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”
Suggestively linking a Russian Orthodox primate, an ideology, and genocide may seem provocative or sensationalist. For me, given the current unjustified Russian war on Ukraine, the connections between them are far from that. In this moment in our common history as a human family, ‘naming” a reality is utterly important here for assessing the horrific events in Ukraine and the ideology that is complicit in such violence against the very innocence that characterizes the people of Ukraine. Naming is a profoundly ethical choice.
Genocide is not an abstract concept in this present moment for the people of Ukraine, its diaspora, and all people of good will. Genocide is the eradication of racial, national, ethnic, or religious groups. Although there are scholarly debates on this concept, I’ve chosen to approach it within an ethical conceptualization and from a victim-centered viewpoint. Genocide is a term first coined by Raphaël Lemkin during WWII, which he defined as the elimination of differences among “colonized groups” in order to impose the cultural and political identity of a “colonizing group.” Those who hold different identities from the dominant power group are either suppressed, exiled, or killed. Genocide destroys existing bonds of social or civic solidarity of groups and the potential for their self-determination. Further, Lemkin identifies genocide within a much broader framework, since he does not restrict genocide to any one act, like killing or forced famine, since genocide is constituted by various cumulative acts toward the destruction of an identifiable group of people.
In our current context, the quasi-religious ideology complicit in genocide is the “Russian world” (Russkii mir) myth.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, is a historic threat to a people of Orthodox Christian tradition. More troubling still for Orthodox believers, the senior hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church has refused to acknowledge this invasion, issuing instead vague statements about the necessity for peace in light of “events” and “hostilities” in Ukraine, while emphasizing the fraternal nature of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples as part of “Holy Rus’,” blaming the hostilities on the evil “West”, and even directing their communities to pray in ways that actively encourage hostility.
The support of many of the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate for President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is rooted in a form of Orthodox ethno-phyletist religious fundamentalism, totalitarian in character, called Russkii mir orthe Russian world, a false teaching which is attracting many in the Orthodox Church and has even been taken up by the Far Right and Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists.
The speeches of President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) of Moscow (Moscow Patriarchate) have repeatedly invoked and developed Russian world ideology over the last 20 years. In 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea and initiated a proxy war in the Donbas area of Ukraine, right up until the beginning of the full-fledged war against Ukraine and afterwards, Putin and Patriarch Kirill have used Russian world ideology as a principal justification for the invasion. The teaching states that there is a transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world. It holds that this “Russian world” has a common political centre (Moscow), a common spiritual centre (Kyiv as the “mother of all Rus’’), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate), and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow), who works in ‘symphony’ with a common president/national leader (Putin) to govern this Russian world, as well as upholding a common distinctive spirituality, morality, and culture.