We are in the midst of a few anniversaries of note in the Greek world. Last year, of course, was the bicentennial of the war for independence. This year, it’s the centennial of the July 1922 founding of AHEPA, in Atlanta, and far more ignominiously, the conclusion of the Greco-Turkish War in September 1922. These events, especially the war, still affect the Greeks today, and the Greek Orthodox with them, but they are also directly relevant to the frightful issues raised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine—questions of nationalism, irredentism, and religion.
The connection has not gone unnoticed. After the publication of the “The Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ Teaching” on Public Orthodoxy, Fr. John Whiteford argued that, within Greek Orthodoxy, “One hears a very similar concept to ‘The Russian World’ fairly frequently, only it is called ‘Hellenism’.” Fr. Whiteford was not alone in drawing this connection. In a friendly critique of the Declaration published in Public Orthodoxy’s own pages, Andrey Shishkov described the Russian World as less a theological heresy than “an ordinary national doctrine, which is very similar, for example, to the Hellenistic Μεγάλη Ιδέα”—the ideological basis for the Greek incursion into Turkey after WWI and the dreams, in Shishkov’s words, of “restoring a Christian Byzantine Empire.” These are important points to consider. In the wake of just criticisms of the subordination of Russian Orthodoxy to the aims of the Kremlin and the Russian world, we must ask: what is the relation of Hellenism to Orthodoxy? Can there be one? If so, how?
Several times Russian church and state leaders have been enraptured by the idea that the Russian people and its political expression have a special mission or “manifest destiny” to accomplish. Successive iterations of this “Russian idea” reflect a growing convergence of religion, ethnicity, and nationalism with state power into an explosive secular ideology bent on imposing its worldview within Russia, surrounding countries, the Orthodox Church, and worldwide.
The first iteration became prominent after the union Council of Ferrera between the Roman and the Orthodox Churches in 1439 and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. These two events precipitated the emergence of a sense of the role and responsibility of Muscovy as the spiritual and geo-political center of Orthodoxy, captured in the epithet the “Third Rome”: the first Rome had fallen into heresy and schism with the filioque and the papacy; Constantinople, the Second Rome, deviated from Orthodoxy by union with Latins and came under Turkish rule as a divine punishment, thereby losing its claim to pre-eminence in Orthodoxy. Muscovy, having rejected the union with Rome and freed itself from the Mongols, thus became the Third Rome of Christendom. The self-proclamation of the autocephaly of the Russian Church in 1448 and the election of the first patriarch of Moscow in 1589 reinforced the Third Rome theory.
In Mariupol, Russian rockets destroy a maternity ward, wounding dozens. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) blesses the Russian troops. In the same town of Mariupol, Russian bombs kill hundreds of children and elderly in the Drama Theater. Putin’s Patriarch has the gall to describe the war as a “metaphysical struggle” against Western values. A Russian missile destroys a building in Odessa, burying a mother with her three-month-old infant alive. Obedient to his master in the Kremlin, Gundiaev justifies the war as an act of self-defense.
Many western observers are puzzled. Aren’t the troops blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church presently slaughtering fellow-Orthodox civilians in Ukraine? Aren’t the Russian missiles destroying the Orthodox churches and monasteries, along with the schools, hospitals, and train stations, of the fellow-Orthodox in Ukraine? If all of this is true, how can Patriarch Kirill be sending the Russian troops into battle with his blessing? Isn’t this war precisely “fratricidal,” as Metropolitan Onufriy (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate) called it, in a moment of recently found clarity? It did not previously dawn on Metropolitan Onufriy that Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was also an act of fratricide. Meanwhile, several senior bishops within Onufriy’s jurisdiction continue to promote blind submission to Patriarch Kirill, who rationalizes and justifies the killing of the members of their flock in Ukraine—the bombings and the shelling, the slaughter of children and civilians, and the displacement of millions—as Russia’s act of self-preservation. Have Onufriy’s bishops lost their minds or consciences? Is this foolishness or treason? Whatever the answer, the outcome is the same: complicity in acts of violence on a scale unseen in Europe since WWII.
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.