Mother Fotina once led a "Center for Cosmo-Energetic Medicine," and now she prays to Vladimir Putin. Her sect, in a village east of Moscow, honors Russia's once and future president as a reincarnation of St. Paul. The group represents a rising trend in Russia, but its origins are surprisingly mundane.
Haggard women hike up a hill near the Volga, saying they're following "the Law of Love." The law brings them to a three-story building made of white brick, with golden turrets and a battered gate. They call it the "Chapel of Russia's Resurrection." At the gate they exchange dusty boots for green plastic sandals before spreading out prayer rugs made of foam and pray to their patron saint: Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and soon-to-be president (again). They believe he's a reincarnation of St. Paul.
The followers of this Russian Orthodox sect live in the village of Bolshaya Elnya, near Nizhny Novgorod, a metropolis 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) east of Moscow. Their leader is called "Mother Fotina," a 62-year-old matron who considers herself the reincarnation of Joan of Arc. "I proclaim what God has revealed to me," she says. Just as Saul persecuted Christians before his conversion to St. Paul, she believes Putin once beset the faithful as a Soviet KGB officer.
The Soviets blew up churches, or replaced them with swimming pools, but "when he became president," she says, "the Holy Ghost came to him." Since then Putin leads his flock "wisely, just as the Apostle did."
'We've Prayed for Him to Return'
Across Russia -- not just in Bolshaya Elnya -- popular affection for Putin has started turning to religious worship. The country's top rabbi, Berel Lasar, swooned a few months ago that Russians had "every reason to ask God to bless you. Every day and every hour you do good for any number of people, you save hundreds and thousands of worlds." Vladislav Surkow, the influential deputy chief of the Kremlin administration, sees in Putin "a man whom fate and the Lord sent to Russia."
In Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, a proliferation of posters once showed the prime minister as an angel, with one hand extended, blessing the city's inhabitants. Putin's face was mounted on a photo of the cherubim crowning the city's Peter and Paul Cathedral. Any departure of Vladimir Putin from the national stage seems about as desirable to bureaucrats, conservative elites and a majority of the Russian people as a speedy advent of the Last Judgement.
"He has the spirit of a czar in him," says Mother Fotina, clad in a black robe and a white cap. Golden butterflies and cherubs adorn her homemade altar. Fotina swings a smoking censer before an icon of St. Paul-Putin. "Every day we've prayed for him to return to the Kremlin."
Their pleas, apparently, were heard. In an act of staged self-sacrifice last weekend, President Dmitry Medvedev recommended to a party congress that Putin should replace him as a presidential candidate -- and ultimately as president -- in 2012. The 11,000 delegates and party members of "United Russia" cheered like true believers in Moscow's Ice Palace, at what amounted to a Coronation Mass.
"The people's connection to Putin is more emotional than it is to average politicians," the venerable Russian historian Roy Mevedev (no relation to Dmitry) once said. "He's seen as a sort of moral leader." Polls show 57 percent of Russians notice "signs of a Putin cult" in the country; 52 percent believe it's a positive trend.