In Some Ways, This Is a Religious War | National Review

In Some Ways, This Is a Religious War | National Review

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch of Russia Kirill arrive to lay flowers at the monument of Minin and Pozharsky on at Red Square marking National Unity Day in Moscow, Russia, November 4, 2017. (Alexander Nemenov/Pool via Reuters)

Yesterday, Tim Kelleher, a deacon in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, wrote on NR that the silence of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, “is a scandal. The role of the patriarch in Putin’s architecture of aggression is critical. For Westerners long accustomed to separation of church and state, the Russian arrangement can seem an anachronous quirk. It’s not. Put simply, Putin has been keen to impose a Byzantine model of order known as symphony, in which crown and cathedra work in “providential” harmony. Rooted as it is, however, in gross distortions of history and purpose, this symphony has produced more anthems than hymns.”

We in the West have a hard time integrating Putin’s reputation and identity with his unofficial but clear leadership role in the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin is a cold, ruthless, brutal killer comfortable with torture, intimidation, and ruling by fear — an identity that most of us would find impossible to reconcile with Christianity.

But I think it is important to recognize that Putin probably sees himself in a quasi-messianic role for the broadest possible definition of the Russian people. And do mean the broadest possible definition, as laid out in Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s 520-page, updated, 2015 biography of Vladimir Putin, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin:

The Orthodox Church still comes in a package with Putin and the state, even if the modern presidential base of power is secular. In Putin’s system and formulation, it is Rus’ (Russia) that is divine (svyataya or holy). The president is certainly not divine or holy. The stress on svyataya Rus’ picks up on another older Russian Orthodox and tsarist tradition, where Rus’ refers to something larger than the idea of the Russian state and people and encompasses the entire Russian orthodox religious community. Before the Russian Revolution, citizens of the empire who were baptized as Russian Orthodox Christians were seen to be Orthodox (pravoslavnyy) and therefore Russian (russkiy), no matter where they lived or what their specific ethnic origins. Tartar nobility, Baltic German aristocrats, Georgian princes and princesses, and their subjects, all became pravoslavnyy on conversion. Religion and language became the primary identifying markers of a Russian, even if an individual did not russify his last name. The overarching pravoslavnyy identity was one of the mainstays of loyalty to the tsar and to the Russian state. This idea was captured in an interview in July 2014 by the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, Neil MacFarquhar, of a Russian believer participating in a pilgrimage to the monastery founded by Russia’s most important saint, Sergey (or Sergius) of Radonezh, in commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the saint’s birth. The pilgrim told MacFarquhar, “We are all one people, we are all part of Holy Rus’. . . .  Any person, regardless of where he lives, if he is Russian in spirit, he must be defended by this president, by his country, because he is an indivisible part of the nation.”

Putin and the Russian Orthodox patriarch repeatedly underscored the idea of svyataya Rus’ in speeches about the annexation of Crimea. For example, in his March 18, 2014 speech in the Kremlin, Putin spoke of Crimea as a territory full of places that are holy for Russia. These included, “symbols of Russian military glory and unprecedented valor,” and the site of the baptism of svyatoy knyaz Vladimir (holy prince Vladimir), the Grand Prince of Kyiv* who assumed Christianity on behalf of all Russia in 998.

A few days ago, John Schindler pointed out that in 2018, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv congratulated Ukraine on establishing a local Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Schindler contends that whether or not the embassy realized what it was doing, the U.S. was effectively taking sides in an Orthodox Church schism. The U.S. State Department may well have thought it was offering a generic statement in favor of religious freedom, but to the Russians, this represented the U.S. endorsing Orthodox churches breaking away from the Russian Orthodox Church. Schindler argues this was spectacularly short-sighted, and a likely unintended provocation: “Does Foggy Bottom side with Sunni or Shia? What about Lutheranism versus Methodism? Who in Washington thought it was a good idea to throw its weight behind the OCU, since anybody who knew anything about Putinism and its religious-civilizational mission had to be aware that such statements were guaranteed to raise Moscow’s ire.”

And Schindler reminds us Patriarch Kirill declared in January 2019, “Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kiev ‘the mother of all Russian cities.’ For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so under no circumstances can we abandon this historical and spiritual relationship. The whole unity of our Local Church is based on these spiritual ties.” That does not sound like a man particularly motivated to prevent or stop a Russian takeover of Kyiv.

Even to the layman, the puzzle pieces of Putin’s strange and frightening mind start to come together in this light. In Putin’s mind, all Russian Orthodox believers living in Ukraine (or anywhere else) are Russians, even if they are legally citizens of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is “attacking” and attempting to weaken Russia by luring believers down another path; similarly, Volodymyr Zelensky is “attacking” Russia by convincing these spiritually Russian people that they are truly Ukrainian. Even worse, their efforts seem to be working, as the Ukrainian people seem more interested in being part of the European Union and NATO than being reintegrated into a greater Russian superstate. In this twisted mindset, Zelensky is a devil-like figure, tempting and luring good Russians into the decadent ways of the West.

This is how Putin can convince himself that he and his country were attacked first, and that Zelensky and the Ukrainian government are the moral equivalent of the Nazis who invaded Russia. It is nutty nonsense, of course. But it illuminates that Putin sees himself as a saintly, heroic, messiah-like figure, smiting evil enemies and preserving all that is good and holy. Putin no doubt believes that with the soul of svyataya Rus’ at stake, all methods and tactics are justified — cluster bombs, thermobaric weapons, firing shells at nuclear power plants. In Putin’s mind, he is on the holiest of crusades, and cannot stop until he has achieved his objective.

*In the book, it is spelled “Kiev,” but because “Kiev ”is the Russian spelling and “Kyiv” is the Ukrainian spelling, I’m using Kyiv — just to irritate the Russians.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.