The obscene war in Ukraine provided the opportunity for some people to write a lot of nonsense about the religiosity of modern Russia, and about the place of the Orthodox Church in Vladimir Putin’s plans and plots. While we can’t be sure of the precise motives of the Russian despot, the idea that he was and is motivated by theological imperialism is absurdly far-fetched.
That, however, is what was being suggested by some newly minted experts on the region. Putin, they claimed, is devout, sees Kiev as the Slavic Jerusalem because it’s where Christianity began in the region, and he is angry that in 2019 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared independence from its Russian Orthodox sibling. That decision, by the way, was supported by Bartholomew I of Constantinople, nominal head of the international Orthodox Church. In response, the Russian church separated from the greater Orthodox world.
Forgive the pun, but it’s all invincibly byzantine. I first discovered that back in 1988 while co-writing a CBC documentary to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Ukraine. There are divisions within divisions, not made any easier by “Kievan Rus” being the name of the land from which Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus all originated. But the region is far from what it was, and that’s the entire point.
Putin has certainly increased the influence and profile of the Orthodox Church, but Russia itself isn’t a particularly observant nation. More than 80 per cent of Russians may claim to believe in God, but very few ever attend church. A mere 10 per cent of them spend their Sundays in worship, which is low even by European standards, and a fraction of the rates in the U.S. Spend any time in Moscow or St. Petersburg and you’ll see what I mean.
As for Putin’s personal piety, accounts vary. His mother was a devoted believer, and his own sense of Russian identity is likely deeply woven into a sense of Orthodoxy, which is true for many of his compatriots. It’s tempting to say that Christians don’t command armies that kill innocent people, but that would be callow in the extreme. Whatever the case, it’s very unlikely that the Ukraine war was purely a holy crusade for Kiev. It was more about NATO than the New Testament.
It’s worth remembering that even Joseph Stalin, a former seminarian but a convinced atheist, curtailed his venomous persecution of the church in 1943 in an effort to increase patriotic fervour against Nazism.
The Russian Orthodox Church itself appeared divided on what happened. In an almost unprecedented display of defiance, more than 250 Orthodox clerics issued a statement in which they said that the people of Ukraine “must make their own choices by themselves, not at the point of assault rifles and without pressure from either West or East.” The letter continued: “We call on all opposing sides for a dialogue because there is no other alternative to violence. Only an ability to hear the other side can give us hope to get out of the abyss our countries were thrown into several days ago. Let yourself and us all enter the Easter Lent in the spirit of faith and love. Stop the war.”
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian church, remains a firm supporter of Putin, whose rule he once described as a “miracle of God”, and in those words he speaks for a number of his fellow clerics. For the priestly class, the wounds left by the Soviet Union’s suppression of religion will never fully heal, and any leader who subsidizes their new cathedrals and prays in their churches will always be revered.
Christian nationalists in the West have long applauded Putin for his socially conservative policies and support for what they regard as traditional family values. Franklin Graham, son of Billy and one of the world’s leading right-wing evangelicals, praised him for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda”. As Fox News commentators and their crass comrades like to say, Putin is the antithesis of woke and that, they conclude, is a direct product of his faith.
That does a disservice to the Orthodox Church, with its many centuries of beauty, sophistication, and also suffering. It’s flawed, often overly politicized, and sometimes chauvinistic, but also profound and diverse, and to reduce it to slogans is numbingly banal.
It’s always easy to blame and bash religion, and sometimes it’s justified. But not always. And surely not by people who really should know better.
Michael is leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September. Call 416-444-6666 for details, and visit https://www.ihtours.com/tour/reverend-michael-coren-2/ for more information.