Vladimir Putin supported the legitimization of the war in Ukraine on several ideological currents, like slavophilism and Eurasianism, but also through a return to supposedly traditional values, espoused by the Orthodox Church, an essential cog in the wheel of power to the point of having known about the invasion and the plans of the Kremlin. The latter uses the Church as a spiritual weapon in order to enlighten the immense Russian territory, especially in the Great North. There "reigns" the bishop Yakov, who became an object of fascination for the great Italian reporter Marzio Mian, who tells us of his quest, hindered by the war, the regime, and the FSB.
My obsession with Father Yakov began at about 8:00 am on April 11, 2019, at the Hotel Kempinski in St. Petersburg. This obsession led me on a hunt and into an ill-fated story, diabolically linked to the events of the early hours of the invasion of Ukraine and shed light on the role of the Orthodox Christian leadership in the Kremlin's anti-Western offensive.
“Would you allow me, Father?” I asked.
“First of all, the correct way to address me is His Holiness, or Vladika, meaning bishop,” he rebukes me immediately as I deferentially approach his table at the Beau Rivage room when I see he is alone, having just finished his breakfast. I had watched him at length at a proper distance while he had eaten four boiled eggs with a few glasses of champagne. He had sat for about an hour with a big-bellied, heavy-set man with a large bald head on which a pitch-black mustache rests like the wings of a moth.
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This man's name is Vyacheslav Ruksha, nicknamed the “Tugboat” for his size and for having long headed the Murmansk shipyards. Now he is the powerful vice president of Rosatom, the Russian state atomic agency, the Rosatom man who the Kremlin has directly put in charge of the Severny Morskoy Put, the Northern Sea Route running six thousand miles from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait, a kind of Arctic Appian Way for Russian neo-imperialism. Ruksha was born in Leningrad, friends with Vladimir Putin since their youth when they both lived in the city's working-class district.
Like me, Ruksha and Vladika Yakov had just come back from the International Arctic Forum. These two days of meetings were to showcase the Russian Federation's ambitious Arctic project, which ended last night with great pomp and a speech by Putin. With his tall black monk's hat, the skufia, he stood out over all the heads in the front row — right across from Putin's chair, and next to his friend, Tugboat.
The day before yesterday, on the first day of the forum, while I stood drinking an espresso in the hall of the Roscongress, I had already gleaned his importance. As he moved amidst us ID badge-wearing commoners, I was pulled in by his messianic power, coming from who knows where and who knows what historical era. He proceeded quickly with large strides, his form tall, straight and athletic, in his long black gabardine tunic, as per the archimandrite tradition. He paid no heed to all those who made way for him, bowed their heads and crossed themselves in the orthodox fashion with their thumbs, index and middle fingers together and extended. He looked straight ahead at a point at the end of the hall, a great silver cross swinging with every step he took like a censor under his gray beard. Just as he had appeared, in an instant he was gone, leaving behind him a rancid, archaic odor of damp and onions.
“Who is that guy? What's he doing here?” as soon as I'd collected myself after the strange vision, I'd asked Olga, the press officer of Yakutia's governor.
Olga had replied, “He's a monk, the most powerful in all of Russia.” “He reports directly to the Patriarch Kirill, who appointed him bishop of the Arctic to preside over the world's northernmost parish. Kirill made this parish specifically for him in the Naryan-Mar region, a vast area that also includes the polar archipelagos of Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land. Why is he here? Because he's an icon here. Nothing happens in the Russian Arctic without his blessing. Putin decides and orders, Yakov blesses and consecrates.”
“Would you allow me?” Vladika still has some scraps of boiled egg stuck in his beard when I sit at his table. This morning he's wearing the kalimavkion high black headdress with a veil that falls behind his back. He interlaces the ringless fingers of his well-groomed, powerful hands. He looks up from a paper full of scribbled notes and gazes at me with eyes that seem to have absorbed all the nuances of Arctic ice. Only his pupils are bright as if inflamed by thoughts that seem to burn in his brain like a fever. With a polite, slightly merciless smile, he says that he has to go, he has no time. He speaks ostentatiously perfect English. I ask him about where he's from and I tell him that I've researched in many parts of the Arctic, but I've never been in the land of the Nenets, the Naryan-Mar region.
And then I say I'd like to know about him. I've heard that he is not only a theologian but also a philologist and well-known Pushkin expert. “Imagine that I started from Shakespeare, your individualist West full of doubts. Imagine how reckless I was,” he says, folding his arms.
“At the Moscow State University, I studied English literature first but felt as if I were betraying Russia and my mother, who read me our classics when I was a child. We lived in the Stavropol Territory, on the northern side of the Caucasus, on the slopes of Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia. Cossack traditions are still strong there and everyone has been baptized and is proud to be Russian. Mikhail Lermontov was born in Pyatigorsk, not far from us. My mother would recite from memory his most powerful poem, the Demon. Studying Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky brought me to faith in Christ and in Holy Russia, and I embraced monastic asceticism. Russian literature surpasses all others because we have answered to life's most important questions. And not in the way of Hamlet but with extreme certainty. I always received clear answers, such as when I was at the theological academy in Moscow and, in 1987, in my third year at the seminary, I was one of the few who survived a fire. Some threw themselves from windows, but I walked through the fire.”