The New York Times misses battle for Belarus

The New York Times misses battle for Belarus August 9, 2013

I would like to draw your attention to a 28 July 2013 piece in the New York Times entitled “Putin in Ukraine to Celebrate a Christian Anniversary”. The article reports on the interplay of religion, politics and culture in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Yet the mention of religion in a story does not necessarily mean the reporter “gets religion.”

The article opens by focusing on what the Times sees as the political significance of the event, and then moves to an appreciation of the interplay of religion with politics.

MOSCOW — In an apparent attempt to use shared history to make a case for closer ties, President Vladimir V. Putin attended religious ceremonies in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday to commemorate the 1,025th anniversary of events that brought Christianity to Ukraine and Russia. At a reception in Kiev, the capital, Mr. Putin spoke of the primacy of the two countries’ spiritual and historical bonds, regardless of political decisions that often divide them. Relations have been rocky in part because of attempts by Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to formalize its political and economic ties with the European Union.

“We are all spiritual heirs of what happened here 1,025 years ago,” Mr. Putin told church hierarchs at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, one of the holiest sites of Orthodoxy, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “And in this sense we are, without a doubt, one people.”

Mr. Putin’s trip was also the latest sign of the deepening ties and common agenda of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The events last week commemorated Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s decision to convert to Christianity and baptize his subjects in 988, an event known as the Baptism of Rus,  … The attention has also lent apparent endorsement to church criticism of Western democracy and secular culture, particularly homosexuality….

Patriarch Kirill invoked the concept of the Holy Rus, referring to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as a unified spiritual expanse united under the faith. … The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

The article then looks at the church’s illiberal teachings, pulling quotes from Cyril made outside the Kiev celebrations.

The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

“This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything so that sin is never validated by the laws of the state in the lands of Holy Rus, because this would mean that the people are starting on the path of self-destruction,” he said at a Moscow cathedral, according to the Web site of the Moscow Patriarchate. He previously said that such “blasphemous laws” could prove as dangerous to believers as the executioners of the Great Terror during the government of Stalin.

Before I move to an analysis of the distortions to the story caused by the particular worldview of the Times, let me say a word about nomenclature beginning with names. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is called Kirill in this article and in other outlets is named Kyrill and Cyril. They are all the same name, but coming as I do out of an older style of journalism that anglicizes everything because that is how God intended it to be, I use Cyril — just as I call the pope Francis. And some regions of the world and nations are prefaced by “the” — the Sahara, the Arctic, the Sudan, the Ukraine — less frequently the Lebanon and the Yemen. I am not making a political statement when I call the host nation “the Ukraine”, implying it is a region rather than a nation state, or a mystical idealized place like la France of Charles de Gaulle, rather it is the style in which I was educated. That having been said …

The word “apparent” in the first line is problematic. It begs the question “apparent to whom?” The Times states this is Putin’s political goal and offers extracts from his speeches to illustrate this point, but spends little time in offering other views.

I am not saying the Times was incorrect in stating the trip for Putin was an opportunity to bring the Ukraine closer to Moscow. This theme was noted in the Russian press also. Moskovsky Komsomolets a Moscow-based daily with a circulation of approximately one million, called Putin’s Ukrainian visit “the  second baptism of the Rus”, implying shared spiritual values make Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians “one people”.

The official text of Putin’s 27 July 2013 speech Putin makes this point clear.

The Baptism of Rus was a great event that defined Russia’s and Ukraine’s spiritual and cultural development for the centuries to come. We must remember this brotherhood and preserve our ancestors’ traditions. Together, they built a unique system of Orthodox values and strengthened themselves in their faith …

Putin then moves from spiritual unity to national economic solidarity, arguing the Ukraine’s strategic choice lies with the Eurasian and not the European integration project.

Competition on the global markets is very fierce today. Only by joining forces we can be competitive and stand a chance of winning in this tough environment. We have every reason too, to be confident that we should and can achieve this.

The stress placed on this point by the Times is not misplaced, but it is unbalanced. We are hearing only Putin and Cyril in this story — and what the New York Times thinks about them.

The article does not contrast Putin’s vision to the Ukrainian premier Viktor Yanukovych’s administration’s goal of Kiev assuming a leadership role in bringing not only the Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus closer to Europe. It may well be the Moscow-based reporter’s job to write all-Putin all the time stories, yet the article’s emphasis on Putin clouds the issue.

The content of Putin’s speech is news as is the fact of the celebration of the anniversary of the Baptism of the East Slavs, but the significant event from a political and religious perspective is the boycott of the proceedings by the Premier of Belarus — a fact mentioned only by the omission of his name from the heads of state list given by the Times.

In other words, it is not new news the Russian Orthodox Church believes nationality, or Russianness is born from Orthodoxy. Nor is it news the Orthodox Church is opposed to gay marriage. Nor is it news that Putin is seeking to pull Kiev into Moscow’s orbit. Nor is the Times‘ comments about the rapprochement  between church and state new news. Putin has been moving the state closer to the church for over a decade — and as the article states Putin revealed he had been baptized as an infant in the Leningrad during the Stalinist era. By focusing on the familiar — of how the ceremony relates to Putin, the Times missed in its coverage is the significance of the boycott of the ceremony by the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka.

Lukashenka is the closest of Putin’s allies among the leaders of the independent states of the former Soviet Union. The initial Belarusian press reports offered a variety of reasons why the premier would not attend. Was he snubbing Putin then by not attending the meeting? Was he snubbing Cyril, the host of the celebration?

Cyril is no foreign churchman for Lukashenka. Unlike the Ukraine, where the majority Orthodox Church loyal to Cyril has rivals in the form of an autocephalous (independent) Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a Greek Catholic Church, in Belarus all the Orthodox parishes are administered by Moscow. At a time of rising political prominence for the church in Moscow, as the Times notes, and when the church and state are making public noises about East Slavic unity, Lukashenka’s decision to skip the Kiev ceremony was extraordinary.

An August 1 article by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty‘s Valery Karbalevich reported that Lukashenka blasted Cyril in a talk with reporters in Minsk on the day his colleagues, the Presidents of Russia, the Ukraine, Moldova and Serbia were in Kiev lending their support to Cyril.

Lukashenka’s complaints ranged from the liturgy to homosexuality. He called upon Cyril to modernize services, saying sermons were too long and often irrelevant. Long boring sermons coupled with an absence of pews forces people to stand for long periods of time, which is hard on elderly churchgoers, he added.

The Belarusian leader then warned he would not let the Orthodox Church in his country become infected with the “pink” disease. “Thank God, our church has not contracted the [pedophilia and homosexuality] plague that has infected the church in the West,” he said, adding he believed the Orthodox Church was in danger from infection from the “Western contagion” and had already shown signs of being “derelict”.

The RFE/RL article offers a number of reasons for Lukshenka’s brawl with Cyril — foremost among them is Lukashenka’s desire to select the next Metropolitan of Minsk, the head of the Orthodox Church in Belarus. The Times story, based upon wire service reports and press hand outs, was written from Moscow. It should not have missed this angle. What we were offered instead was a pedestrian, sort of true but not quite, version of official events. America’s culture wars may appear to have their counterparts in other parts of the world, but the debate over gay marriage in America or church-state relations has few ready points of comparison to the former Soviet Union. While an American may use the same vocabulary the meanings of these phrases differ in Russia and the East — and the Times falls short in explaining the gap.

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  • Wilford Brimlonius

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on this blog so far. Really insightful analysis of politics and religion and history, and what’s happening now in the former Soviet republic. Thank you for maintaining such a thoroughly insightful and respectful approach to your journalism analysis!

  • Viola Larson

    Is it possible that the experience of this Orthodox priest from Belarus at the Presbyterian Church USA 2012 General Assembly somehow fed into the politics.
    Listen to th end it is about the sexual issues we were voting on.

    • tamsin

      “do not be conformed to this world”

      very nice. thanks.

      • Viola Larson

        I just came back and reread this. It should have been the 2010 GA, not 2012. All of the GAs are beginning to run into one another in my mind.

  • n_coast

    I thought that the country chose to be simply Ukraine, just as Belarus dropped the extra letters in its name when it was part of the USSR.

  • Julia B

    I remember reading about “the Argentine”. Never could understand “the Lebanon”. Why were countries described like that? At one time were they not really countries?

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Most of the “the” names were translated from what the French called them, because French was the language of diplomacy and statesmen.

  • LarSil

    It’s also possible that the Ukraine and Belarus (and their people) remember the days when Moscow dominated them in uncomfortable ways — and that Putin (and Patriarch Kiril) are seen as promulgating an “Empire” of their own. I don’t blame President Lukashenka in the least for not participating; Belarus was, unfortunately, always seen as a “lesser” part of “All the Russias” even under the Tsar.

  • tamsin

    anglicizes everything because that is how God intended it to be 🙂

    and, we live in interesting times. thanks for the backstory on belarus.