Friday, November 28, 2008

Castro legacy hangs on strange alliance

Castro legacy hangs on strange alliance
November 22, 2008

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, Raul, 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-controlled 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 of Fidel" and titled "The Russian
Orthodox Church," which was "syndicated," if that's the word, on Oct.
21. This church, wrote Castro, "is a spiritual force. In the critical
moments of Russian history it played an important role. When the Great
Russian War began after the treacherous Nazi attack, Stalin turned to it
in support of the workers and peasants that the October Revolution made
owners of the 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
subsidized the Orthodox Church after 1941. 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

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?"'

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.

New York Times Syndicate,CST-EDT-hitch22.article

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