The quiet cadence of prayer and fasting as Lent began was shattered with the invasion of Ukraine. Forgiveness Vespers was ridden with sorrow and disbelief. There was no escaping the sadness and helplessness as we prayed. As I quietly mouthed the words to “Open to Me the Gates of Repentance,” the full meaning of the words dawned on me. Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that we were averse to repenting, that we needed to pray that Christ may soften our hearts so we may return to him. I think of the words of my beloved spiritual father: “Where is Christ?” he would ask. In other words, he was asking, where was He in our lives, did we manifest His presence through our actions?
In Boston and New York, prayers were being offered for Ukraine at special services, but the news bore images that were daringly sacrilegious. The cold-blooded murder of sons and daughters and of children. As a mother of a son, I could not imagine what every Ukrainian and Russian mother was enduring. Everything I was feeling went against the beautiful prayer of St. Ephrem to which we prostrated every morning and evening at Holy Cross Chapel, Brookline. I had no right to be prostrating myself; I was so angry, so beside myself as I watched the script play out yet again. The countries of the Balkans, Palestine, Syria, Balochistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Burma, and countless peoples around the world whose right to freedom and land were being seized from them brutally.
Murder continues to be justified for political ends. In the midst of these atrocities, the icon of Christ crucified, His head bowed, His silence louder than words, His torment as brother murdered brother.
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.
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.”
Much of the criticism currently directed at the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine is organized around the idea that the Moscow Patriarchate is ideologically compromised and theologically unsound. With few exceptions, scholars, journalists, and opinion writers condemn leaders of the Russian Church as apologists for the Kremlin’s “Russian world” ideology, an expansionistic, chauvinistic worldview which makes prelates like Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Ilarion, and others complicit in a “new Nazism,” partners in an “unholy alliance,” peddlers of a “quasi-religious agenda,” and advocates of “blood and soil” nativism. Similarly, and often in the same breath, charges of “heresy” are leveled against church leaders, mainly on the grounds that supporting Russia’s war with calls to defend “Holy Russia” under the banner that “God is with us” is a form of ethnophyletism, that is, the heresy of aligning and conflating Orthodox Christianity with ethnic nationalism.
In making these assessments about the Moscow Patriarchate, critics regularly identify some moment in the past when things went wrong, a deviation from true Orthodoxy which has brought the Russian Church to this ignominious moment in its history. While often highlighting recent events, such as the Patriarchate’s public, if somewhat circumspect, support for Russia’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, several critics look further into the past for the moment when the Russian Church went astray. One such event is thought to be Joseph Stalin’s reinstatement of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943, an event which taints Russia’s post-Soviet Patriarchate as a relic of the Stalinist past. Another moment identified in the shift from good Orthodoxy to bad Orthodoxy is the 1920s, when some Russian Orthodox emigres began to embrace conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and reactionary politics. The implication of this analysis is that those who really care about Russian Orthodoxy should excise those institutions and ideas which embody and promote ideological and theological aberrations in today’s Church.