Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Patriarch’s Call for Celebrating Nevsky Rather than Russian Independence Receives Unexpected Support

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 24 –Patriarch Kirill’s call for making June 12th a celebration of the birth of St. Aleksandr Nevsky rather than of Russian independence -- “if this was independence from Kyiv then I personally am against it,” the churchman said – has received support from a Muslim leader for reasons the Russian Orthodox leader may not be entirely happy about.
Speaking in Kaliningrad on Sunday, Kirill who before his elevation was the metropolitan for that non-contiguous portion of Russia, said that celebrating Nevsky’s birthday would be a better idea than celebrating Russian independence because “many do not understand from what and from whom this independence came” (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=dujour&div=135).
The new patriarch commented that the Russian Church casts its net far broader than the borders of the Russian Federation. At the Church assembly which elected him, Kirill noted, “fewer than 50 percent of the total number of delegates” came from within the borders of the country as it now exists. The rest came from abroad, most from parts of the former Soviet space.
“And the force of this community [which the Church as a whole represents] is in the commonality of its values,” the patriarch added. “We can and must today lay the foundations of a Russian world, a great multi-national world,” rather than retreat into an unacceptably narrow and limiting view of that community.
To that end, Kirill continued, he plans his first foreign trip to be to Kyiv, “the mother of Russian cities,” and his second to Minsk, the capital of Belarus which is “also a very important part of historical Rus’.” And he said that after that, he hoped to visit all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches as well (www.regions.ru/news/2203677/).
Since the patriarch made these declarations, many Russians have spoken out in support of his idea about the June 12th holiday, but one voice of support has come from an unexpected and given the nature of its argument almost certainly unwanted source – Damir Mukhetdinov, head of the Council of the Ulema of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Nizhny Novgorod.
Although pointing out that there is some dispute as to the date on which Nevsky was born – some scholars date it to May 30, 1220 Old Style and others to May 13, 1221 – Mukhetdinov said that Kirill’s idea was something he and the Muslims of Nizhny Novgorod could enthusiastically support (www.islam.ru/rus/2009-03-23/#25780).
On the one hand, he said, Muslims have a positive view of Nevsky because he “established the strategic union of Rus’ with the [Mongol] horde,” as part of his efforts to fight off the forces of the German emperor and the Roman Catholic pope. Indeed, Mukhetdinov himself earlier had proposed creating an order of Aleksandr Nevsky for Russian state service.
And on the other, Kirill’s proposal allows Muslims to call for the celebration of the birthday of one of their own. Mukhetdinov said that this could be “for example, Khan Uzbek, who declared Islam the state religion of the Golden Horde.” Knowing about “such strong personalities,” the ulema leader continued, “is necessary in our times.
Consequently, as many have long known and as Kirill is being reminded, Aleksandr Nevsky is a far more complicated figure than the one Sergey Eisenstein presented in his classic Stalin-era film, a man who many historians now argue was more concerned with opposing the Catholic Church than defeating the German emperor.
And to that extent, Kirill’s proposal for celebrating in June not Russian independence but rather the country’s earlier opposition to the West represents an extension of the earlier decision to shift the November holiday from the 7th to the 4th, a change that also highlighted that, even if many welcomed the change of dates as break from the Bolshevik past.

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