On Saturday evening it was almost sickening to watch Vladimir Putin taking centre stage at the midnight Easter service in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, surrounded by fawning clergy from the Russian Orthodox Church. This at the same time as Orthodox Christians were celebrating the resurrection, the most important day in their year.
The leadership of the church has refused to acknowledge the invasion. Instead, they talk vaguely of a need for peace in Ukraine as a result of the actions of the West, at the same time as constantly expounding the view that the Ukrainian and Russian peoples are part of the same greater Russian family. The hostilities are blamed on the rest of Europe and the United States, who are vilified as being evil, corrupt and immoral, a description that appears to find a ready acceptance amongst at least part of the church’s congregation.
A holy war
They are in fact viewing the invasion as a holy war. Speaking at the end of February, days after the invasion Patriarch Kirill commented:
“God forbid that the present political situation in fraternal Ukraine so close to us should be aimed at making the evil forces that have always strived against the unity of Rus’ and the Russian Church, gain the upper hand. God forbid that a terrible line stained with the blood of our brothers should be drawn between Russia and Ukraine.”
What are the links between Putin and the Church? And more importantly, what are the factors that drives Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine or indeed cynically gives him a further lame excuse to justify his war crimes or indeed genocide?
Russkiy Mir: a “civilizational mythology”
One answer is the ‘Russian World’ or ‘Russkiy Mir,’ an Orthodox ethno-phyletist religious fundamentalism based on very dubious theology and revisionist history. It has been said that the ‘Russian World’ has a common political centre (Moscow), a common spiritual centre (Kyiv), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church) and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow).
“The ‘Russian world’ civilizational mythology holds that there exists a grand Russian civilization based on a ‘spiritual unity’ between Belarussians, Ukrainians, and Russians, all holding the same Orthodox faith and language (i.e., the Russian). That ‘Russian world’ is a society of ‘traditional values’ and is cast in opposition to a perceived decadent West. It is a romanticized ideology of historical grievances and collective scapegoating.
“It is also an ideology based on historical revisionism since the complex and distinct histories of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are glossed over in order to construct a mythical historical narrative of the rise of the ‘Russian world’ from ancient Kyivan Rus’ through the ‘holy city’ of Kyiv, all bequeathed today to the Russian Orthodox Church and the ‘Russian’ peoples.”
The ‘Russian World’: an ideal hook for Putin’s ambitions
Putin was something of a latecomer to the ‘Russian World’ party and, for the first two terms of his presidency, also to the church. The arrival of Kirill in 2009 with his supportive views appears to have changed that. For a president, either still smarting at the breakdown of the Soviet Union or with grandiose dreams of restoring the Russian Empire or indeed both, it must have seemed like the ideal hook on which to hang his expansionist ambitions.
“Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization, and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.”
Other Orthodox churches distancing themselves
The Kremlin’s use of the church is not a surprise in a region where, according to the Pew Research Centre, some 70 percent of the population identify as being of the Orthodox religion.
It is a tactic that might be backfiring however, with other Orthodox churches distancing themselves from the Russian regime and the Russian Church. On 13 March 2022 there were almost 1500 signatories from across the world to an uncompromising rebuttal of Russia’s actions and the ideology in a ‘Declaration of Orthodox Theologians on the Russian World (Ruskii Mir) Teaching’.
A failed attempt to subjugate Ukraine
Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church’s hierarchy continue to pursue their discredited and brutal agenda and the war goes on. The next few weeks will prove decisive. Speaking after his visit to Ukraine, the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, summed up his view of the current situation and his hopes for the future:
“Russia has sought as its principal aim to totally subjugate Ukraine, to take away its sovereignty, to take away its independence – that has failed.
“We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene.”
Given the spirit, heroism, and determination of the people of Ukraine, most of the country’s population really do not want to be a part of Putin’s Russian World.