Icon painting is rightly considered to be the visual expression of the Orthodox tradition. The icon speaks of the Gospel, the liturgy, the hymnography, the saints, the dogmas, and the pedagogy of the church. Icons testify to the reality of God’s Incarnation, the image of God in each of us, and mystically lead us into a transfigured, eschatological state of man and the world—“heaven on earth.”
And yet, icons are created and exist on earth, in particular cultures and societies. If so, do they have a social ethos? The general assumption seems to be that the social ethos of the icon should be “apophatic”: because it presents an ethic not of this world, it should keep away from muddling with society’s concrete challenges. However, given the circumstances of the current war in Ukraine, where Orthodox people fight on both sides, icons cannot escape the conflict. On March 13, 2022, on the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Patriarch Kirill presented the Russian Guard with a WWI icon of the Mother of God and by doing so practically blessed the Russian military aggression against Ukraine. Meanwhile, icons scratched on the walls by Ukrainian prisoners were found in a Russian torture chamber in the formerly occupied Vovchansk, Kharkiv region, after it was liberated by Ukrainians.
Icons that are created in the times of war may say something socially cataphatic, while their social ethos may turn out to be crucial for their iconic quality as such.
My letter is addressed to the Orthodox bishops in Russia. I have intentionally not collected signatures or involved any Church structures or public organizations, because I am addressing not the episcopal body, not the leaders of the Moscow Patriarchy, but each of you personally. My letter’s addressee is an Orthodox Christian who took holy baptismal and monastic vows, was elevated to the dignity of bishop, and who in his heart recognizes that it is impossible to govern the Church without striving to love Christ, seeking His truth, and serving Him and not Caesar.
Under the circumstances I feel forced to violate Church etiquette by not asking your blessing. This would sound a false note at the very beginning of our conversation. My words may provoke antagonism, vexation, and even wrath on your part. Being conscious of it, I can scarcely hope that you would sincerely bless such conversation, and a ritual blessing just to demonstrate episcopal power means little. If you agree that this conversation is meaningful, simply pray for me and write at least a few lines in response. I pray for you, too, though today this is hard and painful.
But I deeply believe that there is a blessing from above upon such a conversation, that we are called upon to talk about the one thing needful (Lk.10,42, KJV), about our faith, about the love of Christ which is unthinkable without keeping His commandments: If a man love me, he will keep my words (John 14:23, KJV)
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.
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.