Putin’s Pilgrimage

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from TIME Magazine,

With a visit to one of Greece’s holiest places, Russia’s President Putin Casts Himself as protector of the faith.

a tiny peninsula, about one-tenth the size of Long Island, that juts out of northern Greece into the Aegean Sea. Known as the Holy Mountain of Athos, it has been governed by Orthodox Christian monks ever since the Byzantine Empire first granted them sovereignty over this spit of land at the end of the 9th century.

Today it still stands as a giant shrine to the Virgin Mary, and thousands of pilgrims travel there each year. But it is hardly prominent on the political map of the world. No women are permitted to visit. No banks are allowed to operate there. No drivable roads connect Mount Athos to mainland Greece, and the only way to get there is by boat or helicopter. Yet Putin has made a total of four attempts to reach it during his 16 years in power.

… he finally made it to Athos in 2005. Putin established a bond with the monks that has transformed not only their community but also the Russian elites back in Moscow. Partly through that relationship, the Kremlin has come to embrace the Orthodox faith and to harness it, as both an ideology and a source of influence abroad. “For us, Orthodoxy is the axis of the Russian world we seek to build,” Alexander Dugin, one of the Kremlin’s favored ideologues, told me after joining Putin on another pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain at the end of May. “If you want to understand the Orthodox world as we see it, understanding Athos is the place to start.”

It’s also key to understanding Putinism. In the West, most efforts to grasp the actions of the Russian President–such as the military incursion he ordered into Ukraine in 2014, the bombing campaign he began over Syria last year and the general vilification of the West that permeates many of his speeches and policies–tend to look for answers in the legacies of the Cold War. But Putin’s strategic vision has roots in an even earlier era, one in which czars and priests, not communist apparatchiks, defined Russia’s role in the world. Through his visits to Mount Athos, Putin has evoked that era of Russian imperial power, signaling how central it is to the legacy he wants to build.

the Holy Mountain of Athos begins.

It is not an easy place to reach. Although its territory is part of Europe’s visa-free travel zone, a stone wall topped with barbed wire blocks the neck of the peninsula. “Crossing this border is illegal,” declares a sign behind the wall. “Violators will be prosecuted.” In order to enter Mount Athos, visitors must obtain a special visa and an invitation from the governing monks.

… “the Orthodox world” … would include countries in eastern and southern Europe where the dominant religion is Orthodoxy, as well as smaller communities of the Orthodox faithful in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Together they number some 260 million around the world, though relatively few live in America.

Putin drew attention … when he arrived on Mount Athos on May 28. “For more than a thousand years,” he told the ruling council of monks that day, “our spiritual traditions and common values have been nurtured and begotten here.” Later in his speech, he added, “Today, as we restore the values of patriotism, historical memory and traditional culture, we are seeking firmer bonds with Mount Athos.”

In many ways, those bonds hark back to what Athos was like during the twilight of the czarist era. At the end of the 19th century, the Russian imperial court purchased land on and around Mount Athos in order to bolster its claim to being the global guardian of Orthodoxy. It also sent so many Russian monks to live on the Holy Mountain that they came to outnumber all the others by nearly 2 to 1. “The Russians wanted to occupy Mount Athos back then,” says Father Makarios, a Greek monk whose absolutions from sins are highly prized among pilgrims. So in a sense, he says, the fall of the czars in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 saved this part of Greece from turning into a de facto Russian colony. The communists, who imposed a policy of atheism across the Soviet Union, weren’t interested in faith-based diplomacy.

Only in the past decade has that patronage come roaring back. “To say the truth, Mount Athos again lives with Russian money now,” Father Makarios says.

The value of that investment starts to make sense when you look at the demographics in Russia’s neighborhood. In the parts of Eastern Europe that Moscow still sees as its rightful zone of influence–including Georgia, Belarus, Armenia and Ukraine as well as the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro–the majority of people are Orthodox Christians. By paying homage to one of the holiest places in the Orthodox world, Putin is trying to cast himself as the protector of the faith–a role that traces back to a core problem of Russian power in the post-Soviet era. With the fall of communism, Moscow suddenly found itself lacking a “national idea”–an ideology that could replace the discredited slogans of Lenin and Marx and, ideally, entice the East European nations that Russia sought to keep under its wing.

Orthodox Christianity fitted the bill nicely.

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