Russia’s domestic and foreign policy is not fully understood without taking into account the centuries-long powerful influence it has exerted on pop culture, politics and clergy, by the idea of the “Third Rome”. Such a concept was developed in the aftermath of the Byzantine empire’s fall and, shortly, states that Russia is the spiritual heiress of Rome and Constantinople and, accordingly, the true defender of Christendom.
Although Russia indeed recognizes and promotes its cultural and religious pluralism since the tsarist times, it is equally undeniable the importance played by the Orthodox faith throughout the centuries in the creation and definition of the Russian identity and the shaping of the foreign policy, as shown by the “Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality” 19th century doctrine or by the will to defend pilgrims and Christian worshippers living in the Ottoman-ruled Holy Land.
After a 80-year oblivion caused by the atheistic goals of the Soviet Union, the Third Rome has been brought to new life during the Putin era and is helping the country gain increasing credibility and support worldwide, from the Middle East’s persecuted Christians to the Vatican, from European far-right populists to American Christian fundamentalists.
The Vatican-Moscow axis
As part of its pro-Christian global agenda, in recent years, Russia has been showing a growing interest in the improvement of bilateral ties with the Vatican. The approachment started just before the death of John Paul II and recorded an impressive intensification during the Pope Francis era, whose Third World-focused and China-friendly agenda fits perfectly with Russia’s long-term ambition to accelerate the transition to multipolarism.
The most important event was the 2016 joint declaration signed in L’Avana by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. The 30-point document was intended to be the first step towards the reconciliation and identified common culture wars to fight together, such as the culture of death, the defence of natural family, and the capitalism-driven de-humanization of people, and common goals in the international arena, such as the protection of persecuted Christians.
In the aftermath of the L’Avana declaration, Vatican – and Moscow Patriarchate – backed organizations raised a degree of cooperation on humanitarian assistance in war-torn Syria and Iraq to unprecedented levels and extended the range action to the rebuilding of damaged churches and historic landmarks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis seem tied by a very good relationship as they met three times since 2013 and share publicly a common position on the world-most important issues, from Ukraine to Venezuela and Syria. Last July, Putin’s trip to Italy was the occasion to pay a visit to the Vatican, where he signed a memorandum of understanding on health cooperation and re-confirmed Russia’s front-line engagement in the protection of persecuted Christians and defense of “traditional values“.
But the Middle Eastern and North African region is not the only front in which Russia and the Vatican are working together. Pope Francis made clear that his goal is to de-westernize the Catholic church and give voice to the outskirts of the world. Accordingly, the pontiff strengthened the ties with Russian-friendly rising powers currently involved in open confrontations against the West, namely Iran and China.
In the first case, he lobbied at international level for the nuclear deal, while in the second case he is trying to normalize the status of the Chinese Catholic Church, to take advantage of the ongoing Christian-oriented demographic revolution and lobbied the Italian government to join the New Silk Road.
Moscow in the Middle East
From the very beginning of the Syrian civil war and the expansion of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), the Kremlin was helped in gathering information by the Patriarchate of Antioch, whose local prelates acted as informants for the Patriarchate of Moscow following the rising terrorist threats and writing their reports. The latter worked jointly with the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society to help the Christians face food scarcity and basic needs and in the year 2013 alone, they sent 70 tons of aid and $1.3 million.
When in 2015 the ally Bashar al-Assad was on the verge of overthrow due to the rising pressure coming from Al Qaeda-linked opposition rebels and the IS, Russia opted for a military intervention to restore order and peace in the unrest-plagued country and to prevent terrorists from extending further.
The protection of a long-tormented Christian community from an extinction scenario played an important role in convincing Moscow to intervene, according to Putin itself, and was warmly welcomed by Catholics, American Protestants and Orthodox Arabs, contributing to significantly improve the image of Russia among them and, in particular, in the Middle East.
Hungary joins the holy axis
From now on, Russia is going to be supported in the protection of Arab Christians by a former great power which was historically engaged in the defense of Christianity: Hungary. On 30 October, Putin landed Budapest for an official meeting with the Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Many topics were matter of talks, from economy to energy, but a reserved place was given to the plight of Christians in the Muslim world.
According to Hungary’s state secretary for the aid of persecuted Christians, Tristan Azbej, the two leaders discussed the foundation of an international alliance between nations interested in fighting Christianophobia and ending the worldwide persecution, which is about to reach “genocide levels” in several parts of the planet and makes Christianity the world-most persecuted religion.
The Hungarian government presented the proposal to Putin, who showed much interest in it, and is set to unveil it on the world stage very soon. Eventually, the leaders agreed on the need to extend the bilateral cooperation to the help of Christians in North Africa and the Middle East with the double-aimed goal of protecting them and avoiding their mass exodus to Europe.