MOSCOW – Orthodox Easter ceremonies took on deeply political undertones as President Vladimir Putin and his chosen successor celebrated the dominant Russian church's most important holiday together Sunday ahead of a power handover that has prompted uncertainty about the future.
Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev stood side-by-side at a lavish midnight ceremony led by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II at Christ the Savior Cathedral — the soaring, decade-old symbol of the revival of the church following the collapse of Communist rule — near the Kremlin.
Putin is to become prime minister after ceding the presidency to Medvedev, his protege, on May 7, an unprecedented move that many say indicates he intends to retain the real power in Russia. Both men have suggested they will rule in tandem, and their Easter appearance seemed aimed at emphasizing that.
The choreography of the celebration and remarks by Alexy, who has strongly supported Putin, seemed designed to give the church's approval to the unprecedented arrangement and to assure Russians that the outgoing president is driven by love for his country, not hunger for power.
"We are grateful to you, deeply respected Vladimir Vladimirovich. In the eight years of your presidency, you have done so much for Russia," Alexy told Putin, who stood with Medvedev — flanked by their wives — in an elevated area near the altar, before a towering mural of the Virgin Mary cradling the haloed baby Jesus.
"And only love for Russia has prompted you to further continue your service together with a person whom you trust and whom the people have come to trust," Alexy said. He said both faced a difficult task but assured them the church would pray for God to "grant you the strength and courage" to overcome all difficulties.
"Christ is risen," said the white-bearded, white-robed Alexy.
Putin and Medvedev, both in dark suits and ties, approached the patriarch in succession, each kissing him three times on the cheeks.
Other government officials were relegated to less prominent spots on the floor of the ornately adorned cathedral, a division that set Putin and Medvedev apart from the rest.
In addition to sending political signals, the ceremony underscored the growing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the leadership of a state that the constitution clearly stipulates is secular.
Church and state were closely entwined in czarist-era Russia, but the church was persecuted during decades of officially atheist Communist rule. The Russian Orthodox Church, which claims about two-thirds of Russia's 142 million people as its flock, has enjoyed a major revival since the Soviet collapse of 1991.
While Putin has sought to avoid statements seeming to force the dominant religion on Russians in a country with large Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish communities, Kremlin critics and religious minorities have expressed concern about the growing symbolism linking the Russian Orthodox Church and the government.
In an Easter message, Putin assured Alexy that "the state will continue to provide all possible support to the Church in its works aimed at the enlightenment and moral education of Russian citizens" -- wording that could deepen worries among Russians wary of efforts to press Russian Orthodox teachings on children.
Medvedev, in his own message to Alexy, said the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church in society "opens new possibilities for the cooperation of the state and the Church in resolving current questions of culture and the moral health of the nation, in bringing up the young generation."