How The Russian Orthodox Church Has Become A Willing Pawn In Putin's War
Since the start of Russia's war in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church has fully supported the Kremlin. Priests or members of the church that disagree with this politicization and militarization of the church face heavy consequences such as removal.
Since March 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church has increasingly fallen in line with militarization efforts. Meanwhile, initial hopes that Orthodox Kyiv would welcome the invasion of Ukraine with open arms — hanging portraits of Moscow Patriarch Kirill and ringing bells — were quickly dashed.
As a result, Kirill adopted an increasingly hard line. He required priests to include a prayer for the "victory of Holy Russia" and threatened harsh consequences for those who used the word "peace" instead of "victory" in their prayers, calling them pacifist heretics.
The Russian Orthodox Church, with the explicit or at least partial approval of its leadership, is gradually undergoing a transformation into an institution with strong political and military overtones. How did this transformation happen?
From Ivan the Terrible to Stalin
The creation of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943, by direct order of Joseph Stalin, had complex motivations. It was a strategic move to assure Western allies that there were no religious issues in the USSR, but at the same time, Stalin aimed to rally Soviet citizens who were less enthusiastic about communist ideology to support the fight against Nazism.
Russia's rulers have long sought to integrate the church into the state apparatus
After the Second World War, the Russian Orthodox Church's main propaganda role shifted towards advocating for peace and denouncing imperialist warmongers, a stance that appeared more moderate than the current militaristic direction.
But this alignment of the Orthodox Church with the state and its use for political and military purposes has a much deeper historical context. Throughout Russian history, various rulers, including Ivan the Terrible, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and Peter the Great sought to control and integrate the church into the state apparatus.
Even after the revolution, Metropolitan Sergius of Stragorod's 1927 declaration of complete loyalty to the Soviet government, often referred to as "Sergianism," followed a longstanding pattern of the church adapting itself to the ruling power, whether it was seen as Orthodox or not.
There is an unattributed Russian quote, most likely from Ivan Kornilov, curator of the Vilna educational district in the 1860s, which goes: “What the Russian bayonet did not complete, the Russian official, the Russian school and the Russian priest will.” This is a perfect summation of religious attitude to imperial policy: how can the priest not bless the bayonet that paves the way for his preaching?
Vladimir Putin and Bishop Alexei Kulberg of the Yekaterinburg Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church
Tied to empire
Such sentiments are not just characteristic of the Orthodox church. The largest association of Protestants in Russia, the Russian United Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals) also demonstrates complete loyalty to the Kremlin leadership, despite stating that they “avoid political involvement”.
Even Pope Francis, in his address to Russian Catholic youth on August 25, 2023, said: “You are the heirs of great Russia: the great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire — great, enlightened, a country of great culture and great humanity. Never give up this inheritance; you are the heirs of the great Mother Russia.”
This caused a wave of indignation in many countries, especially in Ukraine. Defenders of the Vatican explained this passage by the pope's Latin American origin, his leftist views and so on. But the pope himself seemed to understand well that in order to connect with a Russian religious audience, mentioning empire would hit home hardest.
Even the head of the Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church, Metropolitan Corniliy, spoke out unequivocally in support of the war. Whilst not all of his fellow believes share this position, many do.
Put simply, the Russian Church has historically been intertwined with the Russian empire, and this connection persists today.
A believer can strive to go to war for very different reasons: a fanatic wants to kill as many infidels as possible, a crusader wants to recapture shrines captured by infidels and so on. Russian religious militarism looks primarily like a projection of this imperial style of thinking: “We absolutely must remain an empire. The natural goal of an empire is to expand its borders, and the job of the church is to help it."
This said, for many Russians, religious belief is very superficial. People rarely go to church, only attending on major holidays and occasions such as weddings, christenings and funerals. As a result, since 2014, “Orthodox slogans” are much less common than Soviet ones in Russian propaganda.
A Russian Orthodox believer holding a prayer book at an icon of St Daniel of Moscow during a Divine Liturgy
So long as the current political regime remains in Russia, the Orthodox Church will doubtless be stoked by a certain degree of imperial militarism. The church has already chained itself to the state — ties so strong they cannot be broken without a change in leadership.
There is nothing in this that is uniquely Russian: a right-wing dictatorship often relies on the country’s traditional religion to bolster its position, and church leaders often meet it halfway quite voluntarily, seeing in it a defender of “traditional values” and a barrier against unwanted influences.
But with political change in Russia, things may well change in church life, too.
Officially, the Russian Orthodox Church is unanimous in its support of the war. However, among the ordinary clergy, there is increasing dissatisfaction with the policies of Patriarch Kirill, including his complete subordination to the Kremlin.
In the very first days of the war, about 300 priests of the Orthodox Church signed an appeal calling for an end to the war. As a result, the first signatory (and the likely compiler of the text), Abbot Arseny Sokolov, was gradually removed from all his positions. Others emigrated, and some remain in Russia.
Priests do not tend to risk coming into conflict with their superiors
With many signatories lacking a second citizenship or an alternative profession beyond priesthood, their decision to put their names on the line placed their future in jeopardy. Three hundred signatories is therefore a highly significant number.
On the whole, though, priests do not tend to risk coming into conflict with their superiors: their removal or transfer to another church can destroy cohesion across entire communities. The laity have far more opportunities in this sense. See, for example, the Russian-language website “Christians Against War,” which publishes modern anti-war theology on a regular basis. Residents of different countries, including Russia, as well as representatives of different faiths, including Orthodoxy, participate in this project.
The site is also gradually becoming a full-fledged information portal which covers current news about religious life, without propaganda. And this is far from the only example of religious anti-war messaging.
There is therefore hope that if, or rather when, the current regime in Russia falls, there will be a worthy alternative to the current militaristic rhetoric of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church.
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