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What does a bloody brawl I saw among Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Eastern Catholic priests who share the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have to do with Putin invading Crimea?
That particular sacred place in Jerusalem’s Old City is like a perpetual boxing ring where rival religions punch (and stab and shoot) each other for the keys to the site where Jesus was crucified. Indeed, on my visit to the church, a priest of the Greek Orthodox faith (I think it was) banged me on the head with his silver cross thinking that I’d violated his turf by a few inches. As the Good Book says, love they neighbor.
My folks were Ukrainian, dad from Kiev, which of course makes me an expert. But I have an inkling about the 19th century Crimean war in which almost a million men died from combat wounds or disease. Most of us know about this nearly forgotten war from Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade (and movie) or about Florence Nightingale’s pioneering medical and nursing work in the peninsula’s trenches. The Crimean war overflowed its banks; Tolstoy fought on three of its fronts including the Caucasus.
Just as Putin may be doing, Russia’s 19th century czar Nicholas the First may have miscalculated when he grappled with Britain, France and the crumbling Ottomon empire (the Danubian regions and Turkey) to “protect” his allegedly endangered co-religionists at the mercy of the beastly Turks. The Crimean war had all sorts of “geopolitical” reasons, but it was also about the most inflammatory factor, religious passion.
As we have learned to our cost in Iraq and Afghanistan, you don’t mess with people’s gods because it’s not about how many soldiers you have but how many people on the other side are willing to die for their cause. (See Sunni, see jihadi.)
I’m incredibly ignorant about the various (mainly denominations of Russian Orthodox) religions at play in this present Putin crisis. But it’s possible that Tsar Vladmir the P. sees himself as the God-given protector of Holy (formerly Communist) Russia. That is, not only of its pipelines, oil, natural gas and military territory including the Crimean ports for the Black Sea fleet, but also the sanctity of the Russian Orthodox church generally.
I suspect our State Department, which has been brazenly meddling at Putin’s Ukrainian doorstep (have we learned nothing?), is as ignorant as I am about the theologies here.
Listen to Putin and you will hear echoes of Czar Nicholas’s excuse for fighting the west:
“…political power in Kiev has been concentrated in the hands of far-right extremist elements that do not hide their xenophobic, anti-Semitic, neofascist credentials.” Putin cites the Ukrainians’ abolishing of Russian language in schools. “…This has coincided with a widespread campaign of intimidation of ethnic Russian population and desecration of monuments celebrating Russia’s and Ukraine’s common historical achievements such as the defeat of Nazism in the Second World War. Russian Orthodox priests have become object of threats.”
What an explosive mess. In all the threats and counter-threats, tough talk and army movements, don’t forget the violently unpredictable, profoundly emotional power of the Russian Orthodox cross.
PS: Campaign Note: To all you Hillary fans. Her last night’s comparison of Putin to Hitler really calmed the waters, didn’t it?
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.