Russian Orthodox Church

Yes, Russian interests in Syria are political, but there are centuries of religious ties as well

Yes, Russian interests in Syria are political, but there are centuries of religious ties as well

As a rule, the foreign desk of The New York Times does high-quality work when covering religious stories that are clearly defined as religion stories, frequently drawing praise here at GetReligion.

However, when an international story is defined in political terms — such as Donald Trump’s decision to abandon Kurdish communities in northern Syria — editors at the Times tend to miss the religion “ghosts” (to use a familiar GetReligion term) that haunt this kind of news.

The bottom line: It’s hard to write a religion-free story about news with obvious implications for Turkey, Syria, Russia, the United States, the Islamic State and a complex patchwork of religious minorities. The Times has, however, managed to do just that in a recent story with this headline: “In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void.

Included in that complex mix is the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, based in Damascus. Let me state the obvious here: Yes, part of my interest here is rooted in my own faith, since I converted into the Antiochian church 20-plus years ago. Click here for my 2013 column — “The Evil the church already knows in Syria” — about the plight of the Orthodox Church in a region ruled by monsters of all kinds.

This brings me to this particular Times feature. One does not have to grant a single noble motive to Russian President Vladimir Putin to grasp that secular and religious leaders in Russia do not want to risk the massacre of ancient Orthodox Christian communities in Syria. And there are other religious minorities in the territory invaded by Turkish forces. This is one of the reasons that American evangelicals and others have screamed about Trump’s decision to stab the Kurds in the back.

How can the world’s most powerful newspaper look at this drama and miss the role of religion? Here is the overture:

DOHUK, Iraq — Russia asserted itself in a long-contested part of Syria … after the United States pulled out, giving Moscow a new opportunity to press for Syrian army gains and project itself as a rising power broker in the Middle East.

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Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

egular GetReligion readers are probably aware that I am a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Readers who have been paying close attention (including a few in Russia) know that I attend an Orthodox Church in America parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that — while largely made up of converts — has Russian roots and members who are from Russia and Romania. When our senior priest (from the American South) does some of the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, you can hear people reciting the rite by memory.

When I talk to Russians about subjects linked to Russia and the church, I hear all kinds of things — ranging from realistic concerns about life in Russia to worries and frustrations about how Americans often forget that there is more to Russia and the Russian worldview than Vladimir Putin.

However, when you read U.S. news reports about Russian Orthodoxy the assumption is always that the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime are one and the same. However, many Orthodox believers reject much of what Putin does and are concerned about the church being tied too closely to the state. Russians also see tensions between church and state that are rarely mentioned in news reports, tensions linked to political and moral issues, such as abortion. In other words, they see a more complex puzzle.

Every now and then I see a U.S. media report that — for a second — seems aware of complexities inside Russia and inside the Russian Orthodox Church. The Religion News Service recently ran this kind of feature under the headline: “Russian Orthodox Church considers a ban on blessing weapons of mass destruction.” Here is the overture:

MOSCOW (RNS) — Early one evening in May 2018, days before the annual parade celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II, a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt on the Russian capital’s ring road.

As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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With Russia all over U.S. news map right now, how fares its huge Orthodox Church?

With Russia all over U.S. news map right now, how fares its huge Orthodox Church?

Most news calendars list Russia’s presidential vote on Sunday, March 18. That’s the very date the nation officially confiscated Ukraine's Crimea with its 2 million people and 10,000 square miles of territory.

Journalists can relax and write up incumbent Vladimir Putin's victory in advance, then simply toss in ballot numbers. As in the grim Soviet past, another term is foreordained by manipulation of the process and consequent lack of competition. No need for the April runoff.

Russia over-all is of keen interest  for Americans and the American media with those allegations of campaign “collusion,”  revelations about efforts to manipulate U.S. voters in 2016 and 2018, debate over sanctions, and the ongoing mystery of why autocrat Putin is a rare politician President Donald Trump does not insult.

In addition to politics, there’s a historic religious turnabout in Russia that stateside reporters could  well develop through interviews with the experts. The dominant Orthodox Church, which managed to survive Communist terror and regained freedom, has latterly emerged as a strategic prop for Putin’s Kremlin. 

If that election day peg doesn't work for your outlet, another signal event comes July 17. That's the Orthodox feast day of the doomed final czar, Nicholas II, and his family, shot to death by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918 and canonized by the national church in 2000 as saints and "passion-bearers."  

The Economist published a solid Russian Orthodox situationer February 3 that’s behind a pay wall, so The Guy will summarize key points for any writer interested in this. (Side comment: It’s hard to make do without this British newsweekly despite the $152 subscription price. It echoes the happy heyday when Time and Newsweek had substantive foreign news sections competing each week, drawing upon ample field reporting and research, all neatly distilled by a knowledgeable writer into a readable page.)

The magazine found a great lede. Each January 18, masses of Russians cut cross-shaped holes into lake ice and plunge into the sub-zero waters to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ. This year, campaigner Putin joined the throng at Lake Seliger, crossed himself, and leaped in.

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Hey New York Times: Why visit the 'Old Believers' in Alaska and then ignore what they believe?

Hey New York Times: Why visit the 'Old Believers' in Alaska and then ignore what they believe?

It was hard to find any relevant art to accompany this post about the recent New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "Football Among the Old Believers, in Alaska."

That's a compliment. This was a really unique subject for a news story.

I couldn't run the Times art, of course, because it's brand new and under copyright (and the newspaper didn't post a YouTube feature about the piece, as news organizations often do). The subject matter was so strange and specific that it was hard to find other art that combined the various subjects at the heart of the story. I mean, look at the second part of the double-decker headline:

Keeping a high school football team together is tough, between a Russian Orthodox sect leery of the outside world and the chores of life in an isolated village.

So we have high-school football, way up north, in a village that's home to a very specific "sect" -- I would have said "splinter group" -- linked to the Russian Orthodox faith that is a crucial part of the history of Alaska. Remote? We're talking 50 or 60 families on the Kenai Peninsula 200-plus miles south of Anchorage.

It's a classic old-faith wrestles with modernity tale, the kind of semi-National Geographic feature often written after a visit to Amish country.

What is missing? The whole point is that these people practice a bizarre faith that makes it hard to do "normal things" -- like play football -- in the "real" world. Readers are shown many symbolic details that illustrate what that looks like. The problem is that the Times team all but ignored the contents of the faith that defines these lives. It's like reading a sociological report about monks that ignores their prayers and worship. Imagine a story about members of the New York Philharmonic that ignores their love of music.

Here is the overture:

VOZNESENKA, Alaska -- The football players wore their black and yellow jerseys to class last Friday, a day before the home opener for Voznesenka School, the smallest high school in Alaska to field a team.
But a game required at least 11 players. And so far at practice this summer, the Cougars had fielded no more than 10.

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Tsar Ludicrous: Daily Mail & The Australian come up short when covering Putin, religion

Tsar Ludicrous: Daily Mail & The Australian come up short when covering Putin, religion

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 Donald Trump pieces, but a series of stories on “Tsar” Vladimir Putin.

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 and 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.

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What were Time editors really trying to say with their White House turns Russian red cover?

What were Time editors really trying to say with their White House turns Russian red cover?

Yes, Russia, Russia, Russia. Russia, Russia and more Russia.


The big idea behind this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is that one thing is for certain -- America is not Russia and America is not turning into Russia (no matter that the cover of Time magazine was trying to say).

There is another crucial idea linked to that that I have discussed before at GetReligion and with our colleagues at Issues, Etc. That would be this: Vladimir Putin is a Russian, but Putin is not Russia. Or try this: There is more to Russia than Putin. Or this: One of the reasons Putin is effective -- in his culture -- is that he knows which Russian buttons to push to move his people, even he is not sincere when doing so.

Host Todd Wilken and I ended up discussing this question: What were the editors of Time trying to say with that cover? After all, they thought the image of the White House morphing into St. Basil's Cathedral (standing in for the actual towers of the Kremlin, perhaps) was so brilliant, so powerful, so logical, that it didn't even need a headline.

The image was supposed to say it all.

But it didn't. If you want to have fun, surf around in this collection of links to discussions of all the errors and misunderstandings linked to that Time cover (and CNN material linked to it). Hey, even Pravda jumped into the mix.

All together now: But St. Basil's isn't the Kremlin. And they took the crosses off the top of the iconic onion-dome steeples (so they had to know they were dealing with a church). And this whole White House with onion domes thing has turned into a cliche, since so many other news and editorial people have used it.

So what was the big idea behind that cover?

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Dear Time editors: The Kremlin is not a church. Dear CNN politicos: Churches are not mosques

Dear Time editors: The Kremlin is not a church. Dear CNN politicos: Churches are not mosques

I have been on the road for almost a week, joyfully busy with family life.

I kept glancing at news email and, let's see, what was there to talk about?

That would be: Russia. Russia. And more Russia. Oh, and lots more Russia.

Among my fellow Orthodox Christians, there was lots of laugh-to-keep-from-crying chatter about a certain magazine cover.

It appears that Time magazine is still publishing and that the editors really thought that they nailed the whole nasty Russia is taking over the White House media storm with one image -- an image so strong, so perfect, that it didn't even need a headline. You can see that cover at the top of this post, of course.

I feel the need for some music, here, to capture the heart of this multimedia story. So please click here.

Now, here is how the Gateway Pundit site summed up what happened.

TIME Magazine has the Trump White House morphing into the Kremlin on this week’s cover.
But that’s not the Kremlin.
It’s an Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow.
Their cover is almost as phony as the fake Russian conspiracy. Almost.
TIME magazine mixed up the Kremlin with St. Basil Cathedral on its cover!
The Christians are coming!

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New Pew survey notes line between religious identity and religious faith in Central and Eastern Europe

New Pew survey notes line between religious identity and religious faith in Central and Eastern Europe

Does anyone recall the 1991 comedy classic "What About Bob?", in which Bill Murray plays an obnoxiously self-absorbed client who cluelessly and unrelentingly pesters his psychotherapist (Richard Dreyfuss) during his annual summer vacation until the therapist suffers a breakdown?

Alright. So maybe it's not a classic. But I thoroughly enjoyed it -- perhaps not the least because I'm married to a psychotherapist who, if you ask me, has had more than her share of clients with professional boundary problems.

Which is to say that it was easy for me to relate to this movie because the situation it satirized is of more than passing interest to me.

That I have this personal bias because of my particular circumstance, should surprise no one. Likewise, it should come as no surprise to GetReligion readers that journalism functions similarly.

The greater the potential impact of a story on a news outlet's core audience, the greater the attention the outlet will lavish on the story. In short, if all politics is ultimately local, so is all news.

Which is why, I'm surmising, the media coverage of the Pew Research Center's survey report on the explosive growth of religious identity -- if not actual religious practice -- in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Central and Eastern Europe has played out as it has so far.

Mainstream media attention was relatively scant. While The Economist provided a well-rounded report, this Newsweek story is more representative of the thin coverage overall that I found.

In truth, to anyone who's been paying attention, the survey's findings are far from surprising.

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Why care that Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses face persecution -- but get scant coverage?

Why care that Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses face persecution -- but get scant coverage?

The growing public rift between Washington and Moscow following our missile attack on a Syrian military airport couldn't come at a worse time for Russia's relatively small community of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Why? Because President Vladimir Putin's Russia appears ready to outlaw the sect for engaging in "extremist activities," a catch all legalism in Russia used to ensnare any group or individual the Kremlin is politically unhappy with.

What? You didn't know this?

I'm not surprised because other than The New York Times, no member of the American media elite appears to have done its own story on the Issue.

Of course the wires, including the Associated Press and Reuters, pumped out bare-bone versions of the story. But from my limited search it appears to me that the wire stories were largely relegated to media web pages.

Why's that? Perhaps because the few newsrooms with the ability to do their own story out of Russia view the plight of the Jehovah's Witnesses as a mere sidebar to the far more globally engrossing story of U.S.-Russia friction.

Not to mention that the sect never gets much media attention anyway. I'm guessing that's because the only familiarity the preponderance of American journalists have with the group is when it's members knock on their door to hand out tracts -- something they seemingly always manage to do at an inopportune time.

(Jehovah's Witnesses consider themselves Christians. But almost all mainstream Christians reject that claim, because of conflicts over the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Because this post is about journalism, not theology, I'm making no judgement here about that. Click here for more information.)

Here's some important background on the issue from the Times piece.

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