The Imperial Church of All Russia
Why does the Moscow Patriarchate strongly support aggression against Ukraine rather than peace? Its ambiguities are already found in the “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church”, adopted in 2000. Kirill would like to mark military victory with the reunification of all Russians, but so far all he has seen is the loss of many parts of a Church that would like to become universal.
One of the main reasons for Russia’s scandalous war in Ukraine, in world public opinion, is the Russian Orthodox Church's steadfast support for aggression, even supporting it with religious and historical-theological arguments, at least in the homilies of Patriarch Kirill.
Once upon a time, it seemed obvious that a Christian religious organisation would be moderately pacifist, viewing war as an unacceptable means, or at least an inadequate one to achieve goals one might otherwise share.
In fact, official Russian Orthodox writings are far from favourable to war. According to the Bases of the Social Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church, a document approved by the Jubilee Synod of 2000, the Church cannot collaborate with a State “waging civil war or aggressive external war” (p. III.8); on the contrary, she must “help the victims of aggression” (p. II. 4, XVI.1). At the very least, the document suggests that the Church should analyse the justification for military action in a conflict or define it as aggression (p. VIII.3).
The Moscow Patriarchate, on the other hand, has not only not condemned Putin's “special military operation", but has repeatedly blessed the Russian army and even Rosgvardiya, the National Guard of the Russian Federation, the "special forces” delegated to enforce Russian occupation in Ukraine.
Instead of the Church’s "social doctrine”, it thus seems that something different has prevailed, namely the “defence of the Fatherland", as Kirill himself, the main author of the 2000 text, has said several times. As the document states, the “Russian Church on many occasions gave her blessing to the people for them to take part in liberation wars” (p. II.2).
The battles against the Tatars are mentioned, such as the one blessed in 1380 by Saint Sergius (Sergii) of Radonezh; that of 1612 against the Poles, inspired by Patriarch Hermogenes (Germogen); that of 1812 against the “French invaders", in which the saintly Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow preached that "if you try to avoid death defending the faith and freedom of the Fatherland, you will die as a criminal or a slave; if you die for this you will have life and a crown in the sky.”
“Christian patriotism may be expressed at the same time with regard to a nation as an ethnic community and as a community of its citizens. The Orthodox Christian is called to love his fatherland, which has a territorial dimension, and his brothers by blood who live everywhere in the world. This love is one of the ways of fulfilling God’s commandment of love to one’s neighbour which includes love to one’s family, fellow-tribesmen and fellow-citizens” (p. II.3).
The contradictory nature of the war against the Ukrainians can be found in dual ideas of "ethnic and civic fatherlands” in which the “bond of blood and faith” prevails over administrative and territorial boundaries.
The document goes on to say that “The patriotism of the Orthodox Christian should be active. It is manifested when he defends his fatherland against an enemy,” as well as in the protection of traditions and moral values.
The result must be “a nation, civil or ethnic, [that] represents fully or predominantly a mono-confessional Orthodox community,” so that “it can in a certain sense be regarded as the one community of faith — an Orthodox nation.”
These principles have inspired not so much the recent war as Putin’s politics of the last 20 years. His first presidential term began in 2000 and took on Orthodox social conceptions as the "party line" to follow, according to habits rooted in the Soviet past.
Orthodox social doctrine was drafted in an ambiguous way. On the one hand, it reflects similar views found in contemporary Catholic documents, starting with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, written in 1891, when the revolutionary and ideological movements of the 20th century were born, so much so that the patriarchate asked for the advice of Catholic experts for the drafting of the document. On the other hand, what prevailed was the need to react to the loss of Russia’s official ideology, which left the country in the uncertainties of the 1990s vis-à-vis “Western liberalism”, which was completely alien to its nature.
Religious, political and social life reflected such ambiguity at various levels. Putin's Russia has turned into a liberal-authoritarian country, in which state centralism had to constantly seek compromises with the centrifugal thrusts by local governors, all-powerful oligarchs, and various cultural and social groups in the country.
The Orthodox Church was reformed, gradually abandoning the ecumenical overtures that had characterised it in the second half of the 20th century, of which Kirill himself was one of the main leaders.
To stem the fundamentalist shift in the uncontrollable monastic world, the patriarch increasingly become the guarantor of the national idea, hitching the Church in a deadly embrace to an increasingly aggressive and vindictive state, which has offered an “imperial” interpretation of patriotism and Russia’s historical mission since the war in Georgia in 2008-2011
More recently, the imperial nature of the state has explicitly coloured public speeches, from Putin to his main supporters and propagandists, on the occasion of the commemorations of the 350th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great.
In fact, in 1721, after the end of the Northern war with the Swedes, the founder of the “northern capital”, where both Putin and Kirill were born, proclaimed himself no longer "tsar of Moscow and all Russia", but “Peter I the Great, Emperor of All Russia, Great Father of the Fatherland”.
His current successor in the Kremlin claims Peter’s legacy, claiming that Peter did not intend to "conquer other lands, but defend his own homeland", and the victory that definitively marked that defence took place in 1709 precisely in Ukraine, at Poltava, where Swedish troops along with their Polish, Danish, in short "Western" allies, were defeated.
It is hard to know what Peter really meant by the adjective "imperial" which replaced even the title of "tsar", but it was not a simple mania for grandeur, just as one cannot reduce the current invasion of Ukraine to the obsessions of a man, like Stalin, locked up in a bunker, even if it is one of the obvious factors in this crisis.
Peter was a westerniser, but not in the sense of reconciling Eurasian Russia with Parisian salons; instead, he sought to take from Europe all the means and achievements of progress, and reshape them in his own way to fit in Russia, in St Petersburg, the new "city of Saint Peter", the new Rome of a more powerful and universal world.
This is why Putin no longer intends to hide his sympathy for the 18th century emperor, notwithstanding the humiliations Peter inflicted on the Orthodox Church, deprived of her patriarch and subjected to the domination of a bureaucratic state.
The defence against the degenerate and immoral West does not entail the establishment of an Eastern, Asian or exotic empire: Russia is the true West/East, extending across every latitude and is the true destination of territories, peoples, goods and raw materials, and heartfelt desires.
Peter replaced the expression “of all Russia” (vsey rossii, literally “of every Russia”) with the “all-Russian” empire (Vserossiyskiy), which goes beyond the limits of the various principalities, states and regions historically linked to the development of Russia itself.
It is a “metaphysical” concept, as Patriarch Kirill said at the start of the conflict. The old term dates back to the divisions and quarrels of the princes of Kievan Rus' who ended up overwhelmed by the power of the Tatar-Mongol horsemen.
Back then the plural “Russia” meant Kiev and Moscow, Novgorod and Pskov, Smolensk and Rostov, Vladimir and Ryazan and many others; in the 15th century the struggle between two central cities, Moscow and Tver, was consummated, which could have ended with the latter’s victory, especially since it was favoured in terms of communications and trade.
Now only the patriarch of Moscow can claim the title of "all Russia" with an ecclesiastical office restored in Soviet times, after two centuries of "synodal captivity" by the emperors in St. Petersburg.
Kirill would like to see the military victory crowned by the reunification of all the different Russia, the White Russia of Minsk and the Little Russia of Kiev with the Great one in Moscow, but the result for now is the loss of many pieces of the Church that would like to see herself as universal.
In the Ukraine, 12,000 parishes led by Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky) are breaking away, taking from the patriarchate some 40 per cent of the churches and even more in terms of members since Ukrainians tend to be more devoted and practising than Russians.
Many churches and members of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad are leaving. The so-called Zarubezhnaya broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate following the revolution; Kirill himself managed to reunite it with the patriarchate in 2004 with the decisive help of the current Metropolitan of Pskov, Tikhon (Shevkunov).
Two years ago, about a hundred parishes in Western Europe that had remained under the Patriarchate of Constantinople went back to the Russian fold because they had not originally wanted to be part of the tsarist Zarubezhnaya. Now they too are again distancing themselves from Kirill.
The Moscow-oriented Church in Lithuania, which belongs to the ancient Russian tradition, is also asking for autonomy, and more than half of its 60 priests have already left. Metropolitan Innokentiy (Vasilyev) of Vilnius and Lithuania does not really want to break but risks being left without members.
Considering all the Russian Orthodox churches around the world, the list could go on. For now Kirill can only console himself with the reconquest of Crimea and some of the churches in the Donbass, and perhaps some parishes in Kenya and Burundi, where the Russian mercenary Wagner Group is pushing the propaganda for the icons and incense of Moscow, not to mention helping military regimes here and there.
The Russian Orthodox world looks more like a sinking ship rather than an imperial cruiser. For his part, Kirill, rather than the Patriarch of “All Russia” seems to control “some bits of Russia”, scattered here and there, inside and outside of the Fatherland, whatever its definition, civil or ethnic.
Now even his presumptive successor, Hilarion, has left him. The latter kept some channels open with the Vatican and other leading interfaith fora, but is now enjoying the show of the empire’s disintegration from his cozy exile on the banks of the Danube in Budapest, the ancient seat of a what was once a truly multi-religious empire.
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