Friday, April 3, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin’s New Religious Liaison a Committed Russian Nationalist

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 3 – President Dmitry Medvedev has named as his liaison to Russia’s religious communities a man with close ties to Patriarch Kirill and Russian nationalist youth groups and an outspoken proponent of Russian nationalist causes -- an indication of where the Kremlin is heading with regard to both the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism.
On Wednesday, Moscow media reported that Ivan Demidov had been appointed as the head of the department for humanitarian policy and social ties within the domestic policy administration of the president with responsibilities for the Kremlin’s interrelationship with religious organizations (
Given Demidov’s career, this appointment says a great deal not only about how Medvedev and the Kremlin plan to deal with the Russian Orthodox Church but also about how Medvedev and his entourage, including ideologist Vladislav Surkov, are going to try to promote a particular vision of Russian nationalism.
And conversely, Demidov’s assignment says an equally great deal about both how the Russian government is likely to deal with other religions, particularly Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestants, and how the emerging Medvedev regime will balance ethnic and civic nationalism in the Russian Federation.
An ethnic Russian who was baptized at the age of 33, Demidov was born in 1963, in Syzran in what is now Samara oblast. In 1980, he moved to Moscow when his father was named deputy communications minister of the USSR. And he performed his military service in Lithuania, finishing with the rank of junior sergeant (
Thereafter, he worked in Soviet central television, and from 1987 to 1991, he was director of Moscow television’s “Vzglyad” program for young people. And in the course of the 1990s, he occupied various positions in central television working closely on occasion with Boris Berezovsky and Yevgeny Kiselyov.
At first, he concentrated on music and youth programming, but by the early years of this decade, he became increasingly involved with religious programming, including the production of a film on Orthodox Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and with religious channels like “Spas” and the Russian nationalist journal, “Russky vzglyad.”
In 2005, then-President Vladimir Putin named him to the leadership of United Russia’s youth branch, “Molodaya gvardiya,” and from that time forward, he served as the coordinator for ideology and political work in that group as well as an advisor on ideological questions for the parent party.
In all these positions, he worked closely not only with people around Putin but also with those close to then-Metropolitan and now Patriarch Kirill, including Vladimir Legoyda whom the newly installed Russian Orthodox leader has made one of his closest aides. And he consistently spoke out for a statist conception of Russian nationalism.
In February 2007, for example, he said that “the words ‘Russian’ and ‘nationalism’ had been privatized and discredited by organizations like DPNI,” the Movement Against Illegal Immigration. No one should be afraid of these words, but Demidov said they should be defined in a more traditional way (
(For a survey of Demidov’s increasingly frequent statements on Russian nationalism and Russian Orthodox affairs, a review that provides a clear indication of just how often he speaks and how effective he is at using the media, electronic and otherwise, see the items listed at
Demidov’s appointment to this senior position thus points to five preliminary conclusions about the direction the Kremlin is likely to take with regard to religious and nationality affairs in the wake of Kirill’s election as patriarch and Surkov’s nationalistic stance on a wide range of issues.
First, given his background, Demidov is likely to work closely with the new patriarch to ensure more media coverage of the Russian Orthodox Church and its involvement in political affairs, something Kirill himself clearly wants given his own recent reshuffling of the senior staff of the Patriarchate.
Second, Demidov is likely to become a regular articulator of themes of Surkov, providing not only insight on what the ideologist, who has been described as the current Russian regime’s answer to Mikhail Suslov, has said but also developing ideas about the link between Russian statehood and Russian Orthodoxy beyond what Surkov has said.
Third, Demidov’s appointment almost certainly kills off any chance that Medvedev will create a government council or ministry of religious affairs, something non-Orthodox religious leaders would like because it would give them access but a step the Orthodox Church has opposed because it would reduce its privileged position in that regard.
Fourth, given that Demidov is likely to have a hand in crafting Medvedev’s statements, he is certain to try to insert more nationalistic and religious imagery than might otherwise be the case, something that will please not just the Orthodox and the nationalists but also statist politicians like Putin.
And fifth, given the ethnic Russian and Orthodox tilt of his nationalism, Demidov is very likely to offend many non-Russians who are neither and thus create problems for the regime. But the Kremlin is calculating that it gains more from Demidov’s kind of traditional ethnic Russian nationalism than it risks losing. Whether that is the case, of course, remains to be seen.

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