Religious nationalism’s role in Russia’s war with Ukraine
Putin may be high on cultural symbolism, but he is thin on actual theology
Some of the religious dimensions of Russia’s assault on Ukraine are obvious, others are less so. Among the obvious are the horror of bombs dropping on or near churches, religious humanitarians on the ground trying to reduce suffering, and the targeting of civilian populations. Adding to the confusion, at least to Westerners, is the relationship between Ukraine’s multiple Orthodox and Catholic churches.
But what about Russia’s established Russian Orthodox Church? Does Russian Orthodoxy play a role in this conflict?
One place to start is with the enigmatic faith of Vladimir Putin. It is well known that the Russian dictator’s mother and ex-wife were highly religious devotees within Russian Orthodoxy. Putin wears a cross and is often photographed with Russian Orthodox hierarchs in Moscow. His cross, a gift from his mother, has taken on an almost mystical significance. Putin has told the story over and over of how a fire destroyed many family possessions in the 1990s, but a fireman found the cross in the rubble and returned it to Putin.
Over the years, Putin has often visited churches, monasteries, convents, and the like throughout the Orthodox world. For instance, in January 2021, he was famously photographed shirtless, descending into the freezing waters of a pool during a traditional Epiphany celebration (celebrating the baptism of Jesus). I cannot speak to Putin’s private beliefs, but these visits typically emphasize his role as Russia’s new czar, celebrating Moscow’s generous support for the rebuilding of historic sites. This is a form of cultural diplomacy and internal politics in countries with historic Orthodox churches, despite low citizen religiosity. Such patronage is another way that Russia attempts to demonstrate leadership and hegemony abroad and project glory at home.
Russia’s military adventures have explicit religious dimensions. For instance, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, said the following about sending Russian troops to support the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad: “The Russian Federation has made a responsible decision to use armed forces to defend the people of Syria from the sorrows caused by the arbitrariness of terrorists. We believe this decision will bring peace and justice closer to this ancient land.”
The Russian Orthodox Church’s senior public affairs official went on to call Russian fighting in Syria a “holy war” or “sanctified war.” Similarly, Putin declared religious elements in the conquest of Crimea in 2014. Vladimir the Great was apparently baptized in Crimea in 988, and thus Putin has argued that this is holy ground for Russians.
As former Canadian Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett explains, Putin’s government has been relentless in its persecution of some religious minorities at home. Such groups are considered “un-Russian” and thus are targets for Russia’s draconian anti-terrorism laws. Indeed, nearly half the people in prison under these laws are Jehovah’s Witnesses, not anarchists or violent Islamists. The method seems to be this: to bully the smallest groups and the larger religious minorities, such as Baptists and Pentecostals, so that they get the message and keep their heads down. This persecution is in direct contrast to the robust religious freedom enjoyed by Ukrainians.
Up to this point, I have described some consistent data concerning the Russian leader’s behavior: Putin is routinely photographed in magnificent churches alongside senior Russian Orthodox leaders, Putin’s government has used religious diplomacy to build relationships outside its borders, Putin or his supporters have used religious justifications for deploying troops and using force abroad, and Putin’s government assaults the fundamental liberties of some religious minorities within Russia.
As Georgetown University sociologist José Casanova observes, this mixture is a form of nationalism that is high on cultural symbolism and thin on actual theology. Putin is attempting to rebuild a shattered, post–Cold War Russian national identity. He does so by highlighting the history, symbols, and culture of historic Russia while attempting to demonstrate a continuity of Russia’s moral superiority and political greatness. This is rooted, in part, in Russia’s historical spiritual identification with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Moreover, when it comes to Ukraine, Putin’s declared grievances resonate with many Russian citizens. The expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep in the 1990s and the ambiguous status of Ukraine continue to cause anxiety. Russian church leaders, supported by Putin, point to meddling by the U.S. government and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as responsible for the 2018 schism within Ukrainian Orthodoxy. This resulted in the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church being recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Orthodoxy. It also led to a competition for resources, church sites, and parishioners between the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
Just last week, a number of Moscow-affiliated Orthodox clergy took a brave stand and posted a statement condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps more than anything else, this illustrates the complex nature of this affair and demonstrates that the religious arguments that Vladimir Putin suggests—to recover holy lands, to unify the faithful, to punish wrongdoers—are simply fig leaves for naked aggression.
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