DOES Vladimir Putin do God? The answer may seem obvious, but a long and fascinating article by Juliet Samuel in The Sunday Telegraph last weekend explained how closely the Kremlin tyrant’s war ambitions are tied into a mystical, if spurious, idea of Russian Orthodox unity.
We know of the cover given by Patriarch Kirill — he of the £20,000 wristwatch and murky links to the old KGB — to President Putin’s unholy war, and, indeed, of the vocal opposition of hundreds of Orthodox clergy to the invasion of Ukraine (News, 18 March) — but Samuel had discovered another grim mentor to the Russian leader.
Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, of the Sretensky Monastery, declared from the start of Mr Putin’s reign that he was, indeed, an Orthodox Christian believer, who “realises his responsibility to God”, and was placed as head of state by God’s will. Nor has Tikhon changed his mind. Only last week, The Moscow Times quoted him apparently intoning at the funeral of a young soldier killed in Ukraine that he had “fought against evil satanic spirits: Ukrainian Nazis, created by American multinational corporations”.
Shevkunov, it turns out, is a proponent of a messianic neo-fascist movement, Eurasianism, which seeks to re-establish a new centre of Christianity among the Slavic peoples, uncorrupted by Western degeneracy. It would be a restoration and rejuvenation of a Byzantine Rus, as envisaged by, among others, the novelist Dostoevsky and the early 20th-century philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who apparently had quite a lot of time for the likes of Mussolini and Hitler.
Samuel quoted Mr Putin’s 2021 essay that: “Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” Quite how that squares with flattening the place and murdering fellow Slavs, civilian men, women, and children — and so ensuring the alienation of any survivors for generations to come — is not exactly clear.
The dictator and his minions do not exactly put themselves up for interviews (or even for Desert Island Discs) to explain their rationale. Mr Putin, of course, would not be the first dictator with a messianic complex, nor the first to believe that he can impose belief by brutality. As Tacitus, referring to a Scottish chieftain, Calgacus, in possibly the first made-up journalistic quote in history, famously remarked: “They make a solitude and call it peace.”
THE GUARDIAN, which has published a couple of articles on Putin’s perverse religious wellsprings, had an editorial on Monday supporting calls for the World Council of Churches (WCC) to expel the Russian Orthodox Church until it recovers its moral probity: “Such a move would go against a natural instinct to promote Christian unity. But just as Russian oligarchs have been sanctioned and isolated on the grounds that they provide succour and support to Putin, Orthodox Christianity’s rogue affiliate in Moscow should pay a high price for hitching its theology to the murderous ambitions of a dictator.”
If this has echoes of the Skibbereen Eagle newspaper — which, famously, in a much-mocked editorial in the 1890s, warned the Tsar of all the Russias that it would be keeping an eye on him from its eyrie in west Cork, “and all such despotic enemies of human progress and man’s natural rights which undoubtedly include a nation’s right to self-government” — who is to say that the little local newspaper was wrong then, or that The Guardian and the WCC are misguided now in adding another pinprick to the cast-iron self-esteem of Putin and Kirill?
IF THE brutality in Ukraine is making you want to get away as far as possible, why not follow the example of the early Christian anchorites and withdraw from the world to a harmonious community where you can think “with your heart”, and be free in the company only of those who agree with you?
It had to happen: The Telegraph Magazine found a German couple who are in the process of founding a community, El Paraiso Verde, in Paraguay, for anti-vaccinators and people who seek freedom from “5G, chemtrails, fluoridated water, mandatory vaccinations and healthcare mandates”. A communal library offers books on homoeopathy, the “Nazi origins of the European Union”, and, perhaps surprisingly, “why water is in fact not water at all”.
To ensure their freedom, the borders of the estate for those fleeing “socialist trends around the world” are patrolled by armed guards, which is perhaps just as well, since Paraguay currently has the highest death rates from Covid in the world, and the inhabitants would not want to get infected by their surroundings.
The article points out that Erwin and Sylvia Annau, who have founded the green paradise, claim: “We are not gurus and not cult leaders . . . we don’t want to lead you or teach you.” They are following in the well-trodden footsteps of the 19th-century Mennonites, and, more recently, the Unification Church, which both regarded Paraguay as fertile ground.
Stephen Bates is a former religious-affairs correspondent of The Guardian
Andrew Brown is away.