As was noted many times, the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine is ideologically framed by a quasi-religious doctrine that promotes Russian civilizational exceptionalism and has been branded as the “Russian world.” This doctrine is not the only quasi-religious aspect of the war. Those who endorse the war try to justify it by bringing up a wide array of arguments that look religious. In my contribution to the Sweden-based Religion and Praxis blog, I argued that both Vladimir Putin and his counterparts in the Russian Orthodox Church are driven by a dualistic worldview, which is non-Christian and anti-biblical, and which sees the world in black-and-white, as being divided to essentially good and essentially evil parts. Russia, according to this worldview, incarnates the former part, while the West, the latter one. The Russian propaganda effectively appeals to and enhances this worldview among its target groups.
The same propaganda exploits some biblical references as well. For example, the TV channel Spas, owned and managed by the Moscow Patriarchate, has produced, and broadcasts a documentary series “God and the Bible.” It is based on the book with the same title by the Serbian Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović. In one of the episodes, the channel’s anchor Boris Korchevnikov and the priest at the parish affiliated with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Fr. Igor Fomin, discussed possible biblical justifications for the ongoing war in Ukraine. They recorded the episode in Volnovakha, a Ukrainian city in Donbass occupied and almost completely destroyed by the Russian army. While standing against the backdrop of the city’s ruins, Fr. Igor mentions that “God gives a direct command to the Jewish people to cleanse the land from the peoples” that were impious and therefore destined by God to “go into oblivion,” so that other peoples could be “erected in their place.” This is nothing more but a clear justification of the Russian atrocities in Ukraine and effectively a call for the genocide of the Ukrainian people—on the Old Testament grounds.
Russian church media, in tune with the state propaganda, disseminate other quasi-religious messages that resonate with the religious consciousness of the Russians. They include stories about the assumed miracles on the battlefield when some occupants’ life was spared against all odds. The director of the “Biblical cabinet” at the Moscow Theological Academy, archpriest Alexander Timofeev, has been with the Russian army in Donbass since the early months of the invasion. On his social media, he likes to interpret things that happen on the battlefield as “miracles.” In his interpretation, such miracles happen only to the Russians. For example, he retold a story about how a church in the occupied Popasna was shelled by the Ukrainian artillery and, miraculously, its mosaics of Saints Peter and Paul were not damaged. He did not mention, of course, over 150 Orthodox churches were destroyed by the Russian troops. Apparently, they are not eligible for miracles.
Fr. Timofeev also posted encouraging messages to the Russian soldiers from the Russian “starets” Fr. Ioann Mironov from St. Petersburg. Mobilizing the “elders” and other authoritative church figures has become a common point of the propaganda in Russia, and not only there. A Belarussian “elder,” Fr. Andrey Lemeshonok from St. Elizabeth monastery in Minsk, became a tireless advocate for both Russian and Belarussian dictators. The primate of the Belarussian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Veniamin, who, like Metropolitan Onufry, has the fame of a passionless hesychast and a man of prayer, has also become a passionate supporter of Alexander Lukashenko.
Capitalization on the assumed holiness and “miracles” became a popular argument also in Ukraine, where Orthodoxy is divided between two jurisdictions: the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which until recently was a part of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC ex-MP) and now no one understands its canonical status. Both churches are busy building their identities by rejecting each other. They appeal to popular religiosity with the purpose of consolidating their faithful around their church leaders. The UOC (ex-MP) propagates its primate, Metropolitan Onufry, as a “holy man of prayer” and uses this as an argument to remain isolated from the rest of the churches in Ukraine, from global Orthodoxy, and from the Ukrainian society. A speaker of this church, archpriest Mykola Danylevych, has disseminated through his social media stories told by his parishioners of how they saw in their dreams the parishioners of the OCU burning in hell. The abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, metropolitan of Vyshhorod and Chernobyl Paul, is particularly famous for his manipulations through curses and references to apocryphal stories.
It seems that even the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cannot always resist the temptation of referring to such stories, in order to promote itself. A recent opportunity for that was given by the mishap that occurred on December 9, when the primate of the UOC (ex-MP) Metropolitan Onufry, while celebrating a liturgy in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, spilled the Holy Eucharist from the chalice onto his vestments. The official speaker of the OCU, archbishop Yevstratiy of Chernihiv and Nizhyn, immediately picked up this unfortunate episode and interpreted it a punishment from God to Onufry for a particular set of sins and wrong policies that the OCU ascribes to him. Such an interpretation widely circulated in the Ukrainian media as a proof that Onufry and his Church are wrong and need to be restricted in Ukraine.
I believe such interpretations that appeal to the primitive magic sides of the religious consciousness, are manipulative and misleading. They do not help the cause of unity among the Orthodox in Ukraine. They do not serve the Ukrainian cause in the war either. In contrast to Russia, Ukraine does not need to justify its fight by referring to miracles, elders, dreams, or mishaps such as the one in the Lavra. Who is wrong and who is right in the war is self-evident. For those who need references, however, the words of Christ would suffice, as well as the Moses’ commandments. The Russian army on Ukrainian soil has violated every single commandment, while Russian theologians and church figures keep inventing miracles and prophecies of “elders” to justify such a violation.
This war makes us, the Orthodox, face a crisis of authority. It has clearly demonstrated that patriarchs, elders, and popular theologians can abuse their teaching authority, be completely wrong, and distort Orthodoxy. A serious reevaluation of authority in the Orthodox Church is needed. I hope such reevaluation will bring back to the center of our life the Gospels and the wisdom of the Church Fathers.
Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun is Professor in Ecclesiology, International Relations and Ecumenism at the Sankt Ignatios College, University College Stockholm.
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.