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How Vladimir Putin helped resurrect the Russian Orthodox Church

Mass at the Cathedral of Blood: A worshiper during mass in the Church on Blood (the spot where Tsar Nicholas II and family were killed) in Yekaterinburg, Russia, January 14, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Part of Putin's Games, a series that examines what the Sochi Winter Olympics reveal about  Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Tamara Leontieva's voice fills with pain as she talks about the darkest day faced by her Russian Orthodox Church. "This is the place where the Tsar and his whole family were killed," the guide whispers dramatically as we approach the dimly lit altar of the Church on the Blood, built where Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov tsars, and his family were murdered in 1918.

Until his death at the hands of Bolsheviks, Nicholas II was viewed by the Russian Orthodox faithful as the divinely appointed head of an empire that stretched from Poland to the Pacific Ocean. On the day he died, a sacred icon that had gone missing centuries earlier is said to have reappeared in Moscow, a signal to believers that God's chosen ruler was gone.

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Ms. Leontieva calls what followed "the turmoils." But the Russian Orthodox Church outlasted the official atheism of the Soviet Union and now, after almost a century in the wilderness, has regained most of the power and prestige it enjoyed under the Romanovs.

Many in the church credit that to a man they believe may also be inspired from above: President Vladimir Putin. "Even his family name comes from the church," Ms. Leontieva says with admiration. (The first syllable – pronounced "poot" – means "the path" or "the way" in Russian.)

Over 15 years as either president or prime minister of the Russian Federation, Mr. Putin has left his mark – and a trail of megaprojects – around this vast country. The Winter Olympics that begin in less than three weeks are the latest monument to the Putin era, with the host city of Sochi overhauled for the occasion at a startling cost of more than $50-billion.

Long before he turned his attention to such international celebrations, Mr. Putin oversaw the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church, including the reconstruction of some 23,000 churches that had been destroyed or fallen into disuse. The Church on the Blood is not included in that count, since it's a completely new house of worship, completed in 2003.

To the delight of the church leadership, Mr. Putin's policies have also taken a sharply conservative turn since his return to the Kremlin last year for a third term as President. Once viewed as a liberal, Mr. Putin has in the past 12 months embraced the church's positions on such sensitive issues as abortion and gay rights.

"There are no conflicts between the church and the state," smiles Father Alexey Kulberg, an outspoken priest in Yekaterinburg, this city of 1.4 million near the Ural Mountains that separate Russia into its European and Asian halves. "The President's ideology for developing Russia coincides with the direction of the Russian Orthodox Church."

In other words, while the church doesn't quite recognize Mr. Putin as chosen by God, it's quite happy with the job he's doing.

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On the surface, it seems an odd match. Mr. Putin, after all, was a long-time member of the KGB, the organization that spearheaded the Soviet Union's repression of "counter-revolutionary" entities such as the church.

But Mr. Putin is that rare KGB agent who was baptized, in secret, as a child. Meanwhile, the head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, has been publicly accused of working for the KGB during the Soviet era.

Both the Kremlin and the church have benefited from resuming their centuries-old alliance. Early in Mr. Putin's rule, a law was passed returning all church property that had been seized during the Soviet era, almost surely making the Moscow Patriarchate the largest landowner in Russia. State-owned energy companies have contributed billions of rubles to the reconstruction of churches around the country.

Mr. Putin has made a proud show of his own faith, and the church has rewarded him with robust support in times of need. As street protests swelled in 2012 against Mr. Putin's return to the presidency, Patriarch Kirill declared on television that "liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the apocalypse." Mr. Putin's rule was a "miracle," the patriarch said on another occasion.

In a country where 90 per cent of the population self-identifies as Russian Orthodox (though 30 per cent also say they're atheists, giving rise to the term "Orthodox atheist"), that intervention unquestionably helped quiet calls for change in the Kremlin.

Those same street protests – and the belief among Mr. Putin's inner circle that the demonstrators were aided and abetted by Western governments – further cemented the Kremlin-church alliance. Mr. Putin increasingly speaks of Russia as a civilization distinct from the West. It's a view shared by the church, which blames "Western influence" for the spread of liberal ideas, like gay rights, in Russia.

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The church has loudly supported the "anti-homosexual propaganda" law that Mr. Putin signed last year (which prohibits the publication of any material portraying lesbians, gays, bisexual or transgendered people as normal), as well as a Kremlin move to ban the advertising of abortion services.

"The church and the state are moving toward separating Russia from the West," said Anna Gizulinna, a 52-year-old transgendered university lecturer who says she has faced increasing persecution at work since the passing of the anti-propaganda law. "They see the West as a danger and say they're fighting to save Russian souls."

She, like many LGBT Russians, fears Mr. Putin's assault on gay rights has only paused for the Sochi Olympics. There's an expectation that the social conservative march will resume once the athletes, and the international media, are gone.

Father Alexey hopes that's true. Sitting in his office under a portrait of the murdered Romanovs (the Russian Orthodox Church now considers Nicholas II a martyred saint), he says he'd like to see the country return to the "theocratic values" of tsarist times. He believes Mr. Putin might be the man to guide Russia there.

"I don't want to idealize the President, but I can understand Putin's words and Putin's decisions," Father Alexey said, fingering the large gold cross hanging from his neck. "As a citizen, I trust him."

Follow the series on Twitter: @markmackinnon and @johnlehmann

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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