When the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from its sister church in Russia in 2019, Vladimir Putin, "chosen by God" to rule Russia, interpreted the move as an attempt to diminish the power of the Russian Orthodox Church that he put center-stage in Russian politics.
To get a glimmer of understanding of the religious dimensions of the invasion of Ukraine one has to cast one’s mind back to the Pussy Riot affair of 2012.
In that year, the Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot staged a performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest the Orthodox Church leaders’ support for Putin during his election campaign.
Three members of the performance were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, and each was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
Five years later, Glenn Ellis and Viktoryia Kolchyna, writing for Al Jazeera, said of the Pussy Riot affair:
At the time, this was a relatively fringe concern; most Russians had other things on their minds – such as the country’s economic problems, its deteriorating relationship with the West over Syria, and the re-election of Putin to the top job after an interregnum as prime minister.
But now it’s back on the agenda because many of Putin’s opponents believe the glowing endorsements and mutual back-slaps the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church give each other these days are contributing to ever more tightly defined social and religious conservatism, intolerant nationalism and a growing personality cult around the president.
In an in-depth investigation of the growing power of the Russian Orthodox church, the two journalists met with Alexander Dugin, editor-in-chief of Russia’s ultra-conservative Orthodox channel, Tsargrad TV. They quoted The channel’s owner, Kremlin-connected investment banker Konstantin Malofeev, who was once dubbed “God’s oligarch,” as saying:
We live now in Russia … a delightful period, a period of triumph of Christianity.
Malofeev is clear as to who is responsible.
President Putin is our leader … given to us by God.
After the Ukraine invasion, the religious aspect was taken up again by Diana Butler Bass. Writing for Religion News Service she pointed out that, “While the secular media tries to guess Vladimir Putin’s motives in Ukraine, one important aspect of the current situation has gone largely ignored: religion.”
I’m no expert in Eastern European history, but my training in church history offers a lens into the events in Ukraine. In effect, the world is witnessing a new version of an old tale—the quest to re-create an imperial Christian state, a neo-medieval “Holy Roman Empire”—uniting political, economic and spiritual power into an entity to control the earthly and heavenly destiny of European peoples.
The dream gripping some quarters of the West is for a coalition to unify religious conservatives into a kind of supra-national neo-Christendom. The theory is to create a partnership between American evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics in Western countries and Orthodox peoples under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church in a common front against three enemies—decadent secularism, a rising China and Islam—for a glorious rebirth of moral purity and Christian culture.
When the two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and Russia split—a move described as “autocephaly”— it dealt a “seismic” blow to the Russian Orthodox Church. The European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out at the time that the event was historic not just for Ukraine, but for Russia and the whole Orthodox world too.
For Ukrainians, autocephaly was a sign of their country moving towards greater independence from Russia, now in matters clerical as well as earthly. For a country still stuck in a slow-moving war with Russia, this was no small matter. Nor was it a small matter for Russia.
Just under one-third of the Russian Orthodox Church’s 36,000 parishes are to be found in Ukraine, and their status is now in question. The Russian Orthodox Church is set to lose territory, believers, and a huge amount of symbolic power.
And it has not taken it well: ‘It is impossible for us to separate Kiev from our country, as this is where our history began. The Russian Orthodox Church preserves the national consciousness of both Russians and Ukrainians”, said Kirill (Gundyaev), Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’.
Vladimir Putin echoed this, arguing that autocephaly’s main objective is to “divide the people of Russia and Ukraine, to sow national and religious divisions”.
The invasion, like so many other conflicts over the ages, has religion at its center, and war has to be seen in the context of the Russian Church’s paranoid vision of encroaching secularism.
According to France24, Patriarch Kirill, pictured above consecrating the Patriarchal Main Military Cathedral of Christ’s Resurrection, frequently justifies police crackdowns on opposition rallies and blesses Russian weapons and troops deployed abroad. In 2012, he called Putin a “miracle of God”.
To justify Russia’s invasion, which began on Thursday, Kirill invoked the common historical roots of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, speaking in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow said, “We have to do everything to preserve peace between our people and at the same time defend our common historic homeland from all external actions which can destroy this unity.”