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Putin and Patriarch

The president and the Patriarch: the significance of religion in the Ukrainian crisis

Baffling though this seems to most Europeans, President Putin believes that by invading Ukraine he is defending Orthodox Christianity from the godless West. At his side in this enterprise is Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus´.

How are we to understand this [un]holy alliance? Here are three ways into the debate: the first is historical and sets the scene; the second explores the fissures within Orthodoxy and their relevance to the current crisis; the third highlights the fault line between East and West Europe.

The story begins in Kyiv, currently the capital of Ukraine. In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kyiv accepted baptism from the Greeks in the Crimean city of Chersonesus; he then ordered the mass baptism of his people in the river Dnipro, a step of huge significance for the subsequent history of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. On the one hand this decision marked a move away from the Eurasian steppe and towards Europe, but on the other, the choice of the eastern Byzantine (Orthodox) form of Christianity implied a continuing ambivalence towards Western (Catholic) Europe.

The narrative unfolds century by century and includes for Russia and Ukraine common beginnings, separate medieval and early modern paths, the rise and fall of empire, and the persecution of religion under communism. It has had, however, particular significance as new and independent post-Soviet identities emerged amidst a marked—some would say dramatic—religious revival following the fall of communism. Herein lies the source of the current tension, notably the competing visions of a “Russian World” (Russkii mir) on one side and autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodoxy on the other. Put differently, does a shared beginning necessarily mean a shared future for Russia and Ukraine?

It is clear that both are predominantly Eastern Orthodox countries. In Ukraine, however, the recent evolution of the Orthodox community is not only complex but pulls in a different direction from its Russian equivalent. From 1992 to 2018, three Orthodox churches were active in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP); the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC); and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). Initially the UAOC and the UOC-KP were not recognized by other Orthodox churches and were considered “schismatic” by Moscow.

That situation has changed. In December 2018, members of the UOC-KP, the UAOC, and parts of the UOC-MP voted to unite into the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Early in 2019 the new entity was recognized by Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, to the profound displeasure of Moscow where views remain unchanged. The shift, moreover, was encouraged by the Ukrainian government, whose support became increasingly visible following the Russian invasion of the Donbas in 2014. The current crisis cannot be understood without taking these tensions into account.

A third factor looks in a different direction: to the concentrations of Catholics (most of whom are Greek Catholics) in the west of Ukraine. In statistical terms the numbers are small (barely 10% of the total population), but the minority serves as a reminder that the territory currently known as Western Ukraine was part of the Second Polish Republic in the interwar period (1918-39)—a situation that reflects a relationship going back to the late Middle Ages. The many spellings of Lviv tell a similar story. The city was known as Lwów by the Poles, as Lemberg by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as Lemberik by its Jewish residents. Currently, different language groups maintain their own spelling and pronunciation: hence “Lviv” (Ukrainian) and “Lvov” (Russian).

Borders in this part of Europe have shifted over many centuries in a marchland squeezed between East and West, most recently—and tragically—between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The key point, however, is the following: Ukraine’s western frontier is open to the West in a way that disturbs both Putin and the Russian Patriarch. Their unease is captured in the extraordinary sermon delivered by the Patriarch on 6 March (the eve of Orthodox Lent) just two weeks after the Russian invasion commenced. Patriarch Kirill sees the Russian campaign as a war to defend Orthodox civilization against Western corruption, symbolised in this case by the holding of gay pride marches.  

Much has been written about the relationship between Putin and the Patriarch, most of which lies beyond the present discussion. The crucial fact, however, is abundantly clear: both men see themselves as defenders of an integral Christian culture as Western influence creeps ever closer. Seen from this perspective, Western “ideals”—not least, democracy, a market economy, secularity, diversity, and tolerance—become a threat to civilization itself. Thus, a culture war tips inexorably into a religious one, and becomes all the more difficult to resolve.  

One reason why this is so is the incapacity of Western minds to grasp the continuing significance of religion in much of the modern world. That is unfortunate as good social science—including effective policy outcomes—demands that we see the issues from the point of view of the adversary as well as from our own. Only then can effective dialogue begin.

Featured image: The Presidential of Russia Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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