On the 4th November 2016, a monument to Vladimir The Great opened to the public in central Moscow. The statue is over 17 metres high and features the medieval Russian saint holding both a cross and a sword. By analysing this monument, one observes the blending of faith and power. Saint Vladimir was the Prince of Novgorod, Grand Prince of Kiev and ruled the Rus from 980 to 1015 A.D. His conversion to Christianity in 988 A.D. was followed by the introduction of the Byzantine law code. Vladimir is also credited for Christianising the Rus. Thus, any historian must view Vladimir The Great through the lenses of both politics and religion. However, a similar sentiment can apply to Russia. In the largest country in the world, faith and governance are strongly interconnected, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. This religious framing helps to understand Russia’s current actions in Ukraine.
The Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has praised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, claiming ‘we have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.’ He pointed to gay pride parades as a threat to both Russia and Donbass, caused by Westerners. This religious underpinning of Vladimir Putin’s actions provoked sharp criticism from English-speaking journalists and politicians. One notable example came from Steve Baker, Member of Parliament for Wycombe (United Kingdom). On Twitter, the politician argues ‘Once again, politics and religion mix disastrously, scandalously. Everyone of faith must have secular grounds for the policy decisions they take. Coercive power can never be justified by faith: evidence and reason are essential.’ Other examples of condemnation come from The Conversation, where political scientist Lena Surzhko Harned labels the religious nationalism as ‘volatile’ in ‘Holy Wars: How A Cathedral of Guns and Glory symbolise Putin’s Russia.’
A more historical take came from Anglican priest, Giles Fraser in Unherd, who in ‘Putin’s Spiritual Destiny’, contextualised the Kremlin’s actions in a broader framework of Russian and Christian history. This is a sharp contrast to the United Kingdom. Although the Queen and many citizens are active members of the Church of England, the United Kingdom has a tradition of secularism which is bizarre in Russia.
This stems from the Enlightenment-era writings of John Locke, Adam Smith and others. Although liberalism had a presence in Russian thought, particularly in the early 19th century, it was rivalled by Slavophilia, which urged for an Imperial Russia, shaped by values and institutions derived from Russia – not Western Europe. Ultimately, Slavophilies questioned the role of ‘Western thinking’ in Russian society and culture. Yet it’s not true to depict Russia, at any stage of her history, as divorced entirely from the West. All throughout the 19th and 20th century, Russia encountered the West in multiple ways: on the battlefield, among the pages of literature, in marriage alliances and while negotiating. One reason why Slavophilia thrives is due to perceptions of the West, whose flirtations with liberalism and democracy were disastrous, according to them. Therefore, we cannot understand Russia within a Western framework of ‘secularism’ and ‘faith.’ This results in unrealistic expectations of how Russia and the rest of the world works.
Before we investigate the history of Russia, it’s vital to analyse her geography. As the largest country in the world, Russia spans many timezones, continents and shares the most land borders in the world. A crucial aspect of Russia is the proximity to the Arctic Circle. Some regions, such as Siberia, have the coldest temperatures on the planet. With this amount of land, Russia is put in a unique position as over 190 ethnicities live here. Also, Russia is home to lucrative natural resources such as oil. Although it’s certainly challenging to share borders with so many nations, including hostile ones, Russia can offset some of her geographic weaknesses by its strengths. Yet one concern lingers: invasion. This fear is the natural consequence of both the past and the present. Russia, ever since the Middle Ages, has faced conquest from many forces: The Golden Horde and the Tatar Yoke, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Napoleon and France as well as Nazi Germany. The Russian capital, Moscow, is certainly in a vulnerable position, strategically speaking.
This point is hard for many countries to comprehend. A nation, whether the United Kingdom, Australia or the USA, lacks this experience of invasion. Although all three of these countries endured significant risks during World War II, there is no denying the geographic benefits they enjoy. Even though the United Kingdom has endured invasion and foreign bombings, this is dwarfed in comparison to Russia. Those who write articles about foreign policy and work in think tanks should remember this. It’s also why the threat of NATO is highly existential for Russia. The horrors of the past may come again.
It may seem far-fetched to propose that a country is more religious due to its geography. But these challenges explain Russia’s turn to the Orthodox Church. Although one cannot avoid suffering, there are opportunities for meaning. This is a truth established in the literature of Feodor Dostoevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Also, Russia is far away from hotbeds of the Enlightenment, such as Scotland and France. Is it wise to expect a Russia, drunk on Enlightenment values? Whilst it’s certainly true that the Enlightenment and Western Europe has born influence on Russia, chiefly under Catherine and Peter The Great, it is impossible to ignore Russia’s distance from the West.
When analysing Russian history, there is a temptation to succeed to cliches of ‘endless suffering’ or ‘eternal tyranny.’ While it’s certain that Russian individuals have faced unique challenges throughout their history, it is pessimistic to dismiss the history as completely bleak. Likewise, although current president Vladimir Putin falls on the side of autocracy, as do many other Russian rulers, it is simplistic and false to pretend Russia is North Korea or Iran. Before Russia’s war with Ukraine in 2022, foreigners could visit, even migrate to Russia. It was, and still is in many ways, a destination for business. Russian universities worked with Western and Asian ones. Unlike North Korea, Russia is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. You can discover Russian consulates and embassies all throughout the world, from Canberra to Cairo. The Russian Federation is a G-20 country and takes part in many security and energy alliances. It has an active space program, as well. Although Russia’s relationship with Anglosphere and Western powers is certainly hostile, it’s vital to not diminish Russia’s position in global affairs.
This makes Russia’s religious culture more open to criticism, too. It is not an obscure country, nestling a tiny position in an atlas. Rather, Russia is domineering in size and power. This results in a worldview that seems dynamic, serious and threatening. It’s not mere Soviet history, either. Russia was home to a mighty empire; spanning lands in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In my studies of history, I’ve realised a fundamental difference in countries that are conquered (for example, Ireland) and those conquering (United Kingdom). Russia is no different. Because of this, it is unrealistic to expect Russia not to project power in meaningful ways. Clearly, the best method in doing this is through a Tsar-like figure.
Of course, Russia’s history is crucial to understanding religion. Instead of investigating medieval and early modern history, one can simply look at the Soviet and post-Soviet period. Although, after the 1917 revolution and the murder of the Romanov family, the Soviet Union were certainly hostile to religion – this was challenged. During Nazi invasion, Joseph Stalin used to imagery of St. Alexander Nevsky (a medieval saint) to inspire the Soviet people. We must note the secular framing, however. Within the next fifty years, the attitude of the Soviet Union towards religion softened, although it wasn’t completely absent.
Then came the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. For Russians, this proved heartbreaking. The economy was in tatters, the military in shambles and the overall morale of the nation was low. This opened many opportunities for religion to take hold. No analysis of the Russian Orthodox Church should neglect that. There was also a crisis of leadership, prior to Vladimir Putin. The reputation of Boris Yeltsin is hard to categorise, as one must neglect our own perspectives on democracy and economies. We must remember that in Russia, the Tsar or reigning president, takes on the morality of the nation.
To Dostoevsky, the Tsar ’embodies the people’, including their hopes and dreams. According to Russian history, excessive amorality from leaders is ridiculous. Leaders have a moral duty to their people and must nurture the populace’s spiritual wellbeing. However, this does not make the system of governance in Russia more desirable or ‘better’ than others. But as observers, we must understand the linkage between Kingship and acting as a representative of God. Those into medieval history are familiar with this, as seen in the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne. The West, ever since the end of WWII, has been prone to relativist schools of thinking. This makes it difficult for a Western leader to make a grand moral point – unless it aligns with the orthodoxy of the day. Whilst there are relativists in Russia, it lacks similar influence.
It’s troublesome to make bold predictions about the future of Russia and religion. Ideas of ‘de-Russifying’ Russia are hopeless: you cannot remove spirituality and faith, established over a thousand years, from a country within a few generations. Nor should Westerners expect Russia to conform to their modes of secularism. Critiques of governance and force are certainly needed, but to understand how Russia works, we must take a closer look to her literary, theological and historical roots. The statue of Vladimir The Great is a testament to Russian notions of faith and power. But our reactions, as Westerners who live in so-called ‘secular’ countries, are interesting to contrast with.