Wellsville native writes a regular column for the Albany Times Union
Vladimir Putin is running out of time and history. He turns 70 this fall. His days of bare-chested horseback riding are over. He is short, rapidly balding, and increasingly jowly. He is divorced, some say because his wife failed to produce a male heir. He appears now as a comic opera old-timey villain often at freakishly long tables dripping with gilt, where he sits alone far removed from all human contact either through fear of COVID or assassination.
He has clad himself in the manufactured mythic robes of a false Russian history and the Russian Orthodox Church (shades of Hitler’s Nordic “Ubermensch” concoction).
I remember picking up an English-language newspaper in Moscow in 2013, and being especially intrigued by one story. It reported that the Kremlin had just revealed that, unbeknownst to Putin’s father, his mother had had the baby Vlad secretly baptized in the Orthodox Church. So all that time Putin was in the atheistic KGB, he was actually one of the anointed of Christ. Not quite the birth story of Eternal Leader Grand Marshal Kim Il-sung, but probably enough to negotiate with his buddy Patriarch of Moscow and all the Rus, Primate Kirill, for sainthood and burial in Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg next to the Romanovs.
Putin’s history of Russia and the Orthodox Church has its own reality reengineering. It’s too complicated to go into detail, but Greek monks came as missionaries to the Slavs in the 9th century. The 1000th anniversary of the conversion of the Kevian Rus was celebrated in 1988 as the Rus were governed from Kiev (now Kyiv), and the religious “Metropolitan of Kiev and all the Rus” was appointed jointly by the Byzantine Emperor and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. In 1229, the seats of power moved to Vladimir, and didn’t reach Moscow until the 14th century. An independent “Patriarch of Moscow and all the Rus” wasn’t official until January 1589. So Moscow is a relative newcomer in the mythic history of the Rus and their main religion.
Ukraine has an even more complicated history. My grandparents on my father’s side were born in the western Ukrainian cities of Sambir and Drochobych, and began their journey to America from Przemysl in modern Poland, but they, at the dawn of the 20th century, would consider themselves, and their Ellis Island manifests would list them, as Hebrews born in and from Galicia in Austria. Complicated and messy.
Of the 71.7 % of Ukrainians who in 2018 classify themselves as believers, there are only a few remnants of the Jews of Ukraine, many of them murdered by the Nazis at Babi Yar, a naturally beautiful ravine in Kyiv where over 33,000 were gunned down in just two days in 1941. There are 4.1 million Uniate or Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church members (who practice the Eastern Rite but are loyal to Rome and the pope), and a decent chunk of Protestants, Muslims, and Latin Rite Catholics. But most telling, the largest sect is the breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church approved by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul as an independent (from Moscow) Patriarch in 2019. In 2018, less than 13% of Ukrainians identified themselves as Russian Orthodox. This divorce proceeding of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church angered Patriarch Kirill and Putin, and like jealous spurned lovers, they want Ukraine and its churchgoers back and obedient.
A spurned abusive lover may be the best way to describe Putin. Angela Merkel read him the best, and Putin waited until she was off the European stage before starting the war on Ukraine. He feared that she might be the one figure to unite Europe against him, and knew his attempts to intimidate her had failed in the past.
Knowing Merkel’s fear of dogs (She was mauled once.), at a one-on-one meeting in Sochi, Putin had his large, obviously unneutered male dog brought unleashed into the room. Merkel immediately recognized the toxic masculinity gambit of an adolescent bully boy and played things very cool not giving Putin the reaction he so badly wanted.
It is narrow-minded to think of Ukraine’s development as an independent state after the breakup of the Soviet Union as merely a turn to the west, although that is one component. (You see this not just in big items such as cozying up to the EU or seeking military assistance from the US, but also in the western tourism it encourages, or the number of young Ukrainians who seek summer jobs in the National Parks and resort towns of America.)
There was also a turn away from Russia, a uniquely Ukrainian drive to do things their own way. You see it in a million small changes. The Russian “Kiev” is now the Ukrainian “Kyiv.” A November 20, 2014 article in The Moscow Times gave my favorite example. That year, still Kiev, was rejecting the western Santa Claus and the Russian Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) for the winter holidays. Instead, the Times reported they were bringing back Saint Mykolay (Saint Nicholas) who would come to Kiev on December 15 and camp out at Kiev’s St. Sophia Cathedral.
The third component of Ukrainian independence is the historical continuation of the end of empires that occurred after World War II. The British, French (Viet Nam), Dutch (Indonesia) and Portuguese (Macau) empires and possessions have made the transition. For the time being, the Chinese empire still remains (much to the chagrin of Tibetans and Uighurs). And Putin clings to his counter-historical dream of reconstituting the USSR.
Putin can’t accept Ukraine’s explanation “I’m seeing someone else now.” Typical of the most violent of domestic abusers and ex-boyfriends, he won’t accept rejection. If he can’t have Ukraine, he will rape and disfigure her, and murder her if she won’t submit. To think that the person she is seeing is 25 years Putin’s junior, has a full head of dark hair, conveys a casual masculinity in his fatigues, and mixes freely with Ukrainians, pours salt into Putin’s wound of rejection and vanity.
Putin’s Phase-2 war in Ukraine may end up a “suicide by cop,” or perhaps the mauled Russian military and the oligarchs will arrange Vladimir’s early burial in his beloved St. Petersburg. Maybe he’ll take poison ala Adolf, but don’t count on it. He is angry, hurt, delusional, and paranoid. Whatever happens will be ugly and emotional. Let’s just hope it doesn’t include nuclear weapons.