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Putin, the Pope, and the Patriarch

NEW YORK – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s years as a KGB officer taught him how to take advantage of others. In Steven Lee Myers’ excellent new biography, The New Tsar, the former New York Times Moscow bureau chief describes how, when Putin was posted in East Germany in the waning years of communism, he used his opponent’s weaknesses to advance the Soviet cause.

Today’s historic meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba is another occasion that Putin will seek to turn to his advantage. The meeting will be the first between a Roman Pontiff and a Russian Patriarch since Christianity’s Great Schism in 1054, when theological differences split the faith into its Western and Eastern branches. Since then, the Orthodox Church (in Russian, Pravoslavie, literally the “right worship”) has been considered the only correct form of Christianity in Russia, with other denominations dismissed for their support of individualism and insufficient reverence of the human soul.

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For nearly a millennium, the animosity has seemed insurmountable. In modern times, it took the threat of nuclear war to spark efforts to mend ties between East and West – and even then the rapprochement was spearheaded primarily by Russia’s secular authorities. In 1963, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, a devout atheist, sent his son-in-law and adviser Alexei Adzhubei for a historic audience with then-Pope John XXIII.

But the real breakthrough came in 1989, when Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II, a Polish priest who had spent the past decade framing his papacy as part of the opposition to the Soviet’s atheistic totalitarian rule. After the fall of the Soviet Union, relations continued to warm, as Boris Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation, visited the Vatican in 1991 and 1998. Objections from the Russian Orthodox Church, however, prevented the pope from accepting invitations to visit Moscow.

Relations between Russia and the Holy See took on new significance after Putin became President. Unlike the officially atheist Soviets, Putin works closely with the Orthodox Church, championing conservative social values at home and seeking to expand Russian influence abroad.

In 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church reunited with a breakaway branch, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which had split off in in protest against close ties with the Bolsheviks. “The revival of church unity is a crucial condition for revival of lost unity of the whole ‘Russian world,’ which has always had the Orthodox faith as one of its foundations,” Putin said at a ceremony marking the occasion.

The Cuban meeting provides Putin with an opportunity to become the Russian leader who oversaw the start of a dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The importance he places on this event is reflected in its very improbability.

After all, Putin and Kirill have presided over rising anti-Western animosity and turned the Russian Orthodox Church toward conservatism, nationalism, and intolerance. The Patriarch (rumored to have served in the KGB himself) has called the war in Syria “a holy struggle,” adding that, “today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world to combat [it].” In contrast, Francis is not only clearly progressive, refusing even to speak ill of homosexuals; he has repeatedly called for a peaceful solution in Syria.

In allowing the meeting to take place – and there can be no doubt that Putin has given it his blessing – Russia’s president is seeking religious validation and political popularity. The meeting also allows him to needle the West, which he resents for imposing sanctions on Russia over the conflict in Ukraine and for criticizing his intervention in Syria.

Holding the meeting in Cuba is a clever calculation. Given the sanctions on Russia, Europe was out of bounds. But Cuba, where the Soviet Union provided essential financial assistance in exchange for Fidel Castro’s slavish loyalty, offers a powerful reminder of Russia’s claim to global relevance.

The island’s leaders never denounced Christianity as fully as the Soviets did, and over the last 20 years it has been the site of three papal visits: John Paul II in 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012, and Francis in 2015. Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor, had already invited the Patriarch to visit, to see first-hand that Communism and Christianity are compatible.

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For Putin, the meeting could not come at a better time. Plunging oil prices, the dramatic decline in the value of the ruble, ongoing sanctions, and the increasingly bloody images coming out of Syria have left him desperate for positive news. And what better photo opportunity than having the Vicar of Christ standing side by side with your close spiritual and political ally?

Healing one of Christianity’s oldest divisions is a noble goal. But when Francis meets Putin’s Patriarch, he would be wise to remember the old English dictum: “He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.”