Religion: the Underrated Numerator of Russia’s Acquisition of Crimea

Religion: the Underrated Numerator of Russia’s Acquisition of Crimea

Last week the Crimean crisis upgraded to a new level when Russia officially signed a law ratifying a treaty which claims Crimea as part of Russia. When trying to understand Russia’s actions, the role played by religion has been considerably overlooked.

As Russia’s interests in Crimea have been heatedly discussed over the past few months, the role that religion has played has been slowly revealed. On March 18th, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a protracted speech to justify Russian’s invasion and annexation of Crimea as part of Russia. In this announcement a direct reference to the Crimean War, and Russia’s religious stake in the Crimea peninsula as the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity, was clearly made. “Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride…this is the location where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea.”

“Cradle of Russian Christianity”

Given that Russia does have some actual control over this district, Putin’s specific religion-based argument, though largely overlooked in the West, helps to explain some of the emotional fervour in Russia over the acquisition of this desolate, largely infertile peninsula dotted with Russian monasteries.

Crimea sits on the peninsula where a Byzantine emperor baptised the Kyivan Russian Prince Vladimir. According to Russian legends, Prince Vladimir had to choose between three religions -Christianity, Islam and Judaism- to decide what would be the best for Russia. Islam and Judaism were first rejected because they were regarded as a burden on the Russian soul and as religions that would not serve the people in keeping their own land. Then Prince Vladimir had to determine whether Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy better suited Russia. In around 988 AD, after taking the town of Chersonesos in Crimea in order to marry the Byzantine imperial Princess Anna, Prince Vladimir was converted to Orthodox Christianity and baptised in Crimea. Not long afterwards, he ordered the citizens of his empire to be baptised. This symbolised the birth of Christianity in the Russian Empire. Prince Vladimir’s baptism has been seen as the most important event in the history of all Russian lands. Crimea had been called the cradle of Russian Christianity, and has become Russia’s holy place.

National Pride Wounded by the Crimean War

The Crimean war, fought between 1853 and 1856 on the Crimean Peninsula, was a conflict between Russia and an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. The Crimean War started with innocuous controversies over the holy places in the Ottoman towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem; it escalated when the Russians marched into present-day Romania, prompting the Ottoman Empire to declare war. In 1854 the British and French joined the war and backed the Ottoman Empire by sending troops to Crimea to attack the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. After the fall of Sevastopol, which was held by the Russians as a fortress for a year, a peace arrangement was reached in 1856 in Paris, on the basis of which the Russians had to withdraw their warships from the Black Sea. Although almost half a million Russians died, the war led by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia is viewed as a glorious moral victory which occupies a defining place in Russian history. In the 19th century, as western governments began the process of separating church from state, Russia moved in exactly the opposite direction. Tsar Nicholas I held a sublime commitment to the Russian Orthodox cause and believed he was defending Russia’s interests, people and religion. The Crimean War was a religious war as well as a battle for territory and interests. Nicholas I later established the cornerstone concept of Russian national identity, the trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”, during the 1917 Russian revolution.

In 2006, 14 Russian infantrymen’s bodies, buried with their crucifixes, were found near one of the many battle sites of the Crimean War. They were reinterred with full military honours. That same year, a government sponsored conference for the Centre of National Glory of Russia drew the following conclusion: “the Crimean War was not a defeat at all but a glorious stand in defence of Mother Russia”. The defeat in the Crimean War obviously hurt not only Russia’s imperial ambitions, but also its national pride. Long before the Crimean crisis, Putin deliberately had begun inculcating the idea that the Crimean peninsula was Russian’s holy place where many brave Russian soldiers had sacrificed their lives for just causes.

Increasing State-Religion in Russia

Russia’s move towards the revival of Orthodox Christianity in the 19th century, which contrasted sharply with the direction taken by other western states at the time, has been resurrected since the end of decades of Soviet suppression. Orthodox Christian Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia ever since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, particularly in the past half decade. A survey shows that sixty percent of Russians have become more religious in the past decade. Known as a firm supporter of Putin, Patriarch Kirill has not only manifested himself more obviously in Russians’ ethical life than his predecessors, more importantly he has also played a greater role in Russian politics. Since Kirill became the Patriarch in 2009, one of his predominant themes has been the concept of the “Russian world” (“Russky mir”), of which he says “…the great Russian civilisation came from the Baptismal font and spread across the huge expanse of Eurasia”. This claim intertwines with Putin’s worldview, according to a Skype interview with the director of research at the College des Bernardins in Paris, Antoine Arjakovsky, “For them (Putin and Patriarch Kirill), democracy is a danger…they invented a new mythology, the new ideology of ‘Russky mir,’ of the Russian idea, which would invent a kind of new theology of politics.”

Presumably under the influence of the Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill, Putin now wears conspicuously Christian jewellery. Meanwhile Russia has entered a new stage in the unfolding of its deeply conservative Orthodox identity. In this evolutionary process, Russia has already gone way further than mere religious intolerance. Russia has refused a request to visit from the Roman Catholic Pope, placed restrictions on Protestant missions, prosecuted members of Pussy Riot for a performance in an Orthodox church, expelled the Salvation Army from Moscow and even signed a harshly restrictive and dismaying anti-homosexual law.

Russia has been undergoing a marked religion resurgence since the 1990s, and this religious revival has also reached Crimea, the holy place of Russian Orthodox Christianity. In 1994, the President of Ukraine ordered the return of Crimean Christian temples to the church, and the repair or reconstruction of those that were in a poor state. The Russian Orthodox Church built a church on top of the ruins of Chersonesos without the consent of either museum conservationists or the Ukrainian government. The reshaping of Crimea as a holy place is now stepping into a complex and critical new phase in light of the annexation and subsequent possible further conflicts.

Admittedly, geopolitics plays a leading role in Russia’s interest in Crimea peninsula. Nevertheless, the proprietary attitude of Russia towards Crimea stems partly from religious heritage and the memory of a religious war which has been almost forgotten by the West. Deep and powerful currents of religious belief and nationalism can generally not be influenced by political solutions, a fact which makes this crisis even more difficult to resolve. Religion, which is supposed to unite people and prevent aggression between people of the same faith, unfortunately has become one of the intangible elements driving Russian’s southward invasion into Ukraine, the second largest Orthodox country in the world.

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