Show caption What has been missed among Vladimir Putin’s ranting about Ukraine and Nato is the religious dimension in his thinking. Photograph: Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/EPA Opinion Vladimir Putin: a miracle defender of Christianity or the most evil man? Tim Costello The Russian president’s Orthodox faith is central to his worldview but he has used it to justify invasion and violence in God’s name Sat 5 Mar 2022 19.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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With Russia invading Ukraine, its president, Vladimir Putin, has been painted by many in the western media as the most evil man in the world.
Commentators are asserting that this premeditated act is evil. I do not disagree. To see a war in Europe nearly 80 years after the end of the second world war is unthinkable. What other words describe such violence and the man who singlehandedly has authorised this assault? Now that Putin has twice raised the chilling proposition of nuclear weapons – referring to Russia as “one of the most powerful nuclear states” and later ordering that nuclear forces be placed on “special alert” – the global images of a trip wire to nuclear armageddon are disturbing our equanimity. What other word but evil captures this? In contemplating this I think there has been a missing dimension in naming Putin’s messianic and religious pretensions. And as a minister of the gospel, this perspective has caused me deep heartache.
At a personal level I have been required to reflect on my memories of the man and whether I sensed I was in the presence of evil. Back in 2013 I had a meeting with Putin in his dacha two hours out of Moscow. It went for over an hour and half. He was courteous and inquisitive and even agreed to some of the requests we were making. I and the delegation of three others came away thinking he could be reasonable. None of us thought him evil. But now I wonder?
The occasion then was the G20 when Russia had the presidency and Putin was the first leader to invite civil society leaders to meet and participate at the highest level and enjoy an equal access and platform with the business G20. I was leading the Australian delegation and we urged him to stop beating up Russian NGOs and to widen the space for civil society dissension and debate. Amazingly he did not disagree.
As I think back there were some interesting clues. We waited in an ante room for the meeting under a picture of the first Crimean war. All I knew about that was the story of Florence Nightingale, not why it was fought and even who won. Putin’s aide told us that the 1853-56 war was personal for Putin and Russians remembered it as if it was just yesterday. Christian Russia had been shocked that the Christian west had sided with Muslim Turks and defeated them. I thought of this later when in 2014 Putin annexed Crimea and rode roughshod over sovereign Ukrainian territory.
In our meeting with Putin, he said that he was insistent that young Russians start going back to church. He wore a cross around his neck and I later learned he had been secretly baptised by his mother as his father was an atheist. He seemed fascinated that I was a reverend and questioned me about faith. I pushed the envelope and raised why he had sentenced Pussy Riot for singing in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and he said the church had been deeply offended. I said but a church, despite its offence, believes in the primacy of forgiveness not punishment for a blasphemy, and he looked at me with blinking incomprehension as if to say why would they forgive? But did I sense I was in the presence of evil? No.
He has little understanding of Jesus, who said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’
We have heard a lot of ranting from Putin about the threat to Russia from Nato encirclement and justifications for the invasion to denazify Ukraine and stop their genocide of Russians. This is all propaganda and nonsense. What has been missed is the religious dimension in Putin’s thinking, although in delegitimising Ukraine, he did refer to it as an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.
This spiritual space is an important clue often overlooked. In 988 Vladimir king of the Rus was the first Christian convert. In Kyiv he summoned the whole city to the banks of the Dnieper River for a mass baptism. Holy Mother Russia was born. In 2019 the Ukrainian church broke with the Russian church and declared its independence. But Putin and the Russian church will not accept this because it is the site of the imagined mother church for all the Rus.
I was encouraged to read that some 176 Russian Orthodox priests a few days ago had signed an open letter condemning the war. This is a small crack in Putin’s complete capture of the church within Russia. Such signs of dissent point to a recovery of the Gospel of peace and transcends the Rus religious tribe.
Despite the Bolshevik years, this sense of a holy destiny of Kyiv and Mother Russia has never left and Putin is its champion. Under Putin the Orthodox church has boasted that it is building and opening three churches a day, and the church celebrated the return of Crimea. Little wonder the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill a decade ago called Putin “a miracle of God”.
And in Putin’s mind it goes further.
Just as he probed me about Christianity in the west, he reportedly said in a speech in 2013: “We see many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of western civilisation. They are denying the moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.”
Kyiv must be taken, in his mind, to preserve the Christian battle. And there may be many Christians in the west who agree with some of his sentiments.
A miracle defender of Christianity or the most evil man? Well, it is Ukrainian Christians among others whom he is now slaughtering indiscriminately and he has little understanding of Jesus, who said “blessed are the peacemakers”.
No, this is a power vision threaded through with nationalistic Christian theology. And evil is the right word when a leader uses religion to justify in God’s name invasion, violence and annihilation.
• Tim Costello is a fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney
• An edited version of this article was first published here and is republished with permission of the author