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On Putin’s ‘Outright Satanism’

The Russian ruler’s accusation against the West provides cover for his own misuse of sacred iconography to support his cynical war.
October 17, 2022
On Putin’s ‘Outright Satanism’
A Ukrainian Orthodox churchgoer prays in front of icons during a Sunday service at St. Volodymyr's Cathedral in central Kyiv on October 16, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

The very day after Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of “outright Satanism” in his war-justifying tantrum, I met a Satanist. I was exploring downtown Salem, Massachusetts when a black-robed man with dramatic eyeshadow and waist-long tresses announced a “Satanic Salem” tour.

In his speech, Putin complained of slavery and Native American genocide, which I also lament. He pointed out that Americans used nuclear bombs unjustifiably, and I’m not sure I disagree. To those points of tentative agreement with select moments of Putin’s speech, I could now add my encounter with a proponent of the “outright Satanism” he had decried.

So I asked this guide what the Satan stroll through Salem entailed. “Well, we’re the Satanic Temple, not the Church of Satan, because they’re awful,” he told me. I was amused to discover that the West’s Satanism is, in good Protestant fashion, riven with denominational fractures mirroring the church splits of Baptists and Presbyterians, and I asked him to expand upon the distinction. “The Church of Satan is old and just bad. Eww. But the [Satanic] Temple is about loving gay people and women as well.” He went on to explain how there was nothing supernatural about his beliefs; they were instead “scientific” and “philosophical.” That means no belief in an actual, personally existing Satan; rebellion itself is what inspires his allegiance. “Hail Satan,” he concluded, smirking and flashing a heavy metal sign with his fingers.

It turns out this “outright” Satanist was less of an exponent of occult beliefs and practices and more of a macabre entertainer working his beat; Lord knows the streets of Salem are quite profitable for members of his profession during the high unholy month of October. But while members of the Satanic Temple don’t really believe in Satan, as a traditional Christian, I do. Moreover, I believe Satan’s disguises are much more subtle than our social imaginary—the one that gives rise to kitschy walking tours where participants wryly chant “Hail Satan” to passersby—would suggest.

Whether conceived of in the traditionally individuated form or more abstractly as a symbolic aggregate of human evil, the devil is serious business. His deceptions might take the form of a world leader concealing his naked territorial ambition with a thin cloak of Christianity, sending tens of thousands of his people to their needless deaths. The devil’s deceit might even take the form of an Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow using the divine liturgy not to kindle true piety but to fan the hellish flames of war. While my flip tour guide mildly piqued me, it is far better to live in a country where someone can lead a silly Satan stroll than to live in one where someone can be arrested for protesting a genuinely devilish draft. “Outright Satanism” notwithstanding, America affirms the right of its citizens to protest their government’s policies, past or present; Russia has responded to the protests of its citizens by brutally repressing them, and it has done so with an infernal randomness meant to inspire fear in the hearts of would-be protesters.

Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving. The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, Salem is the ideal place to call the importance of such freedoms to mind. The famous 1692-93 execution of twenty “witches,” upon which Salem bases its reputation for tourism, fortunately did not become the norm for American society. The judges involved publicly confessed their errors, and by 1697 the General Court ordered a day of fasting and prayer for its tragic mistake. Good names were formally restored and reparations were paid to the families of the deceased. So it was that our witch trials came to illustrate the urgency of standing guard for freedom, a point made ever since by novelists (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 The House of Seven Gables), playwrights (Arthur Miller’s 1951 The Crucible), and journalists (see Anne Applebaum’s 2021 article “The New Puritans” and her 2020 book The Twilight of Democracy).

Freedom of this sort was not born in America; I find it useful to recall an ancient precedent in the context of early Christendom. In the fourth century, Lactantius, an adviser to the emperor Constantine, made this proclamation: “We grant both to Christian and to all men the freedom to follow whatever religion each one wished . . . nothing requires the freedom of will as religion.” History has shown just how difficult it can be to sustain such freedom—sometimes especially when Christians are the ones in charge—which makes it all the more remarkable that this essential liberty would come to be enshrined in America’s First Amendment over fourteen centuries after Lactantius articulated its importance. In the American context, the guarantee of the right was in part a bid to preserve religion and the state each from the encroachments of the other.

This is close to the heart of liberal democracy, but it is important to remember that this political vision is not the only one with purchase in today’s world. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon described the way that Roman legionaries fought with greater cohesion for having entwined their senses of religious and civic duty: While encamped, the soldiers worshiped as idols the golden eagles that would go out ahead of them, affixed to their standards, in battle. It makes sense that the fasces, a symbol of ancient Roman state power, would come to be identified with the political ideology of fascism in the twentieth century—and Putin’s imperialist vision of “Russkiy mir,” authoritarian style of governing, and subsuming of the Russian Orthodox Church into the project of the Russian state all evoke the brutally consolidating politics of last century’s fascist rulers.

Mosaic at the Russian Cathedral of the Armed Forces. Natalia Senatorova. Creative Common License.

To Putin’s Christian supporters, the freedom of religion Americans enjoy may seem paltry compared to the religious vision that Putin marshals to fuel his war. One of his most effective tools is the powerful symbol of the Virgin Mary. For example, at the recently constructed Main Cathedral of the Armed Forces, Putin attempts to make Mary his lackey. She is repeatedly depicted in mosaics sponsoring Russian warfare, just as she was occasionally depicted in the Byzantine Empire to sponsor its imperial power. It is no accident that Putin’s recent push for drafting soldiers was coordinated with Russia’s Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. Compared to the unifying image of the Virgin, the West’s mere appeal to freedom—and its resulting cacophony of unharmonized symbols—seems to falter.

“The Virgin of the Passion” by Emmanuel Lambardos. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But even in authoritarian Russia, the Virgin Mary is not a univocal figure; she has come to represent resistance to Putin’s war as well, and this version of Mary is far more pervasive—and alluring—than Putin’s. While “St. Javelin,” a Virgin Mary holding a FGM-158 Javelin anti-tank weapon, has garnered most of the attention around such resistance, I find a far older Virgin Mary to be a more effective—and less outright violent—symbol of defiance. She is known as the Virgin of the Passion, and was born from the losing side of the Crusades (a story which I relate in my book Mother of the Lamb). Angels hover over Mary and her son with the instruments of the Passion—the cross, spear, and sponge. This Mary may remind those who take up weapons in her name that weapons were similarly deployed against her son, and those weapons ultimately guaranteed the victory not of the aggressors, but of the one they attacked.

This Mary is not the Virgin of the conquerors; instead she gives hope to the conquered. I was not surprised to see this Madonna appealed to by Ukrainians, making cameos in Kyiv bomb shelters and among the refugees pouring into Poland. This particular Virgin Mary is especially revered among the Native Americans that my own country attempted to conquer. She calls to mind the words of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), words once recited by Cherokee chief Lewis Downing in his call for prayer and fasting to resist American aggression: “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” There was once even a Virgin of the Passion shrine in the heart of Moscow in what is now the Pushkinskaya square; the Strastnoy Monastery that housed it was destroyed on Stalin’s orders in the late 1930s. Russia, after all, is the homeland of some of the richest reflection on Mary in the history of Christian thought. There is an affinity between Moscow’s peaceful Virgin of the Passion (Strastnaya in Russian) and the passionate protesters arrested in that same square today. From her now vacant urban seat, the Theotokos calls Russia to abandon its cynical war and return to this deeper form of Christian wisdom.

It turns out there is also a shrine to this Mary not far from Salem, where free Americans find so many competing symbols vying for their attention. The Virgin of the Passion, known to Roman Catholics as Our Lady of Perpetual Help, boasts a major basilica in the heart of Boston, where discarded crutches gently tease the nearby Harvard Medical School. The Christian churches of Salem, which publicly display the Beatitudes to passing Halloween revelers, are well represented by the Virgin of the Passion. I caught sight of her wisdom in one Salem shop window, where ranks of goddess statues were partly obscured by the apocryphal words of Mother Teresa emblazoned across the glass: “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.”

What might Putin make of all this Western spiritual ferment? Without the state pressuring its citizens to embrace specific religious doctrines to better support its imperial project, Americans are left on their own to sift for verities in market stalls of belief. Confusion, syncretism, and disaffection have all predictably resulted—but so have remarkable interreligious exchanges and dramas of conversion. Many of these cases have involved occult practitioners finding their way to church. This is what happened with former neo-pagan Martin Shaw—a result of his friendship with Anglican priest and poet Malcolm Guite—and fellow convert Paul Kingsnorth. A brilliant convert from Anthroposophy to Christianity, Valentin Tomberg, anonymously authored the best book on the Tarot, still offered for sale in occult bookshops notwithstanding its provenance. One of the most formidable figures of the goddess movement, Charlene Spretnak, subtly shifted gears later in life to write a beautiful book on Mary.

These conversions and exchanges are not trophies for the church. I see them as infusions of vitality into a religious tradition that can sometimes appear listless, trundling forward on two thousand years of inertia; I would expect a similar result for other faiths welcoming converts after a long spiritual search. But such vivifying interreligious encounters can only happen in societies where liberty is continually, consciously enshrined.

Ironically, Putin’s full words were, “The suppression of freedom [in the West] itself has taken on the features of a religion: outright Satanism.” True freedom of religion, however, permits nonviolent forms of so-called Satanism, including neo-paganisms of one kind or another. But Putin’s words are an obvious case of projection: His militarized Mary is repulsive, the devil in disguise, a stratagem for duping the faithful into supporting his hideous cause.

Despite these attempts at cooptation, the true Mary—so well represented by the Virgin of the Passion icon—is undiminished in her luminous sadness and beauty. She identifies with the victims of war in Ukraine, makes her entreaties to those who feel the burden of their freedom in America, and to those Russians who have brought destruction upon their neighbors, she issues a mournful summons home.

Matthew J. Milliner

Matthew J. Milliner (Ph.D. Princeton University) teaches art history at Wheaton College. He is the author of The Everlasting People: G.K. Chesterton and the First Nations (InterVarsity Press, 2021) and Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon (Fortress Press, 2022).