April 20, 2022 - 5:43pm

“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance”, Patriarch Kirill, said early last month.

Kirill, ‘Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, was speaking of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on 24 February this year — a decision which  has led to thousands of civilian deaths. Until recently, most of these civilians would have been members of Kirill’s own flock: nearly 80% of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians, and, until 2019, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was part of the Moscow Patriarchate. Many Orthodox churches in Ukraine still remain under it.

The declining political influence of Moscow on Ukraine following the fall of the Soviet Union was not reflected by its influence in the religious sphere: since 1991, the percentage of Ukrainian citizens who consider themselves Orthodox has roughly doubled. In recent years, however, the Moscow Patriarchate appears to have become more beholden to the ever-growing power of the state (a state which has long held clear revanchist intentions towards their neighbour). The enthralment of Patriarch Kirill to President Putin has left many of the Orthodox devout in Ukraine with a shepherd apparently justifying the torture of his flock.

Putin has unswervingly painted his invasion of Ukraine as a defence of traditional religious and cultural values, of the re-unity of ‘Greater Rus’, East versus West, of conservative virtue eradicating a degeneracy spreading across its borders. Ukrainian political and military leadership can be painted as either Nazi barbarians or American-influenced cultural liberals depending on the whims of the day. The picture he has painted is of moral rot setting in across the border, destabilising and decadent, and the Russian Orthodox Church has been keen to help. That Kirill is willing to lend theological legitimacy to the secular concerns of the state has strengthened the justifications for the war.

“Today there is a test for the loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to that ‘happy’ world, the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom”, Patriarch Kirill argued in a recent homily. “Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible — it is the gay pride parade.”

To maintain that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is — if not a Holy War, then one justified by its church — becomes particularly galling in the face of grotesque atrocities discovered during Russian withdrawals.

That Orthodox Christianity is deeply interwoven into the political life of both countries is without question; but whether it is subservient to the state is not. Infamous shots — usually played for laughter — have been displayed of Russian priests blessing tanks, weapons, and nuclear facilities for years now. Kirill himself lead special prayers this month in a new military cathedral outside Moscow, for the soldiers fighting for Russia’s “true independence”. He called on Russians to support the Kremlin “repel its enemies, both external and internal”. In recent weeks, Russian priests who have struck anti-war tones in their sermons have lost their jobs. 

Kirill has maintained that Russia is on the side of “God’s truth”. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Christ said, “and unto God the things that are God’s”. The Orthodox have seen friends and relatives left in the street as carrion for stray dogs. Their erstwhile Patriarch has avoided this suffering. Instead, he has helped justify this brutality with principles their religion ought to be opposed to. How can this be taken as anything other than a cruel and ungodly insult?

Katherine Bayford is a doctoral researcher in politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham.