Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine is a turning point in European history, comparable to the beginning of both world wars. Therefore, it is completely understandable that theologians and ordinary believers would respond to it, first, with gestures of solidarity with the victims of the aggression, and second, with condemnation of the aggressors and those who support them. In an attempt to understand the spiritual causes of the war, a group of Orthodox theologians issued a Declaration on the “Russian World” teaching and denounced this doctrine. Today there are more than a thousand signatures under the document. As in other similar cases, people signed the declaration, on the one hand, out of solidarity, and on the other hand, with the desire to condemn the supreme leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, which directly or indirectly supports the war. While the document deals perfectly well with the first task, problems arise with the second.
I put my signature under the Declaration because I want to demonstrate my solidarity with other theologians and believers in condemning the war and supporting its victims. In addition, I am close to the intention of the authors of the document in trying to analyze the Russian World teaching formulated and promoted for many years by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. At the same time, I believe that this text does not achieve its goal, neither in its substance nor in its overall argument. It is impossible to formulate an indictment of this doctrine and its author on the basis of this Declaration, which does not deal with the real Russian world, which is killing innocent people, but rather with an imaginary world.
For purposes of discussion, I would like to outline three points on which I believe the Declaration on the Russian World falls short. I believe that my critique will serve as a constructive impetus to further develop this topic and better understand the spiritual malady that has led the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church to support aggression against Ukraine. I am glad that Public Orthodoxy, which was the first to publish this document, can provide a forum for such discussion.
Kremlinology is back in a big way. Thinkers and pundits of every stripe, throughout the world, are once again seeking to uncover the secret motives and exotic ideologies of the Russian political elite. Only this time around, unlike in the days of Soviet atheism, the smoke signals coming from the Kremlin are increasingly linked with the incense rising from Moscow’s onion-domed churches. In fact, according to some observers, one of the main ideologues behind the invasion of Ukraine is none other than Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.
One recent headline captures the essence of this argument: “Russian World is the Civil Religion Behind Putin’s War.” Journalists are not the only ones making such claims. On March 13, 2022, a group of distinguished Orthodox theologians wrote that “Putin and Patriarch Kirill have used Russian world ideology as a principal justification for the invasion.” These scholars were right to denounce the ideology as neo-imperialist, and they were right to expose it as a corrosive heresy within the contemporary Orthodox church. But they were not correct, in my opinion, to describe it as the driving ideology behind the invasion of Ukraine. The real ideology of the invasion—and the real civil religion of post-Soviet Russia—is Putin’s cult of the “Great Victory.”
Following the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation in February 2022, Orthodox voices have thoroughly rebutted the use of the “Russian World” (russkii mir) teaching, which claims that there is an organically unified transnational orthodox Christian Russian civilization that includes the territories and people of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and sometimes other nations, to justify the current war. This statement seeks a) to facilitate support from among non-Orthodox Christian scholars for the rejection of the “russkii mir” teaching; b) to reject unholy alliances between Christian identity and political power which have also emerged in the context of Christian Nationalism; and c) to call for the development of an ecumenical “Theology after Christendom”. We invite support from Christian scholars and clergy, and are open to those who do not share the Christian language of this statement, but who share its purpose.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, Let not arrogance come from your mouth; For the Lord is a God of knowledge, And by him actions are weighed”
This is a slightly edited version of the public address Archbishop Elpidophoros delivered on Monday, April 4th, at Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church in Port Washington, NY, at the beginning of an event entitled “Understanding the Role of the Moscow Patriarchate in the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.” The event was sponsored by the Order of St. Andrew.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a sorrowful and, indeed, painful subject for us all. This unjust, fratricidal war must not be laid at the feet of our Russian Sisters and Brothers, who are being deceived and victimized by their leaders—both civil and religious. Even the poor Russian soldiers being sent as cannon fodder into Ukraine deserve our sympathy and our prayers. But for those committing atrocities, there will be justice—in this life or the next.
The images coming out of Bucha fill our hearts with much pain and righteous outrage. As we contemplate the loss of innocent life—especially of children—I ask this one thing: please join me in a moment of silent prayer to our Lord Jesus Christ on behalf of all those who are suffering.
Thank you, and thank you for standing in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Thank you for extending mercy and compassion to all victims of this barbarity, especially for those who are suffering most directly in Ukraine as they defend their homeland. They have seen their fellow citizens—innocent, non-combatants—brutally and mercilessly slaughtered by invaders.