Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin after liturgy, Kyiv, Ukraine (2013) | paparazzza / Shutterstock

Now in his fifth presidential term, Vladimir Putin is on track to be the longest reigning Russian leader since Catherine the Great. The two resilient despots have more in common than one might imagine. They both came to power on the heels of an essentially incompetent predecessor, in whose disposal they had a hand. They both pursued an expansionist foreign policy. And both, in their own way, sought to position Russia as a unique moral and intellectual leader in a time of significant technological and societal change; and in both cases, the path to this last objective ran through the Russian Orthodox Church. And while some critics claim that this political-religious partnership, with its fixation on origins and past triumphs, is a backward one, I’d argue that in his close allegiance with the Church, Putin, like Catherine before him, has his eye firmly fixed on the future. 

There is a certain prominent view that the contemporary Orthodox Church is the unchanged  ancient Church of the Apostles, the Church of Constantine, the Byzantine Empire, and of Holy Imperial Russia. Sometimes it is assumed, and is often a point of pride, that Eastern Orthodoxy was untouched by the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment of Western Christendom. It is part of the appeal for many. For example, Father Gregory Hallam, an Antiochian Orthodox priest in Britain, who converted to Orthodoxy in 1994, after having served as an Anglican priest, wrote in 2012 for the English-language version of, the “the most visited Orthodox Christian website in Russia today,” about the relationship of the Eastern Orthodox world to the Enlightenment,

The Mediterranean Orthodox World was cut off from the West being incarcerated under Ottoman Islamic rule. The Russian Church was too busy dealing with a Tsar in Peter (the so-called) “Great,” who seemed to spend much of his time aping western ways. Significant Orthodox responses only emerge retrospectively and then, mainly, in relation to the legacy of the Enlightenment for western churches down to this day. It is this legacy that informs how we Orthodox must make our mark now.

Father Hallam is not an extremist in any regard and his view of the history here is quite commonly held, but it isn’t true. All of the great intellectual and political currents of Western Christendom found their way to Eastern shores. 

The claim that the Enlightenment did not affect the Russian Orthodox Church is, it turns out, a particularly excellent example of this misapprehension. In fact, many of the leading figures of the Orthodox Enlightenment in Russia were priests as well as princes. The Greek cleric Eugenios Voulgaris and the Russian Father Platon (Petr Georgievich Lev) were both central players in the court of Catherine the Great, working under the patronage of the tsarina. Both translated Enlightened ideas into an Orthodox context, where they were stripped of their anti-monarchical and anti-clerical implications; they presented a worldview that was simultaneously infused with Enlightenment aspirations yet grounded in very traditional Orthodox Christian teachings. It was a worldview that justified revolt against the “backward” Muslim Ottoman Empire, but not the enlightened court of Catherine.

Similarly, it would be a mistake today to dismiss the joint moral project of Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill, the current head of the Russian Orthodox Church. as an entirely anti-modernizing impulse. Their worldview is certainly illiberal, but it also speaks to current discontents in the West with the political, economic, and social realities of the twenty-first century.  

Their premise is as simple: our current misery emerges out of the efforts of rootless, godless elites who seek to force upon us all a new order in which all that has traditionally brought us comfort and support is stripped away. These nefarious actors are at war with God himself as they work to undermine such divine dictates as the shape of the family and fundamental differences between men and women. It is the role of a powerful modern state, Putin and Kirill argue, to correct course and return society to its natural, godly form.  

Without a doubt, issues of gender and sexuality, specifically changing norms around the role of women and the place of LGBTQ+ people, play a significant role in this paradigm and its success in Russia. But there are other important features of the ideology that have found fans abroad, including a kind of neo-agrarianism and a belief in a strongman authoritarianism fueled by a distrust of current institutions. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Putin-Kirill worldview is a universalist ideology. It does not assume that this traditionalist way of life is right and natural only for Russians, Slavs, or even Orthodox Christians: it promises liberation for all people. 

This universalism is what makes this ideology a useful tool of Russian soft power around the world, from Nairobi to Kansas City. It is this universalism that calls into question the common description of this and adjacent ideologies as “ethno-nationalist.” Certainly, there is a nationalist stream among the illiberal ideologies that we have seen emerge over the past decade, ideological tendencies one can find at MAGA rallies or Brexit celebrations, as well as in some of Putin’s public comments to interlocutors like Tucker Carlson. But the broader worldview that Putin promulgates shares many elements of that advanced by MAGA magus Steve Bannon; both posit an order ordained by God for the cosmos. 

It is also notable how many features of this ideology can appeal to disenchanted radicals on the Western left, including a dissatisfaction with dominant global systems, a distrust of institutional authority, and a focus on belonging to a robust shared community as a guiding principle of post-liberal political organizing. 

Thus, for some young American men who find themselves outside of the acceptable norms of postmodern progressivism, with its focus on intersectional identities and discourses of oppression, the alternative offered by Putin has a certain appeal, not least because it makes them heroes in a story where others might wish to paint them as villains. This fascination with Putin and the ideology that he and Patriarch Kirill have worked to create and export has even led a relatively small number of international followers to convert to Orthodox Christianity. 

There is much more to say about the ongoing, complex interchange between Western ideas and Russia’s response to them. But for understanding Russia’s future under Putin, the points of contact may well be as important as the obvious differences.