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Putin and the Slavic soul

Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds a glass during a ceremony of receiving diplomatic credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2016.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds a glass during a ceremony of receiving diplomatic credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2016. | (Photo: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)

“I don’t think you have a soul,” said Joe Biden to Vladimir Putin in 2011 when Biden was vice president of the United States.

Putin seemed to confirm that opinion in his reply to Biden: “Then we understand each other.”

If it is true that Putin is soulless, it is a great tragedy. There is a compelling richness in the Slavic soul, a fetching passion that is hard to dismiss.

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I experienced it the first time in Kyiv. I was there for several weeks in the early 1990s lecturing on ethics at the newly formed St. James Bible College.

The students rushed toward whatever we teachers could give them like rescued miners long trapped in a collapsed cave surging into the sunlight.

There was a vibrancy in the way the Slavic soul worshipped that still sticks in my own soul these decades later. I saw that soul in the face of a beautiful young woman rejoicing in her new freedoms as she described being baptized secretly by immersion in an ice-covered stream on a dark Sunday midnight.

In different parts of the Soviet bloc, I heard the Slavic passion in the preaching of the Word. Had there been no translator, my own soul would have resonated with the message.

Putin has no soul?  He believes he may be an “orthodox messiah”?[1] Much of the world wonder about all that as it looks at the corpses of a mother and her two children lying in a gutter, brought down by Putin’s soldiers.

Such atrocity seems to suggest that Biden was right about Putin being “soulless”.  Yet every human being — even Vladimir Putin — is made in the image of God. He is triune and so are His image-bearers. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Men and women are spirit, soul and body (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

The human soul has the function of thought, emotion, will or volition. Soul and body are to be led by God’s Holy Spirit indwelling the human spirit. When that relationship exists, it results in the “fruit of the Spirit”:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Tragedy comes when the soul operates without the Holy Spirit. It is a terrible thing to be soulless, but it is a disastrous thing to be spiritless.

Apparently, Putin has a form of religion. One of the explanations for his determination to halt Ukraine’s westward gravitation is that he sees Kyiv as the seat of the Orthodoxy that is at the heart of what defines Slavic ethnicity and nationhood. Thus, perhaps to his mind, as some have suggested, Kyiv is the “New Jerusalem.”

If that is true, then his bloody crusade centers on preserving an institution of religion. However, Jesus makes it clear that the Gospel of His Kingdom is not to be spread through force, but through the witness of a godly life and the proclamation of God’s grace through Christ.

Among others, the face of the Slavic soul can be seen in two men who have impacted me and scores of others. One of them blessed me personally and up close, and the other from a distance.

Georgi Vins was a pastor and leader of a group of independent Baptists in Russia who suffered much under one of Putin’s predecessors, Nikita Khrushchev. On one occasion, Vins dared to go before the Central Committee of the Soviet regime to demand to know about some of their fellow Christians who had been arrested.

Rather than give an answer, the communist authorities arrested Vins and his group. After serving a prison sentence Vins was released and began preaching again, only to be re-arrested.

One day in the late 1970s, I read about Vins’ plight and was moved to begin praying for him. By then I was a pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, and never dreamed of personally meeting Vins. After all, he was in Siberia.

However, in 1979, through the efforts of President Jimmy Carter, Vins was released in a swap for some Soviet spies held in the United States. One day several months later, I was given the opportunity to have Vins come to Birmingham and preach in the church I was serving.

Vins and his wife stayed in our home for several days. There was no doubt that Georgi Vins was a true face of the Slavic soul.

Vins impacted me up close, but Alexander Solzhenitsyn revealed the Slavic soul at a distance for me and many others.

After being prosecuted, persecuted and imprisoned in the gulag, about which he would write, Solzhenitsyn was exiled to the United States. Like Vins, he was never truly comfortable here. Their Slavic souls yearned for their homeland.

And, like Vins, Solzhenitsyn continued to speak out. The passion of his Slavic soul for raw truth was especially evident in the speech he gave at Harvard University as he received the Templeton Award in 1983. Solzhenitsyn said that in the Soviet Union, “the lie has become not just a moral category, but a pillar of the state.”

Then, still at Harvard, a bastion of secular elitist culture, Solzhenitsyn was not afraid to address the American establishment with the truth of what caused the problems in Russia and threatened the United States.

“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that have befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that is why all this has happened.’”

So, if you want to see into the Slavic soul, look at Vins and Solzhenitsyn.

There is evidence that Putin is looking at the “strongman” imagery that characterized the First World War, and is seeking alliances with those he considers adequate role models of dominance. Pray now that Vladimir Putin will have a passion to pattern himself on Vins and Solzhenitsyn and receive the Christ they served and the Holy Spirit who empowered them.

That may be the only hope in this desperate moment we inhabit.

[1] Does Vlad Putin Believe He is the Orthodox Messiah? – Absolute Truth from the Word of God (

Wallace Henley was born two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1941. After serving as a White House aide during the Nixon administration, Henley went on to become an award-winning journalist for the Birmingham News in Alabama. He is the author of more than 20 books, including God and Churchill with Jonathan Sandys, Winston Churchill’s great-grandson. Henley has led leadership conferences around the globe. He has been married to his wife, Irene, for more than 50 years. They have two children, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. His latest book, Who Will Rule the Coming 'gods': The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence, is available wherever books are sold.

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