Tsar Ludicrous: Daily Mail & The Australian Short On Details Of Russian Religious Support For Putin, Restored Monarchy

Russia is mysterious. Russia is sententious. Russia is ludicrous.

The recent spate of articles purporting to see the fell hand of Moscow behind the recent American presidential campaign has brought this traditional construct back into the headlines.

To avoid igniting partisan passions -- and alienating half of my audience before the story gets moving -- I won’t be looking at any of the Trump pieces, but a series of stories on “Tsar” Vladimir.

Reports that some Russians are calling for the restoration of the monarchy and the crowning of strongman Vladimir Putin as Tsar are circulating in the press and being built upon the mysterious, sententious, ludicrous triad. This is not new.

In Woody Allen’s 1975 film Love & Death, Diane Keaton’s Sonja character and Allen’s Boris offered several comic set pieces on the deep soul that lurks within the Russian breast.

Sonja: To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you're getting this down.

 The inability to comprehend the workings of the Russian mind is not confined to middlebrow comedy. In his 1993 biography of Nicholas II entitled “The Last Tsar,” historian Edvard Radzinsky struggled to explain the power Rasputin held over the royal family and Russian political life. The outrageous behavior of the “mad monk,” he believed, was a pose. It was a:

“wholly self conscious attempt to exploit the mystery of the Russian soul for his own ends. Tolstoy plus Dostoevsky, a kind of banal Tolstoevsky—the symbol of the West's perception of Russia.” (p 108)

It is not merely the Romanovs who couldn't seem to get a handle on the mysterious Russian soul. Reporters, politicians and pundits -- as well as American college students for whom Tolstoevsky remains Russia’s greatest writer -- seem unable to grasp the otherness of Russia’s people, its literature, politics, history and art. Attempts to understand the Russian mind or manners are often batted away by references to this mysterious soul, whose focus seldom waivers from the contemplation of what Reinhold Niebuhr called the “ultimate problems of human existence.” Or the Russian mind and manner are summarily dismissed as ridiculous.

An example appeared last week in The Australian’s on-line section, which ran a story on a new pro-Putin Moscow television station, Tsargrad TV. The article, “What Russian TV can tell us about Putin’s goals” noted:

Instead of hip young things talking about political change, Tsargrad has a sombre newsroom dedicated to conservative values, patriotism and the Russian Orthodox Church. The channel’s studio is decorated with expensive religious imagery. Its owner, Konstantin Malofeev, is devoutly religious, extremely rich and a vocal supporter of President Putin.

“He is a genius,” Malofeev told me, with absolute conviction. Malofeev is a monarchist and suggested a scenario whereby some kind of constitutional assembly might persuade President Putin to become Russia’s first post-revolutionary Tsar: Tsar Vladimir

Mysterious, sententious, and in the next paragraph the article’s author touches upon the ludicrous. 

It’s an extraordinary idea and would almost be funny, were it not for Malofeev’s obvious power and political connections.

The idea of Tsar Vladimir has not been confined to Tsargrad TV. In March, Newsweek reported the leader of Crimea has called for a restoration of the monarchy. The article entitled “Putin’s Crimea Chief Calls For Restoring Russian Monarchy.”

Russia should reinstate the monarchy, the regional head of Russia’s internationally unrecognized government in Crimea declared in a television interview on Tuesday night. Sergey Aksyonov, who was appointed head of the Crimea region after Russia annexed it from Ukraine in 2014, shared his thoughts on Russian Crimean channel Perviy Krimsky. "We do not need the democracy in the form in which it is presented by the Western media,” Aksyonov said. “We have our own traditional Orthodox spiritual value... Today, in my opinion, Russia needs the monarchy," said Aksenov.

 A Tsargrad TV report on the interview offered further details -- noting Aksyonov specifically saw Putin as Tsar, and that Putin had not ruled out entirely the proposal, but was not seeking the office.

Commenting on the debate on restoration of the monarchy, presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Putin "is not enthusiastic about such ideas". Peskov then added: "Over the past five years he has been asked more than once about that and he was forced to answer such questions in this or that context. He has a very cold attitude to such discussions. This is well-known.

 Now all of this is mildly interesting, but one might well ask where is the religion hook? Is this not a straightforward case of a minor official flattering the boss? Are we hearing echoes of the Soviet personality cults of year’s past?

Perhaps the satrap of Crimea is currying favor with the boss. However, the religion angle in this story is underdeveloped. The Australian notes the Orthodox religiosity of Tsargrad TV’s Konstantin Malofeev, and the Crimean leader couches his call for a Tsar in terms of Christian morality. Western reports either ignore these signs of a religion story lurking in the news, or dismiss it out of hand.

For those who follow Russia, this should be read in conjunction with stories that appeared earlier in the year. On January 1 the Daily Mail ran a story entitled “Russia should reinstate the monarchy and appoint PUTIN as royal emperor, says influential Moscow churchman.”

The Mail reported:

Russia should reinstate the monarchy, and appoint Vladimir Putin as royal emperor, says an influential Moscow churchman.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said another option would be to bring back the Romanov dynasty, which was overthrown exactly a century ago in 1917.

'We are a country with monarchic mentality,' he said, at the launch of his new book.

'It doesn't matter that we don't now have formal monarchy, I think we can re-make it with Putin on top.

'Or else with somebody from the Romanov house, or with an elected person as head.'

He insisted: 'While we don't have formal monarchy, we have monarchic understanding that Russia cannot be without a tsar.

Chaplin was for many years the spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate and, until December 2015, the head of its department overseeing church-state and social affairs. He was fired and his department closed down -- officially for reasons of streamlining the church’s bureaucracy.

 A staunch supporter of Patriarch Kyrill in public, Chaplin was rumored to have clashed with Kyrill in the past over the proper relationship between church and state, with Chaplin -- so the gossip reports -- pushing for the church to return to its pre-1917 status as being part of the state. The office of patriarch would be abolished and the Tsar returned to his rightful place as protector of the church.

 I have written about Chaplin before for GetReligion. In a March 2012 piece on Pussy Riot (Remember them?), I wrote this about Chaplin.

As an aside, I met Fr. Chaplin at the World Council of Churches meeting in 2005 in Porto Allegre, Brazil. And yes, he is a character. I sat with him while an official from a liberal American denomination was giving a speech and Fr. Chaplain played the cantankerous Russian – muttering under his breath, "heretic", "schismatic", "infidel", "Bolshevik" every so often.

Chaplain’s views on the heresies of American liberal Protestantism were offered in English, for my benefit no doubt, not in Russian. And he speaks for a particular strand of Russian political thought, which believes there should be no separation between church and state. In this worldview, it is right and natural for the leader of Russia to be its Tsar -- and Tsar to be head of the church.

 Woody Allen films are great fun -- the older ones were, at any rate. And the impenetrable Russian soul is not likely to lose its place amongst Western cliches. Yet, a little knowledge about Russia and its religious culture opens up this story -- moving it beyond the triad of mysterious, sententious, and ludicrous to a commonsense explanation of what is happening and why.


Photo from the Kremlin public events page.