With his flagging poll ratings and uphill battle for re-election in 2012, President Obama could be forgiven for casting an envious eye at Vladimir Putin. Not only does the country’s former and soon-to-be again president remain popular after more than a decade in positions of power, it’s now been revealed that some sections of Russian society even worship the Kremlin strongman as a saint.
According to Der Spiegel, a sect of the Russian Orthodox Church based in the village of Bolshaya Elnya believes Putin is a reincarnation of St. Paul. The similarity apparently lies in the fact that Paul the Apostle persecuted Christians before sainthood, just as Putin did some unrighteous things as a Soviet KGB officer.
Led by Mother Fotina, who considers herself a reincarnation of Joan of Arc, the female followers in the village spread out prayer mats at a homemade altar in a functional three-story brick building – called the Chapel of Russia’s Resurrection – and pray for the success of their (political) patron saint.
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“God has appointed Putin to Russia to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ,” said Fotina. “He has the spirit of a czar in him…Every day we’ve prayed for him to return to the Kremlin.”
However, a closer look at Mother Fotina’s past life perhaps holds better clues to the sect’s purpose. Allegedly jailed for 21 months in the mid-1990s for embezzling state money, upon her release Fotina opened the Center for Cosmo-Energetic Medicine. The local Orthodox Church were reportedly unhappy at the move, accusing her of witchcraft.
“A few years ago the Orthodox Church put the state police (or FSB, a successor to the KGB) on her trail,” said a retired army officer from her neighborhood. “After that, she started to praise Putin in public as a saint — to protect herself from investigation.”
But apparently this is not the only place where Putin worship occurs. In the current Prime Minister’s hometown of Saint Petersburg, posters proliferate of him as an angel extending his hand blessing the city’s inhabitants, while civic and political leaders regularly praise him emphatically in quasi-religious terms. Vladislav Surkow, the influential deputy chief of the Kremlin administration, once said Putin is “a man whom fate and the Lord sent to Russia.”
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Joe Jackson is a contributor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @joejackson. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.