December 28, 2008

Coming Soon to Havana: Russian Orthodox Spires

Monique Chartier

In post-holiday catching up of some favorite columnists, I learn from Christopher Hitchens that Fidel Castro, near death, has commissioned the construction of a Russian Orthodox cathedral in the capital of a country that completely lacks adherents to that religion.

Hitchens soundly hypothesizes a desire on the part of Castro to solidify Cuba's ties with Russia.

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?' "

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.

It is difficult to also exclude the possibility of a second, too obvious purpose for the construction of a religious edifice: a conscious or unconscious desire on the part of someone near death to either compensate for sins committed in the mortal coil or to ingratiate himself with God. In Castro's mind, God may or may not exist; such a project, however, would cover Castro (again, at least in his mind) in the event of the first of those two possibilities.