After receiving inquiries about my last column—which reported on the religious underpinnings of Russia’s recent invasion of neighboring former Soviet states—I thought I’d add a bit more information.
It’s a complicated story that has added in part to the Russian Orthodox Church’s emotionally religious claims that Crimea, violently annexed by Russia in 2014, and Ukraine should continue under the rule of the Moscow Patriarchate. Religion has played a key role in Russia’s current claims that Crimea and Ukraine belong to Russia. Orthodox Christian nationalism has grown steadily since the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s.
The relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government has manifested itself in such ways as the Patriarch of Moscow’s persistent refusal to allow the Bishop of Rome to ever set foot on Russian soil. Under the guidance of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian government forced the Salvation Army out of Moscow in 2001, along with other Protestant missions. Patriarchy has also been instrumental in the government crackdown on gay people in Russia. The Moscow Patriarchate aided and abetted the annexation of Crimea and Ukraine as part of the so-called “Cradle of Russian Christianity”.
Russians regard Prince Vladimir’s conversion in 988 AD from Slavic paganism to Christianity as one of the pivotal moments in Russian history. His baptism in the ancient Greek colonial city of Chersonesos by the Byzantine Emperor is described by early Russian nationalist historians as “the most important event in the history of all Russian lands”, as the conversion “began a new period of our existence in all respects”. our lights, our customs, our legal system and nation-building, our religious faith and our morality.
After Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410 AD and then the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453 AD, early Russian tsars who claimed divine right to their thrones, as well as state theorists later Russians promoted Moscow as the “third Rome”, claiming that it was up to Moscow to preserve the “one true faith”. Eventually, many Western governments separated church from state; Russia moved in the opposite direction. Nicholas I, 1825-1855, the Tsar famous for suppressing the Hungarian Revolution in 1848 and fighting the Crimean War, 1853, summed up the identity of Russia’s Church-State in his phrase: “Orthodoxy, autocracy , Nationality “. This remained the Russian identity until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
After the revolution, one of the goals of the new Soviet government was the elimination of existing religion and the prevention of the establishment of any religion, with the aim of establishing state atheism. As for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Soviet authorities did everything to control it, and sometimes to exploit it for their own ends. Eventually, the Soviets sought to control the Orthodox Church by assigning clergy obedient to the state and sometimes infiltrated by KGB agents. The Russian Orthodox Church became useful to the government by espousing and propagating Soviet foreign policy and promoting the Russification of non-Russian Christians, such as Orthodox Ukrainians and Belarusians. After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced greater freedoms and worked closely with the newly emerging government.
The current head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Cyril, supports Russia’s right to claim both Crimea and Ukraine. In a recent sermon delivered earlier this month at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, he claimed the invasion of Ukraine was aimed at stemming the spread of the West’s “gay pride parades”, and describes war as “a struggle that has no physical but metaphysical meaning”, adding that “we are talking about something different and much more important than politics. We are talking about human salvation. He sees war as a culture war between conservative religious traditionalism and liberalism.
The Patriarch of Moscow and his supporters should be ashamed of tolerating and supporting this massacre of innocent human beings in Ukraine. Let’s continue to pray for peace and the right to self-determination in Ukraine!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is Diocesan Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs and Pastor of Christ the Redeemer Parish, Atco.