Mark Drew

How Putin weaponised the Russian Orthodox church

In the week before Orthodox Lent began, some 233 Russian Orthodox priests published a petition calling for peace. The signatories spoke of the ‘fratricidal war in Ukraine’, with a call for an immediate ceasefire, and deplored ‘the trial that our brothers and sisters in Ukraine were undeservedly subjected to’. Anyone who knows how authority is exercised in the Russian Orthodox church, and how closely it has allied itself with Putin’s authoritarian state, will recognise the clerics’ courage. But what effect is it likely to have on the attitude of the highest authorities in the church?

To answer these questions, we need to understand not only the centuries-old link between political power and religious authority in Russia, but also the record of the key players. One major figure is Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. He is an enthusiastic supporter of Putin’s and has not relented in his praise for the war. In his sermon on Forgiveness Sunday, he described Russia’s ‘military operation’ as justified and almost sacred. Repeating accusations of genocidal behaviour towards the breakaway Russian entities in the east, he complained that Ukrainians were waging a more sinister war at the meta-physical level, against Russia and against Christianity, by backing immoral causes like gay and transgender rights.

Kirill’s endorsement provides a religious gloss for the Kremlin’s ideology of a ‘Russkiy Mir’ or Russian world. The term implies Russia’s destiny is to bring the peoples of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires under its leadership. It looks back to the idea of Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’, which saw ‘Holy Russia’ as the protector of the Orthodox peoples. It is perfectly attuned to the nostalgic imperialism promoted by Putin.

The marriage of conservative moral principle with unscrupulous political expediency has been exposed

The petition of the ‘peace priests’ is unlikely to be more than a minor irritation to Kirill. Its signatories constitute a tiny proportion of the more than 40,000 Russian Orthodox clergy and there are no metropolitans or other influential senior clerics among them.

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