December 21, 2009

Where Piety Meets Power

How the Russian church and with it the Russian state are gaining ground, in several senses, in the Holy Land.

Dec 17th 2009
The Economist

AT THE foot of the Mount of Olives, by the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus of Nazareth contemplated his death, there is a compact but magnificent church, surrounded by blazing flowers and well-pruned shrubs. For many Christian visitors to Jerusalem it is the loveliest spot in the entire city.

The area around Gethsemane, where Jesus is said to have remonstrated with his faint-hearted disciples, is a place where countless pilgrims have reflected on betrayal and loneliness. But the Mary Magdalene convent has a beauty that speaks both of heavenly kingdoms and of the power of an earthly realm, tsarist Russia. Its golden onion domes and a bronze and marble interior reflect the largesse of the Romanovs.

Its consecration in 1888 was a high point in a link between Russia and Jerusalem whose importance surged in the twilight of the tsarist era: a link based on political calculation and diplomacy, plus the piety of thousands of Russian travellers. Most were peasants; some had walked across Russia to Odessa, where they boarded ships that they shared with livestock and other goods.

But Jerusalem also drew grand visitors from Russia—such as Elizabeth Feodorovna, a German-born granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was thrilled by the holy city when she went there as the 24-year-old consort of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, brother of Tsar Alexander III.

The grand duchess accompanied her husband at the consecration of the Gethsemane church, and she oversaw its decoration by leading Russian artists. But she was destined for harder things than adorning churches. In 1905 her husband, a harsh governor of Moscow, was assassinated. She then sold most of her goods and set up a religious community, devoted to caring for Moscow’s poor. After the revolution, she was thrown down a mine; at around the same time her sister, Empress Alexandra, and her brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas, were shot along with their children.

The grand duchess’s earthly remains, and those of a fellow nun, now lie on either side of the altar in the Gethsemane convent. One need not be Russian, or very religious, to be moved by Elizabeth the New Martyr, to use her church title. Born into a world where she was shielded from the travails of the poor, she became a wiser figure than most of the Romanovs. (Unlike her sister, she disliked the philandering faith-healer, Grigory Rasputin.)

Until recently, the Gethsemane convent was a time warp where the ethos of the tsarist era was preserved, even by Palestinian nuns who joined after the 1917 revolution. More recently, the atmosphere has changed: it feels closer to contemporary Russia.

That partly reflects a change in the make-up of the multinational community. More nuns have come from Russia, while several have left; they were uneasy over the reunion, two years ago, between the “White Russian” church, of which the Gethsemane convent is a stronghold, and the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Then there are the visitors. In many cases, their modern slang, sunburned skins and holiday clothes give them away as Russians: some devout, some just escaping from grey skies at home. And some of the Russian-speakers who swarm round the holy places of Jerusalem are residents of Israel. Of the 1m or so recent migrants from the Soviet lands to Israel, perhaps 10% were Christians, accompanying Jewish kin.

So in different ways, a religious axis between Russia and Jerusalem, severed by communism, is being reforged. In late tsarist times, the Russia-Jerusalem connection was both elitist and popular; it was fostered by Russia’s leading people, especially the royal family, who (partly for strategic reasons) sponsored pilgrimages and built up a portfolio of religious property in the Holy Land. But it depended on the passionate faith of simple Russians.

History is repeating itself. At many of the Christian sites of the Middle East, Russians—not usually very poor, but mostly far from rich—form the largest group of visitors. And in the Kremlin, and among people close to it, there is keen concern to regain access to, or control of, properties in the Holy Land that were once Russian.

A big step in that process was the 2007 union between the Moscow Patriarchate and the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, ROCOR (or most of it; about a quarter of the diaspora church dissented). For much of the 20th century, Russian sacred property in the Holy Land had been subject to a Berlin-like division. Sites on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, such as Gethsemane, belonged to the White Russians, while those in Israel were under the Moscow Patriarchate—although Nikita Khrushchev returned to the Israelis the greater part of a magnificent West Jerusalem site known as the “Russian compound” for a shipment of oranges. Thanks to the 2007 reunion, Muscovite clergy can now serve in all the area’s Russian churches.

Vladimir Putin keenly fostered the reunion, especially after a meeting in New York in 2003 with a ROCOR bishop who presented him with an icon of Grand Duchess Elizabeth. And it was at Mr Putin’s personal request that a part of the Russian compound, an area called the Sergei courtyard where Jerusalemites enjoy jazz concerts, was returned to Russia a year ago. (Tenants of the yard saw tears running down the Russian leader’s cheek when he first saw it in April 2005.)

A long fascination

The fascination of Russian Christians with Jerusalem dates at least from the 17th century, when Patriarch Nikon built a replica of the Old City in a quiet birch forest outside Moscow, with a Baroque church containing a passable copy of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre. The place now has an air of pleasant dilapidation; it has not yet attracted interest from rich sponsors.

In an age of instant communications, replicas may not be needed. Today’s Moscow-Jerusalem tie-ups are more spectacular. For example, a light kindled from the “holy fire”—the flame that emerges from the Tomb of Christ in an ancient Easter rite—is now flown to Moscow in a chartered plane. This is done with efficiency, fanfare and much coverage from the media. In charge of it is one of Russia’s inner circle: Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia’s railways and pal of Mr Putin, whose security-police background he shares.

Tsarist Russia had its secret police, too, and some of its bosses transferred their allegiance to the Bolshevik regime after the 1917 revolution. But the external face, at least, of state power in tsarist times was more glamorous. And that is one reason, possibly, why today’s Russian rulers are keen to wrap themselves in the royal past. They have been melding Soviet and tsarist symbols in a way that presents Russian history as a single, glorious pageant.

The wish of Russia’s post-communist masters to don both Soviet and tsarist colours has been clear at least since 1997, when Moscow marked its 850th anniversary with a celebration that lauded both Hitler’s defeat and the exploits of medieval knights. Recently, ex-President Putin (now prime minister) has honoured leaders of the white, anticommunist side in the 1918-21 civil war, especially those who believed in Russia’s imperial destiny.

In any effort to fuse all phases of Russia’s past, Jerusalem and its environs play a vital part. That is not just because of their general sanctity, but because they are part of Russia’s history: a place where the Russians have both prayed and advanced their geopolitical interests. As an Orthodox Christian power, tsarist Russia saw itself as protector both of local Christians (especially Orthodox Arabs) and of Christian sites in the Ottoman empire; but France, Britain and other Western powers also sought a stake in Jerusalem’s Christian past. All was set for a strategic game which Russia played with relish, despite (or because of) its defeat in the Crimean war, sparked by a Franco-Russian row in Bethlehem.

These days, Western powers are less concerned by holy sites, but at least one state is watching the new Russian interest in the Holy Land with a mix of curiosity, fear and a dash of diplomatic opportunism: Israel. The transfer of the Sergei courtyard was agreed by the Israeli cabinet last year just before a visit to Moscow by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister. Israelis were hoping that, in return, Russia would hand over a collection of Jewish books, now in Moscow’s Lenin library. But the timing suggested something more was at stake: the Israeli effort to dissuade the Russians from selling missiles to Syria and anti-aircraft systems to Iran. Israel has urged Russia not to fulfil a longstanding contract to supply Iran with S-300 air-defence systems which would make it harder for anyone to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Kremlin officials have said, from time to time, that the deal’s execution has been “frozen”—but this failed to squelch rumours that Russia had made, or was about to make, a secret delivery. The issue must have been on the agenda of an initially secret mission to Moscow made by Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, in September.

The Israelis try to keep a line of communication with Russia’s most powerful men—Mr Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev—that bypasses the pro-Arab ethos of other Muscovite institutions. Mr Putin had warm personal ties with Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister; both men were terrorist-bashers. And if gestures like the handover of the Sergei courtyard make a big difference in Russia, it is because of the passionate interest that Mr Putin, and those close to him, show in holy real estate.

In the 19th century, too, Russia’s religious presence in the Holy Land had two main features: pilgrimage and property. The more pilgrims came, the more buildings were needed to house them. After the Crimean war, which cost Russia its naval presence in the Black Sea, pilgrim numbers surged, with quiet official encouragement—and a huge effort to build churches and hostels began.

When Sergei Alexandrovich took his wife to Jerusalem in 1888 he already headed a body that became known as the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. Its aims: to “strengthen Orthodoxy in the Holy Land, to help Russian visitors…and to publish news on the Holy Land [in Russia].” A revived IOPS, which never ceased to exist, is now led by Sergei Stepashin, a former Russian prime minister and security-police general: not as glamorous as a grand duke, but still at the top of the national tree. Mr Stepashin is frank about the geopolitical stakes: “A Russian flag in the centre of Jerusalem, in such close proximity to the Holy Sepulchre, is priceless.”

The stratospheric links of today’s Russian-Jerusalem axis are uncannily reminiscent of the past. Initially (from 1860 onwards), Russia’s Holy Land project was fostered by the church and the imperial foreign ministry. The creation in 1882 of the IOPS marked the full takeover of the enterprise by the royal family, which lent even greater prestige. Russia’s political, religious and cultural elite faced huge moral pressure to participate. On Palm Sunday, churches all over Russia collected money to support Holy Land pilgrimages. Royal largesse was matched by countless widows’ mites.

Today Russian pilgrims mostly go by air to Tel Aviv, Amman or the Red Sea port of Sharm el-Sheikh. Every year a few thousand travel under the direct aegis of the church, some staying in historically Russian property. Tens of thousands more go with travel agencies linked to the church; and an even greater number mix their religious duties with swimming and sunbathing.

In tsarist times, devout travellers had it tougher. Having slogged all the way from the Arctic or Siberia, they would set out on the choppy waters of the Black Sea: terrifying for those who had never been offshore. The legacy of tsarist religious travel is still visible in the churches and public buildings of Odessa. And on the Istanbul quayside, where ships from Odessa, then as now, dock under a glorious skyline, traces of tsarist pilgrimage also remain. Three tiny Russian churches—one still functioning, at the top of a rickety six-storey block—can be spotted nearby.

An English writer, Stephen Graham, mingled with the Russian peasants as they sailed to the Holy Land, around 1910. “In one storm, when the masts were broken, the hold where the peasants rolled over one another like corpses, or grasped at one another like madmen, was worse than any imagined pit, the stench…was worse than any fire,” he observed. But all was forgotten when Graham’s friends came to Jerusalem for an Easter celebration. “What embracing and kissing there were this night; smacking of hearty lips and tangling of beards and whiskers!”

Modern Russian pilgrims travel more comfortably. But of all the Christian visitors to the holy sites of the Middle East, they are the least troubled by risk. Whenever tension in the region rises, so too does the Russian majority around the Holy Sepulchre.

It was said in the 19th century that if an Arab in the vicinity of Jaffa or Jerusalem knew no Russian, he must be a recent arrival. These days, Palestinian guides who escort perspiring Slavs around the Mount of Olives also need to speak Pushkin’s tongue.

The transfer of the Sergei courtyard, and the rising profile in the region of Russia and its church, have met resistance in several Israeli quarters. Lefty types fear the Society for the Preservation of Nature will be thrown out of its offices in the yard. Right-wing Israelis fear a precedent: will the Greek church reclaim its title to the land on which the Knesset now stands? One writer in the Jerusalem Post wanted reciprocity: Sergei Alexandrovich, who built the yard, had expelled the Jews from Moscow—so why shouldn’t the Jews reclaim part of the Russian capital? Zalmi Unsdorfer, a businessman who heads the Likud party in Britain, urged Prince Philip—as a kinsman of Sergei Alexandrovich—to block the transfer.

Naomi Tsur, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem who is also a conservationist, is among those troubled by the courtyard’s transfer; the only hope, she says, is that the naturalists can gradually establish decent relations with their new neighbours, the revived IOPS, which is, in theory at least, a fellow NGO. But an Israeli court, considering an appeal against the handover, said it had been advised by the foreign and defence ministries that expediencies of state made the deal necessary.

So the Russian church is expanding on several fronts in Jerusalem. No less important, for the guardians of Russia’s heritage, is the fact that holy objects can be brought from places like Gethsemane to Russia. Part of the saintly patron’s remains have been “repatriated” to Moscow to stay at the charitable foundation she created: the Martha and Mary community, which occupies a courtyard, garden and finely frescoed church near the city centre.

The restoration of that premises (now a monument to Romanov piety, with an impressive set of letters, photographs and mementoes), the partial return of Elizabeth’s relics and the broader process of fusing Russia’s “white” and “red” traditions have been overseen by some powerful, interlocking bodies. At their apex is the railway boss, Mr Yakunin. The office of two organisations that he heads—the Apostle Andrew Foundation and the Centre for National Glory—is just opposite the Martha and Mary community.

In search of a usable past

Visitors to that office are greeted by Mr Yakunin’s deputy, Mikhail Yakushev, an Arabist and history buff; his biography, including several postings in the Middle East, is that of a trusted son of the Soviet, and then the Russian, state. Although he exudes the energy of a sportsman, not the pallor of an intellectual, Mr Yakushev likes his delvings into tsarist history: he is fascinated by the row over holy places that started the Crimean war. People of his type do not peruse archives out of idle curiosity; he and his colleagues draw lessons from the past. Mr Yakushev loves the firmness of British policy in the 19th century. “They did everything to limit Russian influence,” he says teasingly. What these new masters of religious diplomacy are now fashioning is a version of the Russian past that takes pride in the geopolitical as well as the spiritual feats of the tsarist realm. In this quest for a “usable past”, many things—from the relics of a royal saint to property deals in Jerusalem—have their place. It may be hard, at times, to see how all this relates to the life of a modest, good-hearted and ultimately heroic noblewoman who built bridges between countries—England, Germany and Russia—and between the rich and the poor. But religion’s uses are often different from religion itself.