This marks the fourth time that President Vladimir Putin has met with the incumbent of the Vatican since 2003, suggesting there is more at stake than just trying to score some quick PR points with the West.
Pope Francis shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of a private audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Photo: AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Italy and the Vatican in order to meet with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Pope Francis gave international observers much food for thought last week.
Most experts agreed that the visit by the Russian president was part of a larger diplomatic strategy aimed at dividing the West over sanctions and restoring trade and investment ties, which Russia needs to revive its flagging economy. The meeting with Pope Francis was also intended to improve the Russian president’s image in the eyes of Catholics across the world.
However, as is commonly the case, the simple explanations neglect some important nuances, which in this instance, if correctly interpreted, can be used to paint Putin’s visit to Italy in an entirely different light.
Yes, it is crucial for Russian diplomacy to maintain high-level contacts with the top European countries, especially when bets on the weaker players have not paid off. And yes, the Pope’s consent to grant an audience sends a signal that one of the world’s leading religious authorities does not consider Putin to be a criminal hopelessly mired in sin, as the hostile foreign media attempt to portray him.
That said, it is worth recalling that it was the Russian president’s fourth meeting with the incumbent of the Vatican. In 2003 he received an audience with John Paul II, in 2007 with Benedict XVI, and in November 2013 with the current Pope Francis for the first time. In that regard, Vladimir Putin’s dialogue with the head of the Holy See should not be directly linked to the current political situation or the desire to score propaganda points.
There is more to the talks than that.
Putin, like the vast majority of his generation raised in the Soviet Union, was educated in an atmosphere of atheism. Like many of his peers, the future president’s inner faith did not express itself in the symbols and rituals of traditional religion, which in Soviet times were only semi-legal, but in the sacralization of civil and family values, and historical memory. Even now, in answer to questions about his early influences, Putin is far more likely to recall Soviet spy films or "parents’ war stories" than anything to do with religion.
From day one as president, Putin imparted considerable importance to religious matters, and not simply as a publicity stunt. Elevated by destiny from humble Leningrad-born KGB officer to leader of a great world power in the blink of an eye, it is difficult to imagine that he did not see the hand of Providence in his rapid rise.
Despite aligning himself with the Russian Orthodox Church (quite natural for the president of Russia), Putin shared the post-war Soviet generation’s prevailing attitude to religion.
That attitude was forged in an atheistic environment that opposed religion as such, in which faith (or lack thereof) was the most important symbolic dividing line, and in which religious diversity, common in many Western countries, faded into the background. To this day, people in Russia are more inclined to view the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, or Christianity and Islam, as cultural and value-based, rather than religious.
Few in Russia can put their finger on the exact difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, but all know that both branches represent the conventional “West,” which, as they say on TV, opposes the Russian "Orthodox world" (quotation marks are apt because in recent years as part of the Eurasian movement Russia has tried to unite the anti-Western potential of Orthodox Christianity and Islam).
On returning to the Kremlin for a third presidential term in 2012, Putin increasingly turned to religion to justify his political direction. This process reached its culmination in 2014, when one of the reasons cited for returning Crimea to Russia’s fold was the peninsula’s "sacred" significance to Russian statehood as the place where Prince Vladimir adopted Christianity in the tenth century.
Having thrown down the gauntlet to the West, Putin found himself in a tight spot. The situation required new "sources of power," which seemingly in the mind of the Russian president were not limited to economic strength or even strategic nuclear weapons.
For Putin, verbal communion with the Pope is one such "intangible" source, and is (as far as can be judged by its durability) of no small significance. Most likely, were an audience with the Dalai Lama not so strongly condemned by China, a key strategic ally of Russia at present, Putin would gladly meet with him too.
It is important to note that Putin does not have to worry that Orthodox Christians will frown upon his meeting with the head of the Catholic world, or that the unflattering remarks of the Dalai Lama addressed to the Kremlin will turn Buddhists against the regime.
The worlds of politics and religion interact very differently in Russia than in the United States or Europe. The state continues to hold sway over the church (though utterly unlike the state of affairs in the Soviet Union); hence political loyalty is stronger than religious. For the Russian public, every tête-à-tête Putin holds with a foreign spiritual leader is further evidence that the "Mandate of Heaven" is in safe hands, and that even other people’s gods are not able to challenge the authority of the president.
As the "defender of Holy Russia against the intrigues of the West," Putin can afford to meet with any symbolic figure from the "hostile" world and negotiate with them on any matter — just as U.S. President Richard Nixon, a vehement anti-Communist, could hold talks with Brezhnev and Mao Zedong without fear for his own ratings.
However, the very fact of his visit to the Vatican suggests that Putin recognizes the sacred importance of the head of the Catholic Church, which undermines his anti-Western rhetoric. In actual fact, despite the conflict with the United States and the European Union, and in spite of Russia’s friendship with China, Putin has always leaned towards Western culture. The Throne of Saint Peter, sacred in the West, is likewise for Putin a "source of strength."
Only circumstances and the need to fight for political survival are forcing the Russian president to tread the path of confrontation and to propound anti-Americanism and anti-Western conservatism as an ideological basis. For Putin, the events taking place today between Russia and the West are not a war of ideologies, but a political struggle. Ideology and religion are mere tools to consolidate support and discredit opponents.
After his audience with the Pope, Putin met longtime friend Silvio Berlusconi, whose reputation in Italy and abroad falls somewhat short of the moral standards upheld by Pope Francis. This fact proves once more that the colloquy in the Vatican was no PR stunt (otherwise, the proximity of the meeting with Berlusconi in the presidential diary could have been avoided).
The fact is that the Russian president, who came to religion as an adult, sees no contradiction between the sacred Holy See and robust male friendship (one of the key virtues extolled in Soviet films). This and other aspects of Putin’s world outlook are well understood by his compatriots, but frequently overlooked by foreign observers.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.