Kremlin Notes in the Patriarch’s Christmas Appeal

by Sergei Chapnin

This essay was first published in Russian at the Moscow Times

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This year, on Christmas Eve, Patriarch Kirill wrote the shortest text in the fourteen years of his patriarchate: the appeal for a Christmas truce. This document might well have become a masterpiece of the anti-war, peacemaking stance of the Russian Orthodox Church.

However, it turned out quite differently. The appeal for a ceasefire is yet another manifestation of the close alliance between the ROC and the Kremlin and evidence of the patriarch’s complete misunderstanding of his place in the modern world.

The text of the appeal is worth quoting in full. It is simple and laconic: “I, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, appeal to all parties involved in the internecine conflict to cease fire and establish a Christmas truce from noon on January 6 until 12 pm on January 7 so that Orthodox people can attend services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”

The call for a truce is a good thing, especially if it becomes a prologue to peace, and is based on a Christian understanding of peacemaking. However, the call for a truce can also be part of a political gamble, and church feasts can also be part of the instrumentalization of religion, a form of manipulation of religious feelings.

Which option is true in this case?

Unfortunately, there is little doubt. The patriarch “forgot” to call for a ceasefire on Easter 2022, he “forgot” to express any sympathy to the families and friends of the killed Ukrainians for all ten months of the war, and he “forgot” that Holy Scripture calls for a witness to the truth. The patriarch extensively uses propagandistic clichés, and here he does not hold back, calling the war an internecine conflict and using dubious pseudo-theological arguments to justify military aggression.

He “forgot” that dozens of Orthodox churches were destroyed and desecrated by “pious” Russian soldiers and that not all churches in the occupied territories of Ukraine would be happy to see a Russian military for Christmas. The patriarch also forgot that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was in a difficult plight, almost on the verge of elimination due to his unsuccessful policy in Ukraine over the past thirty years.

Like a hopelessly false note, the first word in the patriarch’s appeal is the pronoun “I.” To begin a political address with “I” is a sign of painful, hypertrophied narcissism. The semantic construct “I am the patriarch and therefore…” remains within the hopelessly compromised imperial paradigm. It is impossible to take it seriously.

The motivation the patriarch uses has nothing to do with the Gospel sermon, with the commandments, with the joy of the birth of the Infant Christ into the world. The motivation the patriarch uses sounds extremely down-to-earth: “So that Orthodox people can attend services,” that is, to go to the temple and, as the cynics add, leave money there. War is war, but people should bring money to the church regularly, and the task of the patriarch is to provide such an opportunity. So he tries, even addressing the president. Alas, this version of financial and commercial motivation has a right to exist as well.

From the political point of view, the appeal also looks inappropriate, even ridiculous: the patriarch has lost all credibility, both spiritual and political, not only in Ukrainian but also in Russian society. He is only a “weak shadow” of Putin. Preaching and developing a “theology of war,” the patriarch uses arguments that are theologically questionable. Their preliminary analysis allows one to pose a rather unexpected question for the 21st century: is the Moscow Patriarch preaching heresy?

In any case, Patriarch Kirill has worked hard to deprive himself and his “official church” of any future.

Nevertheless, further developments have shown that there is one “but.” The patriarch’s appeal was published on at 11.18 on January 5. Seven hours later, Putin’s directive to the Armed Forces to introduce a ceasefire along the entire front line in accordance with the dates that Patriarch Kirill indicated was published on the presidential website. I am far from thinking that Putin regularly reads the official website of the Russian Orthodox Church and pays attention to the patriarch’s appeals. These are fantasies. Moreover, since the patriarch is both politically and economically dependent on the Kremlin, he would not dare to speak on his own without prior approval of his statement from his Kremlin superiors. But another option is even more likely: Patriarch Kirill simply carried out the Kremlin’s instructions. He received a phone call and was “strongly advised” to come up with such an initiative. The patriarch obediently carried it out. And this is why there is not one word about Christ (His name is only mentioned in the title of the feast), not one word about peace, not one word about mercy, and not one word about sin. I suspect that all this makes the president extremely uncomfortable to hear, and the patriarch understands very well that today it is better not to annoy Putin.

It is better to remain silent. Then, Alexander Galich’s “Goldminers  Waltz” (Staratelsky Val’sok), written exactly 60 years ago, when Patriarch Kirill was 17, will sound like a church Troparion:

And now we’ve survived to see better things,
Everybody keeps talking a lot,
But behind the bright jewels of rhetoric
That old dumbness spreads out like a blot.
Someone else can lament about violence
About hunger and insults untold!
We know there’s more profit in silence,
Yes, we know that silence is gold.
(Translated by G.S. Gold)

Sergei Chapnin is Director of Communications at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University and chief editor of The Gifts (Дары), an almanac on contemporary Christian culture.

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.