St. Sergius, Vladimir Putin and the mysterious Russian soul

For those who care about the fine details of international policy, here is the latest -- care of Time magazine -- on the popularity of one Vladimir Putin among his own people.

A new poll released this week by the Levada Center reports that the Russian President currently enjoys an approval rating of 87% -- a 4-point jump since a similar survey was completed in May, according to the Moscow Times.
Meanwhile in the U.S., where the economy is bouncing back and the White House has largely retreated from militaristic interventions abroad, President Barack Obama’s approval rating sagged to 40% this week -- its lowest point to date.

The implication is that Obama is pursuing policies that, if voters were rational, would lead to better poll numbers. Meanwhile, it appears that Putin is being very Russian. Apparently, Russians like that.

This brings me to that recent story in The New York Times that inspired some recent emails to your GetReligionistas. Before we get back to Putin and the quest to understand the soul of Russia, let's look at an all-too-familiar error in this report, the mistake that ticked off some of our loyal readers.

The voice in this passage is Vladimir Bubelev, a navy reserves officer who -- crucial details for the Times team -- has a brass pin on his lapel showing the profile of Nicholas II, the last czar. Actually, in the eyes of the Russians, wouldn't that be the martyred St. Nicholas II? Yes, the story mentions that fact later on.

At the heart of this story is one of the most revered saints in Orthodox Christianity in Russia -- St. Sergius. Millions of Russians, including Putin, are celebrating the 700th anniversary of this saint in rites that the Times team -- accurately -- stresses are linked to deep feelings of Russian nationalism.

As it happens, the birthday of St. Sergius and the anniversary of the death of Nicholas II fall within a couple of days of each other in July. The church made Nicholas II and his immediate family saints in 2000. The czar’s 1917 overthrow was for many Orthodox faithful the last time that a man anointed by God governed Russia.

When the czars ruled, Mr. Bubelev persisted, Russia evoked both nobility and morality. The Romanovs deeply revered both St. Sergius and a later, 19th-century monk, St. Seraphim of Sarov, also worshiped by the Russian Orthodox.

Ah, there it is once again -- the word "worship" connected to an ancient faith's reverence for the saints. Once again let me stress that using that term in this context is both inaccurate and, for Orthodox believers, quite offensive. As the OrthodoxWiki site notes:

Veneration (gr. doulia) is a way to show great respect and love for the holy. It is to treat something or someone with reverence, deep respect, and honor. Veneration is distinct from worship (gr. latreia), for worship is a total giving over of the self to be united with God, while veneration is showing delight for what God has done. 

So all the Times team had to do was note that these saints are "venerated by the Russian Orthodox" and all would be well in that particular sentence.

Am I making too big a deal out of this? Journalists may want to ask an Eastern Orthodox priest about this. Worship is reserved for the Holy Trinity. Period. Moving on.

The key to this story is that Putin's actions, during this time of celebration, are being viewed (surprise, surprise) in a strictly political context. Yet anyone who knows anything about Russia -- past and present -- knows that questions of Russian unity and identity are both cultural, political and religious, all at the same time. The Times team seems to think it is unusual for Putin to acknowledge this.

The story does do a decent job of noting the religious history that looms over the current tensions with the European Union and western Ukraine.

The birth of the Russian Orthodox faith dates back to Vladimir the Great, grand prince of Kiev, and the mass baptisms performed at his behest there in 988, bringing Christianity to what then became Holy Rus.
But now that Russia and Ukraine are locked in a proxy war, the government and the church realize that the physical link to an important religious symbol is being severed, noted Geraldine Fagan, author of “Believing in Russia -- Religious Policy After Communism.”

Because those roots -- not to mention the relics of St. Vladimir himself -- are in the territory of an estranged neighbor, Russia appears to be casting St. Sergius as his replacement, Ms. Fagan said.

So this trend would be good for Ukraine? This is a sign that Russia's leaders are no longer as concerned with the crucial role that Ukraine plays in the history of their land and their church? So Putin has moved on and is recognizing the powerful symbolism of St. Sergius and his role in religious unity in the land?

This Times report does a good job of quoting a number of voices coming at these questions from a variety of angles. The unifying theme, of course, is that Putin is a political strongman. Duly noted. 

However, near the end of the article something unusual happens. The Times let's Putin speak -- on a topic that is larger than mere politics. Is this the voice that many Russians are hearing?

Mr. Putin, who attended the anniversary celebration less than 24 hours after a civilian plane disaster in Ukraine that many blamed on Moscow, addressed the faithful for only about five minutes. He lauded the “patriotic, national and moral resurgence” inspired by the monk, including his campaign to build monasteries as both spiritual centers and real fortresses to protect Russia.

“His wise and solid words as a mentor and guide were a spiritual pillar and support during a difficult time of foreign invasion and internal discord,” Mr. Putin said.

“It was then that he spoke his prophetic words: ‘Our salvation lies in love and unity,' ” Mr. Putin said. “This appeal, filled with unshakable faith, helped to unite Russia’s lands and stamped itself forever on our people’s soul and in our historical memory.”

So is the story one-sided or not?

Is it simplistic, in terms of its view of Russian and its current leader? I think so, but I would really like to hear from any Russians and Orthodox believers who have read this story. I think the story is better than average, which isn't saying much.

But, at the same time, would the Times desk please consider running a correction for that "worship" reference? The accurate word is "venerate."

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