putin lukashenko

'Go east, Alexander!'
Especially in the summer, the great monastery of Valaam, lapped by the dark, tree-ringed waters of Lake Ladoga, in northwestern Russia, can be a wonderfully calm and inspiring location. It is also a favourite haunt of Vladimir Putin, who has been paying regular visits since at least 2001. This week, he took along an unlikely guest: President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, a veteran of the Soviet system who eschews the post-communist fashion for piety and cheerfully calls himself an "Orthodox atheist".

As viewers of Russia's main TV bulletin saw on July 17th, the two presidents were given a rapid demonstration of the community's dramatic revival since Orthodox authorities took over from the Soviet ones in 1989. The two visitors' reactions were different. When presented with sacred objects and holy relics, Mr Putin made the appropriate Orthodox gestures, crossing himself and offering a kiss of veneration. His guest managed the expected kiss but pointedly held back from making the sign of the cross. To some Russian viewers, it probably seemed as though their president was making a rather desperate attempt to convert his companion.

What they saw was pretty spectacular. Not only the main church but a dozen (slightly) lesser establishments in the vicinity have been refitted, rededicated and redecorated. In communist times the island housed amputees from the second world war, in rough conditions. The church's virtual takeover of the island has cleaned the place up, after some messy legal battles with the older inhabitants, many of whom have left. So the world of imperial Russia is being recreated, albeit with a flashiness that would have confused Dostoyevsky. Visitors are shown an icon of the Virgin Mary, a new copy of a famous old one, which was sent up to the International Space Station where it orbited the earth a thousand times before being returned to the lake-side.


Comment: So much Russia!


There was one chapel in particular where this week's visitors heard some pointed messages about the long pageant of Russian history. Its construction was started in 1914 by Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich, who led the tsar's forces against the German Kaiser, and completed after a century-long interruption in 2017. In deference to the founder's wishes, monks use it to pray by name for the souls of fallen Russian soldiers, whether they died in 18th-century battles against the Swedes or in the current conflict in Syria. Victims of the Nazi siege of Leningrad are also commemorated.

In that location, in the space of a few minutes, Mr Putin was able to bring home to his guest the kind of state he aspires to lead: a worthy legatee of the self-sacrifice and military prowess of every previous Russian polity, from the tsars to the commissars. In all those eras of past glory, Russia and Belarus were part of a single imperium: neither man will have missed that point.

What Mr Lukashenko thought of all this is anybody's guess. For the past year he has been fighting a rearguard action to protect his country's independence in the face of relentless pressure from Moscow. Russia wants to implement a long-stalled accord, struck in 1997, for a merger of the two states. Mr Putin may well be dreaming of heading the joint state as a way to retain power beyond 2024 when his presidency of Russia expires.

In the much shorter term, the Kremlin seems keen to reassert control over Belarus so as to compensate for its loss of influence over Ukraine. In darker moments, strategists in Kiev worry that Russia might engineer what appears to be a Ukrainian act of aggression against Belarus. That would give Russia an excuse both to assert control over Belarus, on the pretext of defending it, and to "counter-attack" Ukraine.

Mr Lukashenko seems unfazed. Once excoriated as Europe's last dictator, he has won a measure of grudging respect from liberal-minded compatriots for standing firm against the Kremlin. Without severing military ties with Russia, he has turned down Moscow's demands for a permanent military base and cultivated better relations with NATO.

To the pleasant surprise of local patriots in Minsk, Mr Lukashenko has started speaking the Belarusian language in public. He has also rejected the concept of the Russian World, propagated both by Mr Putin's government and the Russian church: the idea that Slavic and Orthodox roots create a natural commonwealth which at a minimum embraces Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.


Comment: Where DO the Russians get such quaint ideas from?!

It's not like everyone east of the Oder is Slavic and/or Orthodox.

Oh, wait...


The proclamation in January of an independent Ukrainian church was a hammer-blow to that pan-Slavic concept. A Russian political takeover of Belarus could be a way of reviving it. And it would clearly suit Moscow much better if it could reassert control in Minsk with Mr Lukashenko's reluctant consent, rather than by provoking his downfall.

So to the cynical eye, inviting the Belarusian leader to a magnificent monastery which flourished under the tsars looks like one more move in a hard-and-soft power game. The trouble is that Mr Lukashenko might not be amenable. With his stolidly Soviet instincts he may be tone-deaf to the new Russian mood-music which tries to mix Orthodoxy, communism and secular geopolitical dreams in a single harmonised chant.