Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis Alexei Nikolsky/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire

Putin, the Pope, and the Patriarch

The historic meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba will not only be an opportunity to heal one of the oldest divisions in Christianity. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it will be an occasion to project his country's influence at a time when it is being battered by oil prices and sanctions.

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.

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.

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