The venue is a former factory loft now inhabited by hip bookshops and screening halls. The lecture, to be read by a young religious activist, is titled, ‘Will Putin become God through grace?'
A young man in military fatigues and an army helmet, brandishing a toy AK-47, cries out, ‘Glory to the Empire! Glory to the Emperor!’ The Emperor, whom the man does not name, is of ‘both earthly and celestial nature.’
Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo, bathed in the divine light of his projector screen. (c) Anna Arutunyan
‘So when are we going to pray to Putin?’ asks a young man, one of about 70 audience members, sitting in the back row. Asked if he is serious, he says, ‘Of course I am!’ suggesting that, 'no, not really.' He has been drinking. The lecture opens to a rap video, ‘Go hard like Vladimir Putin;’ and the man laughs. If the Middle Ages were to arrive sometime in the 21st century, they may well look something like this. But this is not a joke.
If the Middle Ages were to arrive sometime in the 21st century, they may well look something like this
God’s Will movement
It is the work of Dmitry Enteo, the head of the God's Will movement, and the self-styled ideologist of something called the ‘neo-theocratic discourse.’ What was announced on Russia's Vkontakte social networking site as a potentially ‘life-changing’ discussion on the ‘mystery of mysteries’ had all the markings of a flash-mob or an art stunt, which it partially was. If you have to ask whether Putin is going to become God through grace, then the answer is probably going to be yes.
Sunday's lecture, however, was something more than a performance stunt. For one thing, it was organised by a de facto pro-Kremlin political activist, in an increasingly repressive political climate centred on the personalised power of a single individual.
Dmitry Enteo, whose real surname is Tsorionov, was an activist who emerged into the limelight in the summer of 2012, in response to Pussy Riot, the art punk collective jailed for their anti-Putin performance in Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Enteo and fellow activists like him, targeted – sometimes violently – the outpouring of support for Pussy Riot. Using Pussy Riot's medium – the performance stunt – they demonstrated for all the staple far-right causes: anti-gay, anti-abortion, family values, no drugs, albeit with a twist that ascribed all those decadent evils to the pro-Western opposition. The larger context was clearly derived from Putin's return to the presidency that year; and the official campaign for traditional values, plus the re-emergence of the role of the Orthodox Church, that followed Putin's inauguration.
‘Vladimir Putin will become Emperor of the renewed universe, and God will shine through him.’
Enteo's latest stunt, a 90-minute lecture, can be summed up as follows: having finally turned to God, ‘Vladimir Putin is certain of his future. That is why he will soon grow a beard. That is why he will become equal to God.... Vladimir Putin will become Emperor of the renewed universe, and God will shine through him.’ The audience erupts into laughter.
It would be hard to take seriously such a theology at face value. But the fact that the lecture happened at all raises some serious – and lasting – questions about the nature of Putin's evolving personality cult.
Church and State
First of all, Enteo, who is a self-professed Orthodox Christian, is walking on the edge of idolatry or even blasphemy, which he is forced into some semantic acrobatics to avoid. When a commenter asks on his VKontakte page if he means to say that Putin will sit next to Christ's throne in Heaven, Enteo says, ‘Maybe.’
Dmitry Enteo engages with representatives of Russia's LBGT community. via VK.com
So why would something so obviously idolatrous, be put forward by a self-professed Orthodox Christian? Part of the answer lies in a tradition of Church-State relations that goes back to 4th century Constantinople. In the Byzantine Empire, the Emperor, and not the Pope, was regarded as God's steward on Earth. ‘In the nature of his body the king is on a level with all other men, but in the authority attached to his dignity he is like God,’ wrote the 6th century deacon, Agapetus, in what appears to be part political doctrine, part flattery directed at Emperor Justinian. Over a millennium later, in Russia, with its Byzantine heritage, Tsar Alexei's clerk, Ivan Timofeyev, would pen the following: ‘Although the Tsar is as a human in his essence, he is by his power equal to God, for he is above all, and none on this earth is above him.’ Popularising this idea was government policy – a 17th century Russian etiquette handbook instructs the pious to respect and fear their Tsar just as they would God.
Enteo, in other words, was putting a post-modern spin on thousand-year-old propaganda.
Enteo, in other words, was putting a post-modern spin on thousand-year-old propaganda. Irony and playfulness have been the hallmark of the Putin cult for over a decade. But now, no matter how playful, they are striking a darker, less manageable chord. In some ways, Enteo is very much like the volunteer forces fighting alongside pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine – a proxy, in other words; and it does not matter whether the Kremlin is using him deliberately or not.
For that is the point where the line between irony and actuality becomes easily crossed. Many of those volunteers are fighting and dying in what they wholeheartedly believe to be a holy war, galvanized into action by a state propaganda machine that is no longer ironic at all. And the jokes themselves are getting just a little bit too real – as when the outspoken leader of Russia's misleadingly named 'Liberal Democratic Party of Russia,' Vladimir Zhirinovsky, spoke out on national television last month in favour of having an emperor rather than a president. Taken in sum, this is background noise that the Kremlin can use, if it so chooses, to gauge, or to sway, public opinion.
Thus, the apparently tongue-in-cheek performance by a religious activist known for more violent stunts, is funny at first, as he tiptoes around the idea of comparing the Russian 'Emperor' to God – but it only takes an imperial touch to turn the comic performance into a tragi-comedy.
Standfirst image: CC Federal Press World News