Of God and His Providence over the Nations

Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

The last three leaders of Russia have something remarkably similar in their background. Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin had mothers who were devout Russian Orthodox Christians and had their sons secretly baptized as infants during the years of vehement anti-Christian Communist rule.

 Gorbachev was born in 1931 but is still living. He was President of the Soviet Union from March 15, 1990, to December 25, 1991. His grandparents were practicing Christians, and he was christened “Mikhail” by his grandfather. While Stalin lived, Gorbachev was a dedicated Communist. But it slowly became apparent that Gorbachev was an intellectual idealist, who believed socialism was not genuine unless it was truly democratic. Long-time personal friends have described Gorbachev as loyal and personally honest, confident, polite, tactful, and having a happy and optimistic temperament. One said Gorbachev was a “remarkably decent man with high moral standards.”  A recent film clip of Gorbachev at home showed him to be philosophical and having a self-deprecating sense of humor. He is described by old friends as bright and hard-working, sometimes a workaholic. He is an admirer of St. Francis of Assisi, who he says had a significant influence on his life.  He has a large Russian Orthodox icon saint painting in his home. U.S. President Ronald Reagan thought Gorbachev was a “closet Christian,” because Gorbachev had told him they had Christian morals in common.  In December 1989, Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and agreed to official diplomatic recognition for the Vatican.

In March 2008,Gorbachev visited the tomb of St. Francis in Italy, praying on his knees there 30 minutes and saying things that led people to believe he had become a Christian, Many European newspapers arrived at the same conclusion. The London Telegraph wrote that Gorbachev “has acknowledged his Christian faith for the first time.” This newspaper coverage, however, with some media even claiming Gorbachev had become a Catholic, caused some turmoil in Russia. Shortly thereafter,  a Russian interviewer from Interfax News quoted Gorbachev as still being “an atheist,” Although a  Russian Orthodox spokesman was critical of Gorbachev’s trip to Italy, he said Gorbachev was headed toward Christianity. I am hopeful that Reagan was right.

As President of the USSR in 1990-1991 and General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1985 to 1991, Gorbachev made democratic and religious freedom reforms that angered hardline Communists. This led to a failed coup by Communist Party hardliners in August 1991. This brought down the USSR and  led to the end of Russian hegemony over eastern Europe. Only Belarus and Ukraine are not members of NATO. Belarus is presently a dependable Russian Federation ally.

Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007),  an economic and social reformer, became President of the Russian Federation in 1991 and served until the end of 1999. In June 1992, having spent most of his political life as an atheist, he returned to the Russian Orthodox Church at Trinity-Sergius Monastery northeast of Moscow, the traditional seat of Russian Orthodoxy, seeking spiritual renewal for himself and his nation and the blessing of Patriarch Alexi II.  Speaking to pilgrims at the monastery, Yeltsin called upon the nation “to practice patience and humility and to strive for spiritual purification after more than seven decades of socialism and its atheist ideology.”

In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, a like-minded economic and social reformer,  his Prime Minister and expressed the wish that he should be his successor. When Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned at the end of 1999, Putin became by Constitutional  Law acting President of the Russian Federation. He was officially elected President on March 26, 2000, with 53 percent of the vote and took office on May 7.

In a March 12, 2020,  telephone interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda,  also printed in the Irish Times, Putin said that his mother and her friend that lived in the communal apartment building in St. Petersburg took him to a Russian Orthodox priest to be baptized, without letting his father, who was a Communist party member, know. Putin was probably about four months old.

From the very beginning of Putin’s leadership of the Russian Federation, he has made the Russian Orthodox Church and Christianity in general part of his plan to revive Russian culture and greatness. Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church were persecuted and sometimes severely oppressed under 70 years of Communism. According to a 2017 Pew Survey, 73 percent of Russian adults identify as Christiana, almost all of these, 71 percent are Russian Orthodox.  Thousands of Russian Orthodox churches have since been built or repaired since 1991.

Putin has been a highly visible supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church and has especially encouraged church building and renovations. He often participates in ceremonial church traditions. Christmas is on January 7 on the Orthodox calendar and 12 days later on January 19, the Russians celebrate the Epiphany, when they believe Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Full celebration of this calls for a half-naked dip into ice-cold water at rivers or lakes. Bare-chested Putin was filmed taking this icy dip in 2018 and 2021.

Putin and other Russians frequently contrast conservative Orthodox beliefs on homosexuality and family with declining Western moral and family values. Putin frequently emphasizes there are only two genders—male and female. This also has an appeal to predominantly Orthodox Eastern European nations, where Russia has traditionally been looked upon for Orthodox leadership.

The Russian Online publication Russian Faith published a brief article by Danish theologian and journalist Iben Thranholm on October 5, 2017, entitled “Putin’s Christian Vision.”  The article praises Putin’s influence resulting in the restoration and beautification of Kremlin monasteries and Moscow churches  and repeats his repudiation of the Soviet legacy with its atheist ideology and its record of anti-Christianity and reaffirms Orthodoxy as the heart of Russian culture. 

Most important, however, the article gives valuable insight into Putin’s religious worldview. Besides his loyalty to the beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church, it reveals three 19th and 20th century Russian Christian philosophers who have influenced him—Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov, and Ivan Ilyin--all  of whom he frequently quotes in speeches. In fact, he instructed Russian regional governors to read their works over the 2014 winter holidays.

“The key message of these philosophers is of Russia’s messianic role in world history and of its need to preserve itself through Orthodoxy and restoration of its historic borders.”

Studying the causes of Russia’s 70 years of suffering under Communism, Ilvin wrote:

“The Russian revolution is a reflection of the religious crisis we are living through now, an attempt to establish an anti-Christian public and state system thought up by Friedrich Nietzsche and economically and politically realized by Karl Marx. This anti-Christian virus was exported to Russia from the West…”

“Leaving our bond with God and the Christian tradition, mankind has become morally blind and gripped by materialism, irrationalism, and nihilism.”

In Ilyin’s view, the way to overcome this global moral crisis is for people to return to “eternal moral values”—"faith love, freedom, conscience, family, motherland, and nation, but above all faith and love.”

“To make Russia great again the Russian people should believe in God. This faith will strengthen their minds and willpower. It will make them strong enough to overcome themselves.”

“Russian history is all about morality triumphing over difficulties, temptations, dangers, and enemies.”

According to Thranholm, “Solovyov and Berdyaev argued that the historic mission of Russia is to lead the way to human unification.  Russia would transcend secularism and atheism and create a unified spiritual kingdom.” The Russian messianic conception,” said Berdyaev, “always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity.” 

Many Christians, especially Western Protestants, who are wary of temporal global government, secular or religious, however, may be alarmed by terms such as “human unification” and “unified spiritual kingdom” unless they are governed unequivocally by Jesus Christ as King, being the only Lord and Savior of His People.  

In Putin’s biography, "First Person", he says the first line in any Russian law code should be about moral values and that Russia has to be concerned as much with its spiritual position as its geographical one.

In an October 13, 2017, article in Russian Faith, Thranholm quotes Putin’s 2013 speech at the 1025th anniversary of Russian Christianity in its Kiev birthplace:

“Spiritual unity is so strong that it is immune to any acts of authorities, either of a state or, I dare say, even of the Church. No matter what power the state may have over people, there is nothing stronger than the power of our Lord.”

Putin’s vision of Russia cannot be understood without studying his views on spirituality and his study of Christian thinkers, especially Ilyin, Solovyov and Berdyaev. English language quotes from these three can be found on the internet.

The Heritage Foundation published an article on February 22, 2019. by Alexis Mrachek and Shane McCrum entitled “How Putin Uses Russian Orthodoxy to Grow His Empire.” They believe Putin is just using the Russian Orthodox Church to advance his objectives. This would be reasonable skepticism regarding almost any politician, but they don’t make a strong case for it.

Measuring Vladimir Putin’s religious worldview in the secular fog of international politics is challenging. While critical investigation and thinking should never be discouraged, there is an opposite danger of being blinded by skepticism. We must also be humbly aware that God’s Divine Providence is often mysterious and unexpected in its form and timing.

“Nothing is too large or small to escape God’s governing hand.  The spider building its web in the corner and Napoleon marching his army across Europe are both under God’s control.”—Jerry Bridges

Wisdom will be known by its consequences.

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