In the logbook of Vladimir Putin’s travels, one destination has stood out over the years for attracting a curious share of the Russian President’s attention.
It is a tiny peninsula, about one-tenth the size of Long Island, that juts out of northern Greece into the Aegean Sea. Known as the Holy Mountain of Athos, it has been governed by Orthodox Christian monks ever since the Byzantine Empire first granted them sovereignty over this spit of land at the end of the 9th century.
Today it still stands as a giant shrine to the Virgin Mary, and thousands of pilgrims travel there each year. But it is hardly prominent on the political map of the world. No women are permitted to visit. No banks are allowed to operate there. No drivable roads connect Mount Athos to mainland Greece, and the only way to get there is by boat or helicopter. Yet Putin has made a total of four attempts to reach it during his 16 years in power.
His first two journeys failed. In 2001, during the second year of his presidency, a gale over the Aegean kept his helicopter from taking off. Three years later, he was forced to turn back by a hostage crisis at a school in the small Russian town of Beslan. But when he finally made it to Athos in 2005, Putin established a bond with the monks that has transformed not only their community but also the Russian elites back in Moscow. Partly through that relationship, the Kremlin has come to embrace the Orthodox faith and to harness it, as both an ideology and a source of influence abroad. “For us, Orthodoxy is the axis of the Russian world we seek to build,” Alexander Dugin, one of the Kremlin’s favored ideologues, told me after joining Putin on another pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain at the end of May. “If you want to understand the Orthodox world as we see it, understanding Athos is the place to start.”
It’s also key to understanding Putinism. In the West, most efforts to grasp the actions of the Russian President–such as the military incursion he ordered into Ukraine in 2014, the bombing campaign he began over Syria last year and the general vilification of the West that permeates many of his speeches and policies–tend to look for answers in the legacies of the Cold War. But Putin’s strategic vision has roots in an even earlier era, one in which czars and priests, not communist apparatchiks, defined Russia’s role in the world. Through his visits to Mount Athos, Putin has evoked that era of Russian imperial power, signaling how central it is to the legacy he wants to build.
Few men are better positioned to explain this legacy than Dugin, the leading theorist of Russian imperialism and the reputed id to the collective conscience of the Kremlin’s militant wing. Prone to dressing all in black, with a beard that hangs to his chest and the rhetorical style of a doomsayer, Dugin can seem like a figure pulled from the pages of Crime and Punishment or, for that matter, from the monastic cells of Mount Athos. But he’s very much a man of this world. The 24-hour cable-news network that he runs out of Moscow, Tsargrad, is just one of the outlets he uses to spread his ideas of Russian militarism. With a potent mix of conspiracy theory and prophecy, he has argued that Russia must form a new Eurasian empire based on the “fundamental principle of the common enemy”–by which he means the U.S. and its European allies–“and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.”
His writings have often foreshadowed the next direction in Russian politics. In February, for instance, Dugin embraced the candidacy of Donald Trump while most observers in Russia were still laughing at the would-be Republican nominee. “It is he who makes people feel fresh and hopeful,” Dugin said of Trump at the time, adding that the candidate was a “sensation” that represented the “real America.” A few months later, U.S. officials and cybersecurity experts accused Russia of trying to help Trump by hacking and leaking the emails of his rivals in the Democratic Party. The Kremlin denied any involvement in that breach. But Dugin was adamant that any help for Trump would benefit Russia, as his presidency would mark “the end of the epoch of American imperialism.”
In much the same way, Dugin called for the Russian conquest of Ukraine almost two decades before the actual invasion. His advocacy for that war, and his recruitment of paramilitaries to fight in eastern Ukraine, led the U.S. government to impose a travel ban on Dugin, and when he arrived in Greece as part of Putin’s retinue in May, police pulled him out of the passport line at the airport. “Some European officials had flagged me as an undesirable,” Dugin later explained. But after he’d spent a night in detention, the authorities allowed him to drive to the remote spot in northern Greece where the Holy Mountain of Athos begins.
It is not an easy place to reach. Although its territory is part of Europe’s visa-free travel zone, a stone wall topped with barbed wire blocks the neck of the peninsula. “Crossing this border is illegal,” declares a sign behind the wall. “Violators will be prosecuted.” In order to enter Mount Athos, visitors must obtain a special visa and an invitation from the governing monks–a privilege seldom granted to those from countries outside of what Dugin calls “the Orthodox world.” That world would include countries in eastern and southern Europe where the dominant religion is Orthodoxy, as well as smaller communities of the Orthodox faithful in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Together they number some 260 million around the world, though relatively few live in America. So when the official at the Athos pilgrimage bureau saw my U.S. passport, he handed the document to his superior. “What is your religion?” the boss asked. On my mother’s side, there is some Orthodox Russian blood, which seemed enough to secure me a diamonitirion, the visitor’s permit that comes stamped with an image of the Virgin Mary.
From the Greek port of Ouranoupolis, the ferry takes about two hours to reach the port of the Holy Mountain, docking along the way at several of the monasteries that sit along the shore. Twenty of them dot this peninsula–17 of them Greek, one Serbian, one Bulgarian and one Russian, each representing one of the traditional branches, or patriarchates, of the Orthodox faith. From a distance, the monasteries look like medieval castles, bare fortresses of stone that exude the same austerity as the gaunt and bearded monks who live inside.
The one exception is St. Panteleimon, better known as the Russian monastery, which looks more like a freshly renovated luxury resort. Painted in teal, with gilded crosses rising from its onion domes, St. Panteleimon has been rebuilt over the past 10 years with generous funding from Russian billionaires and the Kremlin. It now dwarfs most of the Greek monasteries in the area, and Putin drew attention to its symbolism when he arrived on Mount Athos on May 28. “For more than a thousand years,” he told the ruling council of monks that day, “our spiritual traditions and common values have been nurtured and begotten here.” Later in his speech, he added, “Today, as we restore the values of patriotism, historical memory and traditional culture, we are seeking firmer bonds with Mount Athos.”
In many ways, those bonds hark back to what Athos was like during the twilight of the czarist era. At the end of the 19th century, the Russian imperial court purchased land on and around Mount Athos in order to bolster its claim to being the global guardian of Orthodoxy. It also sent so many Russian monks to live on the Holy Mountain that they came to outnumber all the others by nearly 2 to 1. “The Russians wanted to occupy Mount Athos back then,” says Father Makarios, a Greek monk whose absolutions from sins are highly prized among pilgrims. So in a sense, he says, the fall of the czars in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 saved this part of Greece from turning into a de facto Russian colony. The communists, who imposed a policy of atheism across the Soviet Union, weren’t interested in faith-based diplomacy. So the Russian support for Mount Athos gradually died away, as did the Russian monks left over from the czarist era. Only in the past decade has that patronage come roaring back. “To say the truth, Mount Athos again lives with Russian money now,” Father Makarios says.
The value of that investment starts to make sense when you look at the demographics in Russia’s neighborhood. In the parts of Eastern Europe that Moscow still sees as its rightful zone of influence–including Georgia, Belarus, Armenia and Ukraine as well as the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro–the majority of people are Orthodox Christians. By paying homage to one of the holiest places in the Orthodox world, Putin is trying to cast himself as the protector of the faith–a role that traces back to a core problem of Russian power in the post-Soviet era. With the fall of communism, Moscow suddenly found itself lacking a “national idea”–an ideology that could replace the discredited slogans of Lenin and Marx and, ideally, entice the East European nations that Russia sought to keep under its wing.
Orthodox Christianity fitted the bill nicely. With its claim to being the one true faith and its opposition to the encroachments of Western liberalism–especially when it comes to gay rights and same-sex marriage–it offered an international base of support among conservatives and an ideological backdrop to Putin’s self-image as a counterweight to the decadent West. “For us Orthodoxy is the necessary and predominant element of our national idea,” Dugin told me. “It is the core.”
It also offers political advantages. Orthodox Christianity is the predominant faith in the E.U. member states Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus and Greece, all of which have the right to veto the sanctions that the E.U. has imposed on Russia for its incursions into Ukraine. By visiting Greece, Putin played on those bonds of faith to win over allies in Europe, whom he now needs more than ever. Because of a sharp drop in the price of oil, the Russian economy shrank by 3.7% last year, and it could face an all-out crisis unless the West agrees to lift its sanctions. For that to happen, at least one E.U. member state would have to veto them when they come up for a vote in January, and Greece seems like the safest bet. Not only has its left-wing government pledged to oppose the isolation of Russia, but its citizens are also remarkably sympathetic to the Kremlin. More than a third of Greeks (35%) expressed approval for Russia’s leaders in a recent Gallup poll, more than in any other E.U. member.
The politics of Orthodoxy has also served Putin well at home, especially in terms of discrediting the opposition. Soon after he decided to return for a third term as President in 2011, a revolt broke out against him within the Russian elite, whose more liberal wing wanted Putin and his fellow hard-liners to cede the Kremlin to a Westernizer. As the dissent grew and Putin’s popularity plummeted, he called on the monks of Mount Athos for support.
That November, one of the Greek elders of the Holy Mountain, Father Ephraim of the Vatopedi monastery, loaded one of its holiest relics onto a chartered airplane and flew it to Russia. Among the Orthodox, that relic is believed to be a belt that the Virgin Mary sewed for herself out of camel hair. It traveled through Russia for 39 days, allowing more than 3 million worshippers to bow before it and cross themselves. Among the first was Putin, who went to meet Father Ephraim at the airport.
On state TV, the images had a powerful effect, revealing the pious millions willing to rally around a religious icon–and a shared identity–that Putin helped bring to Russia. But it did not stamp out the revolt against him. Later that winter, protesters rallied around the country to call for his resignation, and Putin again turned to the Orthodox Church for support.
His opportunity came in the form of a performance-art collective called Pussy Riot, whose members barged into a Moscow cathedral in February 2012 and performed a crude song that called for the Virgin Mary to “chase Putin away.” Three of them were arrested and charged with felony hooliganism, setting in motion a show trial that cast the protest movement as an attack on Russia’s religious values. “It provided this really convenient peg for the regime to drive a wedge into the opposition and then control it,” says Geraldine Fagan, an academic who authored Believing in Russia, a book about the rise of piety in the ruins of Soviet atheism. “Given the symbolic importance of the church, it allowed the state to depict anything in favor of democratic accountability as some nefarious Western influence.”
It worked. The protests died down, and Putin soon began to apply the same religious rhetoric to his foreign policy. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the President declared in his state-of-the-nation address that Russia had taken back a land of “sacred importance.” The Black Sea peninsula, he pointed out, was where his namesake St. Vladimir the Great, the pagan ruler of ancient Russia, was baptized after converting to Orthodox Christianity in the 10th century. The Orthodox faith had always been vital to the formation of a Russian state, he said, out of the “various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world.”
The same notions came up again last fall, when Putin ordered Russian warplanes into Syria in what he described as an effort to protect that country’s Christian minority. To shore up that narrative, Putin even dispatched the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, to meet with Pope Francis in February. It was the first time an Orthodox Patriarch and a Catholic Pope had met since the two churches split in the year 1054, and it nearly caused a mutiny among the hard-liners within the Orthodox clergy.
But the political dividends for Putin were enormous. In their joint declaration, the leaders of the two biggest Christian churches in the world urged the international community to stop the “massive exodus” of Christians from Syria and Iraq. “Politically this showed that Russia is hardly in isolation,” says Sergei Chapnin, a religious scholar who edited the official journal of the Russian Orthodox Church until late last year. “It also demonstrated the importance of Russia to the world as a defender of Christians everywhere.”
After I’d spent a few days speaking with monks on Mount Athos, it became clear to me how eager they are to embrace this vision of Russia’s role in the world. Some of them do question whether, deep down, Putin’s faith could be genuine. His years of service in the Soviet KGB, which carried out the communist policy of atheism by sending thousands of priests to the Gulag, are not forgiven lightly. “There’s no such thing as ex-KGB,” one Russian monk, Father Ioannikiy, grumbled as he drove me around the zigzagging roads of Athos in his old pickup truck. “Each man has to answer for his sins.”
But among the more senior clergy, Putin is often regarded as a gift from God and potentially a saint in the making. Not since the age of the czars has a leader of such global significance–endowed with nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council–displayed such avid devotion to the Orthodox faith. The effect was almost intoxicating for many of the church’s followers, who have begun to saddle Putin with their hopes for an era of Orthodox revival.
“He is the model of an Orthodox leader,” says Father Nektarios, an elder monk on Mount Athos from the Greek monastery of Karakallou. In many ways, he told me, Putin’s fate is similar to that of St. Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity in the 4th century. “Putin also comes from a pagan nation that persecuted Christians,” says Father Nektarios, referring to the Soviet Union. “And through his entry into the church, he is returning the cross to its rightful place.”
That process feels like a vindication to Orthodox believers well beyond the shores of Athos. Among the members of Putin’s circle, there was always a small but influential group that showed devotion to the Orthodox faith. Some of them, like Dugin, became political theorists who lobbied for Russia to embrace its imperial destiny. Others held high posts in the military or security services. Still others were billionaires and industrialists, and over time they came to form what Dugin calls the Athos Club, a Kremlin clan that now dominates large parts of the Russian economy and the political elite.
One example is Yuri Chaika, Putin’s long-serving prosecutor general, who has said he often goes to Athos to “recharge his spiritual batteries.” His son, the businessman Artem Chaika, recently bought into a massive luxury resort a short drive from Athos. Another politically connected billionaire, Andrey Guryev, paid for the restoration of several pilgrimage sites on the Holy Mountain. “Everybody around here gets what he has from the Russians,” Father Simeon, the abbot of Xilurgu, told me one day in its newly renovated courtyard. “Everybody!”
With all that support, the monks were all too glad to return the favor when Putin arrived to see them. Emerging from his black Mercedes SUV into the hot sun of early summer, the President was shown into the Protaton, the oldest and holiest church on Mount Athos. Near the altar, one monk bowed to kiss his hand while another gestured for him to take a gilded stall resting atop a red-carpeted pedestal.
In its breathless live blog of the event, Dugin’s news agency informed readers that Putin had taken “the throne where only Byzantine emperors sat in the past.” In fact, that gilded stall may not have been reserved exclusively for heads of empires; senior bishops have been allowed to occupy it in the past. But it looked regal enough for Putin to hesitate as he approached it, as though unsure whether he was worthy. The monks assured him that he was. And as he listened to their fawning speeches beneath the frescoes of Orthodox saints, the President leaned back and relaxed. He seemed to feel right at home.
This appears in the September 12, 2016 issue of TIME.