In October 2015, Russia’s newly launched military intervention in defense of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad received a clerical blessing. Patriarch Kirill, the powerful leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, declared the operation “a responsible decision to use military forces to protect the Syrian people from the woes brought on by the tyranny of terrorists.”
The main spokesman for Kirill’s church went even further: “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it,” said the head of the church’s public affairs department, Vsevolod Chaplin, in a quote reported by Interfax news agency.
Seven years later, Kirill and his loyal clergy now deliver sermons about their country’s role in another righteous, holy battle. It doesn’t matter that many Ukrainians weathering the brunt of the Russian war machine are Kirill’s co-congregants – there are some 12,000 parishes in Ukraine subject to the church in Moscow. As Russia embarks on a new large-scale offensive in the east of the country, Kirill has articulated little concern about the millions of Ukrainian lives hanging in the balance.
Instead, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church has sounded the same sort of ominous and profoundly ideological rhetoric as Putin. He cast the fight as a religious and national drama, an existential battle of good and evil, a clash between Russo-Slavic tradition, values and unity and the corrupting foreign influences festering at Russia’s border.
“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” the patriarch said in a sermon on March 6.
Kirill went on, claiming God was on Russia’s side and expanding his critique of Western liberalism: “Today there is a test for the loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to that ‘happy’ world, the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom,’ ” he said. “Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible – it is the gay pride parade.”
You may be wondering what LGBT rights have to do with the bloody war in Ukraine. But Kirill has long framed Russian geopolitical challenges in these terms, as the conflict between a conservative, culturally virtuous Russia and a debauched, immoral West. His messaging has undergirded the more secular positions of the Kremlin, helped shape Putin’s own post-Soviet nationalist project and now adds a gloss of legitimacy to a stumbling Russian war effort.
“Any war has to have guns and ideas,” Cyril Hovorun, professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at University College Stockholm, told my colleagues. “In this war, the Kremlin has provided the guns, and I believe the church is providing the ideas.”
As my colleague Jeanne Whalen outlined, Kirill is in particular credited with propagating the doctrine known as “Russkiy mir,” or “Russian world.” It invokes a vision of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine as one nation united by a shared founding history of settlement by Volga Vikings and the 10th century conversion to Orthodox Christianity. Much of that hallowed history, it so happens, took place in locations that are in Ukraine.
“To some ears, this dogma might sound peaceful and inclusive, but critics say Russia is using it to reassert dominance over territory it controlled during the Russian Empire and Soviet Union,” Whalen explained. “Putin has embraced the doctrine in recent speeches, claiming that Ukraine has never really existed as a separate state and has historically belonged to lands led by Russia. Historians say that is flat-out wrong.”
Kirill has explicitly urged Russians to back their government. As Putin’s rule entered an all-the-more repressive phase in recent weeks, the patriarch called for public support for the Kremlin so it can “repel its enemies, both external and internal.” There are already reports of Russian priests losing their jobs after delivering sermons calling for an end to the war and Ukrainian suffering.
So-called “anti-imperialist” leftists in the West often value Putin’s Russia as a counterweight to Washington’s designs as a global hegemon. But the illiberal religiosity underlying the autocrat’s strongman rule has also made Putin a somewhat popular figure among American evangelicals and the religious right.
Hundreds of Orthodox priests in Ukraine and elsewhere, though, are less impressed. More than 320 signed a letter last week accusing Kirill of “heresy” for his warmongering and demanding he be brought before an ecclesiastical tribunal to be deposed.
“Kirill committed moral crimes by blessing the war against Ukraine and fully supporting the aggressive actions of Russian troops on the Ukrainian territory,” they wrote. “It is impossible for us to remain in any form of canonical submission to the Patriarch of Moscow.” (The political tensions between Russia and Ukraine had already led to a split within the latter’s Orthodox community, with some congregations no longer associating themselves with the Moscow patriarchate.)
And counterparts elsewhere have made Kirill aware of their disquiet, too. In a video call last month with Kirill, Pope Francis warned against the use of the Christian cross to justify an invasion and war – Kirill recently presented an icon to a Russian commander in charge of a number of divisions fighting in Ukraine.
“Once upon a time there was also talk in our churches of holy war or just war,” the pope is reported to have told Kirill last month. “Today we cannot speak like this.”