Any conflict, especially a military conflict, needs a clear rationale for why it occurs. Usually, this question should be answered by official representatives of the state. However, the situation in Russia after the beginning of the armed conflict with Ukraine is gradually beginning to be explained in religious terms. This language has moved beyond the confines of the church. Today it is already being used by Russian officials and the media. At the same time, their rhetoric is more radical than that of representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church; that is, official church preaching has become part of state propaganda.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has made eschatological rhetoric and thinking key. Not only in a church sermon, but also in state propaganda, radical terms such as “desatanization of Ukraine” appear. Russian officials explicitly call the Ukrainian authorities “Satanists” and “open enemies of Christ,” and the cited goal is to “stop the supreme ruler of hell, whatever name he uses—Satan, Lucifer, or Iblis. For his goal is destruction,” according to Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev in his Telegram. According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, even the Canadian authorities who imposed sanctions on Patriarch Kirill are Satanists.
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.
As was noted many times, the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine is ideologically framed by a quasi-religious doctrine that promotes Russian civilizational exceptionalism and has been branded as the “Russian world.” This doctrine is not the only quasi-religious aspect of the war. Those who endorse the war try to justify it by bringing up a wide array of arguments that look religious. In my contribution to the Sweden-based Religion and Praxis blog, I argued that both Vladimir Putin and his counterparts in the Russian Orthodox Church are driven by a dualistic worldview, which is non-Christian and anti-biblical, and which sees the world in black-and-white, as being divided to essentially good and essentially evil parts. Russia, according to this worldview, incarnates the former part, while the West, the latter one. The Russian propaganda effectively appeals to and enhances this worldview among its target groups.
The same propaganda exploits some biblical references as well. For example, the TV channel Spas, owned and managed by the Moscow Patriarchate, has produced, and broadcasts a documentary series “God and the Bible.” It is based on the book with the same title by the Serbian Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović. In one of the episodes, the channel’s anchor Boris Korchevnikov and the priest at the parish affiliated with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Fr. Igor Fomin, discussed possible biblical justifications for the ongoing war in Ukraine. They recorded the episode in Volnovakha, a Ukrainian city in Donbass occupied and almost completely destroyed by the Russian army. While standing against the backdrop of the city’s ruins, Fr. Igor mentions that “God gives a direct command to the Jewish people to cleanse the land from the peoples” that were impious and therefore destined by God to “go into oblivion,” so that other peoples could be “erected in their place.” This is nothing more but a clear justification of the Russian atrocities in Ukraine and effectively a call for the genocide of the Ukrainian people—on the Old Testament grounds.
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.