AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
In a quiet Ukrainian suburb near the port of Mariupol stands a Renaissance-style church with three semi-baroque towers. A bold expression of faith in God, the church houses an icon of Mary Mother of God after whom the city is named, with the Greek Μαριούπολη literally translating to “city of Mary”.
In the early morning hours of February 24, invading Russian forces repeatedly targeted this Orthodox church in a blatant attempt to destroy this centuries-old symbol of Kyiv’s culture and spirituality. The attack on the church underscored that Putin’s invasion is not just economic or political, but an all-out attack on Ukrainian identity.
Since the start of hostilities in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Putin’s rhetoric has had unmistakable religious overtones and, like his predecessors in the Soviet Union, he expects religious leaders to follow his aggression.
For Christians living in the West, “Christianity” in the form it takes in Russia would be almost completely unrecognizable. The ecclesiastical hierarchy in Russia actively serves the ideological goals of the government, teaching that the corrupt West, led by the United States and Western Europe, seeks to destroy the “Russian world” and everything it holds dear, including the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to this ideology, the West has capitulated to “liberalism”, “globalization” and “Christianophobia” and thus poses an existential threat to the Russian way of life. In the current conflict, the view is that the West, not Russia, has invaded the sacred cultural center of kyiv, and Russian troops must liberate it from the pervasiveness of Western culture.
It should be noted that this complete return of the Russian Church to its Soviet roots is not a recent phenomenon. After the collapse of the USSR, Alexey Senin, a veteran of the Soviet Communist Party’s Propaganda Department, launched a sort of homecoming to Russia’s imperial past by using the traditional institution of the Church to keep Soviet ideology alive.
Senin transformed almost overnight from an ardent Leninist (who was determined to abolish all religion) to a fervent nationalist of the Russian Orthodox Church. He created a newspaper, the Russkiy Vestnik, which became a forum for ultra-nationalists. Carrying the logically misguided motto “who loves God also loves Russia”, Senin quickly gained a following of dispossessed Russians eager to return to the glory days of Soviet power and influence on the world stage.
As a well-connected figure in domestic politics, Senin successfully lobbied members of the Duma and the presidential administration to ban Western churches in Russia, laying the groundwork for his new ideology of Russian chauvinism mixed with obscurantism, crudeness and primitivism.
Within a few years, the virulent anti-Western ideology had become the official line of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was partly through the Church that government leaders – including a newly installed Vladimir Putin – convinced the public that Western-style democratic reforms would only harm Russian society.
The new Church leaders engaged in a brutal crackdown on dissent reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s attacks on the priesthood in the early years of the Cold War. Father Gleb Yakunin, who published secret KGB reports incriminating several high-profile figures in the Moscow Patriarchate, was one of many who were expelled from the church and threatened with violence if they continued to speak out .
Like Alexander Yakovlev, one of the architects of perestroikaobserved, the post-Soviet Russian Church’s rejection of humanism and humanity instead encouraged submission to repressive, exploitative, and unjust authorities who completely denied the need for individual freedoms.
In reaction to the complete submission of the Russian Church to the Russian state, the church communities of Ukraine, Estonia and Moldova decided to separate. Unsurprisingly, in the minds of these churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is seen as the twin of Soviet-communist totalitarianism that targeted the pre-Soviet Church in the 20and century.
This fact was confirmed only when Putin asked for the blessing of the Patriarch of Moscow before sending tanks and missiles against Ukraine. Leading figures of the Russian Orthodox Church repeated the false Russian propaganda pushed by the Russian government to justify the atrocities perpetrated against the Ukrainian people.
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine also revealed that Putin’s grip on the Church may not be as complete as he thought. Many lower-ranking clergy protested the war in sermons and pleaded with the Russian authorities to stop the invasion. Nearly 300 Russian Orthodox priests have called for “an end to the fratricidal war”, saying that Russia and Ukraine must overcome the conflict and respect each other again.
Russian prosecutors have also accused Father Ioann Burdin of a western Russian parish of “discrediting the use of armed forces” because of a sermon he preached on “Forgiveness Sunday”. Other priests who refused to bow to the Kremlin’s established narrative of the war have been moved to small countryside parishes where their opposition to the war will go largely unnoticed.
In Ukraine, Russian Orthodox priests from eighteen dioceses – representing more than a third of the country – have stopped commemorating Supreme Patriarch Kirill during their services, arguing that his declarations on the war, which seem to blame the “forces of the internal evil” in Ukraine rather than Russian aggression, tantamount to tacit approval of the attack.
Last week, forty Ukrainian theologians announced that Patriarch Cyril’s refusal to acknowledge the invasion of Ukraine is a threat to the Orthodox Christian tradition as false teachings are dividing the Church.
The authors of the declaration rejected the concept of a new Russian kingdom, a Tsar and divine authority in Moscow, and encouraged Church leaders to condemn “fratricidal war”.
Just as it did in Soviet times, the church has a chance to be a crucial source of opposition to Putin’s diabolical regime and the occupation of Ukraine. Undoubtedly it will take uncommon acts of bravery, grounded in faith and a belief in the church community. But as Christians have shown throughout history, it is these desperate times that often produce the most powerful displays of courage.
Ben Solis is the pseudonym of an international affairs journalist, historian, theologian and researcher.
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