Vienna, December 12 – Because of their church’s caesaropapist traditions, the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church routinely pray for the health and well being of President Vladimir Putin. But now a new sect has emerged that takes this devotion to a whole new level: it urges its followers to pray to him as the reincarnation of St. Paul.
The sect, which is based in the village of Bol’shaya Yel’nya in Nizhniy Novgorod oblast and led by a self-styled Mother Superior who earlier served time for fraud, maintains that in one of his past lives – and the sect’s leaders are sure he has had more than one – Putin was St. Paul.
According to a very skeptical Moskovskiy komsomolets reporter who visited the town and interviewed both the sect’s members and other more doubtful members of the community, the Putin sect does not have a positive view of either Putin’s predecessor as Russian president or the current Russian Orthodox patriarch.
Its leaders hold that “Yeltsin was a destroyer and the Lord God replaced him with a creator” and that Aleksii II in a past live was Pontius Pilate. The self-styled Mother Fotinya argues that this time Aleksii-Pontius Pilate must “make the correct choice and save Putin!” (http://www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2007/12/11/society/328171/).
According to the “Moskovskiy komsomolets” journalist, the Putin sect not only features a wonder-working icon of Putin – a picture of the icon and the sect’s leader is available on line – but also issues its own newspaper, “The Shrine of Light,” a publication that features reportage not found elsewhere.
In its pages, the Moscow journalist says, are to be found “exclusive interviews” with the Apostle Paul, the Blessed Serafim of Sarov and even the Virgin Mary. And it also includes both spiritual appeals by the sect to Putin and Aleksii II and, what is especially striking “the [supposed] answers of these highly placed persons.”
The appearance of such leader cults has been a longtime feature of Russian peasant society, and it is one that Moscow media outlets love to report on with a certain amount of glee. (See, for example, not only the “Moskovskiy komsomolets” account but also the article about the Putin sect at http://www.nr2.ru/society/154550.html).
Most Russians, especially the more educated, dismiss the rise and fall of such cults as charlatanry or worse, but their existence in 21st century Russia says a great deal about the nature of popular views about the intimate interrelationship between civil authority and divine power.
And thus it represents, albeit in an extreme form, one of the frequently commented upon aspects of Russian political life: the willingness or even the desperate desire to demonstrate one’s loyalty to the supreme leader not only for the advancement of one’s interests but also for the affirmation of one’s own identity.