“We were for peace!” Only they were not

What’s going on in the Russian Orthodox Church today? How does it justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine? What’s Patriarch Kirill's role in this justification? How can the church engage people in social action? Andrey Shishkov on the Russian Orthodox Church and its politics during the ongoing war in Ukraine.


Source > Posle

— Some experts today claim that the Russian-Ukrainian war is almost the first religious war of the twenty-first century. Do you agree with this?

— I’ve come across such claims but, in my opinion, they miss the mark. In this war, religion plays quite a modest role. We do not see the state engaging in a mass mobilization of believers through religious communities for its military campaign. State propaganda hardly uses any religious tropes or themes and, if they do occur, it’s rather incidental. Even if someone occasionally calls this war “sacred,” he or she does so by analogy with the war of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. There is no theology of war behind this rhetoric; in fact, it would be too complicated and completely unnecessary, as there isn’t really an addressee in Russia for this religious justification.

Notwithstanding all the authorities’ talk of the special character of Russian spirituality, Russia remains a very secular country. According to the recent surveys, at best 10% of those who consider themselves religious actually go to church or to other places of worship. I believe that these figures are something of an overestimate. For example, on the most important Orthodox holiday, Easter, no more than 1-2% of the total population go to church. That said, about 70% call themselves Orthodox. This passive majority delegates religious practice to an active minority: the sociologist of religion Grace Davie calls this phenomenon “vicarious religion.” The passive majority considers itself Orthodox for various reasons (culture, history, traditions) but it needs an active minority upon which it can rely. The church hierarchy relies upon these nominally Orthodox members of the population to prove its own importance to the state. But, in fact, those who comprise this majority are alienated both from the church and from each other — they are atomized, which means it’s almost impossible to influence them through preachers.

To a large extent, the church hierarchy itself contributes to this alienation. The leadership of the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has constructed a power vertical deliberately by breaking horizontal ties between believers. The church authorities are suspicious of any manifestation of grassroots solidarity and autonomy and, if a bishop fails to bring such manifestations under his control, it’s quite likely that they will be destroyed; for example, by transferring a priest who has organized a community around himself to another place. Within the ROC, this rotation of priests and bishops is the norm. No one is exempt from a sudden transfer to another parish or diocese; everything depends upon the arbitrary will of a superior. Why should a priest make an effort if his parish could be taken away from him at any moment? It’s very demotivating.

Of course, there are many clergymen who nonetheless strive to forge a commune-based church life but this happens despite, not thanks to, the existing church governance system. As a result, the most stable horizontal communities often take the form of closed collectives with a high degree of internal solidarity; this offers some kind of guarantee of their preservation in the face of the church authorities’ arbitrary rule. Horizontal ties rarely extend beyond the bounds of these collectives. These communities exist as if they were in parallel worlds and if they do find themselves on common ground, they come into conflict with one other. But I’d again stress that the number of active believers is rather small and the passive majority is atomized and fragmented.

There has long been a debate within Russian Orthodoxy as to why community life has not developed much following the years of the religious revival. In recent years, there’s also been a growing debate regarding so-called “de-conversion”: when active, observant believers suddenly announce that they are leaving the church. While remaining believers, such people relinquish their Orthodox identity, often replacing it with a broader one: “just a Christian.” According to a survey, the number of those who consider themselves Orthodox fell by around 13% between 2009 and 2021. These years correspond to those of Patriarch Kirill’s leadership. However, this phenomenon also aligns with a worldwide trend of declining religiosity. In any case, most of the nominally Orthodox could potentially be a “resource” for various political forces but it’s impossible to reach them without institutional changes in the church.

— How can church communities participate in public life? Here I’m curious both about grassroots politics and the political role of the church.

— Church parishes are ready-made cells for engaging in social action. They can assume certain state and public functions in the field of social work, as is the case in Europe and America: they can provide charity, education, and even serve as points of assembly for municipal matters. In addition to parishes, there are other forms of association — movements, fraternities and sisterhoods, societies, etc. But all this is possible only on the condition that laypeople are motivated to do such work. To have this motivation, they must feel themselves not only part and parcel of church life but also experience their participation as something meaningful. To put it bluntly, they need to feel that they can do something. This, however, is impossible without obtaining certain rights within the church.

At present, the Orthodox Church in Russia is organized in such a way that laypeople are excluded from decision-making process. They have no rights and there are almost no opportunities to affect what happens in the parish (unless you are one of its benefactors). For example, according to the current Charter of the Russian Orthodox Church, a lay person cannot chair a parish meeting — only the parish priest. The parish is rarely managed by the assembly because as a rule, the clergy usurp power, make decisions and present everyone with a fait accompli. There is a power vertical, “Patriarch–Metropolitan–Bishop–Priest,” which makes decisions but in the absence of laypeople.

“The church needs to be reorganized, starting with greater autonomy for parishes, as well as expanding and protecting the rights of laypeople and rank-and-file clergy”

For example, the arbitrary transfer of priests from parish to parish should be banned. Only then will people be motivated to participate in parish life: to create communities, communes and movements, forging horizontal ties between them. Today there is none of this, as the ROC is constructed as a power vertical and Patriarch Kirill’s reforms have only bolstered this further. The modern ROC is a vast bureaucratic machine that alienates believers from each other and destroys all forms of autonomy and solidarity. What is left to believers is the consumption of religious services and the ROC is morphing into a corporation, a service-provider to the population. However, in the current situation, this has its advantages: it’s difficult to mobilize shoppers at this “spiritual supermarket” through the church’s ideological channels.

— What is Patriarch Kirill’s ideological role in the current situation, that is war?

— Patriarch Kirill contrived his own version of the idea of the “Russian world,” which is now being used in Russian propaganda. But he lost control over his own ideas long ago, some of which have been recycled by the propaganda machine. As a result, he himself has become a consumer of these recycled ideas, now being churned out by the Kremlin media. In his sermons and speeches, Kirill at times rehashes propaganda clichés: in his meeting with Pope Francis, he even recited (from paper) how long it would take a missile to hit Moscow [a well-known quote from Putin: “If NATO infrastructure continues to advance along the border, the flight time of missiles to Moscow will be reduced to 7-10 minutes” — ed.]. The Patriarch could have been a crucial figure because nominally he remains the spiritual leader of most Orthodox Christians  — both in Russia and beyond its borders. Yet, his actual influence on politics is almost zero. Nor does he enjoy much credibility among his own parishioners, as he talks too much about politics and too little about spiritual matters.

Besides, the Kremlin does not need the church as an institution in order to legitimize its warfare. If it did, we would see the church receiving orders to organize spiritually uplifting talks and to consecrate military equipment; there would be agitators attempting to recruit people in the parishes, etc. The patriarch would himself be leading services in the Main Cathedral of the Armed Forces: not once every two months but at least twice a month, and in the presence of the military high command. So far, only General Zolotov, the head of the National Guard, has attended a service led by the patriarch, and even this was already back in mid-March.

The patriarch’s public support of the military campaign is nothing but a demonstration of his loyalty to the authorities, so that he can remain within their ranks and receive funding from the government. Among ROC clergymen, other instances of support for the military operation are for the most part a matter of personal choice and not a state order. In Russia, there are one or two dozen bishops (out of over 300) who have publicly supported military action against Ukraine: some quite sincerely, others, like Kirill, in order to demonstrate their loyalty, just to be on the safe side.

Not one Russian bishop has yet spoken out against the military aggression. This is partly due to the recent law criminalizing any “discrediting of the armed forces.” Even if you are a metropolitan, no one will have mercy on you: most likely, you will be removed from your position and then fined for discrediting the army, and perhaps even imprisoned. Even those bishops who sincerely oppose the war (and there are good bishops in the ROC after all) prefer to keep quiet. It’s likely that they fear dismissal, in which case all their work over the years will have been in vain — a new bishop would replace them and ruin everything they have built until now. Charitable organizations follow a similar logic. But when innocent people are being killed each day, it’s immoral for an Orthodox bishop to take such a stance.

So — most bishops either remain silent or proffer a prayer for peace, as did Metropolitan John (Popov) of Belgorod recently. It took shelling in the city of Belgorod for him to remember to pray for peace.

“But this appeal to pray for peace is not so simple. In today’s ROC, it has already become a euphemism for loyalty to the authorities”

As a trope, it emerged as early as 2014 but became most prominent in 2020, during the mass protests in Belarus. There, the Orthodox hierarchy urged people to pray for peace and not to engage in politics, yet at the same time they showered the security forces with church awards, encouraging their activities, and repressed those clerics who vocally opposed violence. Now we see the same thing: some clergymen evoke such prayers for abstract peace without naming the aggressor, without identifying the positions of the warring parties, without saying who attacked whom. It may look pious but in fact it’s a way to evade responsibility. They do this so as to justify themselves later, claiming: “We were for peace!” Only they were not.

There is another kind of prayer for peace, which actually translates into a prayer for the victory of the Russian armed forces. In his military sermons, Patriarch Kirill speaks, too, of peace. Yet his peace means “the liberation of the people of Donbass” and victory over Ukraine, the latter allegedly representing “the evil” West, with its pride parades and “metaphysical” evil. This “evil,” according to the patriarch, must be fought and defeated, after which a just peace will ensue. The Patriarchate even contrived its own prayer for peace, which goes as follows: “And thou shalt prohibit the infidel tongues striving for battle and rising up in arms against Holy Russia, and foil their intentions.”

The concept of a “just peace” comes up a lot, in fact, in ecumenical discourse. For this reason, some church figures in the West, without closely analyzing the Patriarch’s sermons, believe that he really does stand for a just peace, which implies that the aggressor should be punished. Yet Kirill fills in this concept with a completely different meaning. Such conceptual substitutions  are not uncommon for him.

— It’s the second time the issue of consumption has turned up in the course of our conversation. Patriarch Kirill is a consumer of Russian propaganda, whereas churchgoers are consumers of services provided by the ROC. But are there any examples of people deciding to leave the church because none of the leading clerics in Russia have publicly condemned the war?

— It’s not easy to determine the number of such cases, as all polling results in Russia are dubious at present. People are afraid to answer questions. I’ve already cited statistics demonstrating the dwindling number of those who self-identify as Orthodox during Kirill’s rule and I think this decline is partly attributable to the fact that believers are not happy with the head of their church. People often perceive Kirill’s rhetoric as an attempt to politicize the church and they don’t like the increasingly tight nexus between the church’s leadership and the government. Moreover, as a general rule they tend to believe that under Kirill, the church is becoming more secular. And it’s true that in his speech Kirill comes across as more of a bureaucrat than a pastor.

My colleague Alar Kilp has studied the sermons delivered by the two post-Soviet patriarchs. He concluded that as compared to Patriarch Alexy II’s speech, Kirill’s rhetoric contains far more politics and other content that believers see as “secular.” I presume that many believers are disappointed with Patriarch Kirill and that this disappointment has a long history.

It’s telling that since the war broke out, Kirill has not once offered his condolences on civilian deaths — including those among the Ukrainian clergy, who had officially been his charge before May 27. He published, however, a letter of condolence following a plane crash in China. To an outside observer, it would seem he’s lost touch with reality but only those from his inner circle can tell whether that’s truly the case.

— Patriarch Kirill considers the war as something that will save us from schism rather than sow it. It’s not just something that’ll deliver us from “Western” forces of evil but also a remedy against the schism in the church that these very forces brought about.

— The narrative of a “terrible schism,” alongside that of “church unity,” is part of Patriarch Kirill’s concept of the “Russian world.” Essentially, with this concept the Patriarch denies the identity of Ukrainians and Belarusians as independent nations, making them part of the “triune Russian people.” And that triune Russian people should have a unified Russian Orthodox Church. As the ROC is global (thanks to the diaspora), the same goes for the “Russian world.” Ironically, there’s no place for Russian as the liturgical language in this “Russian world” and using Ukrainian or Belarusian during the liturgy is also frowned upon. The use of native languages in church services is only acceptable for the “smaller” (in relation to the Russian) peoples because translating the liturgy into these languages is regarded as a missionary strategy. There is, however, no place for missionary work among historically Orthodox peoples such as Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarusians, because they are already Orthodox and for this reason their services should be conducted in one, single language — Church Slavonic. Thus, there’s one nation, one church, one language. And also one patriarch for all of them.

To preserve unity, you need to constantly fight a schism.

“The narrative of a “terrible schism” is integral to this Russian Orthodox ideology”

Since the early days of Ukraine’s modern statehood, it’s had several Orthodox jurisdictions. The 1980-1990s saw the emergence of the nationally oriented Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), as well as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP). In the eyes of the global Orthodox community, these two churches were really seen as schismatics, as they were not in full communion with any of the canonical churches. Members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) worked together with leading clerics and theologians in the ROC to develop a narrative that would discourage believers from transferring to those nationally oriented jurisdictions. All kinds of scary stories were put to use: there is no grace there, transferring to these jurisdictions would be tantamount to spiritual death, etc. Some clerics within the UOC-MP refused to recognize baptisms carried out in “schismatic jurisdictions,” even though the ROC recognizes baptisms from the Catholic Church, despite its more than thousand-year long schism with the latter.

The  change in Ukrainian Orthodoxy happened back in 2018-2019 when, at the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Kyiv hosted the Unification Council of the Eastern Orthodox Churches of Ukraine (it was, however, attended by only two representatives of the UOC-MP). Rather than a unification council, it was basically a constituent assembly that established the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), to which the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly (note: church independence) in early 2019 and established full communion. Subsequently, the OCU was recognized by three more churches (Patriarchate of Alexandria, Churches of Greece and Cyprus), which from the Orthodox ecclesiological (note: theological discipline studying the church) point of view means that this church is no longer schismatic.

In response to the antagonistic actions the Ecumenical Patriarchate undertook within the territories the ROC sees as its own, i.e. in Ukraine, Moscow has severed full communion with Constantinople. That said, a total schism did not occur because, through its ties with the other churches, the ROC still remains part of a single canonical space with Constantinople: excluding the ROC, not a single autocephalous church has cut ties to it. At the same time, the rhetoric of schism is now being applied not only with regard to the newly established OCU, which is viewed as an extension of the previous “schismatic jurisdictions,” but also to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek churches that have recognized the new Ukrainian autocephaly. Notably, this rhetoric has very quickly gone on to portray the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a puppet controlled by the US State Department, NATO and other Western forces hostile to Russia. There are new conspiracy theories claiming that Western countries are deliberately undermining church unity in Ukraine. As a result, the “schism” is now part of the conspiracy run by NATO countries and the soulless West, seeking to destroy the Russian Orthodoxy that serves as Russia’s main spiritual bond. It’s easy to trace how this logic is ultimately used to justify the war.

Official Russian Orthodox ecclesiology has been so radicalized since 2018 that it now regards any transfers of priests or parishes into other autocephalous churches as a “schism.” Ironically, this radicalism only serves to fuel the emergence of new parallel jurisdictions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the territories the ROC considers as its own. We’ve witnessed a very notable case in Lithuania, where only one jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate exists. In March 2022, the local metropolitan, Innocent (Vasilyev), made a statement condemning the war, saying he held different political views to those of Patriarch Kirill. It was a very bold move and everyone was astonished that a leading Russian cleric was taking such a stance all of a sudden. Innocent got the support of a group of priests who began to speak up against the war publicly as well. Yet a few weeks later, Metropolitan Innocent fired them and in early June the ecclesiastical court decided to defrock them. He must have gotten a call from Moscow. The priests who had chosen to support Metropolitan Innocent’s anti-war statement were accused of fomenting a schism, something they most certainly had never contemplated. Now these defrocked priests are going to file an appeal with the Ecumenical Patriarch as the supreme arbiter of the Orthodox Church and it’s highly likely he’s going to reinstate them: probably by establishing a parallel jurisdiction in Lithuania, so that both the priests and the lay church members who disagree with the Moscow Patriarchate’s policies can transfer there.

— Are there any ROC bishops who legitimize the war, either directly or indirectly painting it as a “just war”? Has anyone spoken about the duties of the warring parties or the ethical rules to be observed in hostilities?

— Most of the bishops who support the military campaign have no knowledge of the just war doctrine: they haven’t read St. Augustine or the other Church Fathers. Otherwise, they would not be championing military aggression quite so vehemently. Even modern church documents, such as the ROC Bases of the Social Concept, only justify a defensive war. So these bishops are simply parroting set phrases from the Russian propaganda they are consuming, just like the patriarch.

“Kirill is attempting to offer a different interpretation of the very nature of this war, maintaining that Russia is waging a defensive war, in order to somehow portray it as a just war in the eyes of the faithful”

If you check his sermons delivered back in May and June, you’ll find he constantly speaks of protecting the motherland against external enemies. When visiting combatants in a military hospital, he openly calls them defenders of the motherland. It’s an attempt to present an aggressive war of conquest as a defensive one. In so doing, the patriarch is basing his justifications upon existing tropes: had Russia not attacked, NATO countries would have attacked instead, etc.

— In his Sunday of Forgiveness sermon, the patriarch went so far as to call this war a “metaphysical battle.” What kind of metaphysics is he talking about?

— It’s nothing but a rhetorical device. If you were to ask him what it actually means, he would, in all probability, either say nothing or say something abstract about the fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil. There’s no point in seeking a theological explanation for these words.

In recent months, there have been several attempts to pronounce Patriarch Kirill a heretic. I believe this is completely pointless. To be a heretic, you need to persist in theological errors. The patriarch’s rhetoric, however, has no relation whatsoever to theology, he’s speaking the secular language, sometimes sprinkling it with religious words but only as a token gesture: he is a spiritual leader after all. But in general we haven’t seen him come up with any kind of religious justification for the war. Yes, he does make an appeal to the saints, to Alexander Nevsky, to Fyodor Ushakov, but it’s merely a hackneyed rhetorical device that dates back to the Great Patriotic War, when the Stalinist regime employed these images for propaganda purposes.

Generally speaking, Victory Day has long become the focal point for an emerging civil religion, that is, a certain set of practices, symbols and ideas similar to a religion but strictly speaking distinct from it. This civil religion has its symbols, such as the eternal flame, the red banner of victory, etc. They’ve even built a temple for this religion, the so-called Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces. In this building, Orthodox aesthetics co-exist with Soviet and post-Soviet militarist symbols.

Curiously, as you probably know, for many years now in the run-up to Easter, the Holy Fire was brought on a special plane from Jerusalem and delivered to the Orthodox churches. Now they bring the fire from the memorial at the Brest Fortress. All these manipulations with the eternal flame imply that the cult of the Great Victory has infiltrated Orthodoxy.

To a large extent, any patriotic cult is a civil religion. It only applies to the earthly, secular world and has no connection to the beyond. In Russia, however, there is an ongoing attempt to exploit traditional religions.

“Take the notorious mention of God that was introduced into the recent Constitutional Amendments at the initiative of religious leaders: it has no religious meaning at all”

God is only mentioned there as some kind of god of our forefathers, existing who knows where. The main focus is on the forefathers themselves, not on God, and it’s their memory that we have to respect. But even this civil religion (like traditional religions) does not have mass influence in such an atomized society. These are all games of the ruling elites, which do not resonate with the people.

— The Russian army made its debut as a rhetorical figure back in 2021, during the Easter liturgy that was held in the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces. How did this militarization of the church’s rhetoric happen?

— The war has been waged since 2014, so the militarization of society goes hand in hand with that of the church. It’s all part of a single cultural policy because in the Russian state, religion falls within the remit of those government agencies that deal with culture and sports. The Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was commissioned by the Defense Ministry. Dashi Namdakov, who was responsible for all the art in the cathedral, is close to Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. He used to design Buddhist temples and you can feel this in the cathedral’s interior decorations.

I guess Patriarch Kirill himself isn’t particularly happy with this church. After the consecration, he immediately fired the head of the Synodal Department for Relations with the Armed Forces, who’d been in charge of the construction works. It appears the church bureaucrats in charge of the cathedral’s construction failed to influence decisions on the project’s design. Once Kirill saw the end result, he must have been appalled because in terms of Orthodox architecture this church is truly cringeworthy. But there isn’t anything they can do about it now and the Patriarch will have to celebrate services there: after all, you can’t demolish it.

— Speaking of management reshuffles, what kind of changes have there been in the ROC leadership since February 24, 2022?

— The most notable change is the transfer of Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) to Budapest. As of 2009, he was one of the top five ROC bureaucrats and for some time was considered to be Patriarch Kirill’s successor to the Patriarchal See. Since the very beginning of the military campaign, Hilarion hasn’t uttered a word in its support. It’s true, however, that he hasn’t said a word of criticism either, as he’s very loyal to the patriarch. He was dismissed almost immediately after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had announced its complete independence. Incidentally, the ROC Department for External Church Relations under Hilarion’s leadership was responsible for Ukraine. Moreover, Hilarion’s position implied that he had to keep a high profile, as he was basically the church’s Foreign Minister, and so the authorities must have expected him to support the military campaign and were very likely displeased with his silence. This too might have had a bearing on his dismissal.

At the same time, Hilarion’s transfer to Budapest, i.e. to the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Budapest and Hungary, shows he’s in the patriarch’s good graces, otherwise he could very well have been sent to Magadan. The choice of Hungary might also have something to do with the fact that Prime Minister Viktor Orban has saved Patriarch Kirill from European sanctions. On the eve of that decision, Hilarion met with Orban.

One might say that Metropolitan Hilarion has more or less successfully relocated and to a certain extent downshifted, as have many other migrants who’ve left Russia. I suppose this is the only big change in the ROC leadership; the rest are not very important within the context of the church.

— What path do you think the Church will pursue onwards?

— The ROC leadership may choose to play the old Soviet-era card of the “international struggle for peace,” which boils down to defending and justifying the Kremlin’s actions at different ecumenical platforms. Patriarch Kirill was doing just that in his younger days. Germany is soon to host the World Council of Churches Assembly. It’s a forum that convenes every 8 to 10 years and brings together representatives from most churches from across the world. The Russian Orthodox Church is going to take part. The ROC delegation is likely to resort to the same rhetoric we saw in Patriarch Kirill’s conversations with Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby last March. The ROC delegates will explain where the attack against Russia was supposed to be mounted from, they’ll say that everything is uncertain, and the collective West too bears responsibility for this war. It’s possible some churches will accept this anti-West rhetoric because in the Global South, where the majority of Christian population is currently concentrated, anti-West sentiments are still strong due to their colonial past. The ROC is sure to take advantage of that.

But in general, in Russia the ROC leadership’s position is entirely dependent on what the government says. As long as the current political regime is in place, we’ll see little change. It’s more complicated at the parish level, as the general trends are hidden from our sight and it’s difficult to conduct research at present. Those priests and laypeople who are against the war will probably go into inner emigration or even cut ties with a church whose supreme leadership supports military aggression. As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to estimate the number of such people.

In Belarus there isn’t going to be much change either so long as Alexander Lukashenko is at the helm. Meanwhile, what the ROC is going to do in non-authoritarian countries is still an open question. In some places, as in Lithuania, the church leadership has already embarked on a path of confrontation with the government and some believers, which might result in the establishment of parallel Ecumenical Patriarchate jurisdictions with government support. In this eventuality, those who disagree with the Moscow Patriarchate’s course will be able to transfer there and in extreme cases this might lead to a ban on ROC activities within the country. In other countries, bishops have so far been treading cautiously and they’ve got a historic opportunity to become autonomous from Moscow, following in the footsteps of the Ukrainian bishops. Especially given that many ROC priests and laypeople in Europe and the US speak out against the war and help Ukrainian refugees. Even a single bishop outside Russia could potentially become the focal point for the institutional consolidation of all the anti-war forces within the church. The ROC has already had experience in setting up a church in exile in the twentieth century. But to be quite frank I’ve little hope of this happening, as I can’t see a bishop who would assume this responsibility.

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