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How the Russian Orthodox Church Helps Putin’s War


Jo Vladimir Putin, Orthodox Christianity is a tool to assert Moscow’s rights over sovereign Ukraine. In his February televised address announcing the recent invasion of Ukraine, he claimed that the people of this “former Russian land” had been Orthodox since time immemorial and were now being persecuted by an illegitimate regime in kyiv.

Headed by Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church is one of the most tangible cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine. The golden domes of the kyiv Caves Monastery and Saint Sophia Cathedral have attracted pilgrims from both countries for almost a thousand years.

With religious rhetoric, Putin taps into a long tradition that imagines a Greater Russia stretching across present-day Ukraine and Belarus, in a combined territory known as Holy Rus’. Nostalgic for the empire, he considers the spiritual unity of the three nations as the key to Russia’s land power as an exceptional civilization. Encouraged by Putin’s “special operation”, Russian Orthodox nationalists fondly recall the prophecy of a 20th-century saint from Chernihiv, now one of Ukraine’s beleaguered cities. “Just as the Lord God is the indivisible Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” said this monk, “so Russia, Ukraine and Belarus together are Holy Rus’ and cannot be separated.”

Putin is not the first modern leader in Moscow to co-opt this idea as he seeks to consolidate secular power. During the darkest hours of World War II, Stalin reestablished the Russian Orthodox Church – after almost bleeding it dry – and replaced the Communist International with a new national anthem. His lyrics affirmed that the Soviet Union was “unbreakable, united forever by Great Rus'”.

Around 2007, the Kremlin advanced the Allied concept of Russky Mir, or Russian World, initially a soft power project to promote Russian culture to the world and assimilated by Patriarch Cyril to the British Commonwealth. Putin, however, disturbed by mass protests against his authoritarian rule 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 program.

Disproportionate importance now goes to the Russian tradition of holy warriors. It was by a remarkable coincidence, Putin told thousands of flag-waving supporters at a recent rally at a Moscow stadium, that the military operation in Ukraine began on the birthday of Saint Theodore Ushakov. , an 18th-century Russian naval commander famous for never losing a single battle. . “He once said, ‘This threat will serve to glorify Russia,'” Putin enthused. “It was then, it is now and it always will be!”

Set 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 with disgust. “That cannot be an example for us.” With the attack on the current ruler of kyiv, even small acts of Christian pacifism by Russians are undone. A priest from a remote village has been fined hundreds of dollars for publicly refusing to support the war and thus “calling black-white bad-good”. A young woman was held outside Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral for holding up a simple sign bearing the biblical command “Thou shalt not kill”.

Read more: Russia’s problems go much deeper than Putin

In this, Putin can count on the support of a chauvinistic body of opinion which now dominates the hierarchy of the Church. 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. Last March, at the very spot where Pussy Riot made their infamous protest against the intimate ties between the Church and the Kremlin ten years ago, the patriarch presented an icon to the head of the Russian National Guard – the same unit which is now said to have suffered heavy casualties in Ukraine – in the hope that it would “inspire new recruits to take the oath”.

Kirill is no exception in his support for the war, as no senior religious leader in Russia has expressed dissent. “Everything the president does is right,” an archbishop told local news agency Regnum in late March. “Speaking as a monarchist, I would personally place a crown on Putin’s head if God would grant the opportunity.” A similar fervor is found among respected priests in Moscow parishes. “Russian peacekeepers are carrying out a special operation to organize Nuremberg trials against all of Europe,” one preached in a recent sermon, as he denied reports of casualties civil. “What is the West capable of producing? Only ISIS and neofascism.

This priest concluded his sermon with the hope that Kazakhstan, Moldova and Georgia would be reunited with Russia, in addition to Ukraine. But if Putin is looking to restore his legacy as a collector of historic Russian land, there’s a problem. The people of Ukraine are not interested in being “liberated” by his operation to “denazify” their country. “The Russian world has arrived! a the woman screamed sarcastically as she filmed invading troops facing a crowd of angry locals just 20 miles from Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. “We’re not expecting you, so get out of here!” Hours after the first missile strikes on February 24, even the Orthodox Church of Ukraine which is under the Patriarch of Moscow turned indignantly against Putin. “We ask you to immediately stop this fratricidal war,” implored Metropolitan Onuphre. “Such a war has no justification either before God or before man.”

Putin’s misadventure is therefore both a spiritual and a military misadventure. Similar to Stalin’s pivot at the lowest point of World War II, his reliance on the Orthodox Church over the past decade smacks of desperation. This hardly stems from a personal commitment to the faith: while projected as a believer from the start of his presidency, for more than a decade, Putin largely pushed back against the Church’s political goals – such as compulsory classes on Orthodoxy in public schools – until he needed autocracy. symbolism prevailed after he returned to the presidency in 2011-12. Throughout his reign, he always spoke and behaved in contradiction to normative Orthodox Christian behavior, for example by asserting that the choice of faith does not matter since all religious categories are an invention human, or by awkwardly saluting the patriarch Kirill with the gestures reserved for the veneration of a sacred relic. or icon.

The belligerent rhetoric of Orthodox clerics resonates with some devout Russians, but this is a narrow swath of the population. While a 2019 national poll found that more than 60% of Russians over the age of 25 identify as Orthodox, those who pay attention to the institutional life of the Church – such as attending Easter worship services – represent only a few percent. The same poll found a steep drop in the number of people identifying as Orthodox in the 18-24 age bracket – just 23%.

This contrasts sharply with Ukraine, where a quarter of the population attends Easter services and a majority of 18-24 year olds define themselves as believers. The rapid and total alienation of millions of Ukrainian Orthodox is a colossal price for Patriarch Cyril to pay for his loyalty to Putin, with Ukraine being the location of a third of his parishes and monasteries. The Patriarch’s international reputation is also in jeopardy, as foreign Orthodox not gagged by the Kremlin’s new ban on criticizing the Russian armed forces have condemned the war – including Kirill’s own bishops in Estonia and Lithuania – as well as the Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Instead of a Russian world, the Patriarch of Moscow may soon see his authority stop at the borders of the Russian Federation.

The diminishing reach of the Church therefore means that Putin cannot use it to restore the age-old dream of an enlarged Holy Rus’. Approaching 70, however, the Russian president has no long-term ambition to cement Orthodox spirituality – only his personal hold on power for many more years that God grants him.

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