This is the first in a series of blog posts prepared by students in Professor Regina Smyth’s Y332 Russian Politics class.
By Aidan Hale
The Russian invasion of Ukraine five weeks ago sent shockwaves around the world. Horrifying images and atrocities are continuing to surface as Russian troops begin to retreat, prompting numerous religious leaders around the globe to call for an end to the conflict. One such religious leader who has taken a different approach is the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Patriarch Kirill. Kirill has refused to condemn the invasion and has even offered some justification in its place. Kirill’s position regarding the war has led many religious leaders within the Orthodox Church and around the world to suggest Kirill should be removed or face punishment for his support of the Ukraine conflict. This public stance of the ROC’s leader puts the Church in an interesting position, and it begs the question as to where the ROC goes from here.
The Russian Orthodox Church in Russia
The ROC and the Russian state have maintained a largely positive relationship during Putin’s time in power. Putin has found the ROC particularly useful in his pursuit of conservative policy implementation and the reestablishment of a core Russian identity. The ROC has been an integral part of Russian society for centuries. Most Russians in the 21st century identify themselves as members of the church, making it the largest religious group within Russia. Its history and large membership presence has given the ROC a respected status within Russia and around the world.
Church & State Relationship Prior to Conflict
With support from the ROC, Putin has been able to justify many of his conservative policy positions such as anti-LGBTQ laws as necessary to promote the historical Russian identity. In exchange for support, the state gives the ROC certain financial breaks, for example, in addition to promoting more favorable policies in which the ROC supports.
Russian Orthodox Church & Ukraine
The ROC has held a strong interest in Ukraine for decades. The majority of Orthodox churches within Ukraine fell under the authority of the ROC until 2018, when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly. This was a major blow to the ROC’s influence within Ukraine, and may potentially explain why the ROC has responded in such a tepid manner regarding the ongoing conflict in the region.
Church’s Rapid Response to Current Aggression
Patriarch Kirill wasted no time declaring the ROC’s support for the invasion of Ukraine. Hours before the invasion, Kirill delivered a message emphasizing how military service is “an active manifestation of evangelical love for neighbors” and “an example of fidelity to high moral ideals of truth and goodness”. By making such a declaration, Kirill has essentially christened the Russian military as a holy force waging a holy war.
Church’s Additional Response
On March 6, nearly ten days after the war began, Kirill delivered a sermon suggesting the war is a struggle against liberal Western values that are encroaching upon the traditional values held by many Russians, including himself. In very similar fashion to President Putin, Kirill spread the disinformation regarding the genocide of Russian sympathizers within the Donbas by Ukrainians as the primary justification for the invasion. Kirill neglected to address other aspects of the conflict, such as the fighting and bombing of areas outside the Donbas region.
Kirill’s support for the invasion has certainly backed the ROC into a corner. Loyalty to the ROC from other Orthodox authcephalies is declining rapidly, while some ROC churches themselves are even threatening to withdraw from the church over its support of the invasion. Clergymen within the ROC complex are voicing their own displeasure with the church’s position, with one clergyman in particular saying the war is a “repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy”. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church recently petitioned for Patriarch Kirill to face trial for “heresy…and moral crimes” due to his support of the invasion. By failing to show support to the Orthodox Christians in Ukraine who are undergoing immense suffering, it is difficult to see the ROC gaining future influence among believers in a post-war Ukraine. The future of the ROC in Russia is now linked with the future of Putin and his regime. As the conflict progresses and more news regarding certain war crimes is revealed, can Kirill and the ROC leadership continue to show support for a regime committing such brutalities?
Aidan Hale is a fourth-year Exercise Science student at Indiana University Bloomington, where he is also pursuing a minor in Political Science. His interests include Russian and Soviet foreign policy, EU security, and US foreign policy towards post-Soviet states.