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Italian Catholics increasingly embrace Vladimir Putin

As Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet in Helsinki, the world seems concerned about the rise of Vladimir Putin. However, Putinism is on the rise in Italy – in fact, it is now in the political majority. More distressingly, Putinism enjoys growing support among faithful Roman Catholic adherents.

Both governmental parties, the League and the Five Star Movement, are directly or indirectly linked to the Kremlin. The League formally signed an agreement with United Russia, the party of President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, on November 28, 2016. (The full text, in Italian, may be found here.) The Five Star Movement has a long voting record on Russian issues reflecting the Kremlin’s views opposing EU sanctions and NATO. And prominent members of the Five Star Movement met with Putin’s party in 2016. Russian “eurasiatist” philosopher Aleksandr Dugin has a very close relationship with several Italian politicians, the League in particular. After the new government was installed, Dugin personally praised Matteo Salvini as the initiator of a “great populist revolution.”

It is in popular Catholic culture that Putinism is conquering hearts and minds.

Putin’s closest friend in Italy outside the Italian government is still Silvio Berlusconi, who has had close ties to the Russian leader since the early 2000s. And Berlusconi’s sometime-partner, Giorgia Meloni (the leader of the Brothers of Italy Party), publicly hailed the results of Putin’s disputed re-election in 2018, stating: “The people’s will, in this last Russian election, is apparently undisputable.”

But the political face of Putinism is just the surface. Below it, there are years of cultural penetration of Russian ideas and values.

Catholic public opinion is one of the main drivers of Putinism. It’s difficult to find the origin of this undeniable reality. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy has nothing to say about Russia and Putinism, aside from the pope’s prayers for peace in Ukraine and the recent breakthroughs in the ecumenical dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate (which culminated in the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill).

Yet it is in popular Catholic culture that Putinism is conquering hearts and minds. To share a personal anecdote, I experienced this during an evening broadcast on Radio Maria, one of the most influential and popular Catholic radio stations. I took part in a debate about the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine. As soon as the audience could participate, everybody – every one, without exception – expressed anger against the United States and the “Ukraine coup,” while defending the Kremlin. One of the callers, who defined himself as a practicing Catholic, completely dismissed the “mainstream media” said, “I trust only Pandora TV” – the web-based TV outlet founded by Giulietto Chiesa, a former Moscow correspondent for the Communist newspaper L’Unità. Chiesa is still a consistent Marxist-Leninist who defends Putin, possibly out of Soviet nostalgia.

Just why are practicing Catholics calling Radio Maria and saying that they trust “only” a Marxist-Leninist website? Thankfully, these Catholics did not sudden became Marxist – but they are attracted by Putin and what they believe he represents.

It’s still the search for a Third Way between socialism and the free market which is motivating Catholic Putinism.

Putin is not a Catholic and he was not even a Christian. He’s now a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, although he became notorious as a former KGB officer during the time when one of the KGB’s top missions was to crush religion in the Soviet Union and in its satellite regimes. Putin never expressed remorse about his past. Despite this, Putin is generally seen by the pro-Russian press as the main promoter of the rebirth of Christian values.

It is true that Russia has seen the building of hundreds of new churches and shrines, and the construction of an immense statue of St. Vladimir the Great (the 10th-century ruler of Kievan Rus who adopted Orthodox Christianity for his people) in Moscow's Red Square. Putin personally made a pilgrimage to the relics of St. Nicholas. These are all good examples of Christian activism in the formerly atheistic Russia. Putin’s more controversial policies, like the repression of Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and new forms of censorship against “offence to religious sentiments,” are apparently considered less important – when they are not tacitly approved by the more traditional Catholics.

Many in traditionalist Catholic circles see Putin as the main “defender of tradition against the darkness of chaos.” After every major terrorist attack, Putin is depicted as the main “defender of Christians from the threats of Islam,” sometimes along with Marine Le Pen. For instance, after the November 2015 Bataclan theater massacre in Paris, the conservative newspaper Secolo d’Italia proclaimed, “The stark reality: Only Putin and Marine Le Pen defend Christian values from Islam.” More significantly, Putin is hailed as the only man who could save Europe from itself, from its secularism which is bringing us “chaos and civil war,” as Dugin has said.

In the traditionalist Catholic cultural environment, Putin is exceedingly popular. Traditionalist Catholic priest Curzio Nitoglia defines Putin as the katechon, holding on against the “forces of subversion,” i.e., the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Putin's speech at the Valdai Forum of 2013, in which he stressed Christian values against the secularism and materialism of the West, is one of the most popular speeches of recent times among Italian Catholics. It was published by the online newspaper Imola Oggi with the title, “A Putin Speech to be Carved in Stone.” It then went viral on Catholic blogs.

In the years of Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, it was impossible not to notice the journalistic activism of Fulvio Scaglione, who was then the editor of Famiglia Cristiana, the most popular and authoritative Catholic weekly in Italy. Scaglione, in one of his most famous editorials, in 2015, wrote ironically: “Luckily the Evil Empire exists!” Scaglione compared crisis after crisis, denouncing the supposed irresponsibility of the United States as opposed to Russia’s foreign policy, which he considered as the more rational, principled, and consistent. And he wrote that “Putin until now has made no mistakes,” checking the West’s power while fixing all of its own economic problems.

But it’s still difficult to find much good in Russia’s economic performance. There are statist pro-natalist economic policies, like the state bonus for having children in a country with one of the lowest birth rate in the world. This is praised by many Catholics. But, in general, Putin’s Russia is hardly an economic success story. With a population three-times larger than Italy and territory replete with natural resources, Russia has a lower GDP and experienced negative economic growth in 2015 and 2016. Even more disturbing, Russia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and, as such, it cannot serve as a good role model for still-corrupt Italy. And it is not coincidental that corruption is correlated with a statist economy.

As in Soviet times, Russia ceased to be a nation and became an idea. Putinism does not compare real entities and economic systems. Instead, it spreads the idea that Putin upholds Christian values against the advance of Western “materialism” – which is defined as the free-market economy. It’s still the search for a Third Way between socialism and the free market which is motivating Catholic Putinism. Once fascism was defeated and the Christian Democrat version of distributism faltered, Putin became the new hope for all those still in search of a hybrid economic system. All his faults – his personal corruption, political violence, and military adventurism – are denied … or sometimes admitted, then quickly forgiven. Occasionally, they are justified in the name of this new hope.

The potency of Putinism in Italy is still underestimated. The embrace of the Russian dictator is classified by many observers as a “fringe movement.” But can it still be denied when a country such as Italy – which is altogether unrelated to Russia from a linguistic, historical, religious or cultural point of view – just elected the most Putinist government in Western Europe, and when Putin is a folk hero to many Italian Catholics?

(Photo credit: This photo has been cropped. CC BY 4.0.)

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Stefano Magni, born in Milan in 1976, is an independent journalist and writer. Graduated in Political Science, he wrote essays on Federalism in Italy (Contro gli statosauri, per il federalismo, Libertates Libri, Milano, 2010), on Human Rights and Economic Reform in China (Quanto vale un Laogai, Libertates Libri, 2012), on Margaret Thatcher (This Lady is not for Turning, IBL, 2013) and an inquiry on the rising Tea Party movement (It’s Tea Party Time, Magna Carta, 2011). He’s also author of a novel about a counter-factual history of the First World War (Piazza Caporetto, Libertates Libri, 2015). He translated Rudolph Rummel’s classic Death by Government (Stati Assassini, Rubbettino, 2005) and Robert Nisbet’s Social Change and History (Storia e cambiamento sociale, IBL 2017) into Italian. He’s associate professor of Economic Geography at Milan University and editor of La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, an online Catholic newspaper.