10:30 Sep. 14, 2016
Thanks to a close alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved a particularly powerful tool in former Soviet lands
The main golden dome of a new Russian Orthodox cathedral now under construction on the banks of the Seine shimmers in the sun, towering over a Paris neighborhood studded with government buildings and foreign embassies. Most sensitive of all, it is being built beside a 19th-century palace that has been used to conceal some of the French presidency's most closely guarded secrets.
The prime location, secured by the Russian state after years of lobbying by the Kremlin, is so close to so many snoop-worthy places that when Moscow first proposed a USD 100 million "spiritual and cultural center" there, France's security services fretted that Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, might have more than just religious outreach in mind.
Anxiety over whether the spiritual center might serve as a listening post, however, has obscured its principal and perhaps more intrusive role: an outsize display in the heart of Paris, the capital of the insistently secular French Republic, of Russia's might as a religious power, not just a military one.
While tanks and artillery have been Russia's weapons of choice to project its power into neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Putin has also mobilized faith to expand the country's reach and influence. A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism, women's and gay rights.
Thanks to a close alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved to be a particularly powerful tool in former Soviet lands like Moldova, where senior priests loyal to the Moscow church hierarchy have campaigned tirelessly to block their country's integration with the West. Priests in Montenegro, meanwhile have spearheaded efforts to derail their country's plans to join NATO.
But faith has also helped Mr. Putin amplify Russia's voice farther west, with the church leading a push into resolutely secular members of the European Union like France.