NEW YORK – Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged at a great enigma if not danger in foreign affairs, and the Orthodox community is in a position to shed light on him through events like the Orthodox Christian Study Center’s recent panel discussion titled “Putin, Religion, and Ukraine.”
Co-Founders Dr. Aristotle Papanikolaou, Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Senior Fellow and Dr. George Demacopoulos welcomed the guests, who packed a hall at Fordham’s Lincoln Center Campus and introduced the panel.
The audience appreciated hearing about “the complicated role that religion is playing in the tension between Ukraine and Russia, and the way in which religion is being used both to construct and resist a new East-West divide,” as the invitation stated.
The international panel of experts included Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kiev and all of Ukraine; Fr. Peter Galadza, Professor of Liturgy at Saint Paul University; Fr. Cyril Hovorun, Research Fellow, Yale Divinity School; and Adrian Karatnycky, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Relations Program of the Atlantic Council and Olena Nikolayenko, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Fordham University.
Nikolayenko introduced the topic by reviewing the post WWII discourse on the compatibility of the world’s great religious traditions with Democracy, a debate that has not been favorable to Orthodoxy Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism. Scholars argue over the importance of the “dominant discourse and core values” in the traditions versus fluidity that leads to revisions in important positions. Catholicism only recently joined Protestantism on the positive side of the ledger.
The Russian Orthodox Church is placed in the authoritarian camp, although that is progress compared to the Soviet totalitarianism that the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick believed Russia would never overcome.
All the panelists displayed great knowledge of both the secular and religious players in Russia and the Ukraine, and an impressive grasp of the divisions and affiliations of the Orthodox in Ukraine.
Karatnyky emphasized, however, that “it’s very important when dealing with such and intimate and personal issue as one’s faith to remark that nothing I am saying is really about canonical, theological or spiritual matters. I will be discussing the instrumetalization of religious leaders and institutions…by politicians.”
He began by noting that the largest jurisdiction, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, “was the subject of a long campaign of politicization….from Vladimir Putin as part of the strategy to reconnect and establish soft power in Ukraine through the idea of Russkiy Mir – the Russian World, which is an attempt to create a sense unity among the Slavic groups… and use this as a way of in gathering the Republics that had broken away with the collapse of the Soviet Union…this campaign has accelerated the last seven to 10 years as Putin’s ambitions…became greater, and they exploded in the tragic events since the victory of the democratic revolution in Ukraine.”
Karatnyky said that the fact that the substance of Patriarch Kirill’s early Church career was more a political than spiritual is another factor.
Rabbi Bleich Yaakov Dov Bleich is an American-born rabbi and member of the Karlin-Stolin Hasidic dynasty. He pointed out the it is valuable for Putin to have Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at his side.
In noting the ironic fact that Putin even attempted to include Judaism in his program by attempting to create a Moscow Patriarchate for Jews he illustrated the general situation in Russia where all of civil society is virtually under the control of the Kremlin.
Fr. Hovorun, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, spoke about the Maidan, the wave of demonstrations that began November 21, 2013 at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev, demanding closer European integration and which ultimately led to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.
Karatnycky disagreed with Pundits who say Putin was responding to Ukraine’s desire in joining the EU or NATO.
“Putin is not afraid of an invasion by armies but of an invasion of ideas from the West,” he said, and added that religion is brought in to attack the perceived libertinism and moral decay in Europe, and the ideas of political liberalism, economic liberalism and the rule of law.
Fr. Hovorun made the case that the Maidan was not merely a political event but a religious happening. Its genesis was the gathering of Ukraine’s different religious groups for common prayer against corruption and human rights abuses.
Distorted images and interpretations of the Maidan as expressions of right wing violence and extremism were used by the Kremlin as propaganda. Fr. Hovorun said that the “anti-Maidan” that Moscow generated was also a religious phenomenon, illustrating two difference approaches to the idea of civil religion.
Fr. Peter Galadza began by saying “human power and might was exposed for all their hollow vanity,” by the phenomena under discussion. He took a moment to express his sympathy for Ukrainians and Russians who died on both sides of the barricades, and declared that “Putin’s actions will have the opposite result from what he hoped.”
During the Q & A he noted the fascinating development that, contrary to what might be expected, the support for rightwing parties has declined in Ukraine.
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