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  • The New Russian “Messianism” Defined: Patriarch Kirill’s Christmas Day Interview

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

    In what has now become a tradition dating back several years, the head of Russian state television and radio news services, Dmitri Kiselyov interviewed the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill for a broadcast to the nation and the world released yesterday on Orthodox Christmas Day, 7 January.

    A two minute segment from  this interview, in which the Patriarch defined what I call a new Russian-Slavic messianism, was featured on the  Sunday evening Vesti news program, the most watched news program of the week. This official picking of the raisin from the cake can leave no doubt that the Kremlin endorses the concept, though what we have here are parallel state and religious forces operating from equal positions of strength in complementary ways, and not religious subordination to state direction, as will surely be the interpretation of Putin’s detractors.

    Over the years, these Kiselyov Christmas interviews with the Patriarch have touched upon various topical questions of Church dogma, relations between the Church and society, and relations with other faiths, including, for example: the Patriarch’s strong condemnation of rampant secularism in the West amounting to persecution of Christian believers in many European countries, or his condemnation of revolutions of all stripes for unleashing human passions that make it impossible to resolve the social and political problems that revolutionaries say justify their actions.  These are strong words from a powerful thinker and pastor, who otherwise has been very active mobilizing a coalition with the Roman Catholic Church and other traditionalists against the forces of liberalism across the globe.

    Less commonly, the Patriarch has spoken out about contemporary issues of state. When Russia became fully engaged in the Syrian civil war and took resolute military action against the Islamic State, Kirill responded to the question on people’s minds during the Christmas season and explained that the Russian intervention in Syria was a “just” war waged for defensive reasons.

    Yesterday’s interview was also exceptional in the same way. The Patriarch’s remarks were programmatic, not ad hoc, and were meant to address an issue of national importance.

    Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia as the legal successor state has been trying to find a new identity for itself.  The national anthem, the national flag and other symbols of the nation have been reinvented, but still there has been a void at the center that love of country or patriotism alone cannot fill.  Patriarch Kirill’s prepared remarks for the interview must be seen as a new and  serious attempt to provide the missing content which he borrows from the pre-revolutionary Russian past.

    Transcript of Dmitri Kiselyov interview with Patriarch Kirill, Russian Christmas, 7 January 2018

    Kiselyov opens with the remark that the world seems to be going mad. Against this background of uncertainty, he says there is the view that Russia will live so long as it retains its special distinguishing traits (своебразие). Kiselyov asks to what extent this is the case and, if so, what this uniqueness consists of.

    Kirill: Each person has his own distinguishing traits. No two people are alike. And so it is for countries.  Russia’s special nature was formed under the influence of various factors – its size, climate, etc.  I think the distinguishing feature is that Russia is a country which pays heed to the inner voice of conscience [совестливость]even if this has at times created problems for the country. I will give some outstanding examples of when conscience takes the upper hand over pragmatism:  Let’s take the Crimean War and the defense of Christianity in the Holy Land under Nicholas I.  Some viewers will say it was a geopolitical program.  No, geopolitical ideas did not inspire people to defend the holy places and to defend Orthodoxy on the territory. Or the Balkan Wars under Alexander II. Thousands upon thousands of simple Russian men went to fight for the Slavs. And alongside them went some not so simple men – generals, members of the tsarist family. Was that just pragmatism?  Would anyone go to die for pragmatism?  Never in your life. This movement to face danger came from people listening to their conscience. And then there was Nicholas II before the First World War.  To defend the Serbian brothers.  Again, someone could say it was pragmatism. But  would people really have gone off to fight if it were only in the name of pragmatism?  This element of heeding one’s conscience clearly shows itself in the history of Russia.

    Kiselyov: Many consider that Russia is trying to play a disproportionate role in the world. And there may even be some risks in this for our country. Can we bear this Cross?

    Kirill: You have no right to refuse the Cross. That is what the Orthodox Church teaches us. If Russia takes this Cross upon itself, then God will give it the strength to bear it. The most important thing is what we were just talking about, that the moral dimension in politics never be swallowed up by what are truly and exclusively pragmatic objectives that are remote from morality. If we, in our politics, in our lives, in our societal structures will strive for justice to triumph, for the moral feelings of people to be assuaged, then undoubtedly we will have to bear a Cross in some way. Without going into details, without a doubt there are people in this world who will not be in agreement with our position. Such people already exist. But I want to say once again, if God imposes a Cross, then he gives one the strength to bear it. And the very fact of bearing this Cross has enormous significance for the entire world, for the whole community of mankind. And however they may try to present our policies, including foreign policy, in a different light, they will be attractive for people so long as they preserve the moral dimension.

    As the next question and as a follow-up to the anxiety people are feeling in this world going mad, Kiselyov asks the Patriarch to expand on his recent invocation of the Apocalypse.

    Kirill: TheApocalypse is the end of history. Under what conditions can there be an end?  If human society loses its vitality – if it exhausts its resource to continue existing. That happens if evil achieves total domination. If evil drives away good from human society, then the end will come. Why do we have to talk about this today? Because we are now living through a special period in history. Never before did human society put good and evil on the same plane. There were attempts to justify evil, but never to say that good and evil are relative rather than absolute truths.  Under these conditions, how can the Church avoid sending up an alarm? How can it avoid warning that we are on a very dangerous path?  If the Church will not say this, then who will?

    Analysis

    Patriarch Kirill built his career in the Church in two domains:  pastoral work and diplomatic service. His epochal meeting with Pope Francis in Havana in February 2016, the first meeting ever of a Russian Orthodox patriarch and a Roman Catholic pope, was entirely in keeping with his long-standing experience on the world stage in defense of the conservative, traditional Christian values that he constantly promotes. He is not a believer in Ecumenism, but in strategic alliances for the benefit of core values.

    Kirill came from a Church family, entered the seminary and took his vows in the 1970s, a dark and oppressive period for the Church. He emerged from the experience of poverty and close dependence on the generosity of his parishioners to survive as a resilient and powerful spiritual figure. His closeness to Vladimr Putin is a credit to Putin, not the other way around. For all of these reasons, Kirill’s remarks about Russia’s uniqueness and its mission in the world to uphold justice and assuage the consciences of the faithful must be seen as potentially very influential.

    In his remarks cited above, we witness the rebirth of Russian messianism, something which was transmogrified under Communism to leadership of the worldwide revolution and has now returned to its pre-Revolutionary shape with emphasis on “bearing the Cross” of  leading the struggle for justice and truth in the world.

    It would be inappropriate to highlight the re-emergence of Russian messianism as a factor on the global landscape without putting this phenomenon in a broader context of national self-definition. In the immediate neighborhood of Russia, you have Poland, which from the 17th century to this day has seen itself as the bulwark of Christian European civilization against the barbaric Asiatic hordes to the East, whether they be Russian Orthodox or Islamic Turks and Mongols. Moving to the West, Europe’s leading imperial countries France and Britain invented the “White Man’s Burden,” another term for “bearing the Cross,” and to this day both countries punch above their weight as promoters of secular liberalism and “universal values.”  Then, of course, there is the United States, which has for more than a century led the fight to “make the world safe for democracy.”  These are all forms of messianism.

    However, this short list of countries with messianic ambitions is exhaustive. The vast majority of nations are content to look after their own interests and make no claims to some unique role in service of humanity.  The bystanders include the two most populous nations on earth, China and India, which alone account for one third of humankind.

    These are important considerations when we note that it has been precisely Vladimir Putin’s Russia which has taken on openly and publicly the role of challenger to America’s global hegemony.  The daring and the mission did not come from nowhere, nor would they cease if this one man were removed from the equation. For these reasons, I remind our foreign policy establishment that knowledge of history is inescapable to understand the balance of forces in the world and to master diplomacy.  Looking at GDP or demographic trends is utterly inadequate to understand who is who in this world.

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    For the 2 minute segment in the  Vesti broadcast see the posting on youtube.com starting at minute 11:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fmEtAhnt3g

    For the full 36 minute interview see:    http://e-news.pro/mnenie-i-analitika/207870-rozhdestvenskoe-intervyu-svyateyshego-patriarha-kirilla-07012018.html

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

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     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg