Moscow, 22 August (ENI) -- Ten years after the coup attempt that triggered the end of Soviet communism, Russia's president has said that his country needs to seek its inspiration from its Christian roots.
"Without Christianity, without the Orthodox faith and culture which sprang from it, Russia would have hardly existed as a state," said President Vladimir Putin during a visit to the Solovetsky monastery, on the Solovki Islands, part of Russia's northern White Sea archipelago.
He was accompanied to the monastery by Patriarch Alexei II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. "Today, now that we are rediscovering ourselves, it is very important, useful and timely to return to these sources in our
search for the moral foundations of our life," he told reporters on 20 August.
In what observers have described a carefully-timed vacation, the president has been visiting Orthodox churches and monasteries in northern Russia as his country marks the 10th anniversary of the attempted coup which was launched against the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, on 19 August 1991.
The coup attempt - although unsuccessful - started a chain of events that led to Gorbachev's downfall, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin as president of an independent Russian Federation.
The wisdom of the coup is now the subject of heated debate in Moscow. Many of those directly involved - including Gorbachev, democracy campaigners and those who plotted the coup - have made statements in recent days about the events. But, publicly, neither President Putin, nor Yeltsin, nor Patriarch Alexei have uttered a word.
Moscow commentators have criticised the failure of President Putin to make any direct comment about the anniversary. However, his visit to the Solovetsky is seen as highly significant.
The first Soviet labour camp was founded there in 1923 after the monastery was closed at the time of the Russian revolution. During Stalin's rule, many thousands of people, including many clergy, were shot or died at the camp. The monastery was re-opened in 1991.
Georgy Satarov, who heads the "INDEM" political think-tank, told ENI that President Putin's visit to the Solovki Islands was intended to send a "coded message".
"The interpretation of the coup is still something that divides the Russian people, and Putin strongly dislikes publicising his views on such divisive matters. He has given himself the task of unifying Russians, not dividing them," said Satarov, a former Yeltsin aide.
"It is not accidental that he went to the Solovki Islands on Monday nor that he went with the patriarch."
According to a prominent historian, Dmitri Furman, writing in the Rodina magazine "Putin is gradually distancing himself from the revolutionary past while establishing [himself] as a 'normal', traditional Russian power."
From this perspective, President Putin's Solovki visit served this purpose by simultaneously commemorating the victims of the Soviet regime while stressing the continuity of Russian history.
In his remarks at the monastery, President Putin also appeared to distance himself from the "exclusivist" interpretation of Orthodox Christianity often propagated by Russian nationalists.
"If God saved all nations, that means that all are equal before God," he said, referring to a famous statement by Metropolitan Hilarion, a famous 11th-century bishop of Kiev.
This "simple truth," President Putin continued, became the basis of Russian statehood "making it possible to build a strong and centralised multi-ethnic state" and a "unique Eurasian civilisation."
"Besides glorifying the Russian people, besides cultivating the national dignity and national pride, our spiritual teachers ... taught us to respect other nations," he said. He stressed that ancient Orthodox teaching was free of chauvinism or any ideology of nations chosen by God.
"It would not hurt to remember this today. These are exactly the moral values which should form the backbone of domestic and foreign policy."
Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior Moscow Patriarchate official in charge of relations with political and government organisations, told ENI he welcomed the president's statement on the need to respect other nations, particularly at the present time when Russia itself was torn by ethnic tensions.
"These are very good words," Chaplin said. "Although the president cannot be considered a professional theologian, he correctly understands the essence of our teaching, which combines profound faith in our own tradition, understanding of its uniqueness and value, with openness to other people, other traditions and other nations."
Asked about the significance of the fact that President Putin visited Solovki at the time of the anniversary of the coup, Chaplin told ENI: "I am not a clairvoyant and cannot fathom what is going on in another person's soul.
"But the very fact that during these days he prayed and venerated the holy sites of our church and our country speaks for itself."