Any conflict, especially a military conflict, needs a clear rationale for why it occurs. Usually, this question should be answered by official representatives of the state. However, the situation in Russia after the beginning of the armed conflict with Ukraine is gradually beginning to be explained in religious terms. This language has moved beyond the confines of the church. Today it is already being used by Russian officials and the media. At the same time, their rhetoric is more radical than that of representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church; that is, official church preaching has become part of state propaganda.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has made eschatological rhetoric and thinking key. Not only in a church sermon, but also in state propaganda, radical terms such as “desatanization of Ukraine” appear. Russian officials explicitly call the Ukrainian authorities “Satanists” and “open enemies of Christ,” and the cited goal is to “stop the supreme ruler of hell, whatever name he uses—Satan, Lucifer, or Iblis. For his goal is destruction,” according to Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev in his Telegram. According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, even the Canadian authorities who imposed sanctions on Patriarch Kirill are Satanists.
But in addition to abstract “authorities,” there are more specific calls, for example, to grant Vladimir Zelensky the official status of “antichrist.” On the air of the main state TV channel “Russia-1,” political analyst Araik Stepanian directly declares: “The Orthodox Church should declare Zelensky an official antichrist. From the point of view of Orthodoxy, this man is the classic antichrist. We must forget the surname Zelensky. We must call him simply: Zelensky-Antichrist.”
Within the Russian Orthodox Church, the most radical assessments of the ongoing conflict are also encouraged. The inspirer of eschatological rhetoric is Patriarch Kirill, who seeks justification and support for his anti-globalist and anti-Western views. “Globalism is a project of world oneness, but without regard to the Creator’s true plan for man. And from the perspective of Christian eschatology, we know what global universalism means, and we know that without this global universalism there will not appear someone who will claim global power and whose name will be associated with the end of the world,” said Patriarch Kirill on October 25 at the opening of the XXIV World Russian People’s Council, calling Europe and the United States “anti-Christian territory.”
According to Patriarch Kirill, the end of the world is approaching, and there are anti-Christian territories, as well as Christian territories, and above them Katechon—the one who opposes the approaching Apocalypse. The only ones who can delay the approach of the Last Judgment are the Russian people, Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Church itself. “Why do they seek to destroy it (the Russian land), to divide it, to pit brother against brother? (…) In the Apocalypse, there is mention of a certain force that prevents the coming of the Antichrist into the world. (…) All sharp arrows of all those who seek to compromise the Church, to divide it and tear it away from the people, are aimed at this power today,” says Patriarch Kirill.
Maureen Perrie, a professor at Birmingham University, believes that the idea of perceiving Russia as a katechon “suggests a movement toward a more overtly nationalist position by the Patriarch, who cannot help but be aware of the ideological resonances of this concept.”
The collapse of the old world order, about which Russian officials have repeatedly spoken, is inevitable. But Russia has a chance to prevent the forces of evil from coming into the world, to become a katechon. Vladimir Surin, author of the conservative Orthodox website Russian People’s Line, articulates this thought more clearly: “In my opinion, events in Ukraine, including the Liberation Crusade of the Russian Army, is the threshold of Armageddon. The date of the beginning of the Last War is hidden from people. It is possible only to postpone the collapse of a world that has outlived itself.” In other words, Russia has the task of changing God’s plan for the world, to postpone, if possible, the coming of the Antichrist.
Eschatological rhetoric, which is gaining momentum and has become part of state propaganda, is designed to justify more clearly Russia’s mission in its present and future. Russia has one path and task: to crush the forces of Satan that Ukraine serves. And this view of the current conflict is not a marginal phenomenon but in fact, is the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was expressed at the last World Russian People’s Council, where in the presence of Patriarch Kirill the radical professor Alexander Dugin spoke, stating: “This is the war of heaven against hell… His Holiness in his special report gently hinted at the figure who stands on the other side, which defines, inspires, and organizes our enemies. This figure is very close. We do not know the times; no one does. But we can understand them by the signs, see how close they are… That’s why more and more often, we talk about Armageddon, the end of times, and the apocalypse. We are taking part in the last, maybe the penultimate, no one knows, but a very important battle.”
Can we say that a radically new eschatology is taking shape in the Russian Orthodox Church, the basis of which is the perception of Russia as the last stronghold standing in the path of the Antichrist? Apparently, yes. The ROC preaches that the war of Russia against Ukraine should not be understood otherwise than as a war of the forces of light against the forces of darkness. Of course, we cannot yet speak of an established conceptual apparatus or a coherent worldview, since new actors and new ideas emerge in its creation. On the other hand, not only criticism but also any discussion of the admissibility of such an interpretation of events, which does not correspond to Orthodox dogma on the nature of the apocalypse, is absent in the Church context.
The concept of perceiving Russia as a katechon becomes much simpler and more appealing to the state ideology, as it sets out the ideas of good and evil. It also explains the invasion of Ukraine in terms of the need to fulfill God’s will, i.e., the need to resist the forces of hell. If this is just one of the tricks of state propaganda, for the ROC it is associated with a considerable risk of being called a false prophet, putting God on its side. Intervention in God’s plan for the world reduces God to a supporter of one of the conflicting sides, or even makes the plan unnecessary. God no longer determines “times and dates,” but Russian leadership itself asserts the beginning of the world’s end and seeks to push it back.
Awareness of this increases the degree of eschatological rhetoric inside and outside the Russian Orthodox Church, declaring specific people servants of Satan, whose list grows more comprehensive daily. Sooner or later, this can only deepen the rift between the ROC and world Orthodoxy, caused earlier by the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
The ROC’s rapid transformation into an apocalyptic sect dooms it to loneliness and marginalization, and its theological justification for the war makes it just another mouthpiece of Russian propaganda. Patriarch Kirill and his entourage, enjoying state support, have driven themselves into a trap from which no escape is possible without a critical rethinking of the patriarch’s theology and its qualitatively new renewal from people who have not tainted themselves with justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
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