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.
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.
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.”