The upcoming meeting between Russian president and the pope will visibly differ from their close predecessors’ corresponding experience. Russia’s chief executive and the pontiff are going for the first time to communicate in a language both of them speak fluently. What is important, their mutual linguistic understanding will, also for the first time, be accompanied with positive signals given by the church diplomats.
Russian president is about to come to the Vatican for the fifth time, as usually combining his visits to the Holy See and to the Italian Republic. A comparative analysis of previous Russian or, less recent, Soviet heads of state may give an intriguing and dynamic mosaic - first, of Vatican policies and her vision of the Catholic presence in the former Soviet Union, and second, of Russian governments’ attitude to social position of the Russian Orthodox Church. Moreover, Russian leaders’ preceding conversations with the pontiff did not always bring stability and peace into relationships between Orthodox and Catholics.
These contacts became exceptionally intensive in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Soviet regime reached the top of its geopolitical ‘openness’ to the outside. The historic meeting of the Perestroika leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the strong anti-Communist Pope John Paul II looked as a victory of humanist values over rigid totalitarian regime and a break-forward in the intercultural dialogue. As a break-forward, however, it had some delayed-action breaking affect on interdenominational situation in the then Soviet republics. Gorbachev promised the pope to permit the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church at the very moment the Greek Catholic semi-legal campaign was already underway resulting not only in formal recognition of Greek Catholic communities, but also in a wave of violence between Orthodox and Uniats and mass seizure of the Orthodox churches by the latter in the early 1990s. That conflict was taking place in the dying Soviet Union, the authorities of which pursued no sane religious policy, and was heated up by popular ethnic nationalism, ultimately leading to a long tension period between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican. So the Perestroika’s humanist enthusiasm, which sounded in the words of the last Soviet leader and John Paul II, failed to appropriately echo upon the religious sphere.
Three months after that meeting and shortly before the Soviet state ceased to exist, the Vatican and the USSR established diplomatic ties and exchanges formal representatives. During his second meeting with the pontiff in November 1990, Gorbachev told him about a new Soviet religious freedom legislation, which was followed by the reestablishment of the Roman Catholic structures in Russia. Boris Yeltsin accepted the tradition to intensify contacts with the Vatican in the midst of political changes and met John Paul II twice in the pontiff’s personal Apostolic Library, the first time being on December 19, 1991, only a few days after the Belavezha Accords were signed. The leader of the new Russia proclaimed his post-Soviet reforming strategy before the spiritual leader of countless Christians.
Yeltsin’s next official visit to the Vatican took place seven years later in February 1998. There was an intrigue, as shortly before the event John Paul II intervened into the discussing another Russian religious freedom legislation and petitioned to the president asking him to mention the Catholics in the law text as a traditionally Russian religious group. It is noteworthy however, that soon after that, in June 1998, Roman Catholic episcopate in Russia doubled their numbers. The pope personally asked Yeltsin for that at the two leaders’ February meeting.
Vladimir Putin appeared not as Vatican-oriented as his predecessors used to be, demonstrating it by doing, or rather by not doing, one particular thing. Though he met John Paul II twice, in 2000 and 2003, he never invited him to visit Moscow. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin were open about their desire to see the pope in the Russian capital city, though he could not proceed with the visit without a similar gesture from the Moscow Patriarch as spiritual head of the inviting country’s main denomination. Putin became the first Russian leader to openly declare that the Russian Orthodox Church carries key authority in the state dialogue between Russia and the Vatican. It was the first time that Russian government revealed that it was unwilling to sacrifice the nation’s spiritual identity to some abstract humanitarian or diplomatic motions, provided the warning against possible threat to that identity comes from the church leaders.
The upcoming meeting between Russian president and the pope falls upon a stable period in relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church, which has continued for almost a year. Restrained and diplomatically-cold, sometimes icy, notes and proselytism reproaches, which echoed when Moscow Patriarchate touched most themes linked with the Vatican, gave way to common statements about the need to jointly oppose secular European liberalism, which had already succeeded in stealing some Holy See’s faithful in Western countries. The two churches discovered a ground for common social and ethical projects, which had been hardly possible under the Soviet regime and also during the next decade marked by the ‘difficulties of Orthodox-Catholic understanding.’ Realizing this possibility, provided both sides are diplomatic and considering enough, gives ‘the first’ and ‘the third’ Romes a unique chance to pursue the ecumenical movement and to secure a future for traditional values in Eurasia. And the president of Russia’s visit ad limina may be very helpful to achieve this goal.
Let us hope that the current political warming and constructive voices sounding from the leadership be adequately, unlike they were before, reflected in the church policies, including the level of local parishes and laity groups.