Earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin visited [ru] the Valaam Monastery in Karelia, one of Russia's northern most republics. While greeting the local Orthodox priests, one of them suddenly lunged forward and tried to kiss Putin's hand, though the President instantly recoiled in apparent disgust. A moment later, Putin turned back and shook his fist at the priest (which the Kremlin later explained was a joke).
The priest, since identified [ru] as Macedonia-native Father Mefodii, caused an uproar among Russian Internet users, when video footage of his attempted kiss spread rapidly online. Why did this foreign-born Orthodox monk want to kiss the hand of Russia's head of state? Was it a sign of respect? A medieval demonstration of submission? Or perhaps something had been lost in translation?
In just two days, the video already has more than 788,000 views on YouTube. (The moment of Mefodii's kiss is at 0:37.)
At least tangentially, the ongoing Pussy Riot trial adds controversy to any events with so much as a trace of tension between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin's aversion to the attempted kiss (exhibited in an uncharacteristic display of emotion) also introduced a not insignificant comedic element, raising the story's viral appeal.
Before Church and Kremlin officials issued clarifications about the incident, bloggers speculated (in some cases, rather wildly) about Father Mefodii's motives. LiveJournal user anglus addressed [ru] the early theory that the priest had confused Putin for the archiereus (a Church official, whom it would have been customary to kiss on the hand). Anglus highlights a specific anecdote from the travelogue [ru] of Antioch Greek Patriarch Macarios, who visited the Russian Tsar in 1655. In that instance, visiting priests indeed kissed the Tsar's “sword hand,” and were rewarded with various imperial gifts.
Anglus cites this historical episode to demonstrate that Mefodii was only observing an old Russian tradition — not behaving absent-mindedly. The possibility that Mefodii was humbling himself before ‘the tsar,’ however, was of course disturbing to other bloggers for different reasons. Mocking the servility evident in Mefodii's gesture, Twitter user MitrofOb joked [ru]:
Дорогу всем россиянам указал игумен Мефодий. И Пуси, чтобы получить прощение, должны поцеловать руку Путину.
LJ user Aleksandr Okunev writes [ru] that he and his mother actually met Father Mefodii in 2001, on a visit to Valaam. Noticing the priest's thick Macedonian accent, Okunev's mother then questioned Mefodii about foreign customs, including (for whatever reason) greeting people with a kiss on the hand. Mefodii answered that he indeed practices this tradition, and defended it as an act of “love for mankind.”
While Okunev takes Mefodii at his word and writes that any hand-kissing is his “personal affair,” the blogger also acknowledges that today's charged political climate predestines such stories for controversy:
[…] я могу видеть эту картинку как все окружающие меня адекватные люди, уставшие от бесчинств РПЦ и разозлённые свежей историей про Pussy Riot.
Within a day, the Valaam Monastery's spokesman told [ru] journalists that Father Mefodii had wanted only to kiss Putin's hand “as a sign of the small [Macedonian] people's gratitude for the great Russian people.” This explanation naturally appealed to Russian nationalists, who have welcomed the idea of reviving ethnic identity in Russian Orthodoxy. Writing on a LJ forum created for activist Konstantin Krylov's group [ru], the “Russian Public Movement,” LJ user rod_nick complained [ru] that not enough Russian priests think in ethnic terms, blaming the legacy of Soviet internationalism:
До революции вопрос обстоял иначе, и ряд видных деятелей Церкви даже состоял в националистических организациях. Времена изменились, и, так сказать, “активно быть русским” у современных священников не разрешается.
On the same day that the Valaam Monastery tried to explain Father Mefodii's kiss, Putin's own press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, revealed [ru] to Izvestia newspaper that Putin and Mefodii have been acquainted for over a decade. The priest, Peskov said, “is a foreigner and is very emotional.” He has apparently tried to kiss Putin's hand repeatedly for years, and the two have something of a running joke, wherein Putin refuses the gesture each time. According to Aleksandr Okunev's blog post about Father Mefodii, Putin was actually personally responsible for securing the naturalization of the priest, who was in danger of deportation, before Putin intervened.
In other words, this episode with Putin and the kissing priest appears to be a story overblown and inflated by the blogosphere. The public's interest, however, is in no small part a consequence of the peculiar past and present of Russia's church-state relationship, which includes ancient Greek patriarchs and tsars, as well as modern-day punk rockers.