Russia’s Orthodox Church paints the conflict in Ukraine as a holy war
In an unholy alliance, it is helping Vladimir Putin to justify his war at home
RUSSIA’S CATHEDRAL of the Armed Forces was consecrated in 2020. It sits in Patriot Park, a military theme park in Kubinka, around 60km to the west of Moscow. The church is khaki green, topped with a gold Orthodox cross. The diameter of the main dome, at 19.45m, references the end of the second world war. Nazi tanks were melted to make the floor. Angels gaze down on Russian soldiers in a mosaic commemorating the country’s role in Syria’s civil war, the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In Russia, church and military go hand in hand. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, implicitly supports Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He spouts Kremlin propaganda, claiming that Russia is not the aggressor and that genocide is being perpetrated by Ukrainians against Russian speakers in the Donbas. Nor is his endorsement of this war unique. During his tenure, Russian priests have blessed bombs destined for Syria and Crimea. Bishop Stefan of Klin, who presides over the Cathedral of the Armed Forces, leads the church’s department for co-operation with the army. Before taking holy orders he was an officer in the missile-defense force.
The Russian church was suppressed for decades under communism. Church property was seized by the state. Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral was blown up in 1931 to make way for a political convention centre (it was never completed). But the link between faith and national identity was not severed. In 2015, 71% of Russians identified as Orthodox and 57% said following the faith was an important part of what it meant to be Russian. Many perceive the church to be of growing importance in their lives, although few attend. This makes it a powerful tool of propaganda—a conduit through which to promote a single vision of Russian values, at odds with Western liberal societies.
That is probably why Mr Putin has championed its resurgence. According to “First Person”, a collection of interviews with the Russian leader published in 2000, he wears a cross given to him by his mother when she had him secretly baptised as a baby. He has long chosen to present himself as a devout Orthodox Christian (charming George W. Bush, the American former president, with his piety) and promotes conservative religious values as a key tenet of nationalism. In 2007 he described nuclear armament and Orthodoxy as the two pillars of Russian society, guaranteeing external security and the moral health of the country respectively. But under Mr Putin’s leadership, the church might be better seen as a tool of internal security, promoting a vision of Russian identity compliant with the goals of his regime. It is perhaps no surprise that when Pussy Riot, a female punk band, protested against his premiership in 2012, they did so in a Moscow cathedral.
Patriarch Kirill is a staunch ally of Mr Putin. In 2012, he described his presidency as a “miracle of God”. It has certainly benefited the church. On Mr Putin’s watch, Russia has passed laws that restrict the rights of rival religious groups, retrieved religious artefacts that were sold off under communism, and built thousands of churches. All that has bolstered the power that church leaders have to influence large swathes of the population. In 2007 the church reunited with many Russian parishes outside the country, healing a rift of 80 years. This boosted its power as a tool of foreign policy in the diaspora too.
Church support for the invasion of Ukraine benefits the Kremlin in two important ways. First, the church emphasises the historic links between Ukraine and Russia. Kyiv, today the capital of Ukraine, was the seat of Orthodoxy when it arrived in tenth-century Kyivan Rus, a kingdom that at its height spanned modern-day Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia. Moscow oversaw the sole legitimate Orthodox church in Ukraine until 2019, when a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church was proclaimed. Patriarch Kirill has never accepted its autonomy. This month he described the peoples of Russia and Ukraine as coming “from one Kievan baptismal font” and claimed that they “share a common historical fate”. That argument helps to justify Russia’s spurious claims that it is liberating its neighbour.
Second, Patriarch Kirill has long attacked the West for its perceived decadence, contrasting its “sinfulness” with conservative Russian values. He has painted the breakaway regions of Ukraine as victims of encroaching liberal influence, and seemed, bizarrely, to claim the war was happening in part because people in the Donbas do not want gay-pride parades to be imposed upon them. In a letter responding to the World Council of Churches, which had called on him to mediate for peace, he claimed his country was not the aggressor and that the “tragic conflict” had become part of a “geopolitical strategy aimed, first and foremost, at weakening Russia.”
This untempered support of Kremlin propaganda has divided the church. More than 280 Russian Orthodox priests from around the world have signed an open letter condemning the invasion. Many of Moscow’s clerical supporters in Ukraine are now omitting Patriarch Kirill from their prayers. A parish in Amsterdam has resolved to quit the church; it intends to join the Istanbul-based Patriarchate of Constantinople, Orthodoxy’s oldest see.
The dissent is unlikely to sway church leaders in Moscow. The patriarch has begun to cast the conflict as a holy war, with implications that he says go beyond politics. “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” he warned the faithful in his sermon on Forgiveness Sunday, the last day before Lent in the Orthodox calendar. The Armed Forces Cathedral’s mosaic commemorating the Russian wars that God has supposedly smiled upon leaves room for future conflicts. Ukraine may soon join the list.