[ by Charles Cameron — is anyone taking religion seriously yet? ]
Amir Taheri isn’t the most reliable source I can think of — but his piece today on Asharq al-Awsat, The Black Madonna and the Russian Problem, certainly began with a whiff of holy smoke — in this case mixed incense and cordite, I suspect:
Last month, when Vladimir Putin ordered that the Black Madonna of Kazan, the holiest icon of the Russian Orthodox Church, be flown over the Black Sea, many believed he wished to secure blessings for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
It was the first time the icon, or rather a copy of it, since the original was stolen and possibly destroyed in 1904, was deployed to bless a peaceful enterprise. Over the centuries, the “Black Virgin” has been taken to battlefields to bless Russian armies fighting Swedish, Polish, Turkish, Persian, French and German invaders. Stalin sent it to Stalingrad in 1943 to ensure victory over the German invaders under Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.
With Putin’s troops in control of Crimea and threatening to move further into Ukraine, we now know that the icon was brought in to bless a military operation this time as well.
A more reliable source, especially when it comes to matters of Christian iconography, would be Peter Berger, whose 2011 article Our Lady of Kazan and American Pluralism adds valuable background to the icon, and to the sinfonia of church and state in Russia which it in some sense embodies:
The icon of Our Lady of Kazan (also known as the Black Virgin of Kazan) is one of the most famous in Russian Orthodoxy. One of the Virgin’s two feast days coincides with the Day of National Unity. This is appropriate. Kazan occupies an important place in Russian history. Its conquest and destruction in 1552 eliminated the last stronghold of Mongol power in what since then has been southern Russia. The Mongols of that region, descended from the mighty Golden Horde, had long before converted to Islam. Thus the conquest of Kazan (which was followed by a massacre of its civilian population) is also a highly symbolic marker of the conflict between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which still reverberates today along the southern perimeter of the former Soviet Union. The association of the Virgin with national unity is symbolic as well. It evokes the so-called sinfonia—the close unity of church and state—which characterized Russia from the beginning of its national history to the Bolshevik revolution. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Putin regime has once again established Orthodoxy as the state religion, but it has come close to doing so. Thus Our Lady of Kazan again bestows legitimacy on the Russian state, including its foreign policy, which has been supported by the Patriarchate of Moscow. The state in turn has supported the policy of the Patriarchate to re-assert its authority over previously independent Russian Orthodox churches abroad.
Read the whole thing for further background…
I leave the political implications to others better suited than myself.
Blog-friend Tim Furnish and I both noted this recent piece by Philip Jenkins, The 160-Year Christian History Behind What’s Happening in Ukraine, which as Tim noted “is well-worth factoring into analysis of the Crimean situation”:
Many educated people have at least heard of the great struggle known as the Crimean War (1853-56), although its causes and events remain mysterious to most non-specialists. If the conflict is remembered today, it resonates through the heroic charitable efforts of Florence Nightingale and the foundation of modern nursing. Actually, that earlier war deserves to be far better known as a pivotal moment in European religious affairs. Without knowing that religious element, moreover — without a sense of its Christian background — we will miss major themes in modern global affairs, in the Middle East and beyond.
But then as Gary Sick — heh, I know, not one of Zen‘s favorite characters — says he was told by a friend in the State Department during the Iran hostage crisis:
You know, whoever took religion seriously?