In the middle of this week, Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of Russia’s main religious denominations. Formally, the meeting had to do with the escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which all the participants in the event spoke about. But the event also fits into the context of Vladimir Putin’s election campaign: the heads of the denominations literally swore a personal oath of allegiance to the secular leader and also supported the Kremlin’s ideological construct, which has only just begun to take shape. Religious leaders essentially recognised the supremacy of this ideology over their own religions and submitted to it.
Putin himself described the essence of this ideological superstructure over each of the traditional faiths as follows: «Each of us, in our words and actions, should start from the main thing — what is the main thing? — from the fundamental interests of our own multinational people, always remembering that inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony is the basis of Russian statehood. Anything else, any other position, has an anti-Russian orientation and component to it.»
Previously, Putin had repeatedly spoken of the similarity of religions in their basic tenets, for example, the affinity between the Russian Orthodoxy and Islam. In the most general form, the Russian leader’s creed or symbol of the faith can be summarized as follows: the main thing in religions is traditional values and the pro-state stance of their leaders, and the rest are minor subtleties that are not so important. For Putin, a former employee of the Soviet security services, religion, like any other public institution, is first and foremost one of the «channels for working with the population» and a tool for managing society. It is no coincidence that the Russian and Soviet authorities have persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses and other churches that are «directed from the West.» These structures have been traditionally regarded as instruments of influence employed by the «enemy». It is important to the Russian president that religious leaders convey the right ideological messages to believers: about the sinfulness and collapse of Western civilization, the primacy of traditional values in Russia, and the wisdom and foresight of the Kremlin. And Putin’s interlocutors are clearly ready to comply.
Patriarch Kirill, for example, followed Putin in declaring that Russia’s religious denominations have no «fundamental disagreements» among them and «much in common in matters of morality» and, most importantly, that there are no such «disagreements» among them in matters «related to public life». «Our co-religionists see us today sitting at the same table in a conversation with each other and with the head of the state,» Kirill said.
Mufti Talgat Tadzhutdin declared that Russian religions stem from a «single root». «We acknowledge one, single Creator, and we have nothing to fight over in this world and even more so in eternity,» he asserted, echoing Putin’s thesis about the similarity of religions.
Russia’s chief rabbi Berl Lazar went even further and praised the president personally. «We need to think about why here [i.e. in Russia] we can be friends, really help each other, rejoice together, while there [i.e. abroad] it is impossible. The answer is simple: we have a wise President here», the rabbi concluded.
In many ways, this meeting can be seen as one of the elements of Putin’s campaign: he has won the public support of religious leaders. But what seems more important is that the head of Russia and the heads of confessions formulated the principle of the primacy of the regime’s quasi-ideology over religious principles. Religions are good for Putin because the leaders of Russia’s many confessions are ready to support him personally, and to endorse his policies and his thesis: «The main thing is the state entity and community, not religious differences». The religious leaders themselves are ready to follow this line, thereby violating the basic tenets of their religions: for every believer, the principles of his or her faith are more important and have priority over state ideologies and postulates. In this sense, Putin is forming an ideological supra-religious heresy, subordinating religious beliefs to secular power and negating any difference between them. The president hardly understands the nature of religion itself, seeing it as an instrument of ideological influence and indoctrination (Putin himself, though, might as well be a believer). In this worldview, religious denominations are equated with parties, and their role in Putin’s system is similarly perverted. Systemic oppositionists must support the regime and Putin personally and then propagate their views, while their role in the vertical of power is to channel the moods of public groups in the direction desired by the Kremlin. This multi-party system has almost definitely revealed itself to be a sham: it resembles the pseudo-pluralism of the DDR, which was in fact coordinated by the National Front and the Communist Party. Russian religions also fit into this «popular front» of Putin’s regime.
A trap for Kadyrov
The heads of Tatarstan and Karachay-Cherkessia, Rustam Minnikhanov and Rashid Temrezov, have awarded Ramzan Kadyrov’s son, the underage Adam Kadyrov, the highest honors of their respective republics. The Chechen leader’s son had previously been awarded the title of the Hero of Chechnya. This came after Adam Kadyrov was caught on camera physically assaulting Nikita Zhuravel who had been arrested for burning a Quran. At the suggestion of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office Zhuravel’s case was transferred to Chechnya — the Investigative Committee granted a request by Chechen authorities to have him stand trial in the majority-Muslim region. The footage of the beating was uploaded to the Internet by Ramzan Kadyrov himself. The incident was met with aversion and disgust among Russian public figures, and was publicly condemned by politicians (mainly the regional ones). As a result, the Chechen leader secured a meeting with Putin and received his support. Ramzan Kadyrov tends to resort to such provocative controversial gestures when he is in political trouble — which is most likely what has happened now.
Among those condemning Kadyrov’s actions was Azat Khamayev, member of the «United Russia» party from Tatarstan: his statement was published on the website of the Tatarstan State Council, of which he is a member. It is hard to believe that Khamayev had not secured permission from the republic’s top leadership before issuing his statement: the political situation in the region is tightly controlled. But soon enough Tatarstan’s leadership awarded Kadyrov’s son with the highest honor of the republic and travelled to Chechnya to meet him personally, while Kamaev’s diatribe disappeared from the State Council’s website. Against this backdrop, the head of Karachay-Cherkessia hastened to express his loyalty to the Chechen leadership, although neither he nor the republic’s deputies had ever scolded Kadyrov.
On the one hand, the honors bestowed on Adam Kadyrov by the leaders of Russia’s Islamic republics are the best evidence of his father’s political clout: Kadyrov might appear to be one of the top figures in the power vertical. He has a long history of breaking Russian laws and even the unwritten rules of the power vertical, but with Nikita Zhuravel’s beatings he is doing so consistently and publicly, which is deliberate. For weeks he has been drawing public attention to the fact that he always gets away with pretty much anything, and no one has confronted him yet (in fact, quite the opposite is the case, his conspicuous permissiveness has earned him a personal meeting with Putin), and Kadyrov keeps taking it up a notch and then some more. He created the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, named after the leader of the Chechen opposition to the Russian Empire, and this formation was led by Ruslan Geremeyev, who the media claim orchestrated the murder of Boris Nemtsov. These are also clear gestures of disobedience, otherness and of crossing certain «red lines» again and again. This is why the oath of office taken by Russian politicians — even the heavyweights among them like Minnikhanov — seems logical in its own way. As a result, Kadyrov is beginning to be seen almost as a successor to the Russian presidency, but there has already been a similar case in Russian political history last year.
The founder of the «Wagner» group Yevgeny Prigozhin, was also constantly raising the stakes, demonstrating his special status and permissiveness. System politicians, including the «United Russia» party Secretary General Andrei Turchak and the «Just Russia» co-leader Sergei Mironov, gradually began to gravitate towards him. Eventually, Prigozhin rebelled, fell out of Putin’s favor and then died under rather mysterious circumstances. During the «Wagner» revolt, many wondered: how could the security services fail to see various preparation for the revolt and not stop the group and its leader? Most likely, they genuinely underestimated the threat and were in no hurry to show zeal. But they may well have learnt a lesson from this story: if you do not prevent a person from breaking the rules of the system, he will start to increase his or her stakes and eventually turn into a loose canon and a threat to the regime. It is not necessarily true that Ramzan Kadyrov will meet a similar end to Prigozhin, but it is quite likely that the security services are luring him into a trap of his own permissiveness. The head of Chechnya wants loyalty and recognition of his colleagues from other Islamic republics, and he is getting it. In this way he demonstrates his claim to leadership in the Russian Muslim world, and thus his claim to violate the existing order and hierarchies, where there can be only one person in charge (even for Muslims). Awarding Adam Kadyrov with high honors is very good piece compromising material to go into his father’s personal file meant for Vladimir Putin. The special services, which are replete with Ramzan Kadyrov’s many opponents, can successfully trap him into making a truly fatal mistake.