Fighting Words

Fidel Gets Religion

Why on earth did Castro build a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Havana?

Fidel Castro and Vladimir Gundjaev meet in Havana

In January of 2009—on New Year’s Day, to be precise—it will have been half a century since the brave and bearded ones entered Havana and chased Fulgencio Batista and his cronies (carrying much of the Cuban treasury with them) off the island. Now the chief of the bearded ones is a doddering and trembling figure, who one assumes can only be hanging on in order to be physically present for the 50th birthday of his “revolution.” It’s of some interest to notice that one of the ways in which he whiles away the time is the self-indulgence of religion, most especially the improbable religion of Russian Orthodoxy.

Ever since the upheaval in his own intestines that eventually forced him to cede power to his not-much-younger brother, Raúl, Fidel Castro has been seeking (and easily enough finding) an audience for his views in the Cuban press. Indeed, now that he can no longer mount the podium and deliver an off-the-cuff and uninterruptable six-hour speech, there are two state-run newspapers that don’t have to compete for the right to carry his regular column. Pick up a copy of the Communist Party’s daily Granma (once described by radical Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman as “a degradation of the act of reading”) or of the Communist youth paper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), and in either organ you can read the moribund musings of the maximum leader.

These pieces normally consist of standard diatribes about this and that, but occasionally something is said that sparks interest among a resigned readership. Such an instance occurred on my visit to the island last month. Castro decided to publish a paean to Russian Orthodoxy, to devote a state subsidy to it, and to receive one of its envoys. I quote from the column, headed “Reflections by Comrade Fidel” and titled “The Russian Orthodox Church,” which was “syndicated,” if that’s the word, on Oct. 21. This church, wrote Castro:

[i]s a spiritual force. It played a major role at critical times in the history of Russia. At the onset of the Great Russian War, after the treacherous Nazi attack, Stalin turned to her for support to the workers and peasants that the October Revolution had changed into the owners of factories and the land.

These sentences contain some points of real interest. It is certainly true, for example, that the Orthodox Church “played a major role at critical times in the history of Russia.” It provided the clerical guarantee of serfdom and czarism, for example, and its demented anti-Semitism gave rise to the fabrication of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which had a ghastly effect well beyond the frontiers of Russia itself. That’s partly why the Bolsheviks sought to break the church’s power and why the church replied in kind by supporting the bloodthirsty White Russian counterrevolution. But Castro openly prefers Stalin to Lenin, which may be why he refers to the Nazi assault on the USSR as “treacherous.” He is quite right to do so, of course, but it does involve the awkward admission that Stalin and Hitler were linked by a formal military alliance against democracy until 1941 and that Stalin was more loyal to the pact than the “treacherous” Hitler was. And, yes, of course the Orthodox Church backed Stalin, just as he always subsidized the Orthodox Church. But these are chapters of shame in the history of Russia and even in the history of communism and Christianity. Why would Castro single out the darkest moments for his praise?

It gets worse. As Castro writes in the same column, concerning the visit of a Russian Orthodox archbishop named Vladimir Gundjaev to Cuba, “I suggested building a Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in the capital of Cuba as a monument to Cuban-Russian friendship. … During the construction, earth was brought from the place where the remains were laid to rest of the Soviet soldiers who perished in our country during the tens of years they rendered services here.” How extraordinary! He writes as if the Soviet (or, interchangeably, Russian) soldiers had fallen in combat in Cuba, and as if the Soviet Communist regime had sanctified their deaths—of old age or venereal disease or suicide, since there never was any war—as a sort of Christian martyrdom.

I have been in Cuba many times in the past decades, but this was the first visit where I heard party members say openly that they couldn’t even guess what the old buzzard was thinking. At one lunch involving figures from the ministry of culture, I heard a woman say: “What kind of way is this to waste money? We build a cathedral for a religion to which no Cuban belongs?” As if to prove that she was not being sectarian, she added without looking over her shoulder: “A friend of mine asked me this morning: ‘What next? A subsidy for the Amish?’ ”

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev

All these are good questions, but I believe they have an easy answer. Fidel Castro has devoted the last 50 years to two causes: first, his own enshrinement as an immortal icon, and second, the unbending allegiance of Cuba to the Moscow line. Now, black-cowled Orthodox “metropolitans” line up to shake his hand, and the Putin-Medvedev regime brandishes its missile threats against the young Obama as Nikita Khrushchev once did against the young Kennedy. The ideology of Moscow doesn’t much matter as long as it is anti-American, and the Russian Orthodox Church has been Putin’s most devoted and reliable ally in his re-creation of an old-style Russian imperialism. If you want to see how far things have gone, take a look at the photograph of President Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration, as he kisses the holy icon held by the clerical chief. Putin and Medvedev have made it clear that they want to reinstate Cuba’s role in the hemisphere, if only as a bore and nuisance for as long as its military dictatorship can be made to last. Castro’s apparent deathbed conversion to a religion with no Cuban adherents is the seal on this gruesome pact. How very appropriate.