Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, we have been reminded that a centuries-long struggle continues against imperial forces seeking to eliminate Ukrainian identity, church life, and the very right of Ukrainians to exist. As was the case during the Czarist and Soviet eras, the Russian Orthodox Church is playing a leading role in these efforts.
In the mind of the Kremlin and in the explicit words of Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill, the current invasion of Ukraine is “a metaphysical battle,” for which the Russian Orthodox Church has been happy to provide ideological justification. “Any war must have guns and ideas. In this war, the Kremlin has provided the guns, and I believe the Russian Orthodox Church is providing the ideas,” states Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, an Orthodox priest and theologian who in the 2000s worked in the central offices of the Moscow Patriarchate and is now a professor at Loyola Marymount University in California.
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The Russian Orthodox Church has traditionally been a strong supporter of the secular authorities in Russia. This was true for centuries during the era of the Russian Empire. It was also the case after Stalin revived and reorganized the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943 following 25 years of brutal Soviet persecution. Similarly, in more recent times the Church has been instrumental in promoting Vladimir Putin’s dream of restoring the Russian Empire. In 2012, Patriarch Kirill addressed Putin personally as the savior of modern Russia and compared his reign to a “miracle of God.”
The support of the Russian Orthodox Church has grown as the invasion of Ukraine has progressed, with Patriarch Kirill becoming one of the war’s most prominent promoters. In his sermons, he has accused “foreign forces” of trying to divide Russia and Ukraine, which he often describes as “one people.” These thinly veiled attempts to blame the war on the Western world while denying Ukraine’s right to an independent national identity closely echo the Kremlin’s own imperialistic talking points.
Patriarch Kirill has continued to defend the invasion despite mounting evidence of Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine. He has remained unmoved by the atrocities uncovered in liberated towns such as Bucha, or the seemingly endless accounts of mass killings, sexual violence, torture chambers, child abductions, and forced deportations throughout Russian-occupied Ukraine. He is silent regarding the constant missile and drone assaults against civilian targets including homes, apartment buildings, shopping centers, churches, hospitals, schools, and grain storage facilities.
Instead, Patriarch Kirill has indicated that the Russian Orthodox Church may even be willing to overlook such crimes. “The Church realizes that if someone, driven by a sense of duty and the need to honor his oath, stays loyal to his vocation and dies while carrying out his military duty, then he is without any doubt doing a deed that is equal to sacrifice. He sacrifices himself for others. And therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed,” Kirill stated in a September 2022 sermon.
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While Patriarch Kirill’s efforts to justify the invasion of Ukraine have garnered considerable international attention, his stance is far from exceptional and appears to be broadly representative of the mood in today’s Russia. Indeed, Russian aggression against Ukraine is not the result of plans determined by President Putin alone; nor is Patriarch Kirill the only establishment figure to publicly back the invasion. On the contrary, levels of support, or at least acquiescence, among the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian society as a whole remain scandalously high.
Not one of the approximately 400 Russian Orthodox Church bishops in Russia has spoken out against the war. The Russian Orthodox Church clergy is a huge body including more than 40,000 full-time clerics, priests, and deacons internationally. Only approximately 300 members of the clergy signed a joint public statement criticizing the war, with many of the signatories based outside of Russia. Moreover, 700 university rectors have signed a public statement supporting the war.
While opinion polls in totalitarian societies must be treated with a high degree of skepticism, the available data indicates that Russian public support for the invasion of Ukraine has remained consistently higher than 70% for the past eighteen months, according to Russia’s only internationally respected independent pollster, the Levada Center. The contribution of the Russian Orthodox Church to this pro-war consensus has been considerable and is damning.
Russian theologian Sergei Chapnin, who formerly served as deputy editor-in-chief of the Moscow Patriarchate Publishing House and is now based at the Orthodox Christian Study Center of Fordham University, has been highly critical of what he sees as the hypocrisy of the Russian Orthodox Church bishops. In an open letter published in February 2023, he reproached them for being “embittered castle-builders swilling the cocktail of imperial myth, resentment, and unbelievably primitive eschatology. You stand by a man [Patriarch Kirill] who justifies war crimes and has betrayed the Church. You repeat his words, retell his criminal arguments.”
In a January 2023 sermon, Patriarch Kirill predicted the Russian invasion would leave the Russian Orthodox Church triumphant in Ukraine and warned: “there will be no trace left of the schismatics because they are fulfilling the devil’s evil bidding of eroding Orthodoxy on Kyivan land.” This chilling prophesy is unlikely to be fulfilled. While Kirill attempts to justify imperial aggression, Ukrainians are demonstrating their own spiritual values through solidarity. Despite the horrors of the Russian invasion, Ukrainians of all faiths and walks of life remain united. They are driven by a commitment to freedom that is the opposite of the intolerance preached by Kirill.
Borys Gudziak is Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the United States, Head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and President of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
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The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.