Religion and Conflict

Russia, Ukraine, and the Orthodox Church: The Aftermath?

Published on: May 5, 2023
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As the war between Russia and Ukraine enters its second year, prayers throughout the world continue to be offered for a quick and just end. One question that needs to be raised is what will this just end look like? Regardless of who the victor will be, regardless of whether the political players—Putin and Zelensky—will remain the dominant figures on stage, it is certain that the Orthodox Church in both Russia and Ukraine will continue to be a constant presence. How its role will play out in the aftermath of the war will depend on how it sees itself vis-à-vis its respective government. Will it continue to be a conduit for disseminating a political ideology that fosters enmity towards the other, or will it be a presence that will lead both sides into the healing embrace of the crucified and risen Christ?

Given the almost two millennia of the Orthodox Church’s close and often subordinate relationship to the state, the deepening wound caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents the Orthodox Church with the daunting challenge of freeing itself from the government, which will allow it to chart a course seeking truth, peace, and reconciliation. But to do this will require something similar to the theological reflection composed by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission in preparation for the new millennium. Dated December 1999 and presided over by the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the commission produced a document entitled Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past. Personally, what is most striking about the document is the call for the “purification of memory” based on the “courage and humility” needed to recognize “the wrongs done by those who have borne or bear the name of Christian” (Introduction). As the commission points out, purification of memory is a call for the church to undertake an in-depth critique of itself.[1]

Is such an act of courage, humility, and introspection possible within the Orthodox Church? More specifically, given Orthodoxy’s often self-repudiation but simultaneous embrace of ethno-phyletism, does the current institutional structure of the local churches allow their leaders to guide their respective churches away from political ideologies and towards the Gospel? As Father John Meyendorff pointed out, the rise of modern nationalism transformed

“legitimate ecclesiastical regionalism into a cover for ethnic sectarianism.” Consequently, “the new nationalist ideology identified the nation—understood in both linguistic and racial terms—as the object of basic social and cultural loyalties” and not the “sacramental community, created by the new birth of Baptism, as the Christian Gospel required… .”[2]

As historians of Russia know, ethno-phyletism provides the ideological base for Russkiy Mir and is a driving force behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Traces of Russkiy Mir extend back to the late 15th-century Legend of The White Cowl, which Serge Zenkovsky saw as the “cornerstone of Russian Medieval ideology” upon which the 16th century monk Philotheus conceived the theory of Moscow as the third and final Rome.

“All Christian realms will come to an end and will unite into the one single realm of our sovereign, that is, into the Russian realm, according to the prophetic books. Both Romes fell, the third endures, and a fourth there will never be.”[3]

The “triumph” of the Russian state and the Russian Church was further developed by the 19th-century Slavophiles. With passion and persuasiveness, writers such as A. Khomiakov (1804-1860) and I. Kireyevsky (1806-1856) sought to recover Russia’s true Orthodox identity—an identity that, for them and for their followers, had been overtaken by the Western theologies of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and the philosophies of socialism, individualism, and capitalism.

During the reign of Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855), the political/ecclesiastical banner of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” was raised, calling Russia to free itself from Western hegemony and to return to its Orthodox roots. Under Nicholas’ minister of education, Serge Uvarov, the indivisible triad of church, politics, and nation was embraced as the cornerstone of Russian identity and to this day holds a place in the Russian psyche.

What exacerbates the Orthodox Church’s role in establishing something similar to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission or South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that while Russkiy Mir is brazenly promoted by the Moscow Patriarchate, an inseparable relationship between state and church also prevails in Ukraine. Will the young autocephalous church of Metropolitan Epiphaniy of Kyiv be able to take the initiative to call for the canonical unity of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine and distance itself from political ideology? If so, will it, together with a free Russian Orthodox Church, be able to forge a path that will guide their respective governments towards truth, peace, and reconciliation? Will the leaders of the Orthodox churches in Russia and Ukraine be able to speak the truth in love (Eph.4:15), acknowledging the atrocities against human dignity and life that are the inevitable outcome for all parties involved in war? As former president Bill Clinton poignantly stated in his 1998 remarks to members of the Palestinian National Council and other related organizations, neither Israelis nor Palestinians “have a monopoly on pain and virtue.”

To purify the collective memory, to speak the truth in love, to move towards embracing the other requires courageous, humble, and visionary leadership. It requires ascending Golgotha. Presently, on the Russian side, barring a radical inner transformation, the words and actions of the dramatis personae have shown they are inadequate to the task. Vladimir Putin is no Nelson Mandela, and Patriarch Kirill is no Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On the Ukrainian side, in addition to reaching out to Metropolitan Onufriy, Metropolitan Epiphaniy has the formidable task of reminding his nation that victory over its invader will ultimately manifest itself when it embraces truth, reconciliation, and forgiveness. 


[1] The effects of this critique are ongoing as is witnessed by the Vatican’s recent repudiation of the 15th century papal documents that came to be known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” which was used to legitimize “the seizure and exploitation of Indigenous lands in Africa and the Americas, among other places. See Elisabetta Povoledo, “Vatican Repudiates ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ Used to Justify Colonization.” The New York Times, March 31, 2023, A7. 

[2] “Ecclesiastical Regionalism: Structures Of Communion Or Cover For Separatism?”, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 3, (1980), 163.

[3] Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. Meridian (1974), 323.

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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.

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  • Very Rev. Dr. Robert Arida

    Very Rev. Dr. Robert Arida

    Retired Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Boston

    Father Robert M. Arida is the retired dean of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral (OCA) in Boston, Massachusetts. During his almost 40 year tenure as dean, he preached at Harvard’s Memorial Church and from other distinguished pulpits. He has guest lectured on the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in ...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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