For the first time in ten years, President Vladimir Putin made a visit to Greece. 

The theme of the trip was diplomacy and the deep spiritual bonds of these Orthodox nations, rather than economics. Yet, despite a triumphant visit by the Russian president to the ancient monasteries of Mount Athos, the journey also demonstrated how different Russia and Greece, two countries with a similar religious culture, are when it comes to politics. 

Much as Putin and Tsipras might have wished otherwise, trade and economics were not going to dominate the agenda of Putin’s visit on May 28 and 29. Oil pipeline projects between the two countries have stagnated because Greece lacks a port on the Black Sea, and Russian businessmen have little desire to invest in the Greek economy because the EU does not want to see valuable assets fall into Russian hands. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has known for a long time that only the European Union can pay off Greece’s debts, while Putin understands that Greece will not attempt on its own to have the EU’s sanctions on Russia lifted. 

The diplomatic dividends were high for both men. The visit boosted Tsipras’s profile and gave Putin, whose schedule hasn’t exactly been brimming with European trips recently, a chance to visit an EU capital. Since the 2014 Euromaidan, Putin has made only two official visits to European countries—to Italy and to Hungary. The Kremlin can use this third visit to make the argument that Russia is not an isolated nation. 

But arguably it was the spiritual aspect of the trip that was most important for Putin. The Russian president used the occasion to write an article for a Greek newspaper, and he conspicuously chose not a left-wing publication supportive of the current government, but the daily paper of Greek bourgeois conservatives, Kathimerini. 

In his article, Putin wrote that the two nations share a “firm foundation for cooperation—common values, orthodox culture, and a sincere mutual affinity.” He reminded Greek readers that he was visiting Greece for the one-thousand-year anniversary of a Russian presence on Mount Athos, which began with the founding of the Monastery of St. Panteleimon. 

On May 29, Putin made a pilgrimage to Mount Athos. He thanked the monks for doing their part in the fight for global morality and attended a mass at the Cathedral of the Dormition in Karyes, the capital of the holy mountain. In an act of high symbolism, the president, who was accompanied by Russian Patriarch Kirill, was allowed to stand inside the tall throne of Byzantium in the church, reserved for bishops, patriarchs, and emperors. 

The installation of Putin on the Byzantine throne angered the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who has overall jurisdiction of Mount Athos. The Ecumenical Patriarch resents the Russian Patriarch because of Russia’s pretensions to superiority in the Orthodox world, due to it having the biggest and wealthiest church. For his part, the Moscow Patriarch doesn’t trust the Constantinople Patriarch, whom he suspects of secretly trying to extend his flock by recognizing the autocephaly (or spiritual autonomy) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. 

Although the Greeks did not admit it, they also had mixed feelings about such a high-profile visit, which reminded them about the millennium-long Russian occupation of Mount Athos. One hundred years ago, the Russians so far exceeded the Greeks (both in terms of people and donations) that Athos was practically a colony of the Romanov Empire. The Greeks are wary of allowing that to happen again. 

This underscores the fact that behind the declarations of spiritual unity and common values—which must be mentioned during all Russo-Greek diplomacy as in some Homeric ritual—Russia and Greece have lived different political lives over the past few centuries. The starting point is the same, but the outcome has been very different.

In Russia, church and state have always worked hand in hand to strengthen a ruler’s grip over the people. The traditional triad of power is composed of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality (Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie i Narodnost’). Inevitably hierarchical, it demands veneration of superiors, accepting one’s place, desire for stasis, and sobornost’ (the Orthodox spiritual version of collective identity). 

Formally, the Orthodox Church is even more tightly connected to the government in Greece than in Russia. Its role is affirmed by an article in the constitution. The Greek state pays the salaries of priests and places icons in schools and universities. Yet Greek Orthodoxy does not demand the same obedience from ordinary people as its Russian counterpart does.

Many educated, secular Russians argue that the people have to break from the Orthodox tradition to nurture effective democratic institutions. The Greek example suggests there is no need for that. In Greece, politicians from competing parties, from the far right to the far left, go to church with their constituents. Yet later, those same constituents head to the polls and choose to change the governing regime without seeing any sort of contradiction there. 

Of course the origins of Greek Orthodoxy can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire, which is famous for its sacralization of imperial power. Greeks also remember that their country had a long, flourishing pre-Christian history and every student is taught about the golden age of Athenian democracy.

But the key historical phase to consider when it comes to Greek Orthodox identity is the 400-year period when Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. During that era, the Greek people existed without a nation of their own. As with Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, such as the Serbs and Romanians, their church was a people’s church within a foreign state. That made the Greek church more ethnocentric than state-centric.

When the Greeks finally acquired a state of their own in the early nineteenth century, the bond between church and people continued to be much stronger than the bond between church and state. It also helps that in some sense the nation was only partially restored, as the historical capital of Constantinople, home to the patriarch and emperor, remained in neighboring Turkey. 

In 1843, the Greek people walked up to the royal palace and demanded a constitution from the monarch imposed on them by the Western powers, King Otto. Otto granted it. How else could the frail Bavarian youth answer the seasoned warriors who had just won their independence from the Turks? Although a monarchy remained in Greece until the second half of the twentieth century, royal power was always weak and the royal family was not especially loved. Democracy became established and the junta that ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974 and tried to preach Orthodox family value is not remembered fondly. 

The vocabulary of Greek orthodoxy can appear unpleasantly nationalistic at times. It folds the history of the Greek nation into the history of the Church, describing the 1828 uprising against the Turks, for example, as “Greek Easter.” Yet this also means that the direct connection between people and church survives any changes in government. 

The Greek church itself is more decentralized, with the parish priest having a much more pivotal role than in Russia. Obviously, that does not stop some Greek priests from spouting archaic gibberish similar to that of Russia’s priest-provocateurs, and it can’t stop many Greeks from believing conspiracy theories that the West is plotting to destroy Orthodoxy. But in Greece, these radicals do not constitute the majority.

So it is safe to say that—given malfunctions that are common to the wider region in which Greece finds itself—the Greeks have managed to build stable and effective political institutions without breaking from the Orthodox tradition. Unlike Russia, Greece has working political parties, parliament, elections, a free press, and mechanisms for orderly regime change.

This is not to say that President Putin’s statements about the common spiritual roots that tie Russians and Greeks together are inaccurate. However, these common roots produced very different social and political fruit. During his short stay in Athens, Putin was obliged to bow to this democratic Greek reality when he met not just prime minister Tsipras, but also Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of the Greek opposition.

  • Alexander Baunov