The Patriarch of Moscow laid the intellectual groundwork for Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. But now he is paying an exceedingly heavy price

Russia has done shocking things in Ukraine – but, with a display of nerve that should surprise no one, it presents its designs on that country as the legitimate resurgence of an Orthodox Christian civilisation.

President Vladimir Putin opened his March 2014 speech marking Crimea’s annexation by reminding his Kremlin audience that the Black Sea peninsula was where Grand Prince Vladimir of Rus was baptised in 988 AD. “His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus,” he boldly declared.

In other words, Putin wants us to believe that the issue that sparked the Ukraine crisis – whether to sign an association agreement with the European Union – was not just a question of trade, but a choice between civilisations. He adopted a similar tactic during the winter of 2011-12, when tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to demand democratic accountability. There was only one way he could go and still retain power: authoritarianism. And in order to legitimise it, he resorted to the notion of Russia as a separate, spiritually purer Orthodox civilisation.

Earlier, Putin had basked in the opportunity to rub shoulders with Western leaders at G8 summits. But, in 2013, he astonished international guests at his Valdai International Discussion Club – a crowd more accustomed to the intricacies of finance than theology – with an outburst against Western morality: “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.” In the Kremlin’s latest twist of this new narrative, Russia must save Ukraine from the clutches of a dissolute, gay-friendly West.

This rhetoric borrows heavily from ideas long expounded by the wily Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Although he is Patriarch of Moscow, his patriarchate is not limited to the state borders of the Russian Federation: he claims authority over what he calls his “canonical territory”, a vast area roughly contiguous with the former USSR. Its core is the empire that grew out of Grand Prince Vladimir’s proto-state of Rus: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. In the Moscow Patriarchate’s understanding, this space comprises the Russian World, or Russkiy Mir. And Ukraine is crucial. At the foundation of this civilisation, Patriarch Kirill explained in a 2009 speech, is the Orthodox faith received “in the common baptismal font of Kiev” – the settlement where the people of Rus were baptised in the wake of Grand Prince Vladimir.

To confine Russian Orthodoxy to Russia’s present borders, added Kirill, would be “to sin against historical truth and artificially sever from us millions of people who feel responsible for the fate of the Russian World and see its creation as their life’s work”.

Instead, the countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus should continue to create Russkiy Mir as a supranational project along the lines of the British Commonwealth, the patriarch suggested.

More than a spiritual message, this was an attempt by a politically ambitious patriarch to raise the Russian Orthodox Church’s public profile by boosting its standing with the Kremlin. New borders may separate the Russian Federation from Ukraine and other areas previously controlled from Moscow, Kirill was saying for the benefit of powerful ears, but Orthodox spirituality transcends them.

Kirill clearly envisaged this influence as “soft power”. Instead, Putin has adopted his worldview in the ruthless pursuit of hard objectives. Russian Orthodoxy is invoked to sanctify Moscow’s appropriation of Crimea and assertion of control over swathes of eastern Ukraine. There, the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic proclaims itself “an inalienable part of the Russian World as a Russian civilisation”. Its constitution specifies the faith of the Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) as “the foundation of the Russian World”, and elevates it as the Republic’s “primary and prevailing” faith – just as it was in the laws of the Russian empire.

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In practice, however, the whole notion of a resurgent Orthodox civilisation is unravelling. Putin’s Ukrainian proxies are hardly exemplars of Orthodox piety. Putin may have characterised Crimea as a land sacred to Russians at its annexation, but just weeks later the Russian parliament passed a new law establishing the territory as a special gambling zone. Many of the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine claim to fight in the name of Orthodoxy – they even have an “Orthodox Army” – but there is next to no religious sentiment in their recruitment videos, to say nothing of their American-style rap anthem. Last summer a commander of these would-be Christian warriors had to resort to a special decree to curb their foul language.

This is not surprising, given that the separatist eastern territories are situated in the least religious area of Ukraine. In 2010, the number of religious communities per capita in easternmost Ukraine was less than half that of central regions, and only about a quarter that of western Ukraine.

Deeper entrenchment of Soviet rule in the east is to blame. Ukraine’s westernmost regions were annexed by the USSR only in 1939, and thus spared the anti-religious onslaught of the 1930s. In 1941, Nazi forces invaded central Ukraine and, seeking to win local support, opened thousands of churches earlier closed by the Soviets. Most remained open even after the Red Army regained control, as Stalin dared not risk a backlash by closing them again. Today, only 20 per cent of people in eastern regions report having had a religious upbringing, as against almost 80 per cent in western Ukraine.

Another feature of life reminiscent of Soviet practice in captured parts of Ukraine is the cynical targeting of religious minorities. Although ostensibly upholding religious freedom, the Donetsk People’s Republic retains the right to “protect the population from the activity of religious sects”. These “sects” are not defined by the territory’s constitution – but you only have to watch Russian state television to work out who they are. A popular talk show broadcast on the day of Crimea’s annexation focused on “false religions that have destroyed the Ukrainian nation and soul”, including Baptists, charismatic Protestants and Eastern Rite Catholics.

Catholics and Protestants are already reporting difficulties in the pro-Moscow areas. Protestant communities are particularly strong in south-east Ukraine, following a 19th-century spiritual revival among German settlers originally invited there by Catherine the Great. In the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, Protestants report confiscations of their churches as well as the Donetsk Christian University, previously among the largest Protestant institutions of higher education in the former USSR. In one particularly grave incident in June 2014, four Pentecostal men known for their active mission work were kidnapped by separatists in Slavyansk and later found shot dead, their bodies showing signs of severe beatings.

A small Catholic convent founded 18 years ago in the Crimean city of Simferopol was forced to close in late 2014, according to Forum 18 News Service. The convent’s three Franciscan nuns – citizens of Poland and Ukraine – were denied extensions to their residency permits. Six of the peninsula’s 12 Roman Catholic priests had similarly been forced out by the end of last year. Forum 18 also reports that only one of Crimea’s five Eastern Rite Catholic parishes currently has a priest. Being citizens of Ukraine, their seven priests may spend only 90 days at a time on Russian territory before leaving the country for a further 90 days.

Efforts to consolidate the Russian World in Ukraine might be expected to draw support from the Moscow Patriarchate. But they are in fact disastrous for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Western Ukraine is, as we saw, unusually religious. Of the 10 administrative regions west of Kiev, three comprise the stronghold of the Eastern Rite Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to which perhaps 10 per cent of Ukrainians belong; 92 per cent of its parishes are based there.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the other seven regions have the highest concentration of Moscow Patriarchate parishes in Ukraine, and account for nearly a sixth of its worldwide total. Their members remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate as the only one of three Orthodox factions in Ukraine widely regarded as canonical. But they are also loyal to the Ukrainian nation.

Some in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) – independent of the Russian Orthodox Church in all but external affairs – have admittedly echoed the Kremlin in the current crisis. In a September 2014 sermon, the assistant bishop of Chernovtsy and Bukovina diocese called the Kiev government “servants of Satan” before accusing Europeans and Americans of “taking pleasure from the fact that the blood of our Christians is being shed”. Especially in the eastern conflict zone, however, other Moscow Patriarchate bishops have sought
to remain neutral. Metropolitan Ilarion of Donetsk and Mariupol, for example, declared in May 2014 that “The Church has no right to support and does not support anyone in this turmoil and fratricidal war. God’s blessing will not be upon those who violate the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill!’”

Crucially, key figures in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) back the new regime in Kiev. They include Metropolitan Onufry, the Church’s leader since February 2014. He greeted Petro Poroshenko’s election to the presidency as a “sure victory” reflecting his “deep credibility and trust” among Ukrainian citizens – a far cry from Kremlin rhetoric about a “fascist junta”. Onufry has also insisted upon territorial integrity for Ukraine – including Crimea.

Further, as head of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, he has aligned himself squarely with other faith leaders, many of whom actively supported the pro-European demonstrations on Kiev’s Maidan Square that preceded the current conflict. As the momentum of those protests grew in early 2014, for example, Archbishop Mechislav Mokshitsky, the Latin Rite Catholic leader in Ukraine, spoke in support of Catholics who joined in: “Franciscan fathers served Holy Mass there and prayed daily… Believers of the Roman Catholic Church also took part in demonstrations… [An] atmosphere of mutual solidarity and respect prevails on Maidan. We have seen a totally different Ukraine there.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for dialogue to end the crisis in Ukraine; he has also described the current violence – a conflict between Christians – as a “scandal”. Earlier this month, Patriarch Kirill praised the Holy See’s “balanced stance toward the situation in Ukraine”. But the Russian patriarch is far less free to evaluate the stance of Vladimir Putin. In 2012, the Russian state media prominently covered a now notorious incident in which Patriarchate staff airbrushed Kirill’s luxury watch out of an official photograph – but forgot to remove its reflection in the highly polished tabletop beneath. More devastating character attacks on Kirill could be orchestrated if he chose to criticise Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Yet for the Russian patriarch to endorse the Kremlin’s position would be to risk permanent alienation of his substantial Orthodox flock in western Ukraine.

In order to distance his Church from the Kremlin’s line at least somewhat, Kirill has latterly sought to qualify his earlier vision of the Russian World by stressing that it today consists of “independent states, and we respect their sovereignty, their readiness and desire to build their national life independently”.

Yet the damage may already be done. Instead of consolidating the Russian World through his ostensibly pro-Orthodox policies in Ukraine, Putin has created a rift between the Russian and Ukrainian branches of Kirill’s Church. And with the Patriarch – potentially Putin’s most powerful critic – silenced, there may be no one to close it.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: John Charmley on how to respond to those who claim Catholicism is not compatible with British values, Mary Kenny glimpses the future of the family and Freddy Gray says we must beware the wristbands that are ruining our lives

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