by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
I prepared my essay on the Christmas Day interview of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in great haste, to be sure that this “scoop” would be mine. As it turns out, I need not have rushed, since the topic was subsequently left untouched by all other political analysts having an interest in Russia both in country and abroad. And while I remain persuaded that the remarks on Russia’s uniqueness by the Patriarch are of great importance to all those following the trajectory of the country’s rise on the world stage, with the benefit of time for reflection, I am not surprised they have been overlooked.
In fact the vast majority of my confrères write almost exclusively about the headline issues like the candidates for Russia’s 18 March presidential election or about the Russia-Gate controversy, that is to say they focus on the same issues that are covered by The New York Times or the Washington Post, even if their political positions are 180 degrees at variance with those of this mainstream press. I offer that as an observation of the real situation, not necessarily as a criticism, for there are among them many who will justify skipping an item like the views of the Russian Patriarch as an exercise in intellectual history that is marginal to real world events. Their mind-set is as cynical as Stalin’s, encapsulated in the riposte attributed to him: “And how many divisions does the Pope have?”
Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church is not a subject that attracts much interest among our secularist journalists and readership on both sides of the ideological divide over President Trump. Those who have looked to find influences on Russian state policy and on Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin have looked in entirely other directions. I think for example of the long fascination of so many of our pundits and even area specialists with the exotic Eurasianist theories, and of one of its most colorful exponents, professor Alexander Dugin. Until he was fired from Moscow State University, and even after that there were those who found his very existence congenial, because his quackery and seeming closeness to power could be presented as a modern day Rasputin in the Kremlin.
By contrast, the leading Orthodox clergy who are close to Putin and the Kremlin are world class theologians and diplomats, charismatic television personalities, composers of widely respected religious music, and persons of much higher intellectual merit than your average journalist or pundit. Kirill is first among them. Hence, the disinterest of our media. As for our specialist community, I imagine they will eventually get around to Kirill and he will yet be the subject of a doctoral dissertation or two, if only for his leadership of the traditionalist alliance with the Catholic Church against global liberalism.
Then there is another prejudice working against any suggestion that the Orthodox Church might be influencing state policy, and not just be an instrument used by an authoritarian state to consolidate its shaky power. The possibility that the Church might have its own power base in the population making it an ally rather than a servant of the state is not something that Russia’s detractors care to entertain.
No sooner had I published my essay on Kirill’s interview last Sunday than I realized I had only scratched the surface. Most of my article was a summary and/or my own verbatim translation of the Patriarch’s statements that I construe as constituting a new Russian messianism. The analysis portion of the essay missed some obvious and essential points. I became even more aware of how much there remained to say about the interview when, a few hours later, the Moscow Patriarchate put up on the web its official Russian language transcript of the interview. Reading it through, I found in the late portions of the interview, which I had not had time to transcribe myself from the youtube video, there are some further connections between the Patriarch’s views and ongoing Russian foreign policy in the Middle East.
For all of these reasons, I return to the interview here with the following further thoughts.
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First and most pressing, we have to consider closely the three historical examples that Kirill cited to demonstrate how Russians have very often put the inner voice of conscience, that is, moral values, alongside and even above pragmatism in foreign affairs. These examples were protection of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land which got Nicholas I’s Russia embroiled in the Crimean War, the Russian campaigns in the Balkans in the 1870s under Alexander II on behalf of their Orthodox Slavic brethren and against their Ottoman oppressors, and Nicholas II’s decisions in favor of the Orthodox Serbs in 1914 that took Russia into World War I.
It is stunning that Kirill has chosen precisely these examples, because each of them was a disaster for the Russian state, none greater than the final one, which brought down the dynasty, with all the horrors that followed.
It is noteworthy that in at least the last two examples society imposed the course taken by the State, that is to say there were essentially bottom-up social movements that forced the hand of the Government, a scenario that runs directly counter to the commonly held notions of how Autocracy was supposed to work. But this is a cavil which does not contradict the Patriarch’s overarching idea that men can be motivated to fight and die for causes that speak to their heart, and not in defense of geopolitical objectives. That has validity across many countries and continents. In the United States, it was a key point raised by Henry Kissinger in his 1994 work Diplomacy, when he explained why the Realist Theodore Roosevelt was unable to take the United States into WWI, though he very much wanted to do so, whereas his successor, the Idealist Woodrow Wilson was able to thanks to his call “to make the world safe for democracy.”
As we see later in the interview, there is a direct connection between the examples which Kirill took from the pre-revolutionary Russian past and his vision of present day issues amounting to the Cross for Russia to bear. The commonality is Russia’s role as protector of Orthodoxy in the East, that is in the Holy Sites of Palestine and in the cradle of Orthodox Christianity, what is now Syria and Iraq.
Half-way through the Christmas Day interview, Kirill delivers a fascinating account of the issues and of his personal involvement, as well as how they were brought to the attention of Vladimir Putin well before Russia intervened in Syria.
Vladimir Putin has consistently presented the need to strike at the Islamic State in Syria and deal a death blow to radical Islam before it could move on Russia. Patriarch Kirill took the same line in the past and most particularly in his January 2016 interview with Dmitri Kiselev. However, he tells us here that Russia’s military intervention in Syria also had as motivation to save what was left of the Christian community in Syria.
As we read these lines, we must bear in mind the long ties between Russia and this part of the world, something that is hardly ever evoked in Western media coverage of the war in Syria. As I noted in my report last year on the Mariinsky Orchestra concert in liberated Palmyra, St. Petersburg intellectual society had a self-image as a twin city of Syrian Palmyra throughout the 19th century for reasons going back to their own Catherine the Great and a female ruler of ancient Palmyra. Oriental studies and themes for the arts may have been widespread in 19th century Europe, particularly France with its proximity to North Africa which it was then colonizing, but Russia was physically closer to the Christian East and Russian society directed its gaze there. The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society was founded in the last quarter of the century to assist the substantial flows of pilgrims and scholars. These ties that bind must not be ignored.
“Already in 2014, it was clear that conflicts on the territory of Syria were being incited by radical forces which, if they came to power, would begin by liquidating the Christian presence in this country. That is precisely why the Christians actively supported Assad and his government, - because in the country a certain balance of forces was secured and that is very important. People felt they were being protected. In 2014, notwithstanding warnings about the danger, I nonetheless decided to travel to Syria. I was in Damascus and led a church service there, and I saw what enthusiasm there was among the people. In conversations both with Muslims and with Christians, meeting with politicians, I understood that if the Islamic radicals come to power in Syria, the first ones who would suffer would be the Christians. As already happened in Iraq, where 85% of the Christians were either killed or driven out of the country. I visited Iraq still under the regime of Hussein, including in the northern regions, in Mosul. I visited the ancient Christian monasteries. I saw the piety of the people and was overjoyed that in Muslim surroundings the Christian churches existed in peace. Now practically nothing of this remains – the monasteries have been destroyed, the churches were blown up. The same could happen in Syria. Therefore the participation of Russia was connected not only with solving questions about which I do not have full competence and about which I do not consider it possible to speak, relating to the stabilization of the situation, and not to allow…..military threats, not to allow power to be seized by the terrorists. There was a very important idea – to defend the Christian minority. Back in 2013, when Moscow was celebrating the 1025th anniversary of the Christian baptism of Rus’, the heads of the Orthodox Churches arrived. When they met with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, one of the strongest messages concerned precisely the request that Russia take part in the defense of Christians in the Near East. And I am happy that this happened. Thanks to the participation of Russia a genocide of Christians was averted.
“Now there arises the question of restoring peace in this country, justice, security, solving a huge number of economic issues. And, what is especially close to us, - the restoration of churches, monasteries, monuments, including Muslim and ancient monuments. Our Church is participating in rendering humanitarian assistance. We are working both in our own name, and in addition we have a bilateral agreement with the Catholic Church to jointly provide humanitarian assistance. In other words, we are acting in various areas, - I hope they will make their contribution to real assistance to those who are still suffering in Syria.”
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For the complete transcription (in Russian) of the interview, see http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/5095439.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