President Vladimir Putin meets Alexei II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church
By Adrian Blomfield in Omsk
Last Updated: 1:54am GMT 23/02/2008
Last Updated: 1:54am GMT 23/02/2008
Russia's Orthodox Church, despite decades of brutal repression under Soviet rule, is putting its trust in the KGB to ensure that a remarkable religious revival does not fade with the departure of President Vladimir Putin.
In an unusual move, Alexei II, the Church's patriarch, has endorsed deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev ahead of next week's presidential election.
The influence of his support on Russia's estimated 100 million Orthodox worshippers is immense.
It also illustrates the unholy alliance the Church has forged with the Kremlin since Mr Putin came to power eight years ago.
The president, a proud adherent, has allowed the Orthodox Church to regain much of its Tsarist-era lustre and has won the enthusiastic support of religious leaders in return.
With his hand-picked successor almost guaranteed victory in the March 2 poll, Mr Putin is determined to maintain the arrangement by holding on to the reins of power as prime minister.
The relationship might seem odd. It was the KGB, after all, that led persecution of the Church in Soviet times, when priests were regularly jailed, tortured and executed. Neither this nor accusations that Mr Putin is restoring many of the attributes of Soviet rule seem to bother Alexei.
Although he has never confirmed it, the patriarch, like the president, is a former KGB agent codenamed Drozdov, according to Soviet archives opened to experts in the 1990s.
Many in the Orthodox hierarchy are also accused of working as KGB informers, a fact that critics say the Church has never fully acknowledged.
"Essentially, the Orthodox Church is one of the only Soviet institutions that has never been reformed," said one priest, who declined to be identified for fear that he could be defrocked. That fate already befell another colleague, Gleb Yakunin, in the 1990s when he called on Church leaders with KGB links to repent.
Yet it is not just the KGB that binds the Church and the Kremlin. In the Tsarist era, the Church was a committed supporter of the imperial rallying cry "orthodoxy, autocracy and nationhood." Critics say that Mr Putin, who draws as much of inspiration from imperial Russia as he does from the Soviet Union, has adopted the same mantra - making the president and the Church ideal bedfellows.
Both have blossomed from the relationship. The number of Russians who identify themselves as Orthodox has doubled in the past decade, with two-thirds of the 140 million population proclaiming the faith - quite a feat after seven decades of official atheism.
Yet most Russians say they follow Orthodoxy for national rather than moral reasons. Deeply patriotic and with a declared intention of making Russia great again, the Church has milked the sentiment.
Priests are regularly seen on television sprinkling holy water on bombers and even nuclear missiles, a blessing that reinforces Mr Putin's own militaristic philosophy.
The Church has even supported Mr Putin's repression of democracy, with a senior bishop last year comparing human rights activists to traitors.
When a prison chaplain suggested that the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a personal enemy of the president, was a political prisoner, he was promptly defrocked.
Late last year, Sergei Taratukhin - who served five years in a Soviet gulag for defying the authorities - recanted, falling to his knees in front of television cameras and won a partial reprieve. He is now employed as a rubbish collector at the cathedral in the far-eastern city of Chita, near where Khodorkovsky is jailed.
In return, Mr Putin has worn his religious credentials very publicly and is regularly shown on state television kissing icons at Church services.
Given his popularity, Mr Putin's example has been emulated by many Russians. The business and political elite have assiduously followed instructions to fund the rebuilding of churches destroyed by the Soviets across the country.
Last year the magnificent Assumption cathedral in the Siberian city of Omsk, blown up by the Bolsheviks in 1935, was rebuilt with donations from the city mandarins.
The result is that Russia, at least in religious terms, is beginning to take on a Tsarist-era hue - and not just in terms of architecture.
Sister Varvara, who lived under a tree for many years before locals helped her to build a wooden church, is Omsk's local prophetess, healer and mind reader - a throwback to the wandering mystics such as Rasputin, who dominated religious rural life at the turn of the 19th century.
Dignitaries from across Siberia visit her to hear their fortune or just get advice. Sometimes, she gives Mr Putin a helping hand. A few years ago she told Tatyana Chertova, a retired actress with a shock of red hair, that she would become famous by writing a play about the president.
Mrs Chertova's play, Putin's Holiday, premiered last year.