Last week, on the Christian feast of the Ascension, leaders of the Ã©migrÃ© Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia agreed to re-establish “canonical communion” with the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. Thousands stood in line to attend the celebration at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. But this was clearly an event of more than religious significance. The attendees were a veritable who’s who of Russian political life, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and President Vladimir Putin, the merger’s architect.
News media world-wide described the event as a step in overcoming Russia’s tragic history. The New York Times called the merger “the symbolic end of Russia’s civil war.” But the reality is far more complicated. Not only are there theological and moral issues at stake, but there is also the suspicion among some that Mr. Putin is building new networks of influence by using the church to reach out to Russian Ã©migrÃ© communities all over the world.
While lower-ranking clergy at the ceremony stressed the spiritual aspects of the merger, Patriarch Aleksy II emphasized other factors: He gave short shrift to God, but thanked President Putin.
Indeed, it was Mr. Putin who first made overtures to the Church Abroad in September 2003, when he met with its leadership during a visit to New York. The church merger is only the most recent of his successful attempts to appropriate symbols of Russia’s prerevolutionary and anticommunist past along with Soviet ones. The “repatriating” of the Danilov monastery bells from Harvard University, and the bodies of the White Russian Gen. Anton Denikin from Jackson, N.J., and the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna from Copenhagen, have gone hand in hand with reintroducing the old Soviet anthem and the Red Army’s flag. Mr. Putin is thus the first modern Russian leader to incorporate all aspects of Russia’s “usable past” in claiming his legitimacy. The Russian Orthodox Church in all its forms is a key component of that past.