Kremlinology is back in a big way. Thinkers and pundits of every stripe, throughout the world, are once again seeking to uncover the secret motives and exotic ideologies of the Russian political elite. Only this time around, unlike in the days of Soviet atheism, the smoke signals coming from the Kremlin are increasingly linked with the incense rising from Moscow’s onion-domed churches. In fact, according to some observers, one of the main ideologues behind the invasion of Ukraine is none other than Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.
One recent headline captures the essence of this argument: “Russian World is the Civil Religion Behind Putin’s War.” Journalists are not the only ones making such claims. On March 13, 2022, a group of distinguished Orthodox theologians wrote that “Putin and Patriarch Kirill have used Russian world ideology as a principal justification for the invasion.” These scholars were right to denounce the ideology as neo-imperialist, and they were right to expose it as a corrosive heresy within the contemporary Orthodox church. But they were not correct, in my opinion, to describe it as the driving ideology behind the invasion of Ukraine. The real ideology of the invasion—and the real civil religion of post-Soviet Russia—is Putin’s cult of the “Great Victory.”
The concept of “Russian world” did not originate in church circles. It was coined in the late 1990s by a group of thinkers associated with Gleb Pavlovsky, the famous Russian spin doctor of the Yeltsin years. Putin first used the term in a speech in 2001, and it gradually became the centerpiece of his regime’s soft-power diplomacy efforts in the post-Soviet political space. At its core, the ideology is revanchist and restorationist. It attempts to justify Russia’s right to intervene in neighboring states, based on the ongoing presence there of Russian speakers and ethnic Russian minorities. It also maintains that Russia is a unique and independent civilization, neither entirely European nor Asian, and that this civilization is, by nature, deeply socially conservative.
Patriarch Kirill has long supported the ideals of “Russian World,” and for many years he has actively championed the “Russian World Foundation,” established by Vladimir Putin in 2007. But Kirill was not the creator of this ideology, even if he readily agreed to spread its message. Rather, the Russian patriarch had another, related ideological project—one that was born from his experiences as an ecclesiastical diplomat in the tumultuous years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1989, Kirill was appointed the head of the Department of External Affairs for the Russian Orthodox Church. For the next two decades, his main mission was to prevent the creation of a canonical, autocephalous church in Ukraine. This task grew increasingly fraught after the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005, and it was at this time that the churchman began to zealously propagate a revamped version of a very old ideology—the ideology of “Holy Rus.”
According to Kirill, the modern nation-states of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia belonged to the same church and the same civilization for one fundamental reason: because they had all emerged from the same “Kyivan baptismal font” in the late tenth century. A European Ukraine was simply impossible, Kirill preached, because the East Slav nations were brothers of a single spiritual family, born in the Dnieper River in the year 988. Kyiv was the mother of this family, Prince Vladimir the Great was the father, and brothers remained brothers, even if they quarreled, and even if one of them wished to leave their father’s house.
During Putin’s third and fourth terms in office, the ideological lines separating Russian World and Holy Rus began to blur. Patriarch Kirill sometimes spoke of a Russian World, and Putin sometimes referred to the nations of Holy Rus. As the years passed, their rhetoric against secularism, American hegemony, and godless Europe often seemed to be chanted from the same obscurantist prayer book. Although the two ideologies often overlapped, in my view, they nevertheless remained distinct propaganda projects. The post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, for example, were a major target of Russian World ideology, but they had little place in Kirill’s vision of Holy Rus.
What the two ideologies ultimately shared in common, however, was failure. The term, Russian World, is a translation of Russkii mir. The Russian word mir has a double meaning. It can mean “world,” or it can also mean “peace.” The moment that Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, into the very heart of Holy Rus, the possibility of Russkii mir was shattered forever. This is why Putin and Kirill did not publicly utter the phrase “Russian World” a single time in the buildup to the invasion, or in the weeks since.
Russian World is a soft-power geopolitical tool, designed to win hearts and minds in times of peace. War requires a different brand of propaganda—a product more ominous and effective—and the Moscow Patriarchate was well prepared to fulfill these ideological demands, as well. For decades, Kirill had cultivated deep ties to the Russian Armed Forces. In January 1992, only two weeks after the collapse of the USSR, he gave a speech in front of 5,000 high-ranking officers of the former Red Army, in which he suggested that Orthodoxy could inspire patriotism and fill the ideological void of Marxism-Leninism.
The former Soviet, and soon-to-be former atheist, military men were evidently convinced by what they heard. Over the next three decades, Orthodox clerics became a ubiquitous sight at major military ceremonies. They blessed nuclear bombs, fighter jets, and tanks with holy water. They taught Russian soldiers that death on the battlefield could be a form of martyrdom, ensuring them a ticket into heaven.
During the same period, Putin and his team also began to sacralize the memory of World War II, or the “Great War of the Fatherland,” as it is known in Russia. Lawmakers rehabilitated the image of Stalin as the great Generalissimo of the victory and passed laws forbidding the “falsification” of the Kremlin’s official war narrative. Meanwhile, the military parades held annually on May 9, Victory Day, only grew larger and more triumphant. Propaganda related to the Victory began to visually dominate Russian cities for weeks and months before the date itself. For the 75th anniversary celebrations in 2020, for example, giant billboards in Moscow advertised “Our Victory,” and people painted patriotic slogans onto their cars, such as “Onward to Berlin!” and “1945- We Can Do It Again.”
These developments were not lost on Patriarch Kirill and his inner circle. In 2020, he consecrated a new church on the outskirts of Moscow, known as the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces. The cathedral is dedicated to the Soviet Union’s “Great Victory” over Nazi Germany, and its interior is covered floor-to-ceiling with grandiose mosaics—executed in the style of Soviet Socialist Realism—depicting Russia’s greatest military triumphs. There are icons of medieval warriors, imperial Russian cavalry, and the “little green men” who annexed Crimea in 2014.
Most of the mosaics, however, show highly romanticized scenes of Soviet glory on the battlefields of World War II. Adding to the effect are the cathedral’s giant stain-glassed windows, which proudly feature iconic Soviet propaganda symbols such as the five-pointed red star and the hammer and sickle. In short, on the walls of the new military shrine, Christian Orthodoxy merges with atheist Communism—the cross merges with the hammer and sickle— in order to tell a story about Russia’s triumphant history as the holy people (and the holy army) of God.
It is this ideology of holy war, and not the concept of Russian World, which Russian leaders have predominantly drawn on when speaking about the invasion of Ukraine. In his speeches on February 21 and 24, Putin made nearly a dozen references to Nazis and neo-Nazis, while also calling to mind the “holy sacrifices” made by the Soviet people “on the altar of victory” in World War II. On the day the invasion was launched, moreover, Putin’s troops went into battle in uniforms designed to evoke memories of the Great Victory, and some experts have even suggested that the invasion routes were purposefully plotted so that Russian soldiers could follow, literally, in the footsteps of their Soviet predecessors who fought the Nazis. Meanwhile, away from the battlefield, Russians at home were treated to a steady diet of heroic World War II films, which played throughout the day on state-controlled Russian TV channels.
Predictably, many patriotic Russian Orthodox clergymen have embraced the Kremlin’s sacred war narrative. “Today on the lands of Holy Rus…an armed conflict is taking place between the Russian people and the collective Hitler and enemies of Holy Orthodoxy!” Fr Igor Pashmenov told his flock seven days after the start of the invasion. In a similar vein, Fr Aleksii Kasatikov invoked a song from a Soviet war film to describe the campaign. “If necessary, we can do it again!” he proclaimed, alluding to the Second World War. “And now we are doing it again! Our country ended the war in 1945, and we will end it again today!”
These examples are not fringe views. In the politics of memory currently being preached by politicians and priests alike, Russian soldiers are fighting for the existential survival of the Motherland, in the same fashion that their Soviet forbears fought against Hitler’s invasion. Only this time around, Kyiv is the new Berlin; Zelensky’s regime and NATO are the new Nazis; and the entire country is waging a holy war against godless aggressors from the West. It is nothing less than a second “Great War of the Fatherland.”
There is one prominent figure who has not alluded to the Second World War in recent weeks, however, and that figure is Patriarch Kirill. In fact, in a sermon in early March supporting the invasion, the church leader referred to several other Russian military campaigns, but he never invoked the Great War of the Fatherland. Why would the patriarch go to such lengths to avoid mentioning the war cult that he himself helped to create and sanctify?
One possibility is that Kirill never imagined that the cult would be unleashed on his own canonical territory. As we have seen, over the span of his ecclesiastical career, Kirill created and nurtured two beloved ideological projects. In 2022, one of those projects betrayed the other: Russia’s Holy Army invaded Holy Rus. Bombs blessed by Russian Orthodox priests were dropped from war planes blessed by Russian Orthodox priests, and those bombs fell on the homes and churches of Kirill’s own parishioners. In a matter of weeks, the invasion possibly destroyed everything that the Moscow Patriarchate had worked to hold onto, for more than three decades, in post-Soviet Ukraine. The war is therefore a catastrophe for Kirill, not a holy triumph, and his predicament cannot help but call to mind the words of the ninth Psalm: “The sinner hath been caught in the works of his own hands.”
Sean Griffin is a research fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki.
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.