Ivanov, Medvedev, and Putin (Photo by: Kommersant)
Russian First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergey Ivanov and Dimitri Medvedev are the two front runners to succeed President Vladimir Putin in 2008. Both members of President Putin's cabinet have attracted a lot of publicity in recent months. In June 2007 Ivanov was profiled by the UK Times newspaper as part of its coverage of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Earlier this year, Time magazine covered Medvedev's speech on behalf of the Russian delegation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In both Moscow and the West, Kremlinology has come back in vogue as pundits and think tank scholars try to predict who will emerge as Putin's preferred candidate.
The Deputy Prime Ministers were the featured speakers at a recent summer camp put on by Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth organization. The Nashi movement has become very controversial in recent months since its activists picketed the Estonian embassy to protest Talinn's decision to move a Soviet memorial to fallen Red Army soldiers. More recently, for its summer convention outside the city of Tver, Nashi rolled out posters depicting former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and chessmaster- turned-political activist Garry Kasparov as prostitutes.
According to the article from Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency, the two candidates were asked by Nashi students for their opinions on the revival of religious life in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. Here is what they had to say:
Replying to a question from representatives of the Nashi movement about attitudes to religion, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said that "personal feelings are hidden in nature, and this is what makes them precious".
"We have closed some sad pages in our history that lasted 80 years. Moral surrogates were unable to create anything capable of replacing the faith and morality that are to a significant degree connected with religion," the deputy prime-minister said.
In his opinion, "the rebirth of the Orthodox Church to a significant degree protected us from the very serious problems that arose in the 1990s, when the old morality was totally devastated by the new economy".
"If the rebirth of the Church had not been initiated, life could have evolved in a very sad way. This helped to keep the country in a balanced state," he said.
"The Church should be in the soul of each of us. Every person has his own path to follow. One has to look into one's own heart, but the state should create conditions that allow people's desire to go to church to be satisfied," Medvedev stressed.
He was supported by Sergey Ivanov. "The Church takes on itself the role of improving society. This is undoubtedly useful," he said.
Asked whether Russia will build the largest Orthodox cathedral (in the world), Medvedev
expressed his surprise: "If one speaks about the biggest Orthodox cathedral, then we have the
Christ Saviour cathedral and the Isaakiyevskiy cathedral is not small". "It is not the size of the cathedral that is important, but the feelings that you experience, when you enter it," he said.
"One should not think of cathedrals in the same way as the competition to build the tallest
skyscraper. The main thing is that there should be a lot of churches and that they should not be empty," Ivanov said.
"Why think up new symbols, when we have the Kremlin, the Ivan the Great (bell tower), the
Cathedral of Blessed Vasiliy, and a huge number of monasteries? There is something artificial in thinking up something new," Medvedev observed. (Quoted from a report by the ITAR-Tass News Agency)
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov meeting with Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Alexei II
American pundits often claim that the U.S. is the only democratic country in the world where politicians are expected to be able to talk about religious faith. But it seems that in this respect America is not so exceptional after all, and in fact has some similarities with Russia.
After decades of officially atheistic Soviet communism, many ordinary Russians want to hear their leaders speaking candidly about these issues, and so the politicians are giving them what they want. It is no coincidence that all of the leading politicians in Russia, from Putin to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and the senior deputies of the Duma, appear at Christ the Savior Cathedral on television every Christmas Eve and Easter.
Many observers would probably dismiss these displays of civil religion as hypocritical, considering all of Russia's social problems. Perhaps for some of today's Russian politicians and (at least publicly) better behaved oligarchs, it is indeed purely for show. Moscow's hedonistic club scene and occasional flaunting of wealth (though rich Russians are more discreet now than they were during the Nineties) certainly would support this conclusion.
And yet...there are signs of a modest revival of religious practice in Russia. The number of Russians who claim to attend reglious services at least once a month has grown from 4% to 12% since the early 1990s. According to public opinion surveys, 84% of Russian citizens claim to believe in God or a higher power - only about seven or eight percent less than the average in the United States.
Even though philanthropy remains weak in Russia, poverty rates have fallen since the Nineties, making it easier for the Russian Orthodox Church to minister to the desperately poor. After decades of net emigration, many young Jews are coming back to Russia to pursue new professional and religious opportunities their parents never had. Russia's Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar advises President Putin and Mayor Luzhkov on the government's efforts to combat on neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism in Russia.
Ten years ago Chechnya was a more dangerous place than Iraq is today, but last summer American missionaries conducted Christian youth camps for children of all faiths in the predominantly Muslim region. And while some missionaries have faced bureaucratic harassment from corrupt local officials trying to obtain bribes, the Russian Constitution declares that citizens of all faiths are free to practice their religion without persecution.
Interior of a Russian Orthodox Church
Earlier this year the Russian Orthodox Church reunited with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which was estranged from the Moscow Patriarchate for decades due to Soviet persecution of the ROC. Recently there has been further discussion among Russian Orthodox scholars about whether or not the Russian Orthodox Church should invite the Pope to visit Russia. On the Catholic side, there has been talk of healing the thousand year-old rift that has separated the Roman Catholic Church from the Orthodox Church.
During his pontificate, John Paul II became the first Pope to meet the Patriarch of Constantinople since the Great Schism. John Paul II wanted to visit Russia as well, but the Polish pontiff's poor health, the opposition of Russian Orthodox bishops, and the general chaos that prevailed in Russia during the Nineties closed off this possibility. Pope Benedict, John Paul II's successor, has long advocated dialogue between the Western and Eastern Catholic churches over points of common concern such as the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, as well as social issues that hit home in Europe like marriage, abortion and euthanasia.
President Putin, who is fluent in German, recently met with the Bavarian pontiff Benedict XVI in the Vatican. After the meeting in Rome, the media peppered Putin's spokesman with questions about whether Putin was signaling that the Kremlin would support a Papal visit to Russia. The spokesman declared that this was purely a religious question that would be decided by the Moscow Patriarchate and not by the Russian government.
What does this revival of religious practice in Russia (and if this Atlantic Monthly article and Izvestia are to be believed, among Russia's political elite) mean for America? While it would be presumptious to say that religious good feelings will influence hard headed calculations of our respective national interests, the recent history of U.S.-Russia relations may shed some light on this question.
When President Bush first sought to establish a rapport with Putin in 2001, he based his approach to the Russian President in part on President Reagan's first meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush was well aware that Gorbachev's willingness to discuss the Bible stories he had learned from his grandmother while growing up during Stalin's reign of terror went a long way in convincing Reagan that Gorbachev was a new type of Soviet leader. Although President Bush was widely mocked on both sides of the aisle for talking about peering into President Putin's "soul" in mid-2001, on 9/11 Putin was the first world leader to call Bush and offer access to military bases for America's response to the terrorist attacks.
So perhaps even when it comes to discussing issues at the personal level of ideas about faith and family, there is more room for Putin and Bush's successors to establish rapport than many people would expect.