Putin Confidant Brings Virgin Mary’s Belt to Moscow

From the Moscow News:

The Belt of Our Blessed Virgin Mary, visiting from Athos, Greece, is to receive pilgrims from 10 am on Saturday, Nov. 19, in Christ the Savior Cathedral….

…The relic has seen huge crowds gather to visit it during its tour, which has already covered a number of cities… It has been venerated by some 2 million pilgrims in Russia, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Interfax reported on Friday.

So popular is the relic that queues have been stretching for kilometers and believers’ wait has been dragging to many hours. There have been rumors of such unseemly behavior as queue-jumping by VIP corteges, but this was denied by Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, who helped organize the tour.

“No VIP passes and entries throughout the entire tour were organized,” Interfax quotedYakunin as saying. “In several places, people tried it with fake passes, but they were instantly stopped.”

blogged on plans for the belt’s visit to Russia a few weeks ago – Yakunin believes that the belt will promote “family values”, and his wife Natalya (President of the Sanctity of Motherhood Program) recently took part in a World Congress of Families conference in Moscow with US Christian Right activists and others.

According to some background here, the belt was supposedly made by the Virgin Mary from camel hair and given by her to the Apostle Thomas during her ascension to heaven. A pious but scholarly nineteenth-century work by Romualdo Gentilucci (Life of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, 1860, p. 470) has further details:

We shall mention, first, the band or girdle, which the Greeks have since the fourth century claimed to possess, and which the Empress Saint Pulcheria transferred from Jerusalem.

The author adds a footnote with some background from the Greek menology of the Emperor Basil (via Latin):

In the Urbino edition of 1727, under Aug. 31, we read:… “Arcadius, son of Theodosius the Great, brought to Constantinople the girdle of the most Blessed Virgin Mother of God, from Jerusalem, where it had till then been preserved by a certain virgin, and deposited it for public veneration in an elegant shrine which was called the Holy Urn.” He then relates how it was found four hundred years after, under the Emperor Leo, and how by the touch of the girdle the patriarch delivered the Empress Zoe, who was tormented by an impure spirit.

Shaun Tougher’s The Reign of Leo VI (886-912) (1997, p. 144) suggests that this “ceremonial miracle” had a political purpose, as Zoe had a bad reputation. The belt eventually found a home at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, and the current tour is the first time it has traveled to Russia. And as with Leo and Zoe in the ninth century, spiritual activities around the belt are again intertwined with political theatre:  as I’ve quoted more than once previouslyTime magazine  in 2007 described the Russian Orthodox Church as Russia’s “main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument”, and bringing the Mother of God’s belt to Russia can be seen in that context.

Yakunin is a seasoned impresario when it comes to transporting religious items; in 2009 the Economist reported from Jerusalem that

…a light kindled from the “holy fire”—the flame that emerges from the Tomb of Christ in an ancient Easter rite—is now flown to Moscow in a chartered plane. This is done with efficiency, fanfare and much coverage from the media. In charge of it is one of Russia’s inner circle: Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia’s railways and pal of Mr Putin, whose security-police background he shares.

This is one result of the expansion of the Russian church in Jerusalem (background here), and Yakunin has also organised the return from Jerualem to Moscow of relics of Elizabeth Feodorovna, the pious Grand Duchess of Russia who was murdered in 1918:

No less important, for the guardians of Russia’s heritage, is the fact that holy objects can be brought from places like Gethsemane to Russia. Part of the saintly patron’s remains have been “repatriated” to Moscow to stay at the charitable foundation she created: the Martha and Mary community, which occupies a courtyard, garden and finely frescoed church near the city centre.

The restoration of that premises (now a monument to Romanov piety, with an impressive set of letters, photographs and mementoes), the partial return of Elizabeth’s relics and the broader process of fusing Russia’s “white” and “red” traditions have been overseen by some powerful, interlocking bodies. At their apex is the railway boss, Mr Yakunin. The office of two organisations that he heads—the Apostle Andrew Foundation and the Centre for National Glory—is just opposite the Martha and Mary community.

…Visitors to that office are greeted by Mr Yakunin’s deputy, Mikhail Yakushev, an Arabist and history buff.

Some of Yakunin’s other ventures more obviously link religion and politics: earlier this year, Baltic Business News reported that

Tuuli Koch, a reporter for Postimees daily, received the 2010 Bonnier Award, Estonia’s biggest annual prize for investigative journalism, writes Äripäev.

Koch won the prize for her story, published at the end of 2010, in which she revealed that Mayor of Tallinn Edgar Savisaar had secretly attempted to fund his political party and the building of a church in Savisaar’s electoral district in Lasnamäe through the deep pockets of Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian state-owned railway company.

Another initiative of the Apostle Andrew Foundation is the World Public Forum, which holds high-level international conferences in Rhodes on the “Dialogue of Civilizations”. In his opening speech at the most recent WFP conference, he noted “incompatibility between the neo-liberal interpretation of the system of human rights and the system of human values”, and that “the universal urge to have the ‘freedom’ to say ‘anything and in any form’ has a temporary character and is beginning to fade away”. In March, Yakunin presented an award on behalf of the forum to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan, a few days before an election in the country.

Yakunin co-founded the WFP with two other men: one of these is a man named Nicholas Papanicolaou, who has close links with US neo-Pentecostal Christian Right activists such as Gen. W. “Jerry” Boykin and Rick Joyner. Papanicolaou, Boykin, and Joyner also all belong to a chivalric order which claims to have had Russian protection in the nineteenth century; however, while it may be tempting to develop this into a conspiracy theory, the historic link between the order and Russia is a matter of some debate.

UPDATE: Reuters has a nice quote:

The [St. Andrew the First-Called] Foundation, chaired by the head of Russia’s state railways and long-time Putin associate Vladimir Yakunin, said the relic’s arrival shortly before the parliamentary election was coincidental.

“It is absolutely not related. We wanted it to come in the summer, but the entire process, the discussions, took a long time,” spokesman Alexander Gatilin said.