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Yeltsin’s Curious Burial

It's no secret that Putin has been patching up the ancient bridge between church and state since his assumption (I like that word better than election) to the high office of the Kremlin. The ex-KGB agent's reign embodies a galumphing, … Read More

By / April 30, 2007

It's no secret that Putin has been patching up the ancient bridge between church and state since his assumption (I like that word better than election) to the high office of the Kremlin. The ex-KGB agent's reign embodies a galumphing, autocratic hybrid of Red and White Russian traditions: 

The funeral was the first the Russian Orthodox Church has officiated for a head of state here since the next-to-last czar, Aleksandr III, died in 1894. It took place not in the Column Hall of the House of Trade Unions, where Soviet leaders lie in state, but rather in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, the gold-domed city landmark destroyed on Stalin’s orders and rebuilt on Yeltsin’s.

The brief Soviet interlude notwithstanding, Russia has always thought of herself as the last bulwark of Christianity following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, and the ennervating Protestant and sectarian upheavals in Europe. It was the stuff of domestic bombast that Russia was the "third Rome," the divinely blessed colossus resting with one elbow on Europe, the other on Asia.

Church and state were only ever separated with the virtual abolition of the former in 1917. What Putin sees in the sacred today is the same messianic zeal it once lent to the twin ideas of Russian nationalism and Russian exceptionalism. The tsar used to be known as the vicar of Christ on earth, a conflation of Caesar and Pope. Indeed, when someone suggested to Peter the Great that country was in need of a holy Patriarch, he bared and then pounded his chest, declaiming that it already had one.

The history of Russian depotism, unlike the fossil record, can be played backward without any deviation in the known narrative. 

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