On the face of things, the last few days have been a time of flourishing Greco-Russian amity, rooted in a common Orthodox Christian faith. As the ceremonial high point of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Greece, one of the few European Union members where he can count on a warm welcome, the Russian leader paid a visit to the ancient monastic polity of Mount Athos. He was received with pomp and ceremony not only by the leaders of the peninsula’s 20 monasteries but by Greece’s worldly head of state, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos. “Today as we resurrect the values of patriotism, historical memory and traditional culture, we hope for a strengthening of relations with Mount Athos,” Mr Putin declared.
But as any historian of that part of the world can tell you, having a common creed and a common reverence for the same holy places and rites doesn’t always make for smooth diplomatic relations. Nations of the same faith can compete as well as co-operate. A good example of this is the events that unfolded just over a century ago in the huge Russian monastery of St Panteleimon which was part of the presidential itinerary at Mt Athos.
In the summer of 1913, the tsarist navy made an extraordinary intervention in the affairs of the monastic peninsula and deported about 800 Russian monks, from St Panteleimon and elsewhere, as punishment for being on the losing side of a raging theological argument. (Roughly speaking, it was over whether the words like God and Jesus are holy in themselves, or only because of the divine realities they denote. Humble monks, and a few quite sophisticated ones, felt that the latter view denied the spiritual experiences they had when repeating the name of Jesus; but they lost out.)
Although this theological dispute was mainly confined to the vast Russian contingent on the holy mountain, it unfolded against the background of intense geopolitical competition over the future of Mount Athos.
In November 1912, as part of the first Balkan war which largely drove the Ottoman empire out of Europe, Mount Athos was taken over by the army of Greece, which assumed that the peninsula would simply become Hellenic sovereign territory. But the tsar had a different idea: the peninsula could become a protectorate administered by six Orthodox powers, in which Russia would predominate. Part of the tsar’s argument was that Russian monks, thanks to a huge influx in the late 19th century, were the largest contingent on Mount Athos.
Why, then, did the tsar’s forces weaken their own diplomatic case by taking away hundreds of Russian monastics? The best guess is that the entire monastic peninsula was on the verge of veering out of control because of the theological dispute which had been gathering pace for several years; and there were fears in St Petersburg that Greece might use the chaotic situation as an excuse to expel all Russians from the monastic polity. By sending in the navy, the tsar was signalling that if anybody was going to settle disputes on Athos, it would be Russia.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Greek worries about a Slavic takeover of Mount Athos subsided. With Russia under atheist control, the flow of Russian novices to the ancient community came to an abrupt end. By the time communism fell in 1991, only a handful of elderly Slavs remained. But since the end of communism, the Greek authorities, both worldly and ecclesiastical, have remained extremely wary of letting too many non-Greeks settle on Mount Athos; and they insist that all residents of the community must accept Greek citizenship.
So in the vastness of St Panteleimon’s, which was home to about 2,000 Russian monks at the turn of the 20th century, there are now only about 70 Russian and Ukrainian monastics, doing their best to maintain the sprawling premises and its cultural treasures, including precious manuscripts and early printed books. That is one the places that Mr Putin has just visited, with cameras banned for that part of his tour. He professes strong feelings about Russia’s religious heritage; he was once seen to shed tears while visiting a tsarist-era pilgrims’ compound in Jerusalem. But if he has any thoughts about restaffing St Panteleimon’s with his compatriots in order to regain its former glory, his Greek friends will start to worry.