Europe's calvary between Russia and Ukraine
Russian spirituality recognises a category of saints known as strastoterptsy, 'those who suffered the passion', often persecuted for political reasons, who were able to live through their ordeal by bearing witness to a deep faith. Like the Orthodox priests who today are willing to pay a price to invoke an end to the aggression of Ukraine: "I am not dead and I have not flown to Mars, I am not abandoning the priesthood, but I cannot pray for war".
As the days of Catholic Easter draw to a close, the Orthodox Church enters the most tormented Holy Week in its history, the final war between its Eastern and Western souls. Pope Francis has tried to anticipate the outcome of the conflict by having two women, Alina and Irina, embrace the Cross, two sister-friends of the people torn apart by an endless Lent of death and destruction, massacres and poisons, with stations named after the martyr cities of Mariupol, Kharkiv, Bucha and many others. The hope is that a Resurrection of Ukraine and Russia together, of Europe and the whole world, can begin.
The Pontiff's appeals for peace are addressed to his Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Ukrainian brothers and sisters, distressed by the invasion blessed by the patriarchate that claims to subjugate all believers under the imperial sceptre of Moscow, and to the Russian Orthodox themselves, with whom he would like to find a common view of history and the meaning of the Church's mission. Francis does not close the door on Kirill, despite the scandal of his homilies proclaiming a "crusade" against Western infidels to reconquer the "holy land" of Kiev. He hopes that bombs and missiles can be replaced by the weapons of faith and holiness, with which Russia has over time filled an immense arsenal.
The Patriarch of Moscow has espoused the cause of the Tsar, to whom he has submitted in the tradition of the Orthodox "symphony", justifying it with the need to restore the common roots of the faith "of all the Russias" and the unity of the people with those in power, in the spirit of sobornost, the social and spiritual communion, and narodnost, the tsarist populism that was proclaimed together with the other two founding principles of the empire, autocracy and orthodoxy, in the "19th century triad" of the Slavophiles. In addition to Kirill's Sunday homilies, other Russian bishops and metropolitans have recently added their calls for holy war, which are, however, countered by the longing for peace of many priests.
Alongside the Patriarch is his main collaborator, Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev), who tries to support the Russian Church's "diplomatic way". Confirming every day the desire to meet the Pope, probably in June in the Middle East, in Jerusalem, Beirut or Damascus, Ilarion clearly manifests the vital need of the Moscow Patriarchate not to remain isolated in the Christian world. The Metropolitan met delegations and ambassadors from all latitudes and religious confessions, assuring them that "we are working scrupulously" so that ways of dialogue and mutual understanding can be found, avoiding the erection of insurmountable barriers for years or centuries to come.
The other leading metropolitan of the Moscow patriarchate is Putin's "spiritual father", Tikhon (Ševkunov). For the first month of the war, he did not raise his voice, partly in order not to drown out the patriarch's and avoid differences in tone, which in his case are even more explicitly ideological and "political" than Kirill's mystical and "metaphysical" ones. In recent days, Tikhon has finally decided to respond directly to the questions of his faithful in Pskov in a very frank and explicit dialogue, as is his style, "because one cannot not talk about these things, our generation had not yet known such a tragic situation, such suffering and discomfort".
Tikhon is one of the president's direct inspirers, and he details the "Nazification" of Ukrainian towns and villages, where "after 2014, unknown young people began to appear, proclaiming that they would fight against the enemies of Ukraine". These "young fighters", in the metropolitan's account, went around beating people with sticks accusing them of being enemies, "just because they refused to hate Russia".
These are the accounts of the 'Ukrainian refugees' who came en masse to Pskov, explaining how they lived in terror for years, after seeing an Orthodox priest savagely beaten by 'Nazis'. Tikhon recalls events of the past and the fratricidal struggles of the peoples of Rus', concluding with a poetic quotation by the Russian Maksimilian Vološin, who commented on the civil war of 1919: "And I remain alone in their midst / in the smoke and among the roaring flames / and with all my strength / I pray for one another".
That is why the Metropolitan invites us to live these holy days "praying for our Ukrainian brothers, for Metropolitan Onufryj of Kiev and the common flock of the Orthodox Church, as we have been doing for years in the Pskov Cathedral and in the Monastery of the Caves of our eparchy... so we pray throughout Russia, people pray for Ukraine as for themselves, so that the plan of divine Providence may be realised.
In his dialogue with the faithful, Tikhon recalls the prophecies of ancient Ukrainian holy monks, such as Starets Lavrentij of Černihiv, who died in 1950, who spoke of Kiev as the 'new Jerusalem, mother of all the cities of Rus', and one cannot think that it can be separated from the great Russia, just as one cannot divide the Holy Trinity'. This quote was also used by Patriarch Kirill, who speaks of the peoples of Holy Rus' as "Trinitarian peoples". Another well-known preacher was the skhiarkhimandrit Iona (Ignatenko) of the Odessa monastery, who died in 2012. He predicted "great trials that will begin a year after my death, not from outside, but from within Russia". The Metropolitan concluded with a wish that "we do not want victory over the Ukrainian people, we need peace according to God's will".
Many other Russian bishops and igumens are currently addressing the faithful to explain the reasons for the holy war, but there are also many priests who are courageously intervening to invoke an end to the aggression, both with collective appeals and with dramatic stances and choices. A priest from the eparchy of Kostroma, Ioann Burdin, resigned from his parish in the village of Karabanovo, explaining the reasons for his action on the Telegram channel: "I asked to be transferred to another eparchy, but I do not know where I will go, I just want to repeat the words of the poet Aleksandr Galič: I choose only freedom within myself. I have not died and flown to Mars, I am not leaving the priesthood, but I cannot pray for war'.
After his first pacifist sermons, Father Ioann was arrested and fined, and some parishioners collected signatures calling for his removal because he was "suffocated by pride" along with his inspirer, 90-year-old proto-priest Georgij Edelštein, one of the "spiritual fathers" of dissent in the Soviet era. The Metropolitan of Kostroma Ferapont (Kašin) had in turn condemned Burdin and Edelštein, stating that "priests do not have the right to express non-ordinary positions without the permission of the ecclesiastical superior", and in any case "the martyrs are never those who fight against the regime in force".
Hieromonachus Ioann (Guaita), an Italian convert to Orthodoxy who now serves as a priest in the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in central Moscow, delivered a very short sermon, lasting only 40 seconds, recalling that "John the Forerunner was a saint and a prophet who paid with his life because he spoke the truth; it is sad that we are so afraid to speak the truth that we are ready to give up everything in order not to risk it. Amen".
The 33-year-old deacon Dmitry Baev from Vjatka published a series of posts on his "VKontakte" social media page, taken from the "Klirik" Telegram channel, calling for a halt to the war in Ukraine. The police raided his flat and charged him as a fugitive. Interviewed by Radio Svoboda, Dmitrij said that "Russia today is no longer the country we know and is called RuZZia, it no longer has a people, but only a mass of soulless residents, who like to live in the illusion of ephemeral greatness".
The deacon calls many of his fellow priests 'clowns in cassocks', but according to him, they 'do not reflect the true thinking of the Church, and lead many of the faithful into error'. Many priests, according to Baev, do not agree with these proclamations, but are afraid of losing everything, and are often fathers of large families in which their children become priests and priests' wives. According to him, 'the true faith of our people does not lie in fairy tales about ancient Rus', but in the capacity for compassion and offering up suffering', which he hopes will be reborn after this terrible conflict.
In Russian spirituality, there is a category of saints who express this authentic tradition: they are the strastoterptsy, "those who suffered the passion", often persecuted for political reasons, who knew how to live through the ordeal, bearing witness to a profound faith. Already in the Rus' of Kiev, the first "passive martyrs" were the princes Boris and Gleb, killed by their brother Svyatopolk who wanted to subject all the lands to his power: instead of fleeing, they went to their deaths singing liturgical hymns.
The last of these saints was Tsar Nicholas II, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 with his entire family. He was a mild-mannered man who had made grave mistakes during his reign, including repressions and massacres, but in the end he was able to live through the drama of the revolution by trusting in God. The Russian Church canonised him in 2000, right at the beginning of Putin's reign, which is now ending its historical parable in blood. Only the martyrs can save us from the disappearance of holy Russia, and from the end of any dream of uniting all Christians under the Cross of Christ.
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