The head of the Russian Church, Patriarch Kirill, made some interesting comments about Putin over the weekend, which reflect how many in Russia see him, and which partially explain his popularity, especially among the Christian faithful. Kirill's comments were contained in birthday congratulations published on the Patriarch's website (Russian text, see below for translation) over the weekend.
Birthday wishes have a completely different cultural significance in Russia than they do in the West, with Russians attributing great importance and politeness to them. This is in part a legacy of the communist era, when there was a paucity of holidays which had significant personal meaning to people due to the banning of Christian holidays.
For example a person's 'angel day' or 'saint's day', i.e. the day the church commemorates the saint for which the person was named in baptism, was very important in Tsarist Russia, more important than their birthday. Incidentally, this custom is being revived in Russia, with devout Christians again preferring saint's day celebrations over birthdays. When this Christian custom was banished by the communists, the emphasis migrated to birthdays.
This tradition extends to public figures, who are endlessly publishing birthday greetings to each other in a way that Westerners often find at best quaint, and at worst, excessive.
We explain all this because many a Western reader might see something cloying and obsequious in these official Russian birthday wishes, especially when directed at a national leader, smacking of a cult of personality, but in Russia they are not seen that way at all, rather as opportunities to say something meaningful, sincere, and important about another person. Putin turned 70 over the weekend, and it was a major news events, with birthday wishes filling the news. Many Russians were surprised he was that old, as he acts and looks rather younger.
Which brings us to what the Patriarch published. The basic idea was that 1) Putin has dramatically changed Russia over his 22 years in power for the better, and 2) that Putin has strongly supported Christianity and the church over that time.
Specifically, the Patriarch hailed the following changes: an increase in Russia's sovereignty, ability to defend itself militarily, the protection of its national interests, and improvement of the well-being of Russian citizens. The Patriarch further praised how the Russian state works closely with the church to promote Christianity in Russia.
The Patriarch expressed satisfaction with this progress, which is understandable, because with every passing year, Russia is becoming a more Christian country, and this is reflected across all levels and aspects of Russian society, from government officials and policy, to the media, to the growing Christian faith of everyday Russians.
Here is the full text:
Your Excellency, highly respected Vladimir Vladimirovich,
Please accept my heartfelt congratulations on your remarkable 70th birthday.
Over many years of tireless work in key government positions, you have gained a reputation as a national leader, selflessly devoted to the Fatherland, sincerely loving the Motherland and giving it all your strength, abilities and talents. The Lord has placed you at the helm of power so that you can perform a ministry of special importance and great responsibility for the fate of the country and people entrusted to Your care. The transformation of Russia's image, the strengthening of its sovereignty and defense capabilities, the protection of national interests, progressive socio-economic development, and concern for the well — being of fellow citizens are just some of the obvious and indisputable results of many years of joint work of various branches of government and public institutions carried out under your leadership.
I am very pleased to witness the changes that have taken place in the past in the sphere of church-State relations, which were marked by the creation of a unique model of cooperation, building a trusting and mutually beneficial dialogue. I would like to express my special gratitude to you for your unwavering attention to the service of the Russian Orthodox Church, the needs and aspirations of the faithful, as well as for the active support that you provide to the most important church and social initiatives.
I hope that the current fruitful cooperation will continue to contribute to the consolidation of the people, the preservation of the rich historical, spiritual and cultural heritage of Russia, and the creation of a peaceful and prosperous life for our fellow citizens based on the unshakable principles of solidarity and mutual assistance, kindness and justice.
On this significant day for you and our country, I wish you continued strength, God's abundant help, and blessed success in your future service as a high and responsible state leader of great Russia.
May the All-merciful Lord preserve you in spiritual and physical strength for many years to come.
With deep and sincere respect,
+KIRILL, PATRIARCH OF MOSCOW AND ALL RUSSIA