The Patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church, Kirill, is visiting Britain at a time when tensions between London and Moscow could hardly be any worse. Predictably, the UK media and sections of the political establishment are highly critical of the trip.
Those of us who follow these things know exactly how dreadful British-Russian relations are these days. Think “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” bad. With elements of ‘Fatal Attraction’ thrown in too. That’s because we have a bizarre scenario where the elites in both countries detest each other but are equally strangely fascinated, and sometimes obviously envious, of their rivals.
© Sergey Pyatakov / Sputnik
Thus, Russia remains full of British adventurers and everyone here knows how “London is the capital of Great Britain.” Especially the super rich, who almost to a man (or woman) seem to boast a flash property (or ten) in south-east England. As if that wasn’t enough, drive around Moscow’s outer MKAD highway and you will encounter entire villages designed to replicate British hamlets, complete with red-brick communities, boasting names like Bristol and Cambridge.
The feeling is often mutual. Despite wanting to sanction the Kremlin again, the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has declared himself a “Russophile” and Queen Elizabeth herself is said to be intrigued by all things Russian. Even finding time to write occasional letters to Siberian schoolgirls.
One, but not The same
Perhaps it’s because the Brits and the Russians have far more in common than either would care to admit? Both lost empires within living memory and the pair are very much in Europe, but not of it. Maybe this is why they’ve always looked beyond the continent, possibly deeming it too small to contain their ambitions? Or it could also be a matter of religion. The central European power centers – with the exception of Northern Germany – have one thing that unites them. Their shared Catholicism. And adherence to a different version of Christianity often leaves Russia and Britain on the outside looking in.
Which would explain why Queen Elizabeth, as head of the Church of England is so keen to meet Patriarch Kirill, even though a section of her MP’s and much of the media doesn’t approve. Some members of the UK Labour party are not best pleased by his presence and have raised objections. Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch’s Times went nuclear by alleging how Kirill is apparently a former KGB agent.
The Patriarch, like the Queen and to a lesser degree the Pope, also fulfills a political role. And this surely is why Labour MP John Woodock, active on his party’s defense committee, said it is “very troubling” for someone so close to President Putin to be given red-carpet treatment at Buckingham Palace at a time when Russia is supporting a “murderous Syrian regime.”
Those comments won’t have surprised Kirill, whose visit comes at a rather sensitive time for relations between Moscow and London. As indicated by the war hysteria in the British media and Johnson’s call for protests outside the Russian embassy in London.
How Close Is Too Close?
A common thread is that the Patriarch is allied with Putin, who is the bad guy du jour in the London press right now. Yet to use this connection to smear the religious leader betrays total ignorance of Russia’s domestic affairs. You see, the reason Kirill described Putin’s time in office as a “miracle of God” (something the UK media homes in on) is not because he ascribes deity-like powers to the head-of-state, but was instead inspired by the restoration of the church’s prestige on his watch.
The religion was effectively banned – and its members persecuted – by the Kremlin for over 70 years (during the USSR period) and then the first independent President (Boris Yeltsin) showed no particular interest in the faith. With that in mind, is it unusual for the Bishop of Moscow to be fond of Putin, who publicly backs the church and freely admits to his own strong beliefs?
As mentioned, Russia-British relations are so polluted that even God himself mightn’t be able to resuscitate them. Nevertheless, the Patriarch is going to have a go on his first official visit to London and the meeting with the Queen will be key.
The pair have plenty to discuss. Kirill wants to highlight the suffering of Christians in the seemingly endless spiral of Middle Eastern wars – which Britain famously helped fuel when it illegally invaded Iraq in 2003. He’s also sure to raise the migrant crisis in the European Union, which Russians perceive as speeding up the Islamization of the Western side of the continent.
Ironically, all this turmoil boosts the Orthodox faith, which has positioned itself as the defender of traditional European Christian values. As the Catholic church slowly liberalizes, following the lead of the Church of England, Kirill is doubtlessly aware that Moscow’s brand of old fashioned bible thumping appeals to many opponents of change.
Many influential folk in London see Putin as a tyrant, Russia as an enemy of democracy and a spoiler in Europe. This causes amusement in Moscow where officials feel that nobody has ever done as much damage to the EU as David Cameron, the UK’s previous Prime Minister. For its part, the Kremlin also believes that the UK doesn’t have an independent foreign policy, and merely accepts instructions from Washington. This makes it increasingly disinterested in investing much effort in trying to sway Downing Street.
Putin believes the same of France and Germany. Saying of the former last week: “we wanted to talk to Paris, but they rushed to Washington, threw out a resolution and created hysterics.” The Patriarch is surely going to try to talk to the Queen about finding some common ground between their two countries and faiths. So long as Washington remains London’s boss, his chances of any political success are probably slim. But it’s worth a shot.
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About the author
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
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