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Why Putin’s Public Acts Of Religious Piety Make Him Even More Dangerous

Geopolitical analysts who view Russia as an unpredictable force tend to understand Moscow’s actions in purely worldly, political terms. German Professor of Theology Hubertus Lutterbach has uncovered a different message hidden in Putin’s religiosity — an implicit threat to his neighbors and the world.

Image of Vladimir Putin taking part in baptismal bathing on Lake Seliger.

Vladimir Putin taking part in baptismal bathing on Lake Seliger.

Hubertus Lutterbach


BERLIN — The recent image of Vladimir Putin holding an Easter candle was seen around the world — as was the picture of him praying in front of an iconostasis, the screen decorated with icons that separates the space around the altar from the main body of an Orthodox church.

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The pictures of Putin meeting Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, were also widely published. They show the two men embracing, in a traditional gesture of sharing the peace, and speaking together, as well as Putin presenting Kirill with a bouquet of flowers. In the photographs, the Russian President is wearing a blue suit and tie or a blue coat, while the Patriarch is dressed in his bishop’s vestments and crown.

Putin’s show of Christian piety and his close links to the Orthodox Church raise the question: What role does religion play in the Russian President’s view of himself as a ruler?

Putin’s religious basis for wielding power is clearly conveyed in a picture that did the rounds of both print and digital media a few months ago. Until now, it has not been analyzed from a religious and political angle. That is a glaring oversight, as the picture clearly expresses important aspects of how Putin sees his role as leader.

The picture, which dates from 2018, shows the Russian President taking part in a so-called ice baptism, a ritual performed by Orthodox Christians on Jan. 19, to commemorate Jesus’s baptism.

"You are my chosen one"

A hole in the shape of a cross is carved out of the thick layer of ice on the surface of a lake. Worshippers strip down to their swim shorts or bathing suit and climb down an improvised ladder into the water, then plunge briefly under the surface. This is a way of remembering and renewing their baptism. Usually there is an Orthodox priest present, who offers a sign of blessing.

Chosen by God to reign over a certain territory as a priest-king.

In Putin’s case, the ritual took place at night. In the background there are five Orthodox priests dressed in black, holding precious gold-plated icons mounted on wooden sticks, including images of Mary holding the baby Jesus, and Jesus on the cross.

The icons are a symbol showing that they believe the saints depicted here – including Jesus himself – to be truly present. In the picture, Putin is lit up in the foreground, already immersed up to his hips in the cross-shaped hole in the ice. Around his neck, he is wearing a long gold chain with a gold cross that hangs down over his chest.

None of the priests in the photograph – one may even be a bishop – is wearing a cross necklace, only Putin. In this way, the picture portrays Putin as the one who, like Christ, has power over the world, including over the religious sphere.

If we were to add a speech bubble to this scene, the most fitting words might be ones from the mouth of God Himself: “You are my beloved Son,” or “You are my Chosen One." The first quote is the words God is recorded as speaking to Jesus at his baptism (Matthew 3:17), and the second at his transfiguration (Luke 9:35).

It is no coincidence that the iconography of Putin as ruler draws on the age-old motif of the “high king and high priest” – the “priest-king”. This is the oldest conception of rulership that exists in the history of religion and culture. It means that the ruler is chosen by God to reign over a certain territory as a priest-king, and that no one can depose him.

image of R\u200bussian President Vladimir Putin attending an Orthodox Easter service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Russian President Vladimir Putin attending an Orthodox Easter service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

Sergei Karpukhin/TASS via Zuma

“God dwells in the people”

The Russian President uses religion and its representatives for his own ends. In Putin’s Russia, bishops and patriarchs function as his religious and liturgical henchmen. If they want to stay in power, they have no other choice than to submit to the rule of the “high king and high priest” and provide him with a ritual framework for the exercise of his power – as we can see from the example of Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow.

There is a religious sentiment underpinning the words of Russian author Viktor Yerofeyev when he writes of the “continuation of Putin’s tsarist rule.” He argues that its religious basis goes beyond the Russian Orthodox Church: “The Kremlin’s official view is that Russia is defending its traditional values,” Yerofeyev wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Unlike the West, it has access to secrets about the meaning of life, which makes its population into a chosen people of God. God dwells in the people.”

Renowned Russian cultural historian Mikhail Shishkin traces the origins of this way of thinking back to the year 988, when Prince Vladimir of Kyiv – who died in 1015 and is venerated as a saint today – was baptized and established Christianity as the official religion in the territories of the so-called Rus, which covers large parts of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Putin is now seeking to draw a continuous line between the present day and these events of the 10th and 11th centuries, which have taken on an almost mythical status. Shishkin explains Putin’s understanding of himself as a priest-king as if he were looking at the picture of the ice baptism in the frozen lake: “The majority of the Russian population is still living in the past. They identify strongly with their tribe and are entirely dependent on the pack leader, the boss, the khan or the tsar,” Shishkin writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

His right to rule as a priest-king, through deadly wars of aggression.

“Most Russians are still living in an age when their tribe is always right. And over many generations, the state has filled their minds with the ‘Russkiy mir’ worldview: that the holy fatherland is an island surrounded by an ocean of enemies, and only the tsar in the Kremlin can save this land and its people, that only his iron fist can maintain order in Russia.”

Given this view, is it any wonder that the former Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky claimed in all seriousness that Russians had “an extra chromosome”? He wanted to imply that the Russian people, ruled over by their priest-king Putin, are the best in the world – really the only true people – who are genetically superior to the rest of humanity. At the same time, they infer from this supposed biological distinction that they have a right to rule over all other people, who they dismiss as half-human or subhuman.

With this in mind, the picture of Putin undergoing the ice baptism shows that he is claiming the right to rule over all people. He is elevating himself, in order to assert his right to rule as a priest-king, through deadly wars of aggression.

Image of Russian President Vladimir Putin attending an Orthodox Easter service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attending an Orthodox Easter service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

Sergei Karpukhin/TASS via Zuma

The West was not prepared

At its heart, Putin’s world view and religious outlook are shaped by the words of philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954), who claimed the world was so corrupt that it needed to be saved by a holy nation, namely by spiritually pure Russia. Within Russia, Ilyin understood the relationship between the people and their ruler to be of a mystical, religious nature, with both a worldly and a spiritual element.

A year ago, who could have imagined that in the 21st century, the leader of a G8 country would dare to threaten the peace that was so hard-won after the ravages of the Second World War and the Cold War, all for the sake of an age-old concept of rulership?

The West believed it was unthinkable that President Putin would withdraw from this political alliance of Western industrialized countries, and therefore it was not prepared. If those in the West had had a clearer understanding of the religious ideologies at play, they may have been able to predict the Russian president’s behavior more accurately. In any case, against this background, it is vital that from now on were consider the role played by religion in shaping international politics.

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Iran's War On Abortion Rights, A Toxic Mix Of Theocracy And Demographic Panic

Ending a pregnancy has become a major complication, and a crime, for Iranian women who cannot or will not have children in a country wracked by socio-economic woes and a leadership.

photo of a young child surrounded by women in chadors

Iran's government wants to boost the birth rate at all costs

Office of Supreme Leader/ZUMA
Firoozeh Nordstrom

Keen to boost the population, Iran's Islamic regime has reversed its half-hearted family planning policies of earlier years and is curbing birth control with measures that include banning abortion.

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The measures are in line with the dictates of Iran's Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. He was already denouncing birth control policies by 2018-19, though conservative elements among Iran's rulers have always dismissed birth control as a piece of Western corruption.

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