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Behind the headlines

The priest who captivated Putin

The Russian president taking part in a chilly Orthodox Christian ritual

One aspect of the war in Ukraine is often forgotten by Western analysts, says Juliet Samuel in The Sunday Telegraph: it is a conflict “with an overwhelmingly religious and cultural dimension”. Over the years, Vladimir Putin has become a leader “beloved by the Russian Orthodox Church”. He has cast the Ukrainian government as “a malignant tool of Satanic and degenerate Western forces”, with his attempted takeover of the country “the start of a great revival of the ancient Russian civilisation”.

Putin is rumoured to have been introduced to Christianity by Father Tikhon, an Orthodox priest described by one Russia expert as “a very conservative cleric with an imperial mindset”. In 2008 Tikhon released a documentary claiming that the Byzantine empire collapsed because it failed to stay true to the Orthodox faith. The film was a “runaway success”, and in 2013 “Putin himself took part in a state-produced follow-up”. In a 2021 essay, the Russian president wrote that Ukrainians have “called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians” since “time immemorial”.

If there’s a philosophy Putin follows, it’s that of Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin. A conservative exiled in 1922 from communist Russia because of his opposition to the Bolsheviks, Ilyin saw in Mussolini and Hitler “models for the reinvention of a new Russian tsarism, in which a strong leader could abolish the individuality of his people and bind them into one spiritual, collective whole”. In 2005, Putin had Ilyin’s body dug up from its burial place in Switzerland and reinterred in Moscow. Ahead of his invasion of Crimea in 2014, he reportedly had a copy of Ilyin’s writing sent to senior Russian officials and regional governors.

Unfortunately, Putin “appears to have spent too much time drinking his own Kool-Aid”. He has convinced himself that Russians and Ukrainians really are bound together by ancient religious and cultural ties – and that if he could retake Ukraine, “the lost Russians of Kyiv would soon come flocking back to the bosom of the motherland”. It hasn’t worked out like that.

Read the full piece here.