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Opinion: Shifting Sands of Faith | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to John Daniszewski, the Associated Press’s Senior Managing Editor for International News, unseen, during an AP interview at Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

During his recent visit to the Vatican, a photo was taken of Russian President Vladimir Putin bowing before and then kissing an icon of the Virgin Mary while standing next to Pope Francis. The image is one that merits attention: who is the real Vladimir Putin: the KGB officer who served in East Berlin, or the statesman who bowed to kiss the religious icon? Is today’s Putin the Soviet-era atheist or the post-Soviet Russia’s Orthodox Church?

Just prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, the world witnessed three funerals in close succession: those of the General-Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev, his successor Yuri Andropov, and his successor Konstantin Chernenko. All three died of illness and exhaustion. However, there was a single protocol for each funeral—an open coffin, with the body of the Soviet leader adorned with flowers. A leader is a symbol of national strength, whereas a man is frail and mortal. The three leaders’ bodies were embalmed and preserved in the same manner as that of Lenin, thanks to advanced techniques developed by a group of Armenian physicians.

George H. W. Bush, then US vice-president, attended Brezhnev’s funeral. When he returned to the US, Bush said that he was surprised by the military spectacle at the funeral, in addition to the lack of any mention of God.

So is Putin a product of the state of religious denial and atheism that he lived under since he became a Communist Party member, and did this go on to influence his role as a statesman? Or has he always been a member of the Russian Orthodox Church to which he now claims affiliation?

It is difficult to judge. Andrei Gromyko stepped down as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, and his successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, was no less communist. In fact, when Shevardnadze first came to the United Nations, he was even viewed as being more hardline. Indeed, Shevardnadze later served as head of the Communist Party in Georgia, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin.

A short while later, communism collapsed, Georgia became independent, and Shevardnadze became president of the new state. We seldom see any image of Shevardnadze at his presidential office without the icon of the Virgin Mary adorning the wall. So who is the real Shevardnadze: The USSR communist chief or the Georgian president? Again, this is a difficult question to answer.

The problem with humans is not their principles, but their lack of principles. It was not only the Communists that challenged God’s existence and glory. The Nazis deified Adolf Hitler, and the Italians bowed down to Benito Mussolini. Unfortunately, these human gods were responsible for the worst massacres in history. We must also not forget to mention Mao Zedong, who strove not only to eliminate faith and belief, but also history.

If we contemplate how Russia’s politicians have shifted from absolute atheism to kissing religious icons, it becomes clear that the recent shifts we have witnessed in the Arab world are without value.