The Long Holy War Behind Putin’s Political War in Ukraine

In the eight weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, the war there has been interpreted in terms that are familiar from previous wars—terms that often seem to be in contradiction with one another. It is a proxy war, and it is a fight for national self-determination. It is a reprise of the Cold War, and a reset of Yalta. It is an inevitable consequence of NATO expansion, and an unprovoked act of aggression by an autocrat bent on reclaiming a “greater” Russian unity that he thinks was taken by Western forces of globalization and political integration. All those ways of seeing the war are apt, but another familiar interpretation is pertinent, too. This is the view of Ukraine as a religious hot spot, where competing claims to a holy city, Kyiv, can be traced back hundreds of years, and where religious commitments and rivalries are deeply enmeshed in the society.

Since March 6th, when Kirill, the patriarch of Moscow and primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave an incendiary homily likening Russia’s invasion to a culture war against the West, plenty of questions have been asked about his role and his motives. Is he a tool of Vladimir Putin or Putin’s spiritual adviser? Is his vision of “Russky Mir” (“Russian World”) the basis for Putin’s war or just a rhetorical glaze applied to it? How can a religious leader with any integrity support so brutal a war, and might another leader—Pope Francis, with whom Kirill entered into dialogue in 2016—persuade him to withdraw his support and urge Putin to stand down?

Leaders of religious communities in the U.S. with histories in the region have some answers. Throughout Lent—the penitential season prior to Easter, which for the Orthodox is this Sunday—Ukrainian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops, metropolitans, clergy, and scholars have been consumed with the issues of the war. At conferences, on Zoom, and on Public Orthodoxy, a Web site hosted by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, they have engaged in arguments that are often abstruse, but the underlying feeling is simple and shared: Anyone paying attention should have seen this coming. At a conference at Georgetown University, Metropolitan Borys Gudziak, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop based in Philadelphia, who also serves as the president of the Ukrainian Catholic University, in Lviv, said, “There are so many precedents, and there are so many trends, that were under way for such a long time.” He listed several long-term developments that he saw as having enabled an eventual Russian invasion, from the lack of any Nuremberg-like reckoning with the evils of Soviet Communism to the personal friendships that Western politicians of all stripes have cultivated with Putin. “There are so many explicit expressions of intention that our surprise is actually a result of us not wanting to hear—not hearing,” he said.

Last week, on Fox News, George Demacopoulos, a theologian at Fordham who has been honored as an archon—a distinguished Christian—by Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, declared that “Putin is an instrumentalizer of religion.” Demacopoulos meant that, rather than looking to religion as a guide to action, Putin (who is Russian Orthodox) attacked Ukraine and then invoked Christianity to justify the invasion as an act of holy war. At a March 18th rally in Moscow, Putin paraphrased from the Gospel of John to exhort the self-sacrifice that his war against “genocide” in Ukraine would require of many Russians: “And this is where the words from the Scriptures come to my mind: ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’ ”

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There’s no question that Putin is using religion for political purposes, yet it is also true that Kirill has instrumentalized the invasion for Russian Orthodoxy’s purposes. Eastern Orthodox and Catholic leaders in this country thought it improbable that Kirill would stand back from this war, because they see the war as an extension of the Russian Orthodox Church’s efforts in Ukraine. For two decades, the R.O.C. has used state money and propaganda to assert itself in that country. Through his full-throated support for the war for a greater Russia, these leaders say, Kirill is militating against their own transnational Orthodox project, which has been under way since the fall of Communism.

Ukraine is where, more than a thousand years ago, a warrior prince took up Christianity to marry a daughter of the patriarch of Constantinople, and then compelled thousands of others to convert as he had. The conversion of St. Vladimir—also known as St. Volodymyr—is claimed as the foundational act of Christianity in the region, to which both Russian Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy in Ukraine trace their roots, and Ukraine has been religiously controverted territory ever since. José Casanova, a sociologist of religion at Georgetown, with Ukrainian family ties, sets out the modern religious history of the country in a recent essay. The historic center of Orthodoxy is Constantinople—present-day Istanbul—and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople is recognized by other patriarchs (there are nine in all) as primus inter pares, or first among equals. In the nineteenth century, national churches that were allied with Constantinople but autocephalous (each with its own head) became “the norm throughout the Orthodox world,” Casanova writes, but Ukraine, which had not gained national sovereignty, remained mainly Orthodox but dividedly so, with the west in the sphere of Constantinople and the east in that of Moscow, due in part to a grant of authority that the ecumenical patriarch gave to the Moscow patriarch in 1686—and which has been contested repeatedly since then.

After the Russian Revolution, in 1917, the U.S.S.R. suppressed all churches. When Ukraine declared independence, as the Soviet Union dissolved, in 1991, and religion was freely permitted in civil society again, many Ukrainians sought to worship in churches with local or national ties rather than in those with ties to Moscow, and the new nation claimed many formerly Russian Orthodox churches as its own. In response, the renewed Russian Orthodox Church—then led by Patriarch Alexy II, with Kirill as its director of external relations—sought to reassert itself in Ukraine, using state funds to build several thousand new churches there. The R.O.C. wound up as the Orthodox church with the most property but the fewest adherents; Ukraine, a country with thirty-five million Orthodox Christians, was still without an autocephalous church.

As Russia’s 2014 occupation of parts of the Donbas and annexation of Crimea—regions where Russian ethnicity and Orthodoxy are robust—escalated the Russia-Ukraine fight, the conflict in Ukraine between Russian and Eastern Orthodoxy was also growing. Bartholomew I had attended Pope Francis’s inauguration in Rome, in 2013, becoming the first ecumenical patriarch ever to attend that papal event. Then, in 2015, his ideas were featured in the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, “Laudato si’,” auguring an alliance of the two leaders and their churches on “care for our common home.” Meanwhile, a pan-Orthodox council was being planned for 2016, and Bartholomew signalled an intention to eventually grant autocephaly to the church in Ukraine, aware that Kirill—now the patriarch of Moscow—would see the act as an encroachment on R.O.C. territory.

Kirill, too, was strategizing. Capping two decades of negotiations between Rome and Moscow, he met with Francis—the first such meeting in a thousand years—in Havana, and saw to it that their joint declaration referred to plans for a more independent Ukrainian church as a “schism” violating “canonical norms”—a clear rebuke of Bartholomew. And Kirill deepened long-standing relationships with Christian fundamentalists from the United States, making common cause with them on issues of gender and sexuality, especially. When the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church was held on the island of Crete in July, 2016, the R.O.C., along with a number of other national churches, did not participate. After the council, several dozen Eastern Orthodox leaders who had attended drafted a hundred-and-ten-page document framing a common “social ethos” in terms associated with the West—denouncing nationalism and racism, and affirming liberal democratic ideals of freedom and equality. “What we’re seeing on full display” in the R.O.C.’s support for Putin “is a kind of rejection” of that ethos, “a kind of religious nationalism that in many ways is cancelling out the other,” Aristotle Papanikolaou, an Orthodox theologian at Fordham, who helped draft the document, said at the Georgetown conference. “Regardless of how the other Orthodox churches see it, it’s out there, and thank God it’s out there, because it’s at least a prophetic witness for a different way of thinking and living the Orthodox faith.” Finally, in December, 2018, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was established at the St. Sophia Cathedral, in Kyiv. The next month, Bartholomew recognized it. Kirill declared the new church illegitimate and accused Bartholomew of “violating all rules.”

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