Many observers of the current war in Ukraine who try to analyze its deeper reasons refer to the idea of a “Russian World,” “Russkii Mir.” This idea, they claim, is the key concept behind the Russian aggression, and shows the tight connection between religion and politics in Russia. A glance at the website of the Moscow Patriarchate, however, shows that in recent years the term has been used very rarely—and then mostly to refer to a foundation called “Russkii Mir,” established by President Putin and meant to promote Russian culture and the knowledge of the Russian language abroad. True, high-ranking representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have played an important role in that foundation from the time of its 2007 creation. But what does that have to do with Ukraine now?
In some ways, the year 2014 was decisive. When it became clear after the Euromaidan demonstrations that Ukraine had decided to leave the orbit of Moscow and to definitively turn towards the West, the term “Russian World” all but disappeared from the statements of Russian Church leaders. It was clear that the idea of a civilization based on East Slavic Orthodoxy could not work without Kyiv and Ukraine, so the concept seemed to be no longer feasible. Some of its central ideas stayed, however. It is they which have proved important for the justification of the war against Ukraine, both in President Putin’s and Patriarch Kirill’s argumentations. Here, I will try to outline and to assess the most important points: the denial of a distinct Ukrainian nation, and the denial of Ukrainian statehood as such. The worldview behind these ideas seems to me more important for understanding the Russian aggression than the somewhat amorphous category of a “Russian World.”
A Greek version of this text is available at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies
At the time of writing, the tsar’s fighter jets are pounding the gorgeous Kyiv, and air raid sirens are echoing everywhere. “Who has believed our message” declares the prophet Isaiah: the fighters of Vladimir Putin are striking Kyiv, not Tbilisi, Yerevan, Berlin, Paris, or Istanbul, and certainly not New York. In fact, the Russian tsar wants to exact revenge on the Ukrainians…and on his own history. He is destroying the cradle of his own civilization, never the cradle of the western civilization that causes him disgust and nausea. He is destroying Kyiv of antiquity with its majestic laura of caves that was established in the 11th century and is considered the mother of the Russian church and its sanctuary. Thousands are blessed daily with its bones that emanate myrrh. He is destroying a Kyiv that is proud of its Saint Sophia church that takes us back to the genius of Slavic Christianity and to the extent of its deep rooting in the cultural ambit that comes from Byzantium, precisely from Constantinople, from the shores of the glorious Bosphorus and the suns that dance there on the splashes of the waves.
Kyiv has woven the beginnings of the Russian people’s civilization. There, from the care and the diligence of the Hellenic monks and their blessed disciples, the Russians started laying the foundations of their civilization: books, architecture, and icons where light dwells in their coloring and meaning transpires. Therefore, the attack that is lead today by the master of the Kremlin on his neighbor, on his “soft spot,” as some fools would like to call it, isn’t measured by political and economic interpretations only; further than that, it assumes far reaching cultural consequences. In fact, the destruction of civilizations is neither a passing matter, nor is it an inevitable consequence of unavoidable wars.
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the West has displayed a significant level of unity and solidarity with Ukraine. Comprehensive sanctions against Russia’s leadership coupled with military support to the Ukrainians have been at the forefront of the Western response. Before the invasion happened, we also witnessed intense and repeated, albeit unsuccessful, diplomatic efforts with the purpose of derailing Putin’s plans.
The same level of solidarity, which now requires a possible refit to better address the increased calls for protection of civilians, has been absent in the Orthodox world. A number of Orthodox churches failed even to call out and condemn Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. After the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) scored several recognitions in 2019 and 2020, the enthusiasm for new recognitions has arguably slowed down. Ever since the granting of the Ukrainian autocephaly in January 2019, the Russian Orthodox Church has been weaponizing the question of the OCU’s recognition by devising and delivering a counter-recognition strategy.
The undecided group of churches that have neither leaned explicitly towards Moscow nor the Ecumenical Patriarchate, namely the Romanian, Bulgarian, and the Georgian Orthodox Church should have done the right thing and recognized Ukrainian autocephaly the moment Patriarch Kirill attempted to deflect and blame external evil forces for the war Putin waged against Ukraine. By staying idle on the matter, they are missing a chance to lend support to the OCU, which would further solidify this church but also provide hope to those in the UOC-MP who are taking steps to cut the cord with Patriarch Kirill.
It’s hard to talk. It’s hard to think. It’s very hard to pray. It’s a shock. And it’s scary to realize that I was wrong not to believe there would be a war. No, I did not believe it at all. I thought that talk about the war would remain just talk, horror stories that adults do not believe in. Most of my friends didn’t believe it either.
On Thursday morning, we woke up to a different world. In this new world, the Kremlin is fighting two wars at once: it has launched a major war against Ukraine and has continued a war against Russia. The consequences of these wars will be severe for the peoples of both countries. If the aggression against Ukraine is an open war, with bombings, troops on the territory of an independent state, and military and civilian casualties, the Kremlin’s war against Russia seems less obvious. Arrests, political assassinations, trials turned into a farce, torture of prisoners, suppression of independent media, pressure on lawyers and civil activists—all these seem incomparable to open armed aggression, and yet it is a war that the Kremlin is waging hard and consistently against its people.
On February 24 alone, the day Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border, 1,700 people were detained in various Russian cities. Almost all of them will be convicted by the “pocket courts” of Putin’s Russia. The Kremlin did not like the fact that Russian citizens dared to speak out against the war with Ukraine.