Why does the Russian church support Putin’s war? Church and State History Gives a Clue
(The Conversation) — Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church has defended Russia’s actions and blamed the conflict on the West.
Patriarch Kirill’s support for the invasion of a country where millions belong to his own church has led critics to conclude that the Orthodox rulers have become little more than an arm of the state – and that it is is the role they usually play.
The reality is much more complicated. The relationship between Russian Church and State has undergone profound historical transformations, especially over the past century – an aspect of my work as a scholar of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Church’s current support for the Kremlin is not inevitable or predestined, but a deliberate decision that must be understood.
For centuries, the rulers of Byzantium and Russia enjoyed the idea of church and state working harmoniously together as a “symphony” – unlike their more competitive relationships in some Western countries.
In the early 1700s, however, Tsar Peter the Great instituted reforms for greater control of the Church – part of his attempts to make Russia a Protestant Europe.
Churchmen began to resent state interference. They did not defend the monarchy in its last hour during the February Revolution of 1917, hoping it would lead to a “free church in a free state”.
The Bolsheviks who took power, however, embraced a militant atheism that sought to completely secularize society. They saw the church as a threat because of its ties to the old regime. Attacks on the church stemmed from legal measures such as the confiscation of property from the execution of clergymen suspected of supporting the counter-revolution.
Patriarch Tikhon, head of the Church during the Revolution, criticized Bolshevik assaults on the Church, but his successor, Metropolitan Sergy, made a declaration of loyalty to the Soviet Union in 1927. Persecution of religion only intensified, however, with repression culminating in the Great Terror of 1937-38, when tens of thousands of clergy and ordinary believers were simply executed or sent to the Gulag. By the end of the 1930s, the Russian Orthodox Church had almost been destroyed.
The Nazi invasion caused a dramatic turnaround. Josef Stalin needed popular support to defeat Germany and allowed the churches to reopen. But his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, reinvigorated the anti-religious campaign in the late 1950s, and for the rest of the Soviet period the church was tightly controlled and marginalized.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought another complete reversal. The church was suddenly free, but faced enormous challenges after decades of repression. With the collapse of Soviet ideology, Russian society seemed adrift. Church leaders sought to reclaim it, but faced fierce competition from new forces, particularly Western consumer culture and American evangelical missionaries.
The church’s first post-Soviet leader, Patriarch Aleksy II, kept his distance from politicians. Initially they were not very sympathetic to the goals of the church – including Vladimir Putin during his first two terms between 2000 and 2008. Yet in recent years the president has embraced Russian Orthodoxy as a cornerstone of post-Soviet identity and church relations. and the direction of the state has changed significantly since Kirill became patriarch in 2009. He quickly succeeded in securing the return of state church property, religious instruction in public schools, and military chaplains in the armed forces.
Kirill also promoted an influential critique of Western liberalism, consumerism and individualism, in contrast to Russian “traditional values”. This idea holds that human rights are not universal, but a product of Western culture, especially when extended to LGBTQ people. The patriarch also helped develop the idea of the “Russian world”: a soft power ideology that promotes Russian civilization, ties with Russian speakers around the world, and greater Russian influence in Ukraine and Belarus.
Although 70-75% of Russians consider themselves Orthodox, only a small percentage are active in church life. Kirill sought to “re-church” society by asserting that Russian orthodoxy is at the heart of Russian identity, patriotism and cohesion – and a strong Russian state. He has also created a highly centralized church bureaucracy that mirrors Putin’s and stifles dissenting voices.
To get closer
A turning point came in 2011-2012, beginning with massive protests against electoral fraud and Putin’s decision to run for a third term.
Kirill first called on the government to engage with protesters, but later offered Putin wholehearted support and called the stability and prosperity in his first two terms a ‘miracle of God’, unlike the 1990s. tumultuous.
In 2012, Pussy Riot, a feminist punk band, staged a protest at a Moscow cathedral to criticize Kirill’s support for Putin – but the episode actually brought church and state closer together. Putin described Pussy Riot and the opposition as aligned with decadent Western values, and himself as the defender of Russian morality, including orthodoxy. A 2013 law banning the dissemination of gay “propaganda” to minors, backed by the Church, was part of this campaign to marginalize dissent.
Putin was successfully re-elected and Kirill’s ideology has been tied to Putin’s ever since.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the eruption of the Donbass conflict in 2014 also had a huge impact on the Russian Orthodox Church.
Ukrainian Orthodox churches remained under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, about 30% of the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church were actually in Ukraine.
The conflict in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, however, has intensified Ukrainian calls for an independent Orthodox Church. Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity, granted independence in 2019. Moscow not only refused to recognize the new church, but also severed relations with Constantinople, threatening a wider schism.
Orthodox Christians in Ukraine were divided over which church to follow, which heightened cultural concerns in Russia over the “loss” of Ukraine to the West.
High stakes betting
Kirill’s close alliance with the Putin regime had obvious fallout. Orthodoxy has become one of the central pillars of Putin’s national identity image. Additionally, the “culture wars” discourse over “traditional values” has attracted international supporters, including conservative evangelicals in the United States.
But Kirill no more represents the whole of the Russian Orthodox Church than Putin represents the whole of Russia. The patriarch’s positions have alienated some of his own flock, and his support for invading Ukraine will likely divide some of his support abroad. Christian leaders around the world call on Kirill to pressure the government to stop the war.
The Patriarch alienated the Ukrainian flock that remained loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate. The leaders of this church condemned the Russian attack and called on Kirill to intervene with Putin.
A wider break is clearly brewing: a number of Ukrainian Orthodox bishops have already stopped commemorating Kirill during their services. If Kirill supported Russia’s actions as a way to preserve church unity, the opposite outcome seems likely.
(Scott Kenworthy is a professor of comparative religion at the University of Miami. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)