During the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade celebrations held on October 20, 2017, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu presented Serbian Patriarch Irinej an icon at the Saint Sava Cathedral in Belgrade. Patriarch Irinej had also attended the Freedom 2017 celebration as a guest of honor at the Belgrade Batajnica military airport along with Serbian President Alexander Vucic, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, Defense Minister Alexander Vulin, Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Chepurin, and President of the Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik. The 2017 liberation celebrations focused on the Russian support for the Serbian Orthodox Church.
General Shoigu, accompanied by Vulin and Chepurin, presented the icon, made by the Grekov Studio of Military Artists in Moscow, to Patriarch Irinej in the Saint Sava Church.
When he presented the painting, Shoigu stated: “Heart and soul have been put into it. I would like that a piece of our heart, our soul, would always live here”. The icon would remain in the church.
St. Sava was completed in 2004. Work on the church had started in 1894. Construction was halted during World War II and after the war when the Communist regime assumed power. Plans to finish the church were approved only in 1986.
The religious icon was created by the Grekov Studio of Military Art, a collective of military artists, which is part of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. The studio was established in 1934 by the Soviet military artist Mitrofan Grekov. The studio had been approved by the People’s Commissar of Defense Kliment Voroshilov. It was made up of amateur artists at first but later incorporated professionals. The original intent was to promote the Soviet Red Army and to depict Soviet battles and wartime events in a positive light.
With the emergence of the Russian Federation, the studio has experienced a transformation. No longer ideologically based, the studio focuses on depicting periods prior to the 1917 October Revolution. From paintings on the Red Army soldier and battlefields, the emphasis has shifted to the Czarist period and on Russian Orthodoxy. Their perspective has come full circle. There has been a parallel shift in Serbia. The result has been closer ties between the Russian and Serbian Orthodox Churches corresponding to the closer political and military ties.
Russian and Serbian religious ties had been re-established prior to the 2017 visit. Shoigu had met Irinej in 2004 when he made an official visit to Belgrade on March 23. Shoigu was received by Serbian Patriarch Pavle, accompanied by members of the Holy Synod of Bishops, Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral, and Bishops Lavrentije of Shabac-Valjevo and Irinej of Nish. Shoigu was then the Disaster Minister of the Russian Federal Government.
He informed the members of the Holy Synod that he had come to Serbia by directive of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He came with the blessing of Russian Patriarch Alexei of Moscow and All Russia.
He stated that the Russian Federation strongly condemned the March 17-18, 2004 Albanian terrorist attacks against the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija and their shrines. He informed them that the Russian Government had delivered humanitarian aid “to the suffering Kosovo Serbs”. Since the arrival of the UN peacekeeping force, 112 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries had been either completely destroyed or damaged by Kosovo Albanians.
Patriarch Pavle expressed his thanks to Shoigu for the support and assistance of the Russian people, their Church and State, given not only to the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija, but also to those who have suffered during the last decade of the past century.
Patriarch Pavle had gone to Moscow on a visit to the Russian Orthodox Church on January 20, 2002 at the invitation of the Unity of Orthodox Nations Foundation. Russian Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia and members of the Holy Synod had met the Serbian Primate at the Sheremetyevo Airport. Patriarch Pavle said that he was happy to visit Orthodox Russia: “I have come to my own people”.
Russia has consistently supported the sovereignty of Serbia over Kosovo and Metohija and its territorial integrity. Russia has sought to safeguard Kosovo Serbs and to preserve and to maintain the Orthodox religious legacy and heritage. Russia also backs the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republika Srpska (RS) and seeks to safeguard the Serbian population in Bosnia-Hercegovina and to preserve the Orthodox legacy.
The October 20, 2017 meeting between Sergei Shoigu and Patriarch Irinej represents the continuation and reaffirmation of the historic and traditional links between the Russian and Serbian churches.
The October 20, 1944 liberation of Belgrade by the Soviet Red Army has lost much of its ideological context. It had been extolled during the Cold War period as a victory of Josip Broz Tito and the Partisan guerrillas. It was presented as Tito’s military defeat of Germany and the Partisan liberation of Belgrade and Serbia. But this false and grossly inaccurate picture has been replaced. Now the event is perceived as an important event in Serbian history when Russia was able to help the Serbian people to free themselves from German occupation. The focus has shifted now with an emphasis on Russia and the central role it played in that event. Gone is the emphasis on Communism and the Soviet Union and the Red Army. There has been a shift in emphasis or focus. The focus now is on the historical ties between Russia and Serbia and how the common political, military, and religious bonds have united the two countries throughout history.
Gone are the ideological and political constraints of the Cold War when Communist Yugoslavia sought to maintain a delicate balancing act between the two superpower blocs. Ideology has been replaced by national interests and security. This change and re-evaluation has resulted in closer political, military, and religious ties between Russia and Serbia.