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Russia: Putin's Religious Belief In Spotlight Following Monastery Visits

On a visit earlier this week (23 August) to the Solovetskii monastery in northwest Russia, President Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of religion in public life. As RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, the visit and the comments may represent more than just further evidence of Putin's personal religious beliefs.

Prague, 24 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin made his stop at the 15th-century Solovetskii monastery during his summer vacation in the northwest of the country.

Situated on the Solovetskii archipelago in the western part of the White Sea, the monastery is a point of pilgrimage for many Orthodox believers. Patriarch Aleksei II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, greeted Putin and showed him around, later presenting the president with a wooden cross.

Speaking to the press during his visit -- which included trips to two other monasteries in the region -- Putin delivered something approaching a sermon on the importance of religion in public life. He said the idea of equality of all peoples before God should become the foundation of Russia's domestic and foreign policies.

He quoted the words of the 11th-century church leader Metropolitan Illarion, who once said God had saved all nations. If so, Putin said, all nations are equal in the eyes of God. This simple truth, he added, has made it possible to build a strong multiethnic state.

The president went on to say that without Christianity, Russia would not have become an accomplished state. He said it is important for Russia to return to this source now, at a time when "we are finding ourselves again and seeking moral foundations to life."

Putin's heavily religious tone would have come as no surprise to those accustomed to seeing the Russian president in an Orthodox church or hearing stories of his deep religious faith.

According to one tale, Putin underwent a conversion after rescuing his two young daughters from a burning dacha four years ago. Another story says his spiritual journey began after his mother gave him a cross, which he then had blessed at a holy site in Jerusalem.

In an interview with CNN last year, Putin himself told a story of how workers found the little cross lying in the ashes of his burned-down dacha. He claims to keep it with him at all times.

Geraldine Fagan works in Moscow for the British-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedoms in post-communist countries. She says it's common for Putin and other leaders to display their allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church:

"I wouldn't say it goes very much deeper than that. It's really something that people use symbolically as a kind of show of their patriotism, because the church is so closely associated with Russia as a nation."

Still, Putin is said to be more than a typical "podsvechnik," or candlestick -- the term used to describe officials who only attend church services at the major Orthodox holidays.

"Putin is certainly always portrayed as a believer, and he portrays himself as a believer, but as president and as a politician he obviously has to balance the interests of various religions in Russia, so [regardless] of his own beliefs, he can't display himself as an out-and-out Russian Orthodox believer. If he was seen to be supporting the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church all the time, that would go against the interests of other prominent religions such as Islam, whose interests he also has to take into account professionally. So going back to his recent visit to Solovki, it's possible that one of the reasons he was emphasizing the church's belief in the equality of all peoples is really to give some kind of religious basis for support for various religions in Russia, and not just Russian Orthodoxy."

But if Putin loaded his Solovetskii visit with religious rhetoric, it was also rich in symbolism of another kind.

The Solovetskii Islands housed the first Soviet labor camp, a kind of training ground for the penal colonies that spread throughout the former Soviet Union and gave rise to the term "gulag archipelago." Between 1923 and its closure in 1939, some 30,000 to 40,000 prisoners were executed or died of disease there.

Andrei Zolotov covers religious affairs at "The Moscow Times" English-language newspaper. He notes that the cross Aleksei gave Putin contained a fragment of the monastery on the nearby island of Anzer, where thousands of people were shot in Soviet times.

Zolotov says it was a subtle move on Putin's part to go to Solovki on the anniversary of the failed 1991 coup, when communist hard-liners attempted to seize power to try to keep the Soviet Union from disintegrating. Many had been curious to see how Putin, a former career KGB officer, would address the putsch anniversary. One of the conspirators, after all, was his old boss (then-KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov).

"At a time when in Moscow there are active discussions on the legacy of the 1991 coup, the president did not come out and say anything about it. On the other hand, he embarked on what was practically a pilgrimage to the northern holy sites of Russia. In one week, he visited three Russian monasteries in the north, and this visit to Solovki was the most important. It's a very subtle, refined way to give a definite signal that he remembers the victims of the Soviet period."

Zolotov says Putin is appealing to the notion of Russian history that goes beyond, and is unbroken by, the Soviet period.

"From the point of view of Putin as president, it's a very subtle political move. You can criticize him, as many have, for not saying anything about this [coup anniversary], that he kept his distance. But from the point of view of his policy of prioritizing national consolidation above all other things -- he openly talks about this, he considers it his main achievement and the thing that more than anything he wouldn't like to lose -- it was a very subtle maneuver."

Zolotov says it's not true that there is a closer relationship between church and state under Putin. He says initial expectations that Putin would be the first Orthodox politician -- and that Orthodoxy would guide his policy -- have proven unfounded.

"These expectations were not confirmed. What's more, on issues such as [Orthodox Church] property, or restitution, the new Kremlin administration is even tougher in terms of its position than [former President Boris] Yeltsin's."

Putin's remarks come as Russia continues to discuss what kind of policy to pursue on religious affairs, a debate that should pick up as the political season gets underway in the fall.

Fagan says two main draft policies are under consideration. One, strongly secular, would treat all religious groups as equals and proposes setting up a religious affairs ministry.

The other sets out a hierarchy that would give established -- but as yet unspecified -- religions certain privileges. There are currently four officially recognized religions in Russia: Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. All other confessions are subject to strict controls and routine registration processes.

She says most main confessions have rejected the secular approach. But she adds that the second proposal could be risky for the government if religious bodies are perceived to gain too much influence over political affairs, since the separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution.

Fagan says she therefore expects a kind of hybrid to emerge.