A Church at War: Heresies, History, and a Russian Orthodoxy Otherwise

by Patrick Lally Michelson

St. George Ribbon
Image: Ribbon of St. George (iStock.com/Silmairel)

Much of the criticism currently directed at the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine is organized around the idea that the Moscow Patriarchate is ideologically compromised and theologically unsound. With few exceptions, scholars, journalists, and opinion writers condemn leaders of the Russian Church as apologists for the Kremlin’s “Russian world” ideology, an expansionistic, chauvinistic worldview which makes prelates like Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Ilarion, and others complicit in a “new Nazism,” partners in an “unholy alliance,” peddlers of a “quasi-religious agenda,” and advocates of “blood and soil” nativism. Similarly, and often in the same breath, charges of “heresy” are leveled against church leaders, mainly on the grounds that supporting Russia’s war with calls to defend “Holy Russia” under the banner that “God is with us” is a form of ethnophyletism, that is, the heresy of aligning and conflating Orthodox Christianity with ethnic nationalism.

In making these assessments about the Moscow Patriarchate, critics regularly identify some moment in the past when things went wrong, a deviation from true Orthodoxy which has brought the Russian Church to this ignominious moment in its history. While often highlighting recent events, such as the Patriarchate’s public, if somewhat circumspect, support for Russia’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, several critics look further into the past for the moment when the Russian Church went astray. One such event is thought to be Joseph Stalin’s reinstatement of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943, an event which taints Russia’s post-Soviet Patriarchate as a relic of the Stalinist past. Another moment identified in the shift from good Orthodoxy to bad Orthodoxy is the 1920s, when some Russian Orthodox emigres began to embrace conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and reactionary politics. The implication of this analysis is that those who really care about Russian Orthodoxy should excise those institutions and ideas which embody and promote ideological and theological aberrations in today’s Church.

I abhor Russia’s war against Ukraine and I am heart-broken by the death and destruction that Vladimir Putin and his regime have unleashed on the Ukrainian people. I am equally distraught by the fact that many priests and prelates support this war and regularly cast it as the very thing it is not, a “special military operation” meant to defeat “the dark fascist horde,” so as to protect Holy Russia from “evil, satanic spirits” and “the Prince of Darkness,” that is, from a decadent, predatory, godless West which has infected Ukraine with the disease of “fascism.” Yet, I am also critical of the line of historical reasoning outlined above: that locating the moment when the Russian Church deviated from “right belief” allows us to begin the work of excising those deviant currents from the Church, thereby facilitating the process by which official Orthodoxy once again is grounded in authentic Orthodoxy.

My criticism of this line of reasoning is largely premised on the assumption that singling out a supposedly aberrant moment in the history of the Russian Church, so as to initiate an ideological and theological exorcism, elides the breadth and depth of anti-Western and nationalistic epistemologies, as well as their discourses, in the Russian Church. Such an excavation is impossible, unless we were to do away with hundreds of years of Russian Church history. Anti-Western and nationalistic modes of thinking are firmly rooted in Russia’s modern Church, so much so that they make up much of what we call Russian Orthodox thought.

The advent of these epistemologies and discourses cannot be reduced to a single moment in time. Nor are they the result of some anomalous event in the history of the Russian Church. Although expressed in various ways and with different inflections, anti-Western and nationalistic worldviews have long shaped Russian Orthodox thought. This is not to say that Russian Orthodoxy is inherently anti-Western and nationalistic, or that other currents of thinking do not exist in the Russian Church. Nor am I suggesting that anti-Western and nationalistic discourses and epistemologies are exclusive to the Russian Church, or even that such discourses and epistemologies are always wrong or that they always end in a revanchist war. Anti-Western sentiments and nationalistic attitudes both in the Russian Church and across the globe are often informed by real concerns about the deleterious effects of capitalism, military invasions, sexual licentiousness, and cultural imperialism, even when those concerns assume the ugliest forms of hate, violence, and delusion. Besides, Christian texts, including the Christian Bible, contain many passages decrying wealth, power, and immorality, passages which can be easily marshalled by critics of “the secular West” to condemn its anti-Christian ambitions, both real and imagined.

A cursory review of the history of Russian Orthodox thought since at least the eighteenth century helps to reveal the centrality of anti-Western and nationalistic mindsets in the Russian Church. The influx of Catholic Scholasticism, and with it Latin humanism, in Russian print culture was roundly rejected as heretical and pagan imports from the West. Peter I’s church reforms, which, among other things, abolished the Moscow Patriarchate, were similarly criticized by churchmen as alien to authentic Orthodoxy. Criticism of the office of the Holy Synod and its executive director, the Ober-Procurator, regularly assumed an anti-Western tenor, one which informed Orthodox visions of re-establishing the Moscow Patriarchate during Russia’s late imperial period.

Following France’s invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon was portrayed as a satanic force, even the Antichrist, by educated members of the Russian Church. Emperor Alexander I’s embrace of Catholic and Protestant mysticism during his reign (1801–25) alarmed Russia’s Orthodox elite, which sought to counter these heretical influences from the West with a “return” to the patristic texts of the East. In fact, the patristic revival in Russia’s nineteenth-century Church, which included the foundation of four clerical academies, dozens of seminaries, and a massive translation and exegetical project, was partly premised on protecting Russian Orthodoxy from Catholicism and Protestantism, that is, from Western corruptions.

Although they largely rejected Great Russian nationalism, early Slavophile thinkers like Aleksei Khomiakov and Ivan Kireevskii developed theologies and philosophies of history in which Eastern Orthodoxy, imagined here as the sole inheritor of authentic Christianity, stood alone against the supposedly heteronomous, rationalistic, or atomistic tendencies of Western Christianity and its progeny, French and German philosophy. The juxtaposition between Russian Orthodoxy and philosophical materialism, atheism, and nihilism came to be a hallmark of church thinking by the late nineteenth century. As they did with the Napoleonic wars, educated clergy and laity regularly portrayed the Crimean War (1853–56) and the First World War (1914–18) as struggles between the satanic forces of the West and the divine forces of the East, conflicts which, like the present war in Ukraine, were signified by the orange and black ribbon of the order of Saint George and which were framed by claims that “God is with us” in Holy Russia’s struggle against the Antichrist.

The revolutionary upheavals of 1905 and 1917, as well as the Russian Civil War and the establishment of the Soviet Union, were often cast as conflicts between the true Christianity of the Russian Church and heresies emanating from the West. Finally, it was during the century between Napoleon’s invasion and the Bolshevik Revolution that Russian Orthodox theologians, priests, and lay thinkers developed the idea that Orthodox Christianity and the Russian people (russkii narod) shared and expressed the same essence, an ascetic disposition toward the Lord which distinguished the “God-bearing” and “Christ-loving” Russian people from the militarism, atheism, and hedonism of the West.

In other words, anti-Western and nationalistic epistemologies and discourses are not anomalies in the Russian Church. Broadly speaking, they are Russian Orthodox thinking, even if those epistemologies and discourses are wide-ranging, including varieties which do not terminate in militaristic chauvinism. A glance at Russian Orthodox writings from the past two-hundred years reveals this fact. It is evident in Metropolitan Filaret’s sermon in memory of St. Aleksii the Wonderworker (1847), Archbishop Filaret’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (1865), Vladimir Solov’ev’s “Three Forces” (1877), and Pavel Novgorodtsev’s “The Essence of Russian Orthodox Consciousness” (1923). Those texts and thousands like them were not written in a vacuum. Events of the day, which were commonly framed as struggles between Russia and the West, directly informed the imagination of Russian Orthodox thinkers and the works they produced.

Theologies, doctrines, church histories, and the like are never pure or unmediated, even when they claim to be such. They always contain and reflect their ideological and cultural contexts. That is why today’s Russian Church frequently associates the West with “gay parades,” same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and threats to “the traditional values of the people of Russia,” (categories partly borrowed from conservative American evangelicals), instead of associating the West with scientific rationalism, philosophical atheism, and industrial capitalism, as Orthodox thinkers did during Russia’s late imperial period. The content might change, but the form remains the same.

The dominant epistemologies and discourses of the Russian Church, whether the Synodal Church or the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, are largely anti-Western and often nationalistic. It is these epistemologies and discourses which have informed much of Russian Orthodox thinking during the Church’s modern history. And this is why attempts to identify the historical moment in which the Russian Church deviated from “right belief” and slipped into “heresy,” so that today’s Church can recover what it ostensibly lost, is impossible.

Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as parishioners who adhere to the Church’s public pronouncements about the war, find themselves in a dangerous place. Whether they are cynical or sincere in their belief that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is part of a larger struggle to protect the “unity” of the Russian Church against outside “forces,” as Patriarch Kirill noted a few days after the war started and as Metropolitan Ilarion noted on two separate occasions shortly thereafter, Church officials have embarked on a path which will erode and very likely destroy that unity. One cannot save the church by destroying the church. Putin’s war pits Orthodox believers in Ukraine against each other and against the Moscow Patriarchate, and it exacerbates antagonisms within global Orthodoxy at a time when tensions among those churches were already highly charged. Worse, support for the war has entangled the Russian Church in the slaughter of civilians and a humanitarian crisis not seen in Europe in nearly eighty years.

Those priests and prelates who support Putin’s regime and who today rationalize and, thus, sustain the war in Ukraine have blood on their hands, albeit blood which is only visible to those who inhabit thought-worlds beyond Russia’s official Church and state propaganda. Claiming that the “Western world” is driven by “Russophobia” in its decision to impose economic sanctions on Russia, as Patriarch Kirill did in early March, might be the height of cynicism, or it might be the height of sincerity. I cannot say. What I can say is that this way of thinking, this way of understanding Russia and the West, emanates from a deeply ingrained current in the intellectual history of the Russian Church, a current which cannot be excised from Russian Orthodox thought because it is a key component of Russian Orthodox thought. Instead, the task is to bring about a Russian Orthodoxy otherwise, that is, to draw upon and cultivate alternative, but already existing, visions, imaginations, and discourses in the Russian Church, so that they, too, are Russian Orthodox thought. This is the hard, practical, necessary work which confronts those who oppose both the war in Ukraine and the current leadership in the Moscow Patriarchate. This is what is possible, because it already is Russian Orthodoxy.


Patrick Lally Michelson is an associate professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of Beyond the Monastery Walls: The Ascetic Revolution in Russian Orthodox Thought and a co-editor of Orthodox Thinking in Modern Russia: Culture, History, Context.

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.