthodox teaching. We have reposted our original piece below.

Pundits from both America and Europe have recently ascribed religious motivations to the actions of Vladimir Putin. Is Orthodox Christianity to blame for his militant incursions, reactionary policies, or anti-Western rhetoric?

Absolutely not.

The notion that the Ukrainian crisis has religious causes is both factually wrong and religiously offensive. What’s worse, it is politically foolish, playing directly into Putin’s preferred narrative of a culture war.

Nonetheless, the idea is gaining a foothold among powerful Western politicians. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently asserted that Putin’s efforts to destabilize the Ukraine and his “anti-Western and anti-decadent line” have been “building on deeply conservative orthodox ideas.” The irony is that both Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin, who have opposing political goals, are employing a strikingly similar misrepresentation of Orthodox Christianity—that it is incompatible with the modern West.

Mr. Bildt is not the only global leader to presume the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and modernity. Since the early 1990s, US and European foreign policy has been profoundly shaped by a political thesis first advocated by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. Huntington argued that both the Slavic-Orthodox and the Islamic “civilizations” were incapable of embracing Western-styled democracy. Their religious and cultural traditions were supposedly too primitive to accept the Enlightenment principles championed in the West. Foreign policy consultants Molly A. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis have sounded similar notes, recently linking Mr. Putin’s “revitalization” of “orthodox morality” to his “expansionist vision” and repressive domestic policies.

Only the most superficial of analyses can claim that Mr. Putin’s actions are motivated by Orthodox Christian faith. He is, in fact, doing little more than masking his own political objectives behind the veil of a moralizing principle. Mr. Putin’s efforts to criminalize homosexuality or public swearing are a function of his political calculus, not the inevitable legislative outcome of Orthodox Christian faith.

Throughout history in both East and West, political activists have routinely attempted to solidify their bases by demonizing a religious other. Mr. Putin seeks to present himself as a valiant defender of traditional Russian values against a vacuous and immoral West precisely because he believes that linking himself to the cause of a self-made Christianity will authorize him to enact his stated desire to reintegrate the ancestral Eurasian lands of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

This is not Orthodox Christianity, but classic political showmanship. And it’s far from unique to Mr. Putin. Dressing up political ambition in the clothes of traditional values goes back as far as Caesar Augustus—and for good reason. This rhetorical move is often, unfortunately, effective.

Mr. Bildt should know better, and perhaps he does. But a more sophisticated parsing of the religious rhetoric is not useful to him and his neo-conservative American supporters. It would undermine their desire to paint the Ukrainian crisis as an exaggerated clash between East and West, wherein the West is modern and good and the East is dangerously religious and totalitarian.

The “clash of civilizations” viewpoint also relies on flawed assumptions about Orthodox Christian history and doctrine. Over the past decade, scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that the supposed cultural divide between Christian East and Christian West was largely a political invention that reaches back centuries.

From opposing sides, then, both Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin exaggerate the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and the modern West because it allows them to paint the political unrest in Ukraine as something other than it actually is—a political crisis brought on by the interconnection and fierce competition within the global debt and commodity markets.

The significance of these issues stretch beyond the current crisis in Russia/Ukraine because Orthodoxy is the dominant expression of Christianity in many other global hotspots, including the Balkans and the Middle East. If the economic and political interests of the West in these regions are going to be well served, then we must resist the facile characterizations of the Orthodox world and Orthodox/Western difference. They originate from an outdated and dangerous colonial vision that assumes the rest of the world should be measured according to an imaginary Western European standard. Ironically, though, the foundations of democracy, international trade, and Christianity originate from the very locations that are presented by Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin as incompatible with the Western world.

Our world—both West and East—offers enough real examples in which religious convictions misguide public policy and foreign affairs. We need not create a new one by believing the rhetoric of Mr. Putin.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

The Orthodox Christian Studies Center’s signature event, the Annual Orthodoxy in America Lecture, will be presented Tuesday, September 27 by Vera Shevzov of Smith College. Find more information and register here.