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.
War changes many things, primarily people’s minds, but also the usual flow of time. What takes years or even decades in peacetime takes a few months, or sometimes even days, during war.
On May 27, the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the highest governing body of the church, after much debate, expressed its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill’s support for the war in Ukraine and adopted amendments to the Statute of the UOC, “Testifying to the full self-sufficiency and independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”
It is beyond the scope of this report to analyze in detail the decisions of the UOC Council—not all of the documents have been published, nor have there been official statements from the hierarchy. My aim is to explain the logic of Metropolitan Onufry’s actions, because I hope that this will allow me to put the decisions of the Council of the UOC into the appropriate context.
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.
The reform of the judicial system, which practically never acquits and is fully subordinate to law enforcement agencies, has long been discussed in Russia. However, only civil activists are involved in the debates. The government keeps evading any participation in the discussion, and the courts continue arbitrarily to pass unreasonably strict verdicts for both civil activists and businessmen. In mid-September, a number of professional societies called for a review of the decisions concerning the cases of participants in unauthorized demonstrations in Moscow from July 2019. An appeal by Orthodox clergy was among the first, followed by public petitions by teachers, doctors, publishers, and philosophers. However, the clergy’s letter was most unexpected and had an unexpectedly profound resonance in Russian society.