Marian Mission to Moscow and the New York Times

Who was the first journalist? Who was the first to adopt the intellectual and moral code that guides the craft of reporting? My vote would be for the Athenian historian, Thucydides, who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War in around 420 BC.

In his account of the war between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides became the first writer to set himself apart from his own political system to examine critically the past. He recounted equally the virtues of Athens and its vices and stepped outside his culture, abandoning the notion that the gods controlled the destiny of men. The study of history was no longer explained by reference to myth and legend, but by the pursuit of truth about the past.

A modern journalist employs Thucydides’ methodology and is expected to stand outside his own political system, culture and religion, to criticize his own society and to pursue the truth. Even Robert Fisk, the doyenne of ideological journalists will state that the reporter’s job is to tell it like it is: “My job is to report what I have seen.”

When a reporter allows ideology or cultural biases to color a story this ideal is not met. A recent New York Times report entitled “In Russian Chill, Waiting Hours for Touch of the Holy” printed on page A8 of the 24 Nov 2011 issue illustrates this point.

A religious relic — the belt of the Virgin Mary — has been brought from the Vatopedi Monastery on Mt Athos in Greece to Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral by the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation. In the week that it was on display over a half million Russians lined up to gaze upon and perhaps kiss the glass case that enclosed the camel-hair jewel-encrusted relic. At times the queue stretched almost three miles with tens of thousands waiting in sub-zero temperatures. The faithful believe the relic was given by Mary the Mother of God to St Thomas before her Assumption. It is reputed to have miraculous powers and has helped women to conceive. The Itar-Tass and Novosti wire services provide a quick summary of events.

The Telegraph and the Washington Post  focused on the phenomena of the size of the crowds and the public display of piety. The Telegraph called the spectacle an “extraordinary display of the strength of Orthodox Christianity in post-Soviet Russia,” and observed:

Russia’s Orthodox Church had an incredible surge of influence and power in recent years as millions of Russians began to practice religion in the 1990s after decades of state-dictated atheism in the Soviet Union.

We heard from members of the crowd.

“I am 74, and I have suffered a heart attack. I am handicapped in my arm and leg,” said another man, identifying himself as Vladimir, after exiting the imposing white cathedral and leaning on his wife’s supporting arm. “Maybe it will help?” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

The Post story ran with equally strong quotes that focused also on faith.

On the other side of the cathedral, Alexei Bogdanov, a 32-year-old truck-parts salesman, had seen the relic and was waiting for his wife. Tears came to his eyes when he touched the box, he said.“We lived in our country for almost 70 years without faith,” he said. “And now we have found it again.”

The New York Times took a different approach. It covered the crowd story, but also raised the political dimensions of the relic’s mission to Moscow. However, the flip and knowing way this was done, and its smirking condescension towards  the ignorant peasants as they stood in the cold, left me cold as well.

After it reported on the crowd, the New York Times raised the political angle.

As befits his status as the arbiter of most things Russian, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin was the first to greet the holy relic when it arrived … [The crowds] wait here, within view of the Kremlin, snaking past the hulking Ministry of Defense building and billboards in support of United Russia, the pro-Putin governing party.

The story offers a “why we’re here” quote from one member of the crowd and then resumes its arch tone.

Moscow’s city government closed streets around the cathedral — causing those Muscovites not so inclined to venerate relics to rant about the even-worse-than-usual traffic jams.

The article at this stage seemed ready to break away from its self-conscious cuteness and take a serious stab at explaining what is going on. The man responsible for the Moscow sojourn is named:  “Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian Railroads, who is close to Mr. Putin.”

Yakunin states:

“The belt of the Most Holy Virgin Mary possesses miraculous power,“ he said. “It helps women and helps in childbirth. In our demographic situation, this is in and of itself important.”

The story does not follow up on the political angle, however, and the sarcastic tone returns.

The blogs and Facebook pages of Russian Orthodox intellectuals have overflowed with debates about whether hysteria over the belt was a disturbing sign that many Russians’ faith is based on superstition. Many noted that Christ the Savior Cathedral and the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow, one of the most important monasteries in the Orthodox Church, have relics of the Virgin Mary that are just as precious.

At a bustling coffee shop near the cathedral that this week became an impromptu pit stop for the faithful, an excited young woman rushed in to tell waiting friends that she had venerated the Virgin Mary’s belt. Then she told them about her visit to a fortune teller.

Characterizing the response to the icon’s visit to Moscow by a half million Russian Orthodox Christians as hysteria, and the gratuitous fortune teller line is unfortunate. The attempt to bring politics into the story also fails because there is no context or explanation as to why this matters. What relationship does Vladimir Putin have to the icon’s visit? Who is Vladimir Yakunin and why is it important to know that he is a friend of Putin?

Yes, there is a political story here, but the New York Times misses it.  Yakunin is a close political ally of Putin and has brought the relic to Moscow in the run up to the national elections. Putin is running as Mr. Orthodox, wrapping himself in the mantle of Russian Orthodoxy and his critics have charged that the miracle of the Virgin’s Belt will be his re-election.

Reuters reports:

The [St. Andrew the First-Called] Foundation, chaired by the head of Russia’s state railways and long-time Putin associate Vladimir Yakunin, said the relic’s arrival shortly before the parliamentary election was coincidental.

“It is absolutely not related. We wanted it to come in the summer, but the entire process, the discussions, took a long time,” spokesman Alexander Gatilin said.

For a detailed look at the religious and political cross-currents surrounding this story, go to Batholomew’s Notes on Religion.

The Telegraph and Washington Post played this straight and focused on the religious angle, giving the pilgrims who braved the cold to stand in line to venerate the relic a sympathetic hearing. The New York Times took a different line offering faithful voices and fortune tellers and enclosing the whole in a box marked hysteria. It also sought the secular angle and gave us Vladimir Putin. But it neglected to explain why we needed to hear from Putin or of the political significance of the relic’s mission to Moscow.

But the bottom line for me was the snarky attitude. Instead of standing outside of its culture and attempting to report faithfully and fairly on what was going on in Moscow, it stood squarely within the jaded and hip mindset of Manhattan. What we got from the New York Times was a travelog with attitude.

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About geoconger
  • Mike O.

    I agree that the NYT article could have and probably should have gone further into the political side of the story. I had no idea that Vladimir Putin had so associated himself with Russian Orthodoxy.

    But I disagree with the assertion that the Times article was condescending. In fact, I’d say the paragraph in the Telegraph with the woman begging an officer to be placed at the front of the line shows the believers in a poorer light than what the Times wrote.

    And since you mentioned it twice in your post, what is so unfortunate about the part regarding the fortune teller? If that is what that person believes should it not be reported and dealt with in a non-judgemental way as with that person’s religious beliefs? And it’s not like it’s coming out of the blue. As you noted yourself, the article talks about debates regarding the faith of the Russian people and how it intersects with superstition. That woman’s quote is a perfect example of that.

  • Steve Hayes

    And in your sarky (or snarky) comments on Robert Fisk, whose relevance to the question is not at all clear, you do precisely what you claim the New York Times is doing.

    In introducing Robert Fisk you fail to styand outside your culture, and you fail to who what it has to do with the story of the belt of the Theotokos.

    Obviously you don’t like Robert Fisk, but you don’t say why.

    And what the heck is a doyenne?

    • geoconger

      Steve … a quick response to your question. Commentary versus news. There is a difference. Doyenne means the eldest or senior member of a group.

      Robert Fisk is a journalist whose work has spawned a verb. The reference to his work in my critique came in the introductory passage concerning Thucydides and the craft of journalism. Its purpose was to argue that even Fisk, who is one of the leaders of the modern advocacy/ideology school of journalism, will support the general principles of detached journalism. While his writing style does not impact upon the Moscow visit, it does touch upon the issues raised in the preamble to the story.

  • R.S.Newark

    The attitude of the Times is very reminiscent of the old Soviet days and the manner Soviets and their press would use to describe the event.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As geoconger pointed out, the article exuded “the jaded and hip mindset of Manhattan.” It is ironic how narrowly chauvinistic and condescending to others some highly educated people can be. Presuming Times reporters and editors are among the most educated in the media, isn’t higher education supposed to be a mind broadener helping the recipients of its wisdom to be able “to walk in another’s shoes” without sneering at “the other.”

  • Dave S

    I don’t find it surprising that the NYT’s report is from the viewpoint of an atheist mocking the ignorant peasants. Actually, I would be surprised if it weren’t. I don’t think it’s a secret that they report from a certain viewpoint. I believe Bill Keller has acknowledged that, but calls it an urban slant. “Urban”, though, has many implications, and post modernist atheism is one of them.

  • Julia

    If you go to the Bartholomew’s Notes link there is a further link to his article on the Knights of Malta which sounds like something out of the daVinci Code. There is a little-known rival to the Catholic Malta group whose claims to legitimacy hinge on Napoleon and a Tsar. Its current membership consists of the unlikely combination of Russian Orthodox and what he calls “far right” Protestants in the US.

  • Julia

    Apologies. I found that link about Malta so interesting I forgot for a minute which blog I was reading. It was truly irrelevant to journalism.

  • Hector

    Re: And since you mentioned it twice in your post, what is so unfortunate about the part regarding the fortune teller?

    FTR, I’ve met people who purport to be ‘Christian fortune tellers’ (they work off the interpretation of dreams, which has biblical and traditional precedent, and they did readings for free so they were probably not motivated by making a buck). And of course in Africa and elsewhere there are plenty of syncretic Christians who borrow various pagan practices. If a news story actually wanted to cover these phenomena, you could say a lot about it (and it says something rather uncomplimentary about the effects of secularism that so many secular Europeans are into astrology and fortunetelling these days). Of course, I don’t really expect thoughtful pieces about religion from the NYT.

    A really good news story about the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Girdle would mention why it is exactly that people venerate the girdle (which would lead right into what people believe about the Assumption/Dormition and why the belt is associated with it).