On 20 November 2022, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow celebrated his 76th birthday. At a reception to mark the occasion, held in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the Patriarch warned his guests in apocalyptic terms of the current dangers facing Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Without explicitly mentioning the war in Ukraine, Kirill called on the Church to play an active part in “the struggle of our Fatherland against global evil” and against “this movement of the Antichrist, which is capable of destroying both the entire world and Russia.” All the forces of the Antichrist, he claimed, would be directed against Russia, because the Russia of today was the “restraining force” (uderzhivuaiushchii) that was mentioned in Scripture in relation to the appearance of the Antichrist in the world.
Speaking to the audience at his birthday reception that mostly comprised hierarchs of the Orthodox Church, Kirill evidently did not feel the need to explain the Biblical concept of the “restraining force.” Several months earlier, however, in a sermon he preached in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 7 April, Kirill had called for prayers to be said for peace in Ukraine and for the preservation of the unity of the Orthodox Church. Why, he asked, had external forces attacked the “Russian land”? The Bible, he explained by way of an answer, contains a reference to a certain force that restrains the coming of the Antichrist into the world. It does not say what this force is: some think it was the Roman Empire; others believe it is the Church. The latter view is correct, Kirill claimed, but the restraining force is also “the entire pious people of all times and all countries, it is the Orthodox faith which lives and acts in the Orthodox Church.” This, he concluded, is why the enemies of the Church are now attacking its unity.
This year, on Christmas Eve, Patriarch Kirill wrote the shortest text in the fourteen years of his patriarchate: the appeal for a Christmas truce. This document might well have become a masterpiece of the anti-war, peacemaking stance of the Russian Orthodox Church.
However, it turned out quite differently. The appeal for a ceasefire is yet another manifestation of the close alliance between the ROC and the Kremlin and evidence of the patriarch’s complete misunderstanding of his place in the modern world.
The text of the appeal is worth quoting in full. It is simple and laconic: “I, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, appeal to all parties involved in the internecine conflict to cease fire and establish a Christmas truce from noon on January 6 until 12 pm on January 7 so that Orthodox people can attend services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
The call for a truce is a good thing, especially if it becomes a prologue to peace, and is based on a Christian understanding of peacemaking. However, the call for a truce can also be part of a political gamble, and church feasts can also be part of the instrumentalization of religion, a form of manipulation of religious feelings.
In 1095, Pope Urban II told a large gathering of knights in Southern France that it was their responsibility to avenge the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land (he did not mention that the conquest had occurred nearly 500 years earlier). Urban’s sermon led to the First Crusade, and it forever changed the dynamics between Western Europe, Eastern Christianity, and the Islamic world.
From a Christian theological perspective, Urban introduced an entirely novel—some might say heretical—way of thinking about the relationship between Christian piety and violence. Near the end of his sermon, Urban declared, “Set out on this journey and you will obtain the remission of your sins and be sure of the incorruptible glory of the kingdom of heaven.”
For nearly a millennium, Orthodox Christians have condemned Urban’s perversion of Christian teaching, just as they have condemned the historical events that flowed from it (especially the Fourth Crusade, which destroyed Christian Byzantium). Given this backdrop, Patriarch Kirill’s most-recent effort to curry relevance in Putin’s Russia is nothing short of remarkable: Kirill declared in a recent sermon that Russian soldiers who die in Ukraine will have their sins forgiven.
The Christian world as a whole—and the Orthodox world, in particular—has been horrified by the invasion of Ukraine by the armed forces of Russia. It seems to be a distressingly indiscriminate campaign, in which thousands have been killed—young soldiers, men, women, and children—as well as hospitals, schools, homes, monasteries, churches destroyed, with millions of refugees fleeing from their homes and livelihoods. From the beginning, his Holiness, Patriarch Kirill, has spoken out in support of the military operation in Ukraine, using the same mealy-mouthed expression as President Putin to obscure the truth that a sovereign country has been invaded by its neighbor. This he seems to have done on his own initiative, for Putin shows no sign of interest in the support of the Church, but has rather sought to shackle the people of his own country by treating it as a criminal offence to call in question the actions of the Russian state. Nevertheless, insofar as any justification for the invasion of Ukraine has been offered, it has been in terms of the ideology of ‘Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir), which owes its origins to the initiative of Kirill (Gundyaev) in the years before he became patriarch, when, as Metropolitan of Smolensk, he established the World Russian Peoples Council, with its conservative and anti-Western agenda. Through its patriarch (our patriarch, for I speak as an archpriest of the Moscow Patriarchate), the Church of Russia has been thoroughly implicated in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Any voices of dissent, or even criticism, have been silenced throughout the Russian state (though it is noticeable that in the ‘diaspora’ there have been voices of dissent, even from senior hierarchs). This war has been going on for six months now, and despite protests and petitions from various quarters, the war continues relentlessly and news relating to the war has gone silent—or perhaps it would be better to use another metaphor—has gone dead. Putin’s policy seems to be (to adapt a remark of Tacitus’) to create a wilderness and call it…Russia!