Saturday, February 18, 2017

Putin Acts as ‘Deus ex Machina’ in St. Isaac’s Conflict Because of Its Dangers, Azimandis Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 18 – Yesterday, the conflict over the plans of the St. Petersburg governor to return St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church took “an unexpected turn” when Vladimir Putin through an aide intervened as a deus ex machina to try to defuse the situation lest it become a danger to his regime, Moscow commentator Yakov Azimandis says.

            What the Kremlin leader has proposed is that the disputed cathedral be used jointly by the state and the church, an implicit rejection of the deal between St. Petersburg city officials and the Moscow Patriarchate and a step that some liberal writers are already presenting as a triumph for Russia’s civil society (

                But there are compelling reasons to think that those opposed to the handing over of the symbol of Russia’s northern capital to the Moscow Patriarchate have not won any final victory, Azimandis argues. They have come out with a partial victory in the first act of what promises to be a drawn-out conflict with a regime totally uninterested in reflecting the popular will.

            The fight over the fate of St. Isaacs became dangerous this week because neither side of the conflict was prepared to back down.  “In such circumstances,” Azimandis says, dramatists often make use of the old tactic of having a deus ex machina suddenly appear and reward both according to their desserts.

            “But as we understand,” he continues, there must be “a weighty reason” for a god to appear; and in this case one was obvious. It consisted in the desire of the population of St. Petersburg to considered when decisions are made, “a violation” of the rules of the game in Putin’s Russia because it can lead to “dangerously unpredictable” consequences.

            Putin’s Solomonic decision may not be the good end that many opponents of giving St. Isaac’s back to the Moscow Patriarchate now think it is.  There are no guarantees that after a time the authorities will move ahead with their earlier plans, and there is no willingness by the powers that be to involve them in any decision making.

            Putin’s god-like intervention “from above was needed only to return the angry citizens to their customary role of silent viewers” who watch and support but who do not get involved or have influence over government decisions, Azymandis says. 

            If one considers what the Soviet state did in confiscating church property and the renaissance of interest in religion around the world, the notion of returning St. Isaac’s to the church would seem “a completely normal and logical step … But not in the case of the Russian Orthodox Church and not in Putin’s Russia.”

            The Russian Orthodox Church is not only intertwined with the Russian state but is animated by the same desire to enrich itself by seizing property that belongs to others.  It wants St. Isaac’s not to have another church but to gain another source of income.  Giving St. Isaac’s back would be the latest “spitting in the face of the citizens of the country.”

            The Russian authorities and their media have done everything to try to present the opponents of giving the cathedral back as marginal. They have said that those involved were “only atheists even though there are many believers among them.” They have said they are only radicals “but among them are many moderates with their own views.”

            And they have “tried to present them as only members of the intelligentsia but we see in the crowd representatives of other classes as well,” Azimandis continues. For all these people, St. Isaac’s “is not simply a shrine; it is the property of the entire country and it mustn’t fall into the hands of those who have so often discredited themselves.”

            According to the commentator, “the most successful symbol which expressed the essence of the protest wasn’t the blue ribbons but the balloons with angry faces on them. These balloons of anger express the general sense that has led all those protesting. Enough! We are fed up with such actions” and with the fact that “no one needs our opinion.”

            Some in the Moscow Patriarchate say that the demonstrators are using the St. Isaac’s case only as a means to express something more.  “And he is right,” Azimandis says. “For all who came out in support of the cathedral even with the most moderate demands, this is simply an occasion.”

            “An occasion to express criticism, which the state doesn’t want to hear … an occasion to express their anger which has been growing for years because of their powerlessness to change something in their own city and in their own country … an occasion to come together and see that we are not alone, that in Petersburg alone, there are many people who aren’t indifferent.”

            Just before Putin emerged as a deus ex machina, Patriarch Kirill said that the transfer of St. Isaac’s back to the church was “a symbol of reconciliation” of Russians. And he is right as well. “This event really has served for reconciliation and consolidation of the people against the powers that be.”

            “Communists, anarchists, liberals, nationalists and all other came together in order to defend St. Isaac’s from the agency headed by Mr. Gundyayev,” Kirill’s last name at birth.

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