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It seems odd that a 21st-century pope would enthuse about “great imperial Russia,” especially at a time when Moscow seems keen to rebuild its old empire. But on August 25, in a speech delivered via video to young Russians gathered for the All-Russian Meeting of Catholic Youth in St. Petersburg, that's what Pope Francis did. As expected, he talked of peace, of “God's transforming power,” and of dialogue between young and old. He ended, however, by adding a jewel to his collection of stunning off-the-cuff remarks: “Never forget your inheritance. You are the heirs of the great Russia. The great Russia of the saints, of the kings, of the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, that great imperial Russia, cultivated, with so much culture and humanity.”

This comment sounded like a dull repetition of the propaganda spread by Putin’s media, the only media most Russians have access to. Why would Francis say that? Obviously, the pope believes that Putin is a cultured man. He repeatedly said so in a March interview for La Nacion. Yet Putin, a former KGB agent, has governed his country as a dictator in practice, if not in name, for 24 years. He has waged wars from Chechnya to Georgia, supported Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and invaded Ukraine. In that sense, he’s as “cultured” as the two other imperial Russian rulers whose names Pope Francis dropped in his litany. One was Peter I, whose appetite for European civilization led the modernizing despot to drag Russia into it by force. The other was Catherine II, only transformed into an enlightened ruler by Voltaire’s specious efforts. Is it wise for the pope to encourage Russian youth to uncritically embrace that “great imperial Russia”?

It's useful to imagine different, more helpful things Pope Francis might have said about Russian history while addressing Catholic young people in Putin’s land.

First, the pope could have mentioned some 60 million citizens of the Soviet empire who entered the 20th-century Gulag, most of whom never survived that chain of prisons. He could have dropped Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s name. His extraordinary record of the innocent victims of Soviet repression in “great imperial Russia,” The Gulag Archipelago, is essential reading.

Second, Francis could have talked about journalist Anna Politkovskaya (1958–2006), whose writings made many Russians understand the horrors of the Chechen wars of the 1990s and the situation in the new millennium. She was assassinated on Putin’s birthday in 2006. The courage of that brave Russian woman against the state machine of “great imperial Russia” is something to remember.

Third, he could have recalled Boris Nemtsov, who led massive street rallies to protest controversial 2011 parliamentary elections and wrote reports on official corruption. He was shot in 2015, just hours after calling on the public to join a march against Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The honesty and fortitude of those Russians who happen to dislike the dark side of “great imperial Russia” might be worth a nod.

Fourth, the leader of the Catholic Church could have brought up the Eastern Catholic victims of murderous Tsarist and Soviet persecutions, including bishops, priests, and laypeople who defended their faith against the state's imposition of Russian Orthodoxy or atheism. The legacy of the Eastern Catholic martyrs who did not fit into “great imperial Russia” could be acknowledged and honored.

On August 29, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement that Pope Francis did not intend to glorify imperialism in his recent remarks to young Russian Catholics. And of course, the Holy Father’s supporters have offered various excuses for the gaffe. The pontiff may indeed have been the victim of bad advisers, not to mention malevolent commentators. Either way, all responsibility for Francis’s awkward comments has been shifted to others, according to the principle of “good tsar, bad boyars.”

But wait, isn’t such behavior merely its own brand of  “great imperial Russia” . . . with a Roman gloss? 

Maciej Dybowski teaches jurisprudence at Poznan University, Poland.

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Photo from NVO, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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