Putin - an 'ordinary man'?

I only recently realised that one of the great books of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, had caused uproar in Israel. Silly me. Because her thesis that Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal, was in some ways a normal human being could be expected to upset the people he had tried to exterminate.

Otto Adolf Eichmann, caught in Buenos Aires in 1960, was put on trial in Israel the following year, famously appearing in court behind a bulletproof glass screen.

“He remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do – to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care,” Arendt reported from the courtroom in Jerusalem, originally for The New Yorker.

“This, admittedly, was hard to take. Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as ‘normal’ – ‘More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,’ one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was ‘not only normal but most desirable’ – and finally, the minister who had paid regular visits to him in prison after the Supreme Court had finished hearing his appeal reassured everybody by declaring Eichmann to be “a man with very positive ideas.” (page 16)

A very ordinary man emerges from Arendt’s word pictures.

She records how he described his life’s “disasters” to Captain Avner Less, the Israeli Police Examiner who spent 35 days with him, producing 3564 typed pages.

“Well, the disasters were ordinary: since he ‘had not exactly been the most hard-working’ pupil – or, one may add, the most gifted – his father had taken him first from high school and then from vocational school, long before graduation,” Arendt writes.

“Hence, the profession that appears on all his official documents: construction engineer, had about as much connection with reality as the statement that his birthplace was Palestine and that he was fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish – another outright lie Eichmann had loved to tell both to his S.S. comrades and to his Jewish victims. It was in the same vein that he had always pretended he had been dismissed from his job as salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company in Austria because of membership in the National Socialist Party.

Another aspect of his ordinariness, according to Arendt, was that “from a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him – already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well – could start from scratch and still make a career.

“And if he did not always like what he had to do (for example, dispatching people to their death by the trainload instead of forcing them to emigrate), if he guessed, rather early, that the whole business would come to a bad end, with Germany losing the war, if all his most cherished plans came to nothing (the evacuation of European Jewry to Madagascar, the establishment of a Jewish territory in the Nisko region of Poland, the experiment with carefully built defence installations around his Berlin office to repel Russian tanks), and if, to his greatest ‘grief and sorrow,’ he never advanced beyond the grade of S.S. Obersturmbannführer (a rank equivalent to lieutenant colonel) – in short, if, with the exception of the year in Vienna, [where he had a Jewish mistress] his life was beset with frustrations, he never forgot what the alternative would have been. Not only in Argentina, leading the unhappy existence of a refugee, but also in the courtroom in Jerusalem, with his life as good as forfeited, he might still have preferred – if anybody had asked him – to be hanged as Obersturmbannführer a.D. (in retirement) rather than living out his life quietly and normally as a travelling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company.” (Page 20)

If only brave Anton Schmidt had been the ordinary man, not Adolf Eichmann.

When another German name was mentioned in the courtroom, Anton Schmidt, a German Sergeant who aided the Jewish underground in Poland and was executed, Arendt records an extraordinary reaction in the court.

“It was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honour of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question – how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told. “ (Page 108)

If only brave Anton Schmidt had been the ordinary man, not Adolf Eichmann, who went along with the regime with millions of others. Eichmann knew more than most Germans and was responsible for sending millions to their deaths.

In her postscript, Arendt makes her most controversial point: (Page 129) “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

According to Arendt, he died an ordinary death. “Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister, the Reverend William Hull, who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live, and therefore no ‘time to waste’ …

“It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

The third Rome

In Vladimir Putin’s mind, the year 988 jostles for attention with 2021. In that year, an earlier Vladimir converted to Christianity along with the inhabitants of Kyiv. For Putin and many Russian Orthodox, “the baptism of the Rus” – the mass baptism in the Dnieper River – is the foundation story of their Church, the fruit also of the evangelistic work of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Pentecostals might think back to the Azusa Street Revival in California, or of John Wesley’s heart being “strangely warmed” in Aldersgate or preaching on his father’s tombstone at Epworth, and evangelical Anglicans of Charles Simeon creating student ministry in Cambridge and this reigniting a church.

Alongside these foundation stories, of which many denominations have their version, the Russian Orthodox have their version of “manifest destiny” similar to the one many Americans have about their nation being uniquely blessed by God.

“Moscow, the Third Rome” refers to the idea that after the fall of Rome and then Constantinople (the second Rome), Moscow inherited the crown as the centre of Christianity.

“Soviet Communism tried to crush all this — but failed,” writes the Liberal Anglican priest and Guardian writer Giles Fraser. “And in the post-Soviet period, thousands of churches have been built and re-built. Though the West thinks of Christianity as something enfeebled and declining, in the East, it is thriving. Back in 2019, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, boasted that they were building three churches a day. Last year, they opened a Cathedral to the Armed Forces an hour outside Moscow. Religious imagery merges with military glorification. War medals are set in stained glass, reminding visitors of Russian martyrdom. In a large mosaic, more recent victories – including 2014’s ‘the return of Crimea’ – are celebrated. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ this is not.”

Religious imagery merges with military glorification. War medals are set in stained glass, reminding visitors of Russian martyrdom.

Inside Russia, where the Russian Orthodox Church was the single unifying force that survived the Soviet era, it is both clever politics and good statecraft to be aligned with it. Between 1991 and 2008, the share of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox Christian rose from 31 percent to 72 percent, according to a Pew Research Centre analysis. “During the same period, the share of Russia’s population that does not identify with any religion dropped from 61 percent to 18 percent.”

Seen from Russia, where conservative religion has grown, the abandonment of faith in the West encourages the Russian “third Rome” thesis.

Russian and other Christians who support the war

At the beginning of the Orthodox Lent on March 6, Kirill endorsed Putin’s war.

“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical but a metaphysical significance,” he said.

The Russian separatist forces in the Donbas region of Ukraine, to whose aid Putin is allegedly coming, were suffering because of a “fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power.”

Australians may not realise it, but there were two duelling Russian Orthodox churches in Australia during the Soviet era. Putin was part of the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (the dissidents). Australia appears to be fertile ground for church fissures. The Greek Orthodox church was broken in two here, also.

The incursion into Ukraine would reunify yet another split between a new independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. The Ukrainian Church has been recognised by the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – the titular head of orthodoxy – but the Russians have never recognised this separate Ukrainian Church. When Kirill issues prayer for Ukrainian Bishops, it is for the group that has remained loyal to Moscow. Ukraine lies within the “canonical boundaries” claimed by Russian orthodoxy.

Bartholomew had this to say when Russia attacked: “His All-Holiness condemns this unprovoked attack by Russia against Ukraine, an independent and sovereign state of Europe, as well as the violation of human rights and the brutal violence against our fellow human beings and, above all, against civilians…

“The Ecumenical Patriarch fraternally calls on the Local Orthodox Churches, as well as all Christians, but also every person of goodwill, in unceasing prayer for the Ukrainian people and for the prevalence of peace and justice in Ukraine.”

By contrast, Kirill’s response reflected the vision of the greater Rus: “Today, we lift up a special prayer for His Beatitude Onuphry [of the Russian-aligned Church], for our Church and for our devout faithful. May the Lord preserve the Russian land. When I say ‘Russian’, I use the ancient expression from ‘A Tale of Bygone Years’ – ‘Wherefrom has the Russian land come’, the land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples. That the Lord may protect the Russian land against external enemies, against internal disorders, that the unity of our Church may strengthen and that by God’s mercy all the temptations, diabolical attacks, provocations may retreat and that our devout people in Ukraine may enjoy peace and tranquillity – these are our prayers today. And I ask you all to mention His Beatitude Onuphry in your prayers in Church and at home, to mention our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and to pray for peace.”

It’s all a Western plot, Kirill told the World Council of Churches after the WCC asked if he would mediate: “As you know, this conflict did not start today. It is my firm belief that its initiators are not the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, who came from one Kievan baptismal font, are united by common faith, common saints and prayers, and share common historical fate.

“The origins of the confrontation lie in the relationships between the West and Russia. By the 1990s, Russia had been promised that its security and dignity would be respected. However, as time went by, the forces overtly considering Russia to be their enemy came close to its borders. Year after year, month after month, the NATO member states have been building up their military presence, disregarding Russia’s concerns that these weapons may one day be used against it.”

And at this point, in the name of Christian realism, we have to acknowledge that many supporters, and indeed instigators, of this war are Christians. We need to recognise that Putin, an ordinary man in Hannah Arendt’s terms, is an ordinary Christian.

Outside of Russia, Putin appeals to some Christians who are encouraged that there is a world leader who espouses socially conservative viewpoints. The “third Rome” tag that appeals within Russia may not travel well, but the appeal of a nation and a church that resists progressive ideas certainly does.

Monsignor Carlo Vigano, former Papal Nuncio (ambassador) to the US, who has support among Trump conservatives because of his defence of the former president, suggests a plot.

“If we look at what is happening in Ukraine, without being misled by the gross falsifications of the mainstream media, we realise that respect for each other’s rights has been completely ignored; indeed, we have the impression that the Biden Administration, NATO and the European Union deliberately want to maintain a situation of obvious imbalance, precisely to make impossible any attempt at a peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, provoking the Russian Federation to trigger a conflict,” he writes.

“Herein lies the seriousness of the problem. This is the trap set for both Russia and Ukraine, using both of them to enable the globalist elite to carry out its criminal plan.”

And for those who do not support this war, who support Ukraine, there is an uncomfortable awareness that Putin might appear as an angel of light for some ordinary socially conservative Christians.

The ordinariness of Putin

As we have already suggested, there is a real possibility that Putin is an ordinary Christian man – just another revanchist Russian Orthodox believer, echoing the beliefs of millions.

Putin, born in 1952 in Stalin’s Russia, was – unusually – baptised as a baby. His mother, Maria, was apparently a devout Christian.

“Putin has been keen to present himself as a man of serious personal faith,” writes Ben Ryan, Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England, on the British and Foreign Bible Society’s Theos Thinktank website.

“This is a trend that has seemed to become more pronounced throughout his time in office. Cynics suggest that the increasingly confident assertion of faith is part of a broader trend of seeking a nationalist agenda as economic performance declined. However, even relatively early in his presidency, Putin had spoken at times about his faith and had already formed an apparently close bond with certain members of the clergy in the early 2000s, when his popularity was at its peak.

“In early meetings with then US President George Bush, Putin certainly made much of his personal faith, showing off the small aluminium cross that he wore round his neck and making much of his Christian commitment. Bush was by all accounts certainly impressed – relating the account of the meeting in his book Decision Points.”

“In early meetings with then US President George Bush, Putin certainly made much of his personal faith.” – Ben Ryan

As Ryan points out, Putin could have set out to impress Bush, known to be a Christian. We can’t say what degree of genuine faith, fakery or political calculation is present.

Putin was no star in the KGB; he had an ordinary career, just like Eichmann. “Until he was handpicked in August by then-President Boris Yeltsin to become prime minister, Putin had never been a public figure,” David Hoffman writes in the Washington Post.

“He spent 17 years as a mid-level agent in the Soviet KGB’s foreign intelligence wing, rising only to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Later, as an aide to a prickly, controversial mayor of St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and Putin’s hometown, he made a point of staying in the background.”

Like Eichmann, he had a very ordinary career before a break that led to power.

“Under Putin, the Church and nationalism are increasingly closely united,” Ben Ryan observes. “The Church serves a powerful role in supporting Putin’s true political ideology – his identity as a gosudarstvennik or ‘Statist’. The “Russian Idea” as described by Putin in his so-called ‘Millennium Message’, delivered in 1999 and still seen as the core of his political model, includes patriotism, collectivism, solidarity and derzhavnost (destiny to be a great power). Religion, even were Putin not religious himself, has a very clear and obvious instrumental value in meeting those goals.”

On using Christianity

Some politicians wrap themselves in the flag. Others will use the Church – generally as part of a nationalist-populist brand.

This flag-wrapping is odd: there is nothing more internationalist than Jesus’ kingdom. When we stand before Jesus on the last day, Revelation 7:9 describes what will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

Yet Christianity being used – or abused – by political leaders is nothing new. We can think of Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, Chiang Kai-shek in China and later Taiwan, and the useful idiots of communism as examples from the last century. A whole branch of American fundamentalism was intertwined with the Taiwanese government.

Using the Bible to justify the ‘divine’ right of kings is probably the longest-standing example of how national leaders have used Christianity to bind a population.

Putin stands in the line of many political leaders and monarchs who have used Christianity to sustain themselves in power. And Kirill likewise is part of a long list of church leaders who have placed themselves alongside the state, often to secure hegemony in the religious character of their nation. Ordinary men (for the most part) who have used religion to elevate themselves.

Nahum and his brothers

The Bible speaks against oppressors, all oppressors.

Reading Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the rest of the long line of prophets writing in the time that Assyria, Babylon and Persia were the great powers threatening Israel, makes it clear that God is against the destruction of the innocent. God took this position repeatedly even when God himself allowed their power to grow and be used against his chosen people.

Despite being used to punish Israel for injustice and oppression among God’s people, those nations that violently invaded Israel and Judah, in turn, would be overthrown – and the prophets spoke of that as God’s judgment against all violent and arrogant oppressors.

So many nations and cities are listed as oppressors by the prophets that we can see it as an activity that is ordinary – it is something ordinary people and their ordinary leaders do. There is no nation mentioned in the prophets, certainly not Israel or Judah, where God does not condemn oppression and injustice.

Before Hannah Arendt wrote on the banality of evil, the Bible writers were aware that it was present in every nation, every society,

Consider Nahum, one in that line of the Bible’s prophets who speak judgment against nations who oppress others.

By the time Nahum writes against Nineveh the repentance brought about by Jonah’s preaching has vanished.

Nahum prophesies against Nineveh, the invader of Jerusalem: “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!” (Nahum 3:1). This shows he is very aware that God has rendered judgment on other “cities of blood,” an example in the text being Thebes in Egypt used as a warning to Nineveh.

Words we associate with gospel proclamation – “Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace!” (Nahum 1:15) – are Nahum’s words echoing Isaiah in assuring Judah “No more will the wicked invade you; they will be completely destroyed.”

In Romans 10:15, we find those beautiful feet on the mountains belong to those who preach the gospel – it’s the realisation of the good tidings and salvation proclaimed by both Isaiah and Nahum.

We live under the gospel, yet the words of the prophets still assure us that God judges the nations. God details his judgment against the countries who have attacked and conquered the chosen people in the books of Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah, for example.

Nahum, whose name means “comfort,” gave assurance to Judah that God’s justice would come. “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet.” (Nahum 1:3)

With Nahum, we can also say, “the Lord is good a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.” (Nahum 1:7)

God is aware of the ordinariness of evil, and he has a remedy for it. So, will the Ukrainian people see justice in our time? We don’t know – but we know that God’s justice will come in his time.

One unhelpful aspect of the culture wars that have captured so much of the Christian world is the idea that we must be engaged in battles constantly. But whatever your relationship to the culture war, for Australians, this is a battle that we are likely to be distant from. The Russian-Ukraine war has us on the sidelines.

But we can use the most potent weapon at our disposal – prayer. Here’s a prayer from Kaniska Raffel, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney:

“Lord, have mercy on those who suffer the miseries of a war not of their own making. Have compassion on the wounded and dying; comfort the broken-hearted; confound the hatred and madness of those who make war; guide our rulers, bring war to an end, bring peace across the world.”

The present moment is a time of seeking God’s justice in his time.