Russia Influence Also Winds through Faith ; Orthodox Church Helps to Spread Putin's Gospel of Illiberal Democracy

By Higgins, Andrew | International New York Times, September 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

Russia Influence Also Winds through Faith ; Orthodox Church Helps to Spread Putin's Gospel of Illiberal Democracy


Higgins, Andrew, International New York Times


The Russian Orthodox Church helps spread Putin's gospel of illiberal democracy and traditional values in the United States, 'Gayropa' and other locales.

The golden main dome of a new Russian Orthodox cathedral now under construction on the banks of the Seine shimmers in the sun, towering over a Paris neighborhood studded with government buildings and foreign embassies. Most sensitive of all, it is being built beside a 19th-century palace that has been used to conceal some of the French presidency's most closely guarded secrets.

The prime location, secured by the Russian state after years of lobbying by the Kremlin, is so close to so many snoop-worthy places that when Moscow first proposed a $100 million "spiritual and cultural center" there, France's security services fretted that Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, might have more than just religious outreach in mind.

Anxiety over whether the spiritual center might serve as a listening post, however, has obscured its principal and perhaps more intrusive role: an outsize display in the heart of Paris, the capital of the insistently secular French Republic, of Russia's might as a religious power, not just a military one.

While tanks and artillery have been Russia's weapons of choice to project its power into neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Putin has also mobilized faith to expand the country's reach and influence. A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women's and gay rights.

Thanks to a close alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved a particularly powerful tool in former Soviet lands like Moldova, where senior priests loyal to the Moscow church hierarchy have campaigned tirelessly to block their country's integration with the West. Priests in Montenegro, meanwhile, have spearheaded efforts to derail their country's plans to join NATO.

But faith has also helped Mr. Putin amplify Russia's voice farther west, with the church leading a push into resolutely secular members of the European Union, like France.

The most visible sign of this is the new Kremlin-financed spiritual center here near the Eiffel Tower, now so closely associated with Mr. Putin that France's former culture minister, Frederic Mitterrand, suggested that it be called "St. Vladimir's."

But the Russian church's push in Europe has taken an even more aggressive turn in Nice, on the French Riviera, where in February it tried to seize a private Orthodox cemetery, the latest episode in a long campaign to grab up church real estate controlled by rivals to Moscow's religious hierarchy.

"They are advancing pawns here and everywhere; they want to show that there is only one Russia, the Russia of Putin," said Alexis Obolensky, vice president of the Association Cultuelle Orthodoxe Russe de Nice, a group of French believers, many of them descendants of White Russians who fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. They want nothing to do with a Moscow-based church leadership headed by Kirill, patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, a close ally of the Russian president.

A Broader Push

The French Orthodox association is instead loyal to the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, a rival church leadership in Istanbul that has provided a haven for many of Mr. Putin's churchgoing foes. After a long legal battle with Moscow, Mr. Obolensky's association in 2013 lost control of Nice's Orthodox cathedral, St. Nicholas, to the Moscow Patriarchate, which installed its own priests and rallied the faithful behind projects to warm France's frosty relations with Russia.

When Russian church staff and their lay French supporters broke into the Nice Orthodox cemetery in February and declared it Russian property, allies of Mr. …

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