Putin’s God Squad
After years of repression under Communist rule, the Orthodox Church is back at the heart of Russian politics.
“The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere,” says Ivan Ostrakovsky, the leader of a group of Russian Orthodox vigilantes who have taken to patrolling the streets of nighttime Moscow, dressed in all-black clothing emblazoned with skulls and crosses. “We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology,” he tells me. “The police can’t cope with the attacks ... crosses have been chopped down, there’s been graffiti on church walls.”
There is something of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Ostrakovsky’s fervor. Like the disgruntled main character of Scorsese’s epic film Taxi Driver, the vigilante sees himself in a fight against cultural degradation. “When I came back from serving in the Chechen War, I found my country full of dirt,” he says. “Prostitution, drugs, Satanists. But now, religion is on the rise.”
A few years ago, Ostrakovsky and his vigilantes seemed like marginal curiosities in Russia, burning copies of the Harry Potter books in protest of “witchcraft.” But as Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term comes into focus, the cross-wearing thugs are now right in line with the ideology emanating from the Kremlin—and from the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. After near extermination under Communist rule, the church and religion are back at the heart of the country’s politics. And they have been critical in helping Putin recast the liberal opposition’s fight against state corruption and alleged electoral fraud into a script of “foreign devils” versus “Holy Russia.”