Reports on the pope’s meeting with Russian president Putin on Monday have tended to gloss over a significant detail — Putin was 50 minutes late to the rendezvous.
Of course, schedules do slip and the Rome traffic can be a problem. But Putin also regularly shows up late to high-level meetings in order to demonstrate his superiority over his interlocutor.
This is worth keeping in mind before getting too enthusiastic about Putin’s visit to the Vatican or overestimating the possibility of an end to the rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Now that full diplomatic relations between Russia and the Vatican have been restored, the pope may wish to make a historic visit to Moscow. Before embarking on a such a visit or, in fact, devoting more time to strengthening relations with Russia, the Vatican would do well to consider the role played by the Russian church hierarchy as a source of legitimacy for a corrupt and authoritarian regime.
Putin is regularly accompanied by the hierarchs of the church in religious garb at strictly political events and shown on television attending services on all religious holidays.
Orthodoxy is the only religion whose services are shown on television, and Orthodox chapels have appeared in railroad stations and police precincts. Priests are often present at the sanctification of banks, offices, and even weapons such as tanks.
Kirill, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, has also scorned human rights. In 2006, at the tenth meeting in Moscow of the Russian People’s Council, a church-backed public organization, Kirill said that human rights did not have priority over “faith, morality, sacred places, and homeland.” If there is a conflict between human rights and those values, it is up to the government to “harmoniously combine them,” he said.
It’s convenient for Putin to identify his regime with the Russian church hierarchy to prevent a rational assessment of its lawlessness and corruption. He would be happy for the pope to make a contribution to this false legitimization. One can only hope that the Vatican will have the wherewithal to refuse.
— David Satter is a writer based in Moscow. He is a fellow at the Hudson Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale).