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Putin’s Church

Putin’s Church

The ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian imperialism are deep and multifaceted.

Rostyslav Pavlenko, Oleksii Antoniuk

Oleksii Antoniuk: Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has praised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in his recent speeches. What role does the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) play in formulating and inspiring Russian expansionism?

Rostyslav Pavlenko: There is a long history behind the ROC’s involvement in Russian imperial policy. In the 16th century, Russian clergy suggested Russian leaders portray Moscow as the third and last Rome, the single center of Orthodox Christianity. To gain the necessary religious legitimacy, Moscow proclaimed itself as the successor of Kyivan Rus, a medieval state that was the cradle of Christianity in Eastern Europe. Moscow oriented its expansionist ideology around its status as the last Rome while annexing princedoms of Tver and Novgorod, and then other lands of Kyivan Rus.

Putin advanced the same ideas in his pseudo-historical lecture prior to February 24. He argued that there is only old Rus—with Russia as its continuation—and no one else, especially no Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has advanced Russian imperialism by crystalizing the concept of the “Russian world”—the only civilizational space in Eastern Europe. He argues that Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and many other East European nations are all peoples of the “Russian world” and, thus, should be subservient to the ROC.

OA: How extensive is the ROC’s influence given low church attendance and a high number of Muslims in Russia?

RP: Seventy percent of Russians still call themselves Orthodox Christians. And yes, the absolute majority of these Christians are “ornamental” Christians, who attend church just two or three times a year.

Yet, the mere formal allegiance to the ROC is enough for priests to spread ideology, because believing in the church is necessary for showing one’s loyalty to the Russian nation. The ROC influences not through sermons but through mass media, speeches, and printed literature.

OA: It seems the ROC has considerable sway over the Russian public and could be an independent power structure. How much can the Russian state influence the church then?

RP: President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill, along with other church officials, talk about the so-called symphony in the actions of the Russian state and church. The patriarch of Moscow is technically selected by the Synod of the ROC (the highest decision-making body composed of religious officials). However, the state does give orders to the church, with the security apparatus enforcing the ROC’s adherence to the official line. In return, the ROC is an ideological servant to the state, influencing the hearts and minds of believers and providing ritual services to the government.

In his Forgiveness Sunday speech, Patriarch Kirill urged finding justice according to the Russian way, which is what the Russian state says. He justified Russian war crimes and commemorated a Russian general who fought in Ukraine.

The Russian military, by the way, has its own church: It’s a branch of the ROC and it aggressively supports Russian colonial wars, including in Ukraine. Even more strikingly, during the 2014 Russian invasion of the Donbas, Russian priests allowed Russian troops to establish ammunition storage and artillery positions on church property.

OA: The ROC is one of the largest Orthodox denominations in Ukraine and is surrounded with political scandals because of its connections with Russia. How dependent is it on Moscow?

RP: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy is a part of the ROC and is officially, doctrinally, and administratively connected with Moscow. All ROC decisions are mandatory for the ROC in Ukraine. The patriarch of Moscow must bless the Metropolitan of the ROC in Ukraine. The head (primate) of the ROC in Ukraine and one Ukrainian ROC bishop are permanent members of the ROC’s highest management body, the Synod. There is no real autonomy for the ROC in Ukraine.

The ROC has twelve thousand parishes in Ukraine, seven hundred of which decided to transfer to the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Despite the war, thousands of ROC priests in Ukraine remain close to Moscow.

OA: Do priests of the ROC in Ukraine spread Russian ideology, arguing that Ukraine does not exist and that this war is just a civil conflict between Russians and “lost” Russians?

RP: It depends on the priest. During sermons and through distributed literature, many ROC representatives in Ukraine propagate hate, advance divisions in society, and contend that God will save only those who are with Moscow. There are some wild cases of rejecting funeral services for children and Ukrainian soldiers baptized in the Kyiv Orthodox Church. Some ROC priests have even brought their parishes to Russia and Belarus so that the Russian world could protect them during the war.

However, Ukrainian law forbids spreading Russian fascist (Ruscist) ideology for national security reasons. If a priest advances such ideas, it is collaborationism. And if a church officially supports Russia’s ideology, the Ukrainian government may dissolve it.

OA: In 2019, as a deputy head of the administration of the president of Ukraine, you facilitated the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Could you elaborate on what autocephaly means?

RP: In Orthodox Christianity, each nation may have its own religious leader. There are now fifteen churches, including the OCU. Each church is independent of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians. Unlike the pope, he is only first among equals.

Autocephaly means the OCU obtained a tomos (meaning “fragment” in Greek), a charter certifying that the ecumenical patriarch recognized the independent Ukrainian Church. In addition to the patriarch, four other Orthodox churches have recognized the OCU. More will follow when Ukraine wins the war.

As a branch of the Moscow-based ROC, the ROC in Ukraine does not have autocephaly.

OA: How were you involved in the autocephaly process as a government official?

RP: I assisted religious organizations in realizing their lawful rights and interests, facilitating communication between the OCU and foreign religious centers.

OA: Is there any government influence over the OCU?

RP: There has been no influence from the governmental apparatus. The Ukrainian constitution separates the church from the state. We cannot order a church to do one thing or another. Otherwise, we would violate freedoms and even cause civil conflict. However, the government must still ensure equality and react to violations of the law, especially if the activity of a church threatens national security and societal peace during wartime.

OA: How religious is Ukrainian society, and to what denominations do most Ukrainians belong?

RP: Seventy percent of Ukrainians call themselves Orthodox, but we have multiple denominations. Most Orthodox pledge their allegiance to the independent OCU. Less than 20 percent belong to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The rest just call themselves Orthodox and go to the closest church. Importantly, a recent survey by a Ukrainian sociological center shows that most Ukrainians who go to the ROC want their church to cut its ties with Moscow.

OA: Can we then talk about the dismantlement of the ROC in Ukraine?

RP: I would use the word “disappearance” instead, because no one is actively dismantling the ROC in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government strives for the ROC’s attachment to the independent OCU, all while acting within strict constitutional boundaries.

If the ROC in Ukraine would honestly admit that it is based in Moscow, many of its parishes would voluntarily switch their allegiance to the independent OCU. Like in the United States and Europe, local religious parishes in Ukraine are independent in deciding what denomination they should belong to.

And yet the ROC in Ukraine blatantly manipulates its parishioners into believing that it is not connected with Moscow, saying, Look, our name includes the word ‘Ukrainian.’ So in 2019, we obliged all priests to inform their parishioners of where their church’s center is. The ROC in Ukraine had to state openly that it pledged allegiance to Moscow.

However, after the new governing coalition came to power in 2019, the ROC in Ukraine blocked this law via the courts. It is time to revisit this question. I feel it is a fair choice: remain with Moscow but tell everyone about this, or join the independent Ukrainian Church.

OA: On May 27, the ROC in Ukraine declared independence from Moscow and denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Why did it make this declaration, and is this change substantial?

RP: The ROC fears losing even more parishes in Ukraine. The declaration is just a smokescreen. The ROC in Ukraine has not even published a promised new statute that would reflect its independence from Moscow.

OA: Russian propaganda accuses Ukraine of violating religious freedoms and repressing the ROC in Ukraine. What is your reaction to these allegations?

RP: It is hard to label the ROC in Ukraine as repressed. It has the largest number of parishes (twelve thousand versus seven thousand in the OCU), owns the three largest cathedrals, and attends the highest official events. This propaganda is another attempt to justify Russian savagery.

Ukraine’s European-facing direction requires equal treatment of all religious organizations. Any so-called Ukraine-led seizures of churches promulgated by Russian media are just local parishes voluntarily switching their allegiance to the OCU. The only thing we want to require from churches is telling their parishioners where a church’s center is located so that people can make a well-informed choice about their allegiance.

In fact, it is Russian troops who have destroyed dozens of ROC temples in Ukraine and killed people who hid in them. Clearly, allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church does not save you from Russian bombs. And so it is not up to Moscow to talk about who’s repressing the ROC in Ukraine.

OA: How will the disappearance of the ROC in Ukraine impact the broader Orthodox Christian world?

RP: Per capita church attendance is much higher in Ukraine than in Russia. Currently, half of ROC’s global attendance comes from Ukraine. When all Ukrainian Orthodox Christians unite under one church, the OCU will become the largest Orthodox church, outnumbering the ROC in church attendance.

In the wake of such a loss, the ROC will become more ideological, increasingly relying on Russian state-controlled media to spread its messages. The loss of Ukraine would further highlight the control the Kremlin exerts over the ROC. That is why Putin says Ukrainians should not be allowed to pick their denomination themselves.

Putin once said that nuclear weapons and the Russian Orthodox Church are the pillars of Russian security. For Ukraine, it is the opposite. Ukrainian security lies in pushing away Russian influence and letting Ukrainians themselves decide to which church they belong.

Rostyslav Pavlenko is a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, an associate professor of political science at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and a former advisor to the Ukrainian president responsible for negotiations with foreign religious centers.

Oleksii Antoniuk is a global affairs student at Yale University and an incoming national security and intelligence analysis intern at a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.