By Paul Goble
Svetlana Medvedeva, Russia’s first lady, currently plays an active role in promoting the spread of the values of the Russian Orthodox Church not only in Russian society at large but in the Russian elite in particular, according to members of the Orthodox clergy who have known her for nearly 20 years.
In the current issue of “Sovershenno sekretno,” Aleksey Chelnokov surveys their opinions about what he calls “the phenomenon of the First Lady,” a woman whose role in the life of the Russian Federation is far larger than any of her immediate predecessors and far more important than most suspect (www.sovsekretno.ru/magazines/article/2786).
While much of his article is devoted to the Russian first lady’s childhood, first encounters with her husband, and his role in “glamorous” events like fashion shows and the promotion of particular Russian artists, Chelnokov devotes particular attention to her role in the Church not only in the 1990s but more recently.
It is said, Chelnokov notes, that Svetlana Medvedeva entered the church thanks to her “religious older sister already in the 1990s” when “fate, more precisely God, put her in touch with the pastor” of a church across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, Father Vladimir Volgin, a remarkable figure in his own right.
Not only is he the pastor of four different congregations but he is the son of the actress Yekaterina Vasilyeva and has been responsible for bringing into the church “Irina Abramovich, the mother of five children of the oligarch Roman Abramovich” and for making a pilgrimage with Svetlana Medvedeva.
The First Lady, he told “Sovershenno-Seketrno,” is “an individual of high morality and strong, I would even say, strategic mind,” adding that he was sure that her “experience of contact with holy things” has had an impact on her work in the program for the spiritual and moral training of young people.
Father Volgin said that he accompanied Russian First Family to Mount Athos in Greece and that “sometimes” he is invited to visit the couple “at the government dacha of the Administration of the Affairs of the President.” When that first happened, officials often looked at him askance, but now that has changed.
And he added that some of the senior officials he had met there now visit Mount Athos or other Orthodox pilgrimage sits “several times a year,” another indication of a change of attitude at the top. Father Volgin added that the Medvedevs are not shy about expressing their faith to those whom they know.
Another Orthodox priest with whom Chelnokov spoke was Father Kiprian who heads the Church’s Institute for Expertise on Educational Programs and Governmetn-Confession Relations. Born in 1953 into a family of atheists, he nonetheless became a monk in 1994 and since 1997, a member of the Academic Committee of the Russian Orthodox Church.
He has worked closely with Svetlana Medvedeva since 2007 when she was given the Church’s Olga Order and became a member of the advisory committee of the Spiritual-Moral culture Program for the Rising Generation of Russia, that was created at the behest of then-Patriarch Aleksii II.
At present, Kiprian, who serves as the secretary of this Church project said, “Svetlana vladimirovna is involved in the formation of a new membership” for that council and in the development of a program for its activities over the next decade. “The conception has not changed, but the extent of its activity has been significantly increased,” he added.
Under her influence, the group is promoting the Orthodox holiday of Sts. Peter and Fevronia as a counter to “the challenges of the Catholic Saint Valentine.” And the First Lady is involved in various projects including supporting religious communities and a home for mentally handicapped children.
And in a final comment, Father Kiprian made a remark about Vladimir Putin that may say even more about relations between the Medvedev’s and the prime minister than he intended. He called that Putin had suggested after the Manezh clashes that “Orthodoxy in many ways is even closer to Islam than let us say to the Catholics.”
“Perhaps,” Father Kiprian said laughing, “it is closer to Vladimir Vladimirovich personally. Islam is an Old Testament branch, a single religion which aspires to exclusiveness, by calling all others unbelievers.” Insisting on its similarities with Orthodoxy, the Orthodox churchman said, “is conditioned by some personal preferences” of Putin himself.”