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Putin and the Orthodox Church: how his faith shapes his politics

Putin and the Orthodox Church: how his faith shapes his politics

In light of recent events around Ukraine, we are re–sharing this extract from The Mighty and the Almighty (2017) in which Ben Ryan considers Putin’s unusual symbiotic relationship with the Orthodox Church. 16/02/2022


Few major world leaders have been able to cultivate quite as enigmatic or obscure a public persona as Vladimir Putin. Beyond a series of basic facts, any detail on Putin’s life, opinions and even career specifics is subject to a significant degree of deliberate obscurity, mythologizing, and heavily partisan interpretation. Biographies rely heavily on interviews with enemies or close allies, and officially sanctioned and carefully released information.[i] Putin’s own pronouncements are very deliberate; there seems to be a consensus that he rarely uses words without a careful consideration of the effect he is creating. The closest thing to a Putin autobiography, First Person[ii] (Ot Pervogo Litsa) typifies this. It is not an autobiography but a selection of carefully prepared interviews on particular topics with a trusted selection of Russian journalists.

It is a persona that perhaps deliberately fascinates and terrifies a Western audience, a picture alien to anything that anyone in the West would want to portray. Putin cultivates the image of a hard man. Much is made of his childhood scrapping in his block with the local gangs, getting into martial arts (a hobby he still maintains), the KGB man, and latterly the strong man who is prepared to stand up to those who would weaken Russia, whether internal (the oligarchs, Chechens) or external (NATO).

For all that, certain details of his life are clear. He was born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in October 1952 to Vladimir and Maria. His father was a Soviet patriot who had been severely wounded in the siege of Leningrad, his mother also having lived through the whole siege. The story Putin has told is that soon after his birth he was baptised as a baby, his mother apparently being a committed Christian, which, if true, although not unheard of, would nonetheless have been rather bold at a time when religion was banned.

Rated as a good but not outstanding student, Putin’s great love as a teenager was martial arts, particularly Judo and Sambo. He was apparently a real talent, winning trophies and training relentlessly. He went to university to study law and developed a desire to join the KGB. He accomplished that aim after graduating at a time when future Premier Yuri Andropov was the head of the KGB, a man whom Putin by all accounts still holds in high regard. Despite the conspiracy theorists, Putin appears not to have been an especially prominent agent. He spent some years working in Moscow before he was sent to East Germany to work in counter–intelligence in Dresden, his only experience outside Russia. In his own words, he worked in political intelligence, collecting intelligence on parties and politicians. He denies the more exotic stories, such as that he obtained documentation on the design of Eurofighters or that he ran Hans Modrow, a prominent East German politician.[iii]  He met his future wife Lyudmila (an air hostess) in 1980 and married her in 1982 or 1983.[iv]

Putin and his family saw the end of communism first–hand in Germany, but witnessed the effects of perestroika and glasnost at home only from a distance. His sense of abandonment as the Soviet system failed to support his office as the Berlin Wall came down was said to be acute. The great sell–off of state assets under the early years of the Yeltsin administration completed the effect – and perhaps goes some way to explaining the obsession with re–creating a strong Russia and Russian zone of influence.

Putin returned to Russia and after finishing a law degree came to work for Anatoly Sobchak in St Petersburg – a man who would go on to become a key patron and ally.[v] Some believe he was assigned the role by the KGB to keep an eye on the dangerous Sobchak.[vi] Others report that though Putin retained his KGB reserve role, he was not assigned to watch Sobchak but was recommended by an ally and performed no intelligence role.[vii] Whatever the truth, there is little doubt Putin soon proved a valuable asset to Sobchak and went through a series of increasingly significant roles through the early 1990s, gaining a reputation as a fixer without ever really proving himself in any election.[viii]

If how Putin came to work for Sobchak is somewhat shrouded in mystery, how he become part of Boris Yeltsin’s[ix] inner circle and eventual successor is even more curious. In 1996, after Sobchak had lost power in St Petersburg, Putin left for Moscow and got his break in the central government via another ally, Pavel Borodin. Even Putin in talking about Borodin finding him an appointment in Moscow claims “I don’t know why”.[x] From there he rapidly went through a number of increasingly prominent positions in the infamously volatile Yeltsin presidency, including serving as head of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) and as Prime Minister. So it was that with Yeltsin’s health failing Putin was named as the preferred successor.

Having become President, Putin has successfully held the position since 2000 with only a four–year interlude from 2008–12 when his ally Medvedev[xi] held the reins until Putin was eligible again (Putin served that time as prime minister). In his time as president, Putin has had some notable successes. For all that opinion polls (and indeed some election polls) have had their authenticity questioned,[xii] there seems little doubt that Putin has a significant support base and remarkably high level of popularity for a man who has been in office as long as he has. His economic record, at least until the last few years, has been remarkably successful, helped of course by Russia’s enormous mineral wealth.

The political power of the oligarchs has been largely curtailed. Among the group that successfully managed to strip away huge portions of previously state–owned industry for a fraction of their real value, several have been effectively exiled, imprisoned or forced to sell up large parts of their gains back to the state or else to other oligarchs better in favour with Putin. If Russian business continues to be dominated by a small sect of oligarchs, they at least have learnt the hard way to keep themselves out of the political sphere.

In foreign policy terms, Russia’s increased confidence was obvious long before the recent Ukraine crisis. Whether it was military action in Georgia or the critical role played by Putin in the 2013 dispute over the possibility of international action in Syria, Russia has been prepared to play an increasingly prominent role in recent years. The decision to annex Crimea is only the latest in a string of efforts to shore up the Russian sphere of influence and stand up to the perceived encroaching of NATO and the EU.

Putin inspires a great deal of fear in the West.[xiii] The combination of aggressive nationalism, increased military confidence and domestic repression and human rights questions and, of course, the continued nuclear capacity is a dangerous cocktail. That notwithstanding, Putin has been a remarkably successful president and today sits as one of the most powerful world leaders.

Putin’s faith and politics

Personal Faith

Putin has been keen to present himself as a man of serious personal faith. This is a trend that has seemed to become more pronounced throughout his time in office. Cynics suggest that the increasingly confident assertion of faith is part of a broader trend of seeking a nationalist agenda as economic performance declined. However, even relatively early in his presidency Putin had spoken at times about his faith and had already formed an apparently close bond with certain members of the clergy in the early 2000s, when his popularity was at its peak.

In early meetings with then US President George Bush, Putin certainly made much of his personal faith, showing off the small aluminium cross that he wore round his neck and making much of his Christian commitment. Bush was by all accounts certainly impressed – relating the account of the meeting in his book Decision Points.[xiv] Bush, of course, was famous for his own evangelical faith and it is entirely possible that Putin emphasised this precisely to win a friend in the US president. However, the story of this little baptismal cross is one which Putin has highlighted on several occasions and figures prominently in a passage from the biography written by Hutchins and Korobko.[xv]

The story goes that this baptismal cross was given to Putin by his Christian mother when she had him secretly baptised in the early 1950s and it has apparently been an object of great sentimental value to him ever since. Putin did not wear it while he was an active KGB officer, but he reports that “in 1993 when I worked on the Leningrad City Council, I went to Israel as part of an official delegation. Mama gave me my baptismal cross to get it blessed at the Lord’s Tomb. I did as she said and then put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.”[xvi]

The story takes on a mythical element to it, however, in an account of a fire at the Putin family dacha.[xvii] According to the story, the property burned down in the mid–90s, destroying many of the family’s key possessions including a good portion of their money. However, the cross survived the fire and was presented back to Putin by one of the firemen.  If the account seems extraordinary it is nonetheless one which has been repeated often. It bears, in fact, a close resemblance to an ancient Russian religious myth in which an icon of St Nicholas was said to be impervious to flame.[xviii] Whether or not that connotation is deliberate and the tale of Putin’s cross is a mythical construct, it is striking that this story is one that forms part of the official narrative on Putin’s faith. Putin certainly wishes to portray a strong personal faith that is exemplified in these stories.

There is some reason to believe that this goes beyond cynical self–image. For many years Putin has certainly had a close relationship with Archimandrite Tikhon, the Father Superior of Sretensky monastery. So close, in fact, is this relationship that there are those who would paint Tikhon as an éminence grise. Certainly Tikhon, a former film student, with a reputation as a spiritual healer seems to have served for some years as confessor to Putin. One biographer speculates that Tikhon probably knows more about Putin’s life than anyone else.[xix] He is also a priest with some rather remarkable political views, having publicly criticised democracy as a force that weakens a country and its spiritual basis, spoken out in favour of censorship as a necessary instrument and worked as a well–known public media figure. He has certainly seemed to profit from the relationship with Putin and other prominent political figures securing a string of new offices and promotions in recent years. However, he himself has always been keen to be clear that Putin is very much his own man, and certainly for all the closeness in their relationship Putin has stopped short (at least so far) of fully endorsing Tikhon’s model of Church–state relations. They did, however, work closely together in 2007 in the process of re–unifying the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and speculation over the extent of their influence on one another has continued for years.[xx]

Tikhon has reported in the past that Putin prays daily in a small chapel next to the presidential office. Putin’s mother and ex–wife were both certainly religious and the claim that Putin prays regularly is not implausible. As an overall picture of Putin’s personal faith then, while recognising the usual problems when it comes to unpicking truth from myth and managed public image, we can at the very least see that Putin wants to portray an image as a man with a committed personal faith.

Politics and Faith in the service of the State

The debate about the relationship between the Orthodox Church and political power is nothing new. Indeed, it goes all the way back beyond the Great Schism in 1054 and even to the working out of Christianity’s relationship with power with Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. The Russian state, and its predecessors in the Tsarist Empire, Muscovy and the Grand Duchy of Kiev, adopted a trajectory of religion and power that did not follow that of Catholic or Protestant Europe. The Church, even more than established churches of Western Europe, was fully part of the structure of the government. It was in part this intimate relationship with the ruling system of the State that prevented the Orthodox Church in Russia (as opposed to other European churches) from acting as a critical or independent voice, and which explained in part the Bolshevik revolution.

Under Communism, the Church was a threat to the state as a body closely associated with power structures, a rival ideology and capable of inspiring the affection and support of a large proportion of the Russian population. Putin, however, is on record as seeing that attitude as a mistake on the part of the USSR. The Church, for Putin, has a significant and powerful value in forging a strong Russian state. Under Putin, the Church and nationalism are increasingly closely united. The Church serves a powerful role in supporting Putin’s true political ideology – his identity as a gosudarstvennik[xxi]or ‘Statist’. The “Russian Idea” as described by Putin in his so–called ‘Millennium Message’, delivered in 1999 and still seen as the core of his political model, includes patriotism, collectivism, solidarity and derzhavnost (destiny to be a great power). Religion, even were Putin not religious himself, has a very clear and obvious instrumental value in meeting those goals.

This instrumental use of the Church has been seen on a number of occasions both internally and, increasingly, externally. Internally, Putin has done much to encourage and support the growth of the Church and to restrain the proselytising activities of other religious bodies (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostal groups have found it very difficult to be registered as an official belief group in Russia, and  are portrayed as a security threat to the Russian state[xxii]). Under Putin’s watch, icons and church bells that were sold or smuggled out of Russia under Communism have been restored,[xxiii] churches have been built or rebuilt (and particularly the vast Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow[xxiv]) with oligarchs and local businesses strongly encouraged (even allegedly coerced[xxv]) into funding the work. 

It can also be seen in education, where Orthodox culture is now part of the school curriculum and even, increasingly, in direct control of popular media. Putin’s government is heavily suspected of fixing the results of the 2008 poll for the “greatest Russian” in favour of Alexander Nevsky, a warrior who resisted foreign invaders as Prince of Novgorod, Grand Prince of Kiev and Grand Prince of Vladimir and was later proclaimed an Orthodox saint. Independent polls revealed that this result was probably fraudulent. That, of course, in some ways makes the result more interesting as an example of whom the Russian government want people to value – a figure of both nationalist pride and religious prestige.

Externally, this instrumental relationship has been gaining in importance too. Putin played a role in the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, in the process creating an effective foreign policy tool.[xxvi] As Putin has looked to reinforce a sense of ethnic and linguistic Russian–ness even beyond the Federation borders, the Church has been a valuable part of that process. A quotation from the Patriarch Kirill[xxvii] is illustrative of this point:

“The Patriarch is the custodian of the internal unity of the Church and, together with his brothers in the episcopate, guardian of the purity of the faith… The Patriarch is the defender of the canonical borders of the church. This ministry takes on special significance in that situation that arose after the formation of independent states on the territory of ‘historic Russia’. While respecting their sovereignty and caring for their well–being, the Patriarch is called, at the same time, to be concerned with the maintaining and strengthening of spiritual ties between people living in these countries for the sake of preserving the system of values which the one Orthodox civilization of Holy Russia reveals to the world.”

Certainly, this sense of the “canonical borders” that exceed the current Federation borders has been employed rhetorically on several occasions – particularly in relation to Russian operations in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Explicit note was made of the special status of Crimea in the history of Russian Orthodoxy – as the site where the Grand Prince Vladimir adopted Orthodoxy and was baptised. Putin noted, “his spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus”. This narrative of unifying the Russian peoples defined by language and religion has been a growing trend in which the Moscow Patriarch and President mutually reinforce one another. The Church has become mobilised as part of the defence of this policy and the State more broadly – creating a concept of ‘Spiritual Security’. In official Church documents, spiritual security is now the official missional activity of the Orthodox Church in Russia, propping up a bold ideological vision for the role of the Church in society and politics.[xxviii]

With that, of course, comes a sense that other religious groups undermine the security of the state. How to manage the other faiths in Russia has become a new political problem. Under Communism, all religions were equally illegal; under Putin, a more difficult relationship has had to be worked out. Russia’s Muslim population is considerable, if difficult to calculate accurately, with numbers ranging in different surveys anywhere between 5 and 10 per cent of the overall population.[xxix] That population, of course, is especially prevalent in the southern part of the country and in Chechnya.

Chechens present a particular problem as a secessionist nationalist group with strong ties to Islamic extremist groups including Al–Qaeda and the Islamic State. Similar conflicts now exist across Russia’s North Caucasus regions. A Caucasus Emirate was established in 2007, though its leaders have mostly now transferred their allegiance to the Islamic State.[xxx] Putin’s response (and indeed his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s) to these threats has been with strong military action. There have been two Chechen wars, one, under Yeltsin, from 1994 to 1996 and one, under Putin, in 1999–2000. In both cases the Russian military was able to reassert control only after heavy fighting and the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians. In 2000, Putin declared that his “historical mission… consisted of resolving the situation in the Northern Caucasus.”[xxxi] This is quite an ambition, and one that would seem only to have got harder since then, and might provide a particularly difficult test for Putin’s instrumental use of the Church.


Overall, the Orthodox Church and Putin have a rather unusual symbiotic relationship. Putin has allowed the Church to return to prominence and supported it in a way unheard of since the Revolution. The Church has, in turn, provided some of the intellectual and cultural backing for Putin’s Statist vision for Russia and the wider Russian sphere of influence.

There is an open question which is seemingly impossible to answer which is to what extent Putin was inspired by the resources provided by Orthodoxy in his model, or whether his statist model simply uses the resources provided where it can find them. Certainly Putin has seemed to use the Church more and more in an instrumental way to support his actions at home and abroad – however, it is notable that he has chosen to do so. No other Russian leader since the Tsars has felt the need or desire to do so. Even Yeltsin, who also professed a nominal Christianity and a desire to rewrite some of the weaknesses of the disintegrating USSR, made little effort to involve the Church in that. Nor, to any great extent, have many of Putin’s political rivals. This is very much a Putin concern – and with that in mind it is too simplistic to assume that all this faith material is only instrumental. There seems to be some legitimate sense of interaction between Orthodox thought, faith and Putin’s politics and political model.

Certainly some of Putin’s opponents seem to see things that way. When Pussy Riot, the feminist punk anarchist group, staged one of their performances in protest against Putin, the government and the establishment, it is notable that the site for their provocative gesture was inside a Moscow Cathedral. It is difficult to think of another secular European leader for whom the most symbolic attack would be in a cathedral – and that if nothing else is a notable example of the close symbiotic relationship between the president, his politics and his faith.

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[i]      Hill and Gaddy note that “It is remarkable – almost hard to believe – that for 15 years there has not been a single substantive biography published in Russian, by a Russian, of President Putin.” (Hill and Gaddy, Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, revised edition (Brookings Institution Press, 2015), p. 6).

[ii]     Vladimir Putin, Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolesnikov, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self–Portrait by Russia’s President, 1st edn (PublicAffairs , 2000)

[iii] See pp. 72–73 ibid.

[iv]    Accounts disagree, but this is not uncommon with Soviet marriages, which were often badly recorded.

[v]       Sobchak became a legislator in the last few years of the USSR and then mayor of St Petersburg in 1990. An authoritarian and a pragmatist he finally lost the role after an electoral defeat in 1996. He was regarded as one of Russia’s most significant politicians, a sometime ally and sometime threat to Boris Yeltsin. He became one of Putin’s great allies as his former protégé sought the presidency until he died in suspicious circumstances of a heart attack in 2000.

[vi]      The version recorded in Hutchins and Korobko’s Putin (Traubador Publishing, 2012).

[vii]     The version included in Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Hill and Gaddy, 2015) paperback edition and the one that Putin has always claimed – e.gFirst Person… (Putin et al, 2000), pp. 88–89.

[viii]    Quite the reverse – Putin ran Sobchak’s failed re–election campaign in 1996.

[ix]      Boris Yeltsin was the first President of the Russian Federation.

[x]    Putin et al, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self–Portrait by Russia’s President, p. 125

[xi]      Dimitri Medvedev was President of the Russian Federation from 2008–2012 and a long standing Putin ally who had worked with him in Sobchak’s office in St Petersburg.

[xii]     See Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Hill and Gaddy, 2015) paperback edition on “Putin fatigue” pp. 230–232.

[xiii]    Roger Boyes, the diplomatic editor of The Times, typifies this, with a string of articles over the past few years warning of a return to Cold War politics, nuclear threat and the threat of a major war.

[xiv] George W Bush, Decision Points (Crown Publishers, 2010), p. 96.

[xv] Hutchins and Korobko, Putin, pp. 126–128.

[xvi] p. 12 of First Person: An Astonishingly Franks Self–Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin a collection of interviews by Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolsenikov translated into English by Catherine Fitzpatrick, Public Affairs, 2000.

[xvii] Country home or cottage.

[xviii] See Ryan, Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia(Pennsylvania State University Press,1999).

[xix] Hutchins and Korobko, Putin, p. 241.

[xx] For example, ‘Russians see Church and State Come Closer’, New York Times, November 2012.

[xxi] Hill and Gaddy, Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, p. 39

[xxii] ‘Religion, the State and Civil Society’ , Inna Naletova in Perspective (Jarnuary– Ferbruary 2002),vol. 12, no 3, p. 2

[xxiii] Hill and Gaddy, Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, p. 67.

[xxiv] Originally a 19th Century Cathedral destroyed by Stalin, it was rebuilt at considerable cost and reconsecrated in 2000.

[xxv] Wealthy businessmen, including non–Christians, have consistently been encouraged to spend money on religious buildings according to Hill and Gaddy, Putin: Operative in the Kremlin p. 103. However, in the case of the Cathedral, there were allegations of serious pressure from government (both local and national) on local businesses to contribute towards the funding or face threats from tax officials.

[xxvi] ‘Canonical territory and national security: patriarch, President and proselytism in the Russian Federation’ by D.R. Jackson, (2009), p. 04.

[xxvii] Patriarch Kyril, whose secular name is Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev became the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church  in February 2009.

[xxviii] Ibid, pp. 05–08.

[xxix] ‘Sochi Olympics shine spotlight on Russia’s Muslim population’ – February 2014, from the Pew Research Centre – .

[xxx] ‘Is this the end of the Caucasus Emirate’ – Open Democracy 29th June 2015 .

[xxxi] Putin et al, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self–Portrait by Russia’s President, p. 139.


Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is deputy CEO and executive director for Engagement and Strategic Development at Medaille Trust, and formerly worked in policy for the CofE and as head of research at Theos.

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Posted 16 February 2022

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