Thirty-five years of the new Baptism of Rus'
The national observance of the Baptism of Kievan Rus’, on 28 July, summarises the entire post-Soviet period. Starting with the universal unity of peoples and Churches, it has come full circle over seven scores to the brink of a Third World War. We are back to square one, yearning for a time of peace and forgiveness, as described in the procedures of the Old Testament jubilees.
Yesterday, 28 July, Russia remembered the Baptism of Kievan Rus’, as well as Prince Vladimir the Great, who inaugurated the history of the peoples of these lands, known as an “equal to the apostles”.
As a result of the outbreak of war in Ukraine, what was supposed to be a celebration of the union of Eastern Slavs today has become a symbol of division and mutual hostility, based on the different interpretation of the Byzantine-Slavic Christian heritage.
The day became a solemn observance on the initiative of then metropolitan Kirill (Gundyayev). In 2008, he pushed his predecessor Aleksei (Ridiger) to urge then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to recognise the day as a national observance.
Addressing the president, Aleksei said: “Taking into account the great significance of the Baptism for the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, such as to determine their entire historical journey, the Synod of our Church believes that the day of the liturgical remembrance of Vladimir the Baptiser should officially become the national holiday of our State.”
Kirill was behind this change along with the prime minister of the time, Vladimir Putin, who was in his "transitional phase" to absolute and unending power. Thereafter, the new patriarch (since 2009) made triumphal visits to Kyiv to reassert the Sobornost (собо́рность, spiritual community of related peoples), the spiritual unity of all descendants of Rus', until 2014 when the conflict between Russia and Ukraine broke out.
Since then the patriarch has not been able to set foot on the land of Russia’s "younger siblings", who now reserve all sorts of special curses for him. “How can a patriarch bless the missiles that destroy a cathedral consecrated by himself?" asked the senior archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who is referred to by his faithful as the “patriarch of Kyiv”, after the destruction of the Church of the Transfiguration in Odesa.
This year’s celebrations are clouded by a haze of terror and death, so much so that events seem to mark more a "baptism of blood" than the purifying bath in the Dnieper below the hills of Kyiv.
What is more, their symbolic value has completely changed nature. Instead of meetings with their Slavic brothers, Russians took part in North Korea’s grandiose parades to mark the victory of communism seventy years ago on the Korean Peninsula. Among North Korea’s generals from the court of Kim Jong-un, it was hard to recognise Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, who is of Tuvan-Mongol origins.
Likewise, instead of meeting Belarusians and Ukrainians, President Putin gathered in St Petersburg Africa’s most pro-Russian leaders, promising to feed them for free with Russian-and Ukrainian grain, which will no longer be granted to people who do not like Russia.
For his part, Patriarch Kirill had to resign himself to blessing the Russia-Africa summit, making an odd Freudian slip. At the start of his speech, he addressed Putin as "Your Excellency Vladimir Vasilyevich", using the honorific style Excellency (prevoskhoditelstvo, превосходительство), reserved normally for ambassadors and religious leaders, not heads of state, and the wrong patronymic, which for Putin is Vladimirovich (son of Vladimir).
Some might have thought that perhaps Kirill had other monarchs in mind, namely Ivan Vasilyevich, Ivan IV "the Terrible", or imagined that he was before Saint Vladimir of Kyiv, mixing up eras and continents. Putin at first gritted his teeth, then smiled.
The Russian president is also known for some slips of the tongue when it comes to patronymics, sometimes accidentally, but often on purpose, to humiliate others, his subordinates, like his "Russian-Korean" Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, whose patronymic, Kuzhugetovich, is hard to remember, easy to mock, and useful to stress his servile role as the president’s "great friend" and hunting buddy.
Kirill nevertheless boasted that the Russian Orthodox Church had opened more than 200 Russian Orthodox parishes in 25 African countries, starting in December 2021, after issuing his anathema against the Greek patriarchate of Alexandria for aligning itself with Constantinople in recognising Ukrainian autocephaly, thus "forcing" the Russians to take care of all "true Christians" in Africa and the world.
The patriarch reassuringly said that Moscow “has never looked upon Africa as a land to be colonised, a sentiment that does not belong to us.” There is a "natural spiritual harmony" between Russians and Africans, given that most African countries "reject the legalisation of same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and many other sins.”
The Slavic-Byzantine Baptism of Kyiv has thus turned into a new version of Christianity, Russian-African-Korean, rising to the defence of "traditional anti-Western values", an exaltation of “Sobornic-popular communism”, East and West, North and South.
It is the lasting outcome of the process of "religious revival” that began under Gorbachev with the first great celebrations of the Millennium of Rus’ in 1988.
Under perestroika, the Soviet regime initially feared opening up to religion. The observance was supposed to be limited to the walls of the small Epiphany Cathedral at Yelokhovo, a church on the outskirts of Moscow, then serving as the patriarchal seat (the great Cathedral of the Saviour was rebuilt only in 1997, for the 850th anniversary of the city of Moscow).
Under international pressures, and above all, thanks to the irresistible personality of Pope John Paul II, Gorbachev bit the bullet, throwing religious persecution into the dustbin of history, even borrowing from the Polish pontiff the idea: “From the Atlantic to the Ural, Europe is a cultural-historical entity of rich spiritual significance”.
Karol Wojtyła wanted to go personally to Moscow, but his dream did not come true then or later, and was only partially realised by his Argentine successor, Francis, albeit in a basement at Havana airport.
In 1988 then Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli, who embodied the Vatican’s Ostpolitik and became the standard-bearer of the revival, led a delegation of ten cardinals, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Martini of Milan and Archbishop Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, to the great Trinity Lavra (Monastery) of St Sergius, where Rublev's icon of the Trinity will now take centre stage again.
The following year Gorbachev travelled to Rome where he met with John Paul II, a throwback to the tête-à-tête between John XXIII with Nikita Khrushchev during the post-Stalinist thaw. At the time, the two leaders agreed to renew relations between the Holy See and the Soviet Union (which would disappear two years later).
This enabled the Catholic Church to take part in Russia’s subsequent religious renaissance. But during the 35 years that followed the great Millennium celebrations, huge political, military, and religious upheavals peppered such a short period of time.
Marking the 1,035th anniversary summarises the entire post-Soviet period, from the possibility of universal unity among peoples and Churches to the real danger of a Third World War, which could wipe out much of humanity.
These years can be divided into five-year periods, like seven symbolic scores, echoing from the Bible, going from blessings to troubles and tragedies.
Between 1988 to 1993, history witnessed the aborted transition from Soviet totalitarianism to an embryonic democratic Russia, with absolute religious freedom but also frustration about the Orthodox patriarchate, looked down upon condescendingly or even with contempt, for its complicity with the old oppressive state atheism.
In 1993, faced with outright opposition to his reforms, President Boris Yeltsin turned the guns on the House of Soviets (then home to the Russian parliament) in Moscow, while the Orthodox Church welcomed the rebirth of the Communist Party that had been outlawed at the end of the USSR.
In 1997, the communists backed the new law on religious freedom, which gave the Russian Orthodox Church higher status over all other religions (even other Christians). The five-year period ended in 1998 with a deep economic crisis sparked by tumbling financial schemes, burying Yeltsin's pro-Western liberalism.
That year saw the rise of Putin, who began first as director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) before he was promoted to the prime minister’s office the following year, and finally president in 2000.
His election coincided with the Synod of the Second Millennium of the Orthodox Church, where Kirill's "Social Doctrine" based on anti-globalist orthodox Sovereigntism began to take shape, inspiring today’s ideology of the "Russian world".
In 2003 this phase saw to the definitive restoration of the State Church in Russia, with the expulsion of foreign Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and a cold shoulder directed at the Polish pope, guilty of seeking to subordinate Orthodox Christianity to the new world order.
It is no accident that in the last years of his pontificate John Paul II visited Georgia, Armenia, and Ukraine, foreseeing future tragedies thanks to his long experience under Soviets rule.
From 2003 to 2008, the "religious revival" turned into a "restoration of Russia's greatness", with huffing and puffing against NATO, the Anglo-Americans, Europe and the "degradation of moral values", with the president using terms even more radical than those employed by the patriarch.
The next five-year period, 2008-2013, saw the Kremlin organise major cultural, sports, religious and political events, culminating in the Sochi Winter Olympics (2014), when Putin's dream was shattered by the popular uprising of "Ukrainian Nazis", which set in motion a hybrid conflict that later morphed into an outright war.
From 2013 to 2018, Putin laid the foundations of his new status as an elected tsar. After that, he focused the last five years to the “great war” against the world, guilty of a "pandemic plot" and the "occupation of Ukraine", launching the "special liberation war".
We can probably say that the Baptism of Russia is back to square one, leaving us hope for a benevolent seven years of peace and forgiveness, as described in the procedures of the Old Testament jubilees.
Religion reborn to justify war, as in the times of Joshua and David, awaits the new coming of Christ, after the shame of the destruction of cathedrals and the exile of peoples, and the call of some apostles of the Gospel, a proclamation that is worth more than any fake religion.
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