Religion and Conflict

When Theology Fuels the War False Prophecy and State Policy in “The Present and Future of the Russian World” Document

Published on: April 8, 2024
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The Russian World and the Ukraine invasion
Image Credit: iStock.com/Aleksandr Zaikin

On March 27, the World Russian People’s Council (WRPC), headed by Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev), met at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to ratify its programmatic document, “The Present and Future of the Russian World.” The document opens with a section on the Russian war in Ukraine, followed by a section on the Russian world (Russkii mir), and then gives directives for various state policies from demographics to economics. A manifesto of sorts, the document mixes apocalyptic rhetoric with mythology, moral exhortation, and policymaking. Using the euphemism “special military operation” for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the document introduces the war as “the new stage of the national liberation of the Russian people” and declares: “From the spiritual and moral point of view, the special military operation is a Holy War, in which Russia and its people, defending the unified spiritual space of the Holy Rus’, fulfill the mission of the ‘Restraining One’ by protecting the world from the onslaught of globalism and the victory of the west that has fallen into Satanism.” Apparently, by bombing Ukrainian cities Russia is engaging in the holy war and is preventing the end of the world. With the stakes being so high, any destruction, no matter how horrific, is justified; any amount of violence is acceptable in the fight of the absolute good (i.e. Russia) against the satanic evil (i.e. the west).

The document returns to the same apocalyptic trope in its second section, which explains the concept of the Russian world: “The supreme meaning and the spiritual mission of Russia’s existence and of the Russian world created by Russia is to be the universal ‘Restraining One’, protecting the world from evil.” The reference to the “Restraining One” or “Restrainer” (to katekhon) is to the figure mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2: 6-7, who holds back or restrains the advent of Antichrist. In the nineteenth-century Russian political eschatology, the mission of the katekhon was ascribed to the Russian tsar or, more broadly, to the Holy Rus’. The concept was then adopted by the present-day ideologues of the Russian world, including Patriarch Kirill. In his public pronouncements, the patriarch has repeatedly deployed and developed the same rhetoric of the holy war, going so far as to claim that the death of a Russian soldier in Ukraine is “a sacrifice that washes away all sins that a person has committed.”

These are not the mad ravings of a lunatic: the patriarch is not clinically insane or acting under duress. He had provided a theoretical platform for this war long before Putin began his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. With the war now in its third year, the patriarch has not retracted a single claim that he had made, no matter how radical. On the contrary, he has only sharpened his rhetoric, distilling the central claims of the Russian world ideology into WRPC’s collectively produced manifesto. The patriarch has turned the Russian Orthodox Church into an ideological machine of an aggressive state. None of his predecessors that claimed “loyalty” to the militaristic Soviet state could claim such a distinction. Some of them, often reluctantly, covered up the repressive actions of the regime against the believers. Patriarch Kirill, quite willingly, has supplied a political theology for a war that continues to destroy the lives and livelihoods of millions, some of whom he claims as his own flock (i.e. as the members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate). Biblically speaking, the patriarch’s utterances fit the genre of false prophecy.

The directives of “The Present and Future of the Russian World” document cannot be dismissed as empty threats of a clandestine terrorist organization. WRPC enjoys a broad support of the Russian state, church, and society. When it comes to the outcome of the war, the crafters of the document mean business: “After the completion of the special military operation, the entire territory of the present-day Ukraine must be included in the zone of Russia’s exclusive influence.”

In his speech to the WRPC Congress, the patriarch wondered which countries in the world enjoyed an “authentic state sovereignty” and concluded that less than ten countries, including Russia, qualified. He opined that the remaining countries were not actually sovereign states but depended on other power centers. As explained in “The Present and Future of the Russian World” document, Russia is the “geopolitical center of Eurasia.” Furthermore, “Russia must return to the three-centuries-old doctrine of the triunity (triedinstvo) of the Russian nation, according to which the Russian nation consists of the Great Russians, Little Russians, and Belorussians, which are the branches (sub-nations) of one nation. The term ‘Russian’ comprises all Eastern Slavs, the descendants of historical Rus’.” This “doctrine” is pure mythology; its pseudo-religious character is betrayed by its use of the term “triune,” which is properly applied only to the Holy Trinity, not to opportunistically selected Eastern Slavic countries. This mythology is a dangerous form of false prophecy, because it displaces the worship of the triune God with the idolatrous worship of the “triunity of the Russian nation.” As an idol of war and destruction, the “triune” Russian nation, by the designs of its autocratic ruler then intends to devour its neighboring nations, beginning with Ukrainians and Belarussians. The Russian world ideology is also dangerous because it is designed to render moot the internationally accepted borders of the states and, ultimately, to deny Ukraine its right to exist as a sovereign state.

The remainder of the document addresses such social problems as Russia’s low birth rates, high abortion rates, migration, education of children, city planning, and economic policy. The main emphasis is on the “traditional family values,” which are allegedly undermined by the corrupting influences of the west. The document idealizes Russia’s patriarchal past and conveniently ignores historical realities. Consider the fact that Russia’s abortion rates (314 abortions per 1000 live births in 2020) are presently higher than in most developed western countries. These higher rates were inherited from the Soviet period when Russia was isolated from the west by the Iron Curtain. While it might be tempting to implicate the west in all of Russia’s social problems, such a stance is sheer wish-fulfilment.  

The document then offers to resolve the “demographic catastrophe” (as it calls the problem of Russia’s shrinking population) by “creating conditions conducive to the massive repatriation of compatriots to Russia.” This is a veiled reference to the transfer of civilians from Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territories to Russia. Among these civilians, the most vulnerable group is Ukraine’s children. Putin’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova claimed that 700,000 Ukrainian children have been brought to Russia in the aftermath of the full-scale invasion. At least 19,500 Ukrainian children have been illegally abducted by the Russian state authorities and transferred to Russian re-education camps, orphanages, and foster homes. In the camps, these Ukrainian children are brainwashed and turned into the Russian citizens, which is an act of genocide according to the Geneva Convention. On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court at the Hague issued a warrant for the arrest of Putin and Lvova-Belova, citing specifically their responsibility for “the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children).” Will they ever be brought to justice?

It is hypocritical to feign support for family values while at the same time encouraging the war of aggression that has already turned millions into refugees, separating hundreds of thousands of children from their parents. How can WRPC’s preoccupation with affordable housing and tax-breaks for larger families square with the organization’s justification of the war that continues to destroy civil infrastructure, depriving millions of their livelihoods? Blinded by their self-righteousness, the ideologues of the Russian world are not perturbed by such contradictions.

The westerners who sympathize with the Russian Orthodox Church’s defense of the “traditional family values” should not be fooled by WRPC’s self-righteous rhetoric. The war on Ukraine is not about “traditional family values”; it is not about the clash of civilizations; it is most certainly not a “holy war.” Russia is not a “Restrainer” of apocalyptic evil. On the contrary, Putin, Gundiaev, and the Russian ruling elites are the perpetrators of heinous war crimes—against Ukraine and against their own people whom they have dragged into this war.

Following the example of the prominent Orthodox theologians and the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, the primates of the Orthodox Churches have a pastoral duty to confront the patriarch’s theology that fuels this war and to condemn the pernicious ideology of the Russian world in no uncertain terms. How many more people must perish in this war and the wars to follow before the hierarchs break their silence?

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About author

  • Paul L. Gavrilyuk

    Paul L. Gavrilyuk

    Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN)

    Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Ph.D. is the Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy at the Theology Department of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, he is the founding president of REBUILD UKRAINE, a non-profit that provides vital support to Ukraine’s defenders, refu...

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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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