There are many who see in Patriarch Kyrill’s reluctance to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, evidence of Caesaropapism. Certainly, it is likely that Patriarch Kyrill sees Putin’s “special military operation” as regrettable, but necessary in order to restore the divinely ordained unity of the Russian people – a unity undermined by the emergence of a western-oriented, independent Ukraine, right at the very epicentre from which ancient, Christian Rus emerged.
The Byzantine Empire of Constantinople New Rome, from which Orthodox Moscow the Third Rome traces its origins, saw itself as a Christian commonwealth which transcended ethnic and national divisions. Kyrill too sees Russia’s future in terms of a new, transnational, trans-ethnic, Orthodox Oikoumene, stretching East to West. Before scoffing too loudly at this idea it is worth noting that it is Kyrill’s vision of a Christian Empire, rather than the Enlightenment’s vision of a secular, nation state, that reflects the historic Christian position. In the nineteenth century the Catholic Church was as vociferous in its condemnation of Italian nationalism as the Orthodox Church was of Greek nationalism.
In 2004 Chechen rebels took an entire school hostage in Chechnya and – almost immediately – Putin’s utterances started to become much more conservative in tone. As part of his new strategy Putin decided to enlist the help of the Russian Orthodox Church in “bringing morality” to the people. Putin’s increasingly conservative trajectory was also evidenced in 2004 by a meeting with Patriarch Alexy about Russia’s demographic problems – basically a collapsing birth rate. As a result of that meeting measures were announced to strengthen family values, counter the “gay rights” lobby, and tackle the country’s extremely high abortion rate. In 2007 the Putin also announced a programme to defend Russian culture against foreign incursions.
In Kyrill’s sermon last Sunday he made frequent reference to persecution by the Ukrainian government of Russian loyalists in the Donbas region. He suggested that these loyalists were being persecuted for their refusal to accept the values of a West with its own – very different – ideas about freedom and “excess consumption.” Furthermore, Kyrill said “we have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.”
It has long been the case that the Orthodox tradition has understood East and West in a metaphysical as well as geographic terms – the West being a place of darkness and illusion, and the East being a place of light and Truth. In recent weeks President Putin has referred to the USA as the “Empire of Lies.”
Kyrill’s continuing refusal to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is believed to have caused a defection of Ukrainians from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Certainly, Kyrill’s name is not currently being mentioned in public prayers in many Orthodox churches previously loyal to Moscow.
In 2017 a Levda poll found that only 11 per cent of the Russian population agreed with the so called liberal version of Russian history – that if not for the October coup, the February Revolution in 1917 would have allowed Russia to move towards progress and democracy.
Putin and Kyrill believe that the West is in the depths of a profound moral and spiritual crisis, and that the present Pope, as a Latin American, is likely to be sympathetic to Russian efforts to lead a counter charge against the ideological basis of western liberalism. Brazil and Mexico, for example, have not been unequivocal in their condemnation of Russia’s invasion, and other Latin American countries, including Cuba, decided to abstain, rather than support the UN’s condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine.
In 2016 Pope Francis met Patriarch Kyrill in Cuba. That meeting led to the Havana Declaration, and its reference to the negative impact of western liberalism on religious values. The meeting was, however, heavily criticised by the Ukrainian Greek Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) who felt that the Pope was being overly solicitous of a corrupt, and overly politicised leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 2014 Putin urged his regional governors to read Vladimir Soloviev’s “Justification of the Good.” Solviev is, at first glance, a strange writer for Putin to recommend, given Soloviev’s controversial status in the Russian Orthodox Church, not least because of Soloviev’s close relationship with the Ukrainian Catholic Church – some say he converted from Orthodoxy. But Putin’s interest in Solviev does make sense given Soloviev’s vision of a union of European Christian realms, a kind of “conservative utopia” through which the ancient European kingdoms might rediscover their Christian identity and, under the strategic control of Russia, fight against the Antichrist – in other words the modern, godless, liberal world order. Soloviev had a vision of a theocratic Russia, led by a partnership between the Pope and the Tsar, saving the West from itself. But for this to happen Russia had to first bridge its own gap between East and West.
It is very difficult to work out precisely what is happening in Ukraine right now. Both sides are engaged in heavy propaganda. But it seems to many that Ukraine is in the cockpit of a world moving towards an increasing level of division between East and West, a division based on spiritual rather than geographic borders. And it seems very likely that as the chaos continues some previously unlikely bedfellows will emerge.
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