I, Bohdan Oghulchanskij, a priest of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, am writing this text on February 27, 2022, the fourth day of the Russian mass invasion. I can’t know what will happen by the time this text gets published. I have poor mobile communication, and it is difficult to access the Internet. Many times a day, day and night, my family and I are forced to quickly descend into the shelter under the howl of an air raid siren. But I want to convey the truth to readers, especially those who are outside Ukraine, who do not understand the reasons for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Why is this happening? What did Europe, the democratic world, the countries and people defending freedom, human dignity, and the value of human life do that allowed this terrible, brutal massacre in Europe, for the first time since 1945?
I am writing from the experience of my long-time observations. First, my observations of the information field created by Russia, which was very powerful in Ukraine before 2014. Even after 2014, Russia retained considerable influence. Secondly, having almost thirty years of experience of priesthood, including a long tenure in the Moscow Patriarchate, I can testify to how the rhetoric and narrative of the Russian Church have changed during this time. Its policies, in my opinion, made a great ideological contribution to the current tragedy.
In the early 1990s, there was a short period in Russian society and among Orthodox Russians when the freedom and dignity of the individual were perceived as the main priority. But in the entire history of Russia, such an attitude towards a person and their dignity was a rare exception. For centuries, millions of people were the serfs of the tsars or boyars, cogs in the Soviet system, “camp dust” in Stalin’s camps. It would be a mistake to think that the whole nation opposed it. As the great twentieth-century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (a Ukrainian by birth from Kiev), a singer of the sorrow of the century, wrote, somewhat figuratively, “Half of the people were in the camps, and the other half guarded them.” And multitudes of such guards got off on this power over others, on the violence against the weak and those who disagreed with the system. Millions of cogs in a system of power that shaped a worldview through violence rejoiced at being able to simply carry out orders, even if millions of people died. Somebody killed those millions, right? And no one has been held morally or legally responsible for such atrocities. After the collapse of the USSR, there was nothing like the Nuremberg trials. Former Stalinist and Brezhnev leaders and executives of the security service received until their death (and some still receive) increased pensions and proudly displayed their medals and awards. Yet among these perpetrators were those responsible, for example, for serious crimes against the German people when the Soviet army entered Germany in 1945, and the violence was experienced by millions of Germans, mostly innocent women. No one has been punished for it.
Thus, Russian society for centuries accepted violence and the lack of human rights as its habitual state. Obeying the authorities and living an everyman’s life, trampling on one’s own and others’ dignity, accepting violence and happily increasing is the way of life for millions of Russians. For many decades, Russia has had one of the highest murder and suicide rates in the world (according to data from about a decade ago, when the statistics were still somewhat trustworthy).
The citizens of Russia, devoid of rights and accepting it, are at the same time accustomed to taking pride in their imaginary greatness. Fostering pride and superiority over the rest of the world is the cornerstone of Russian ideology on which it has been based for centuries. And the ideology of Russian Orthodoxy played a huge role in this education, which I will write about below.
Although violence was rampant in Soviet society, the communist government insisted that the Soviet system was humane and philanthropic and boasted of the equality of all nations. After the collapse of the USSR, in the beginning of the 1990s, there could be no talk about even hypocritical humanism. An egregious example of this was the first Chechen war which took place in 1994-1997. Tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of deaths, horrific military crimes—this is what both Russian society and the so-called democratic countries have indifferently swallowed. During these years, the Russian army became an army of rapists, sadists, and murderers, and no one paid attention to it. Because of such indifference, first and foremost of the West, the Second Chechen War, the genocide in Syria with the participation of the Russian army, and the murder of civilians in the Donbas, beginning in 2014, became possible.
After the “former” KGB operative Putin came to power (as he had famously quipped, there are no former KGB operatives) and presided over the period of high oil and gas prices, the Russian ruler’s dream of taking revenge for the collapse of the USSR turned into an irresistible desire. We are not psychiatrists who can get into Putin’s head and determine when his desire to restore the USSR, or even the Russian Empire, became a paranoid mania. We can only state that his wounded pride has descended with all its fury on Ukraine. Hatred of Ukraine first manifested itself not even in 2014 after the Ukrainian Maidan, but even earlier, in the 2000s, when Putin in conversations with President Bush argued that Ukraine was a non-state and had no right to exist.
Without discussing the madness of the Kremlin elder, we will nevertheless analyze the reaction of Russian society. This society turned out to be weak and pathetic in comparison to the Leviathan-state. The temptation to partake of the power of the state, inflated by propaganda, turned out to be very attractive for most Russians, especially after the occupation of Crimea. While many Russians languish in near poverty in the richest oil and gas country in the world, society as a whole accepted the “conquest” of the Crimea as a victory for Russia.
It was after the brazen seizure of Crimea and the desire to divide Ukraine through aggression in the east of the country that Putin came to believe in his complete impunity, since Western sanctions had turned out to be highly ineffective. Today we see the consequences of the civilized world again appeasing a terrorist, perhaps the most dangerous person on Earth after Hitler.
Still, my text is not only and not so much about the state of Russia and its ruler, but about its ideology, an integral and very important part of which is the narrative created by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Religious exceptionalism, self-dentification as “Holy Russia,” “The Third Rome, and the Fourth cannot be,” resided in the Russian religious consciousness as radical conservatism but was not prevalent either in the nineteenth or in most of the twentieth century. However, nationalism, as many researchers note, is very characteristic of Orthodoxy. While for small Orthodox peoples of Eastern Europe and the Balkans this aspect of Christianity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries supported the acquisition of national identity by Orthodox states, in Russia, Orthodoxy has always been an instrument of the imperial state. The Russian Church gladly worshipped a sovereign or empire, declaring power sacred and receiving privileges and support in return. And Russian religious nationalism is not the nationalism of a small nation that wants to survive. It is mainly imperial nationalism, which sought to dominate the entire East (Russian generals, Russian bishops and even ordinary monks in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries believed that both Constantinople and Jerusalem were about to fall into their hands). As the famous twentieth-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (originally from Ukraine) showed, Russian communism is a messianic development of Russian Orthodoxy, with a claim to world domination. And after the fall of communist power in 1991, both the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church soon picked up the imperial banner with a claim to global influence.
The imperial qualities of the Russian Church began to manifest themselves especially with the beginning of the reign of Patriarch Kirill (2009). In different eras, although the church as an institution worshipped the empire, there were individuals in its body who tried to fulfill the commandments of Christ and not to pander to the official ideology. For example, in Soviet times, when bishops were emphatically loyal to the authorities, there were individual priests who preserved Christian freedom. Although they were far from the capitals, they were not forbidden from having their own position and taking care of people. However, Patriarch Kirill, because of his personal ambitions, eradicated any possibility of having a public position in the church different from his own. He himself, in his imperiousness, began to exhibit the features of an absolute monarch in the church, following the Russian state ruler. Any signs of the so-called “conciliarity,” which some religious philosophers were so proud of, considering collegiality to be the dignity of the Russian religious worldview, quickly disappeared. Even parish property began to be considered, according to the new charter of the church, the property of the diocese, that is, of the bishop who is invested with the absolute power in the diocese. Patriarch Kirill also has absolute power over the bishops and thus has become the absolute monarch in his religious empire.
With each passing year, the rhetoric of the Patriarch and his spokespeople became tougher and began to include national chauvinism. Loyalty to the Russian army was emphasized. Military chaplains became an indispensable attribute of military units. When Crimea was occupied in 2014 and Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine began, Russian priests showed support for the government by participating in victorious military celebrations, although Kirill was not officially present at the those.
2014 and the following years have turned into a test for the Russian Church in Ukraine (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate). Using its economic and information power, as well as the support of its state, the Russian Church blocked the international recognition of the Ukrainian Church, which began to operate around the time of Ukrainian independence in 1991. In inter-church relations, Ukraine was always represented by the UOC-MP, which essentially meant that world Christianity (and world Orthodoxy in particular) was in agreement with Russian control over Ukrainian Orthodoxy. This control was relatively light while Metropolitan Vladimir remained the Primate of the UOC-MP (+2014), but after his death, under the new Primate Onufriy, the UOC-MP essentially lost the vestiges of its independence. A Russian billionaire Vadim Novinsky, who received a Ukrainian passport under the regime of President Yanukovych, has become its main sponsor and “grey cardinal.” Novinsky is always seen at the side of Metropolitan Onufriy, as well as the second-ranking bishop, Metropolitan Anthony, who is expected to succeed Onufriy.
At the beginning of 2019, thanks to the unification of the pro-Ukrainian Orthodox bishops of Ukraine, as well as the diplomatic efforts of the administration of President Poroshenko, the renewed Ukrainian Church (with the name of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, OCU) was recognized as an autocephalous church by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a significant part of world Orthodoxy. This event caused not only a hysterical reaction of the Moscow Patriarchate, a break with Constantinople and other churches that recognized the OCU, but also the anger and irritation of the Russian President. As a reaction to the proclamation of the OCU, he convened a meeting of the Security Council of Russia, at which the recognition of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church was equated with a threat to national security. He has confirmed his own words from long ago: the key to the independence (as he called his empire) of Russia is nuclear weapons and the Russian Church (implying that Ukrainian Orthodoxy is part of Russian). Thus, he recognized that Russian Orthodoxy in its most uncompromising, exclusive form, with arrogance and intolerance towards other types of Christianity, is the support of his ideology of arrogant and hateful attitude towards other states and peoples. And Ukraine, which shows the possibility of another life and a different Orthodoxy, is the main source of unceasing rage since it does not want to submit.
Patriarch Kirill and other hierarchs of the Russian Church have been silent for the past decade, when dignity and freedom were trampled on in Russia, when opponents of the authorities were killed, when genocide was being committed in Chechnya, Syria, and the Donbas. Moreover, many priests approved of imperial chauvinism and violence.
I complete this text with these conclusions.
I believe that Ukraine will win, because the spirit is stronger than iron, and dignity and love for freedom are stronger than hatred and malice.
But the possibility of victory without mass casualties of the population depends very much on the effective help of the civilized world. This assistance must be fast, accurate and powerful. There is no time for a slow, gradual strengthening of sanctions against Russia.
This assistance should be primarily military because the world’s evil bows only to real force. But this force must also be wise and consistent, so that the raving lunatic does not destroy the world.
That assistance must also be economic and humanitarian because in the coming days a huge humanitarian crisis will erupt in Ukraine. Communications and ways of delivering goods, in particular food and medicines, have been disrupted. The occupiers are destroying roads, destroying schools and hospitals, and preventing doctors from helping people. As a signal of hope, European countries should take a joint decision on the imminent admission of Ukraine to the European Community. Christians of Europe and people of goodwill: Help us! If you are a Christian civilization at your core.
Fr. Bohdan Oghulchanskij is a priest of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.