Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine is a turning point in European history, comparable to the beginning of both world wars. Therefore, it is completely understandable that theologians and ordinary believers would respond to it, first, with gestures of solidarity with the victims of the aggression, and second, with condemnation of the aggressors and those who support them. In an attempt to understand the spiritual causes of the war, a group of Orthodox theologians issued a Declaration on the “Russian World” teaching and denounced this doctrine. Today there are more than a thousand signatures under the document. As in other similar cases, people signed the declaration, on the one hand, out of solidarity, and on the other hand, with the desire to condemn the supreme leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, which directly or indirectly supports the war. While the document deals perfectly well with the first task, problems arise with the second.
I put my signature under the Declaration because I want to demonstrate my solidarity with other theologians and believers in condemning the war and supporting its victims. In addition, I am close to the intention of the authors of the document in trying to analyze the Russian World teaching formulated and promoted for many years by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. At the same time, I believe that this text does not achieve its goal, neither in its substance nor in its overall argument. It is impossible to formulate an indictment of this doctrine and its author on the basis of this Declaration, which does not deal with the real Russian world, which is killing innocent people, but rather with an imaginary world.
For purposes of discussion, I would like to outline three points on which I believe the Declaration on the Russian World falls short. I believe that my critique will serve as a constructive impetus to further develop this topic and better understand the spiritual malady that has led the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church to support aggression against Ukraine. I am glad that Public Orthodoxy, which was the first to publish this document, can provide a forum for such discussion.
The authors incorrectly describe the essence of the Russian World teaching
The Declaration presents the Russian world as “a transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world.” This sphere has a common political center in Moscow, a common spiritual center in Kyiv, a common language (Russian), a common church with a common patriarch (the Russian Orthodox Church and Kirill), and a common national leader (Vladimir Putin) “to govern this Russian world, as well as upholding a common distinctive spirituality, morality, and culture.” According to this doctrine, the Russian world is opposed by the corrupt West.
The problem is that from this description it is not clear why the Russian world is so horrific and why, suddenly, it needs to be condemned. And most importantly, it does not clarify how Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine follows from this doctrine. The Russian world is presented here as an ordinary national doctrine, which is very similar, for example, to the Hellenistic Μεγάλη Ιδέα, or the idea of Great Serbia/Romania/Bulgaria. Every big nation has its own national idea which unites compatriots around the world into one imagined community, to follow Benedict Anderson’s terminology. There is nothing criminal about creating a cross-border sphere of cultural, linguistic, and even political influence. As we know, there are also lobbyists in Washington for a variety of national interests. Certainly, the national doctrine of cross-border influence can eventually become a kind of expansionism or imperialism, which can begin to operate through armed violence. For example, the Greek military expansion in Turkey (1919) based on Μεγάλη Ιδέα of restoring the Christian Byzantine empire became to Asia Minor a catastrophe.
In the modern era, Orthodox churches have always been involved in nation-building. According to the romantic notion that entered Orthodoxy in the 19th century, the Church is the soul of the Nation. Here, of course, there is also the danger of a merger of church and state, which is fraught with many cases of abuse. But the idea of a “symphony of authorities” is not criminal in itself as long as the church does not begin to support the morally unacceptable actions of the political regime.
The real horrific “Russian world,” which is bombing Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities, is radically different from the one described in the Declaration. The essence of the Russian World doctrine is that it refuses to consider Ukrainians and Belarusians as nations and tries to present them as sub-ethnic groups within the Russian nation. It is this idea of a triune Holy Russia that Patriarch Kirill has been trying to promote throughout his pontificate. And a nation-state without a nation has no right to exist. It is not without reason that one of the main goals of the military operation is stated as “denazification,” in which the Ukrainian authorities are represented as an alien group of nationalists who have allegedly seized control of the country. In reality, the “Russian world’s” expansion into Ukraine has led to the ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine identifying themselves as Ukrainians. In such a way they become part of the group that demands “denazification” in the eyes of the Russian military machine.
The Russian world is a political doctrine, not a theological one, and therefore not a heresy.
The condemnation of the Russian World teaching as a heresy of ethnophyletism is a weak argument. The invention of the heresy of ethnophyletism in 1872 was directed against the proclamation of autocephaly of the Bulgarian Church. This topic is still rather poorly reflected on by Orthodox theologians. In the document For the Life of the World: Toward the Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, we find the following definition of ethnophyletism: “the subordination of the Orthodox faith to ethnic identities and national interests” (§ 11). But this question has also a postcolonial perspective. The heresy of ethnophyletism could be interpreted as a realization the imperial ambitions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the context of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Direct analogies can be drawn between the Constantinople and Bulgarian churches then and the Russian and Ukrainian churches now. It is easy to turn this concept against the Ukrainian Orthodox. For example, Kirill Frolov, one of the Orthodox ideologues of the Russian World, invented the “heresy of Ukrainianism” by analogy with ethnophylethism.
The problem is that the definition of ethnophyletism does not make clear at what point national interests are placed above the Christian faith and at what point they are not. Any national Orthodox Church can be arbitrarily accused of ethnophyletism, including the young Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which positions itself as a national church. Especially if we rely on the description of the Russian world offered by the authors of the Declaration. The introduction of the heresy of ethnophyletism into theological circulation is a stab in the back to Orthodox Ukrainians who are defending their lives and freedom with weapons in their hands.
In general, condemning a geopolitical doctrine as heresy is theologically incorrect if it has no Christian content. And the real Russian world is almost irreligious. Orthodoxy is not a supporting structure in it, but a small baroque detail that performs only decorative functions. And to understand Russia’s present war with Ukraine as the first religious war of the 21st century is, in my view, groundless.
In Russian official rhetoric, it is not a war but a “special military operation,” a surgical intervention for “denazification,” not a popular or holy war with religious rhetoric. All references to religious subjects in it are incidental. The instrumental attitude of the Russian political regime toward Orthodoxy and other religions is clearly visible in the amendments that were made to the Constitution of the Russian Federation in 2020. The amendment mentioning God in the Constitution reads as follows: “The Russian Federation, united by a thousand years of history, preserving the memory of our ancestors who passed on to us their ideals and faith in God, as well as the continuity in the development of the Russian state, recognizes the historically established state unity.” Faith in God acts here as a museum exhibit, associated with the memory of the ancestors.
If the war Russia is waging against Ukraine were religious, the hostilities would be accompanied by religious rituals. Patriarch Kirill would bless the military vehicles on Red Square in Moscow. But all the actions of the Moscow Patriarch in support of the military campaign can be called his own attempts to be relevant to the new agenda. In fact, he is not needed within this agenda. Of course, the army may turn to religious rituals to lift the spirits of soldiers if the military campaign does not go well. This already happened once, when Patriarch Kirill was recruited to serve the liturgy in the monstrous church of the armed forces after Russian troops retreated from Kyiv. But this once again shows the instrumental nature of the state’s attitude toward the Church.
Condemnation of the doctrine of the Russian World as heresy will not do any damage to the morale of the Russian army. And in the formulation, as presented in the Declaration, it will not harm the leadership of the Russian Church. This, however, does not change the fact that the patriarch and clergymen ought to be brought before a church court in the future, not as heretics but as a high-ranking accomplices to crimes against humanity.
Imitating the Barmen Declaration is a sign of paternalism and colonialism.
Finally, my third point of criticism is that the chosen style of the Declaration, imitating the Barmen Declaration of 1934, is extremely unfortunate. The Barmen Declaration was created in the context of a nascent totalitarian state. It was written and adopted by Christians struggling against Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian policies toward the church within the Third Reich. The Declaration was a testimony to the courage and strength of spirit of German Christians who were not afraid to challenge the dictatorship. The Barmen Declaration expresses the experience and faith of the Confessing Church. If the Barmen Declaration had been written for the Germans by free English, American, or Canadian theologians, it would not have had the same power. The new Barmen Declaration can only appear in the context of an emerging totalitarian state (and it is this transit from authoritarianism to totalitarianism that we have seen in Belarus since 2020 and in Russia in the last month).
Imitating this style, the Declaration on the Russian World teaching becomes a kind of anti-Barmen declaration, because it expresses the exact opposite experience. It was written with good intentions, but by theologians who have never lived for long under authoritarianism, much less totalitarianism. As far as I know, no theologians from Russia or Belarus took part in its preparation. In contrast to the hard-won and very humble Barmen Declaration, whose moral voice breaks through the thick fog of ideological propaganda, the authors of the Declaration on the Russian World speak from a particular moral position without having any grounds for doing this. The Declaration, therefore, could be interpreted as paternalistic and even having a colonial flavor to it.
My friend, Ukrainian theologian Alexander Filonenko, who is now in Kyiv, said during a recent video conference for friends: “We are all having non-comparable experiences right now.” The experience of Ukrainians under bomb attacks and risking their lives every minute is one. The experience of Russians living under radical unfreedom, repression, and propaganda is another. The experience of Europeans and Americans who support refugees, but live in relative safety is a third. The experience of the refugees and emigrees is a fourth. And we shouldn’t mix them and try to compare at this moment. There is a vast chasm between each of these experiences.
We cannot expect a new Barmen Declaration to appear in Russia, Belarus, or Ukrainian territories under occupation today, but even in the Third Reich, it took a year for Christians to formulate their experience and vision. Western Christians, on the other hand, must choose a different style.
In conclusion, I would like, on the one hand, to commend the authors of the Declaration on the Russian World teaching for their intention and speed of reaction, but, on the other hand, to warn them against sacralizing this document, which is already evident in certain instances in social networking. But the Declaration is only a text that can and should be refined on the basis of a thorough theological, philosophical, and historical study of the doctrine of the Russian World. Orthodoxy is going through a time of extreme tension, and in this situation, it is important not to lose touch with reality, to listen to and be open to the voices of others.
Andrey Shishkov is Ph.D. student in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia) and junior researcher in the project “Orthodoxy as Solidarity” supported by the Estonian Research Council (PRG 1599).
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.