Dear editors at The New York Times: Vladimir Putin is a Russian, but Putin is not Russia

As you would expect, quite a few GetReligion readers have asked for my take on the recent New York Times analysis piece about Russia and the Orthodox Church that ran under this headline: “In Expanding Russian Influence, Faith Combines With Firepower.”

Now, the editorial powers that be at the Gray Lady did not label this sprawling piece as a work of analysis, but that is what it was.

It was packed with all kinds of material that Orthodox people could argue about for hours (members of my flock, especially Russians, love a good argument). In many crucial passages, the Times team didn’t bother to let readers know who they were quoting — which usually means that they are quoting themselves or quoting beloved advocacy sources over and over and over and they didn't want to point that out with attribution clauses.

Thus, I am not going to try to dissect this piece, in part because (1) I am an Orthodox Christian and (2) I spend quite a bit of time hanging out with Russians and with other Orthodox Christians who hang out with Russians. But I do want to share one big idea.

You see, I hear people talking about Vladimir V. Putin quite a bit. I would divide these people into at least three groups.

* First, there are the people who consider him a corrupt, brutal strongman, at best, and a tyrant at worst. 

* Second, there are people who do not admire Putin at all, but they enjoy the fact that he gets under the skin of liberals and post-liberals here in the West. Putin is, in other words, a Russian and he drives elites in the West a bit mad.

* Third, there are Orthodox people who appreciate the fact that Putin -- for whatever reasons -- is defending some (repeat “SOME”) of the teachings of the Orthodox faith, whether he sincerely believes these moral doctrines or not. Of course, Putin's sins against Orthodoxy on many other issues are perfectly obvious.

Now, the tricky thing is that most of my Orthodox friends who closely follow events in and around Russia are in all three of these camps at the same time.

This brings me to the main point of this post: American journalists (and perhaps even American diplomats) need to understand that Putin is currently the leader of the Russian state, but he is not Russia.

Sometimes, in other words, it helps to separate Putin from Russia and Russian from Putin. This is especially true when considering the ancient ties (troubling to many people, religious and secular, in the West) between Mother Russia and the Orthodox Christian Faith.

Thus, there are things that Putin does because he’s Putin and there are things that he does because he knows that these actions will affirm what many Russians believe about Russia and the world around them. Thus, these actions make sense to him. Putin recognizes that they are in his self interest, whether he personally is committed to them or not.

Now, if you read the Times piece you will see that the big idea is that Russia does not want to become Europe. This clash causes quite a bit of conflict, especially in the historically crucial city of Kiev (think Baptism of Rus’ in 988) -- caught between western Ukraine, that leans toward Europe, and eastern Ukraine, with its close ties to Russia.

What are the key issues here? Read the article and look for open of implied references to abortion, gay rights and issues linked to marriage and family.

So, are these matters of faith and doctrine (and, yes, public policy) “Putin things,” “Orthodox things” or “ancient Christian things”? The answers are "maybe," "yes" and "yes."

As you ponder that puzzle, please consider this passage from the Didache, one of the earliest -- if not the earliest -- statements of ancient Christian moral theology, written between 60 and 120 A.D.

The Second Commandment: Grave Sin Forbidden. And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. 

Now, with that in mind, please read this magisterial passage from the Times piece (yes, while looking for attribution clauses):

While tanks and artillery have been Russia’s weapons of choice to project its power into neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Putin has also mobilized faith to expand the country’s reach and influence. A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights.
Thanks to a close alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved a particularly powerful tool in former Soviet lands like Moldova, where senior priests loyal to the Moscow church hierarchy have campaigned tirelessly to block their country’s integration with the West. Priests in Montenegro, meanwhile have spearheaded efforts to derail their country’s plans to join NATO.

Then there is this, continuing the central theme:

Moscow’s quest to gain control of churches and graves dating from czarist times and squeeze out believers who look to the Constantinople patriarch is part of a broader push by the Kremlin to assert itself as both the legitimate heir to and master of “Holy Russia,” and as a champion of traditional values against the decadent heresies, notably liberal democracy, promoted by the United States and what they frequently call “Gayropa.”

GetReligion readers must read the Times analysis piece for themselves. It makes many valid points and, frankly, I thought there needed to be more material -- on the record, from qualified sources -- noting the tensions within the global Orthodox Communion over Putin, Russia’s actions and the state of modern Europe.

In other words, there is an Orthodox story here about issues that are important, issues that have little or nothing to do with Putin. These issues about the future of Russia, Europe and the former Soviet bloc will be important long after Putin is dead and gone.

Again let me state my main point: When covering these complex, even byzantine, cultural and religious issues it helps to separate Putin from Russia and Russian from Putin.

To help in that process, please see this think piece by Peter Hitchens, a former news correspondent in Russia, that was published in the journal First Things. The headline: “The Cold War is Over.”

Reading this piece is just as important as reading the Times piece, if you want to understand the journalism point that I am trying to make here.

There is much to read in this piece about the differences between modern Russian and the Soviet state. In particular, Hitchens wonders why Western diplomats (and journalists) rarely ponder how threatening the European Union looks to modern Russians, so soon after Russian surrendered -- with little or no gunfire -- a massive empire.

But I think the crucial passage is this one, focusing on issues of family, marriage, children and what Pope St. John Paul II famously called the “culture of death” in the modern world. This is long, but essential to the main point being made by Hitchens, which is moral and cultural, rather than political. Flash back a few decades to the Soviet horrors:

Even births (annually outnumbered toward the end of the U.S.S.R. by abortions) were fiercely regimented. In terrifying maternity hospitals, short of necessary basics and none too clean, newborn Russians were snatched away by nurses, wrapped tightly, and brought back at set times for feeding, then snatched away again. Fathers were not allowed to visit for many days, and mothers would hang strings from the windows, bearing notes pleading for bars of chocolate or other comforts and giving news of the baby’s progress.
Family life, once begun, was precarious and fraught. Divorce had been made very easy by the family-hating Bolsheviks. One wedge-shaped Wedding Palace was known as “the Bermuda Triangle” because all the marriages contracted in it disappeared so quickly. I do not think I ever met a Soviet couple with two children who were full brothers and sisters. Invariably, it was a merger of two broken marriages into one new one. And no wonder. All the things that keep families together were absent or weak. Rents and prices were devised to ensure that even the educated middle class needed two full-time salaries to pay the bills. Unless there was a retired grandmother around, children were inevitably abandoned in early infancy to state nurseries and became the state’s charges. By the time I was there, the hideous state-sponsored cult of Pavlik Morozov, a young traitor to his family, was fading, but friends of mine remembered, sometimes with a shudder, being marched to pay respects to statues of this little monster, and to sing songs in his praise at Soviet youth gatherings.
This was one of those points at which Soviet Russia, which looked on the surface like a cheap copy of Western Europe, turned out to be fundamentally different. The Morozov cult was not quite as horrifying as the worship of Moloch, the dreadful Carthaginian deity who required fiery child sacrifice. But it was so far from the beliefs and morals of the Christian world that I am amazed it is not better known and more studied in the West. “Comrade Pavlik,” a thirteen-year-old peasant boy from a Ural village, was revered as a martyred Soviet youth because he had denounced his own father to the secret police. His family had then murdered him in revenge. Poems, films, books, and even an opera celebrated this unlovely person. Though post-Soviet scholarship has established that the story is almost wholly untrue (Pavlik existed but was probably killed in a meaningless village squabble), the official worship of him continued at least until 1991 when -- to my amazement -- I found a statue of him in a small park in central Moscow.
Pictures of the statue (now at last destroyed) can still be found, including a 1948 U.S.S.R. postage stamp depicting a boy atop a granite cylinder, holding a red flag and gazing into the future. This truly happened. The cult of Pavlik was present in every mind, the whispered urge to set state and party above parent, a splinter of ice placed deliberately in every little heart.

With that in mind, look at modern Europe. Then, with these images in mind, read the analysis piece in The New York Times a second time.

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