How the Russian Orthodox Church is Helping Putin’s War

To Vladimir Putin, Orthodox Christianity is a tool for asserting Moscow’s rights over sovereign Ukraine. In his February televised address announcing the recent invasion of Ukraine, he argued the inhabitants of that “ancient Russian land” were Orthodox from time immemorial, and now faced persecution from an illegitimate regime in Kyiv.

The Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill is one of Russia’s most visible cultural ties with Ukraine. The gilded domes of Kyiv’s Monastery of the Caves and St. Sophia Cathedral have beckoned pilgrims from across both lands for nigh on a thousand years.

With religious rhetoric, Putin taps into a long tradition that imagines a Greater Russia extending across present-day Ukraine and Belarus, in a combined territory known as Holy Rus’. Nostalgic for empire, this sees the spiritual unity of the three nations as key to Russia’s earthly power as an exceptional civilization. Encouraged by Putin’s “special operation,” Russian Orthodox nationalists are excitedly recalling the prophecy of a twentieth-century saint from Chernihiv, now one of Ukraine’s beleaguered cities. “Just as the One Lord God is the indivisible Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” this monk fortold, “so Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus together are Holy Rus’ and cannot be separated.”

Putin is not the only contemporary ruler in Moscow who has coopted this idea for secular power consolidation. During the darkest hours of World War Two, Stalin reinstated the Russian Orthodox Church—having almost bled it dry—and replaced the communist Internationale with a new national anthem. Its lyrics asserted that the Soviet Union was “unbreakable, welded together forever by Great Rus’.”

In 2007, the Kremlin advanced the allies concept. Russky MirThe Russian World (or the Russian World) was initially an initiative of soft power to promote Russian culture around the world. Patriarch Kirill compared it to the British Commonwealth. Putin, however—unsettled by mass protests against his authoritarian regime in 2011-12 as well as those that toppled his vassal in Ukraine in 2013-14—has since twisted both Holy Rus’ and the Russian World to serve a more violent agenda.

Outsized emphasis now goes to Russia’s tradition of warrior saints. Putin, a remarkable coincidence, told thousands of supporters who waved flags at the Moscow stadium rally that Ukraine’s military operation began on Saint Theodore Ushakov’s birthday. He was an 18th-century Russian naval commander, known for his unflagging victories. “He once said, ‘This threat will serve to glorify Russia,’” Putin enthused. “That was the case then, is now, and ever shall be!”

Cast aside is an alternative Christian holy tradition of defiant passive resistance, exemplified by the first saints to be canonized in medieval Rus’, the Kyiv princes Boris and Gleb, who accepted martyrdom at the hands of their brother. “They gave up without a fight,” Putin once remarked in disgust. “This cannot be an example for us.” With the attack on Kyiv’s current ruler, even small acts of Christian pacifism by Russians are quashed. A remote village priest was fined hundreds of dollars for publicly refusing to support the war and thus “call black—white, evil—good.” A young woman was detained outside Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral for holding up a simple sign bearing the biblical commandment, “Thou shallt not kill.”

Read More: Russia’s Problems Go Much Deeper Than Putin

This Putin has the support of the jingoist opinion that now dominates the Church hierarchy. Flanked by medal-laden Defense Minister Shoigu at the 2020 consecration of a cavernous black and green military cathedral, Patriarch Kirill prayed that Russia’s armed forces would never suffer defeat. This March, on the very same spot where Pussy Riot made their infamous protest against cozy Church-Kremlin ties a decade ago, the Patriarch presented an icon to the head of Russia’s National Guard—the same unit now reportedly suffering heavy losses in Ukraine—in the hope that this would “inspire new recruits taking their oath.”

Kirill, like all senior Russian clergymen, isn’t an exception to his support of the war. “Everything the president does is right,” one archbishop told local news agency Regnum in late March. “Speaking as a monarchist, I would personally place a crown upon Putin’s head if God granted the opportunity.” Similar fervor is found among respected Moscow parish priests. “Russian peacekeepers are conducting a special operation in order to hold Nuremberg trials against the whole of Europe,” one preached during a recent sermon, as he denied reports of civilian casualties. “What is the West able to produce? Only ISIS and neofascism.”

The priest ended his sermon by expressing hope that Kazakhstan and Moldova would be reunited along with Russia. Putin may be trying to preserve his historical Russian land collection legacy, but that is not the problem. The inhabitants of Ukraine are not interested in being “liberated” by his operation to “de-Nazify” their country. “The Russian World has arrived!” one woman shouted sarcastically as she filmed invading troops facing off against a crowd of angry locals just 20 miles from Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. “We are not waiting for you, so get out of here!” Within hours of the first missile strikes on February 24, even the the Orthodox Church in Ukraine that is under the Patriarch of Moscow turned indignantly to Putin. “We ask that you stop this fratricidal war immediately,” Metropolitan Onuphry implored. “Such a war has justification before neither God nor man.”

Putin’s is thus a spiritual, as well as military, misadventure. Similar to Stalin’s pivot at the lowest point in World War Two, his reliance upon the Orthodox Church over the last decade smacks of desperation. It hardly stems from personal commitment to the faith: while projected as a believer from the beginning of his presidency, for more than a decade Putin largely rebuffed the Church’s policy goals—such as mandatory classes on Orthodoxy in public schools—until his need for autocratic symbolism prevailed after his return to the presidency in 2011-12. His rule was marked by inconsistent Orthodox Christian conduct. He claimed the choice of religion is irrelevant because all religious categories are created by man, and awkwardly welcomed Patriarch Kirill in awkward gestures that were reserved for veneration of sacred icons or relics.

While some Orthodox clerics do use bellicose rhetoric, this only resonates with a small portion of Russians. While a 2019 national poll found that over 60 percent of Russians older than 25 identify as Orthodox, those attentive to institutional Church life—such as by attending Easter worship services—amount to only a few percent. The same poll found a precipitous drop in those identifying as Orthodox among the 18-24 age group—just 23 percent.

This stark contrasts with Ukraine where only 25% attend Easter services and the majority of people between 18-24 years old consider themselves believers. The Patriarch Kirill paid a huge price to be loyal to Putin by allowing the total and swift alienation of Ukrainian Orthodox to occur. Ukraine is where three quarters of his monasteries and parishes are situated. The Patriarch’s international standing is also shot, as Orthodox abroad not gagged by the Kremlin’s new ban on criticism of the Russian armed forces have condemned the war—including Kirill’s own bishops in Estonia and Lithuania—along with Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Moscow Patriarch could soon see his authority diminish at the Russian Federation’s borders, instead of an envisioned Russian World.

The Church’s dwindling reach thus means that Putin cannot use it to restore the age-old dream of an expanded Holy Rus’. Approaching 70, however, Russia’s president has no long-term ambition to consolidate Orthodox spirituality—only his personal grip on power for however many more years God grants him.

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