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Published: Sunday, 8/20/2000

Church gesture has troubling implication

The Russian Orthodox Church gave President Vladimir Putin a free hand last week to rule like a monarch.

The church canonized Russia's controversial last czar, Nicholas II, as a martyr, yielding to what appears to be a Kremlin-supported campaign by Russian chauvinists.

Nicholas II was nicknamed Nicholas the Bloody in 1905 when his troops shot thousands of peaceful protesters. His critics argue that his abdication in 1917 discouraged his supporters and opened the way for a successful Bolshevik coup that year.

The czar was victimized, without doubt, when he, his immediate family, and several servants were executed without a trial. But so were millions of other Russians.

Some would argue that canonization of Nicholas as a martyr reflects the church's attitude toward the victims of Bolshevism. Others may say that the fact that the czar, his wife, and children were canonized - and their servants were not - invalidates this argument.

But the negative political implications of this event dwarf its religious controversy.

The Kremlin has a reason to celebrate: The canonization of the czar made it look like the church favors autocracy.

The Russian Orthodox Church was one of the pillars of the monarchy. Though monarchism is not a real political force there now, the Kremlin is clearly trying to reinstitute the Russian Orthodox Church as Russia's state religion, de facto if not de jure.

Certain religions have been outlawed in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church does not object to that and appears to welcome Kremlin advances.

The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad canonized the czar in 1981 when Russia was run by the Communist successors of the very same Bolsheviks who executed the czar in 1918. Whatever its religious motivation, the political effect of that canonization was positive because it refocused world attention on the oppressive nature of the Soviet regime.

But now communism pales as a threat to Russia's baby democracy in comparison with Mr. Putin and his chauvinistic supporters.

The latter include millions of impoverished people, who want a redistribution of Russia's highly monopolized state and private property, and thousands of former and current security and military officers, who want the same, plus the return of their exclusive social status.

They appear to have a strong leader - Mr. Putin - who has largely quelled opposition in the media, in the provinces, and in the parliament. In the absence of public support of either communism or fascism, what they need is some other ideology that will endorse chauvinism and autocracy.

Now it looks like they may have gotten one.

That's because the Russian Orthodox Church did support the czars and did collaborate with the Soviet leaders. By contrast, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad never did. It split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1920s.

Dr. Harley Balzer , director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Geor getown, is worried.

"It's an evocation of Russian nationalism in Russian heritage," Dr. Balzer said of the canonization. "It's one more example of ways, in which this current government is trying . . . to secure its own ability and power."

Dr. Michael McFaul, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington agreed, saying that the event is an evidence of "the politicization of the church," which serves the interests of Mr. Putin.

While it remains unclear whether the Russian Orthodox Church would support Mr. Putin should he become a dictator, there's a danger that it would.

Mike, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade.



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