In last week’s post, I announced that I would be taking two weeks off. But on Good Friday I changed my mind. So…as in past years, I will wait to take some time off in June.
On Good Friday, I was struck again by the sinister collaboration of authoritarian rulers and corrupt religious leaders in Jesus’ life experiences. And I began to reflect as well about the sinister religious and political collaboration so apparent in many countries today. Christian nationalism is a virus breaking out in many countries like, for example, in Brazil, Croatia, Hungary, Russia, Poland, and the United States, where the former U.S. president’s campaign strategy, then and now, has always been to embrace Christian nationalism and spread as many lies as possible.
My immediate concern today of course is the war in Ukraine. The current Russia/Ukraine war has a Christian nationalism dimension that absolutely should not be overlooked.
This week, on the Monday after Easter (which for Orthodox Christians was the Monday after Orthodox Palm Sunday) the political scientist and member of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Nikonov (b. 1956), praised the Russian war in Ukraine.
“In reality,” Nikonov said “we [Russians] embody the forces of good in the modern world because this clash is metaphysical…. We are on the side of good against the forces of absolute evil…. This is truly a holy war that we’re waging, and we have to win it and of course we will because our cause is just. We have no other choice. Our cause is not only just. Our cause is righteous. And victory will certainly be ours.”
History helps us understand the current Russia/Ukraine events. Around 980 CE, political leaders in what is today’s Ukraine were converted to Christianity by Orthodox Christians from Constantinople. The area around Kyiv became the heart of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. That would change about five hundred years later.
In 1448, the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow became effectively independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and five years later, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Hagia Sofia (built in 537), the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople, became a mosque. Then the Russian Orthodox Church and the Duchy of Moscow began to see Moscow as the legitimate successor to Constantinople.
The Patriarch of Moscow became head of the Russian Orthodox Church and all Orthodox churches in Ukraine came under the ecclesiastical rule of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Following the October Revolution of 1917, a communist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was established in 1922. A key objective of the USSR was the elimination of existing religion, with the goal of establishing state atheism.
With the collapse of the USSR in the years 1988 to 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church began to rethink its religious and national identity. Alexy (1929 – 2008), Bishop of Leningrad, became Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow in 1990 and presided over a surprisingly quick return of Orthodox Christianity to Russian society after 70 years of repression. About 15,000 churches were either re-opened or had been built by the end of Alexy’s tenure in 2008.
A major recovery and rebuilding of the Russian Orthodox Church continued under Alexy’s successor Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev (b. 1946), known today as Patriarch Kirill (Cyril). Under Kirill by 2016, the Church had 174 dioceses, 361 bishops, and 34,764 parishes served by 39,800 clergy. There were 926 monasteries and 30 theological schools.
The Russian Orthodox Church, thanks to Patriarch Kirill, has worked to fill the social and ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Communism by becoming a strong agent of national religious and political power. Under Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church has established close ties with the Kremlin. Kirill now enjoys the personal patronage of President Vladimir Putin (b. 1952). Kirill endorsed Putin’s election in 2012 and calls Putin’s presidency “God’s miracle.” Today he stresses that Putin’s Russia is fighting the Antichrist.
In 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, however, something happened which Vladimir Putin couldn’t imagine, and something he and Patriarch Kirill did not like. A large group of Orthodox churches in Ukraine formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which claimed to be completely independent from the Patriarch of Moscow. This piece of post-Crimea-invasion history is important because it has shaped how Putin envisions Russia’s identity and its global role.
Vladimir Putin wants to see the glories and geography of “Mother Russia” restored and strongly claims this is preserving “Christian civilization” against the secular decadence of the West. Between 1981 and 2000 the Romanovs, the last Imperial Family of Russia, were canonized as Russian Orthodox saints: Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.
Putin sees his ideological alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church essential for his goals. Just like the earlier Russian czars, President Putin wants to see Moscow as the center of a political and military empire blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. This is a key element in his Russian Christian Nationalism. For this Putin needs an Orthodox Church in Ukraine that he can control.
At the start of Putin’s war with Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill gave a sermon in which he emphasized the God-given unity between Ukraine and Russia. During a March 6, 2022 sermon, Kirill stressed: “Much more is at stake than the liberation of the oppressed Russians… The salvation of humankind. People are weak and no longer follow God’s Law. They are no longer hearing his Word and his Gospel. They are blind to the Light of Christ.”
In weekly sermons on Russian TV, Kirill, regularly portrays the war in Ukraine as an apocalyptic battle against evil forces that have sought to destroy the “God-given unity of Holy Russia.” In March this year, he stressed it was “God’s truth” that the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus share a common spiritual and national heritage and should be united as one people — a direct echo of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defense of the war.
Kirill has often said the future of human civilization itself is at stake, as he launches into angry tirades against gay rights, which he has often characterized as a great sin against God and a “clear denial of God and his Truth.”
Kirill Is a complex figure in Russian politics. He is smart, charismatic, and an ambitious operator. He has been associated with the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s main security apparatus. Kirill did set off a short-lived scandal, however, a few years after becoming patriarch when he was photographed wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch. That was later conveniently photoshopped out of the official photo by his Orthodox supporters. He and Putin have long been close allies. Putin has said that Kirill’s father, who was a priest in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), baptized him in secret in 1952, at his mother’s request. Putin and Kirill frequently appear in public together: at Easter services, visiting monasteries, and traveling to pilgrimage sites.
The sincerity of Putin’s Christianity has been strongly rejected by Sergei Pugachev (b. 1963) a Russian Orthodox Christian and a former member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. In recent years, nevertheless, Putin has increasingly highlighted his own religiosity: wearing a silver cross around his neck, kissing icons, and famously immersing himself in the freezing waters of a lake in front of television cameras. The icy dip was a brazen display of manhood and an Orthodox Christian ritual marking the Feast of Epiphany. Putin regards as his spiritual destiny the rebuilding of a Moscow-based Christendom. In a February 2022 speech he stressed: “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”
Russian Orthodoxy has presented itself for centuries as the guardian of the “true faith” in contrast to Western Catholicism and Protestantism. Moscow, according to Russian Orthodoxy today, is the third Rome, the seat of the true Christendom today, after no. 2 Constantinople and no. 1 Imperial Rome.
Certainly history will long remember the Russian Orthodox Church’s major role in the rise of Russian militarism and paving the way for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Already in August 2009, Kirill had presented an icon of the Virgin Mary to the crew of a nuclear submarine at the Russian shipyard in Severodvinsk. Russia’s military, Kirill said, “needed to be strengthened by traditional Orthodox Christian values… Then we will have something to defend with our missiles.”
Putin and Kirill share nationalist ideological values that, in their eyes, justify the war in Ukraine. Although they claim to be Christian, they never speak about Christian values. Never about Christian ethics and the bombing hospitals, the bombing apartment buildings and schools, and about the calculated abuse and slaughter of Ukrainian civilians. History will never record either of them saying “See how these Christians love one another.”
In a country where up to three quarters of the citizens consider themselves Orthodox Christians, Putin’s partnership with Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church is about strengthening Putin’s power and national support.
Curiously, during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion, in the United States, issued a statement asking the faithful to “refrain from excess watching of television, following newspapers or the internet” and “close their hearts to the passions ignited by the mass media.” In his statement, he used the term the Ukrainian land instead of Ukraine, clearly a deliberate denial of Ukraine’s independence. Born in Canada in 1948, Hilarion is a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York. He has close ties to the Kremlin and friendly ties with Vladimir Putin.
The Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill, in collaboration with President Putin, has worked hard to reinstate “traditional values.” Key among those “traditional values” are homophobia and anti-feminism with strong advocacy for women as “breeders.” In an interview a year after Putin became president, Kirill said feminism was a “very dangerous” phenomenon that could destroy Russia. “I consider this phenomenon called feminism very dangerous, because feminist organizations proclaim the pseudo-freedom of women, which, in the first place, must appear outside of marriage and outside of the family,” said Patriarch Kirill, according to the independent Russian news agency Interfax.
Putin’s supporters claim he is a Christian nationalist who, as revealed in his autobiography, wears an Orthodox baptismal cross under his shirt, a memento from his mother who died in 1998. For many in the U.S. religious right, Putin is still admired as an authoritarian defender of a Christian civilization against secularism and particularly against Islam. But is it truly Christian? And is it really civilization?
Perhaps the most extraordinary contemporary monument to Russian Christian Nationalism is Moscow’s Victory Church constructed by the Russian Defense Ministry in 2020. It is the third-largest Orthodox church in Russia and was planned after the occupation of Crimea. The Russian military arms manufacturer Kalashnikov donated a million bricks to the project. Frescoes in the church extol the feats of Russian fighters from medieval wars to contemporary conflicts. It is a a very crass glorification of military might. Even an image of Jesus shows him as a fighter wielding a sword. Stained glass mosaics display the faces of prominent military leaders from the Imperial Russian Army.
Russian Christian Nationalism is anchored in an unholy alliance of distorted Christianity and abusive political power. It is not just dangerous. It is evil. – Jack