The Long Holy War Behind Putin’s Political War in Ukraine - Paul Elie for the New Yorker - 21.04.22

Eastern Orthodox and Catholic leaders in the U.S. weigh in on the Russian invasion—and the Russian Orthodox Church.


In the eight weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, the war there has been interpreted in terms that are familiar from previous wars—terms that often seem to be in contradiction with one another. It is a proxy war, and it is a fight for national self-determination. It is a reprise of the Cold War, and a reset of Yalta.


It is an inevitable consequence of NATO expansion, and an unprovoked act of aggression by an autocrat bent on reclaiming a “greater” Russian unity that he thinks was taken by Western forces of globalization and political integration. All those ways of seeing the war are apt, but another familiar interpretation is pertinent, too. This is the view of Ukraine as a religious hot spot, where competing claims to a holy city, Kyiv, can be traced back hundreds of years, and where religious commitments and rivalries are deeply enmeshed in the society.


Since March 6th, when Kirill, the patriarch of Moscow and primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave an incendiary homily likening Russia’s invasion to a culture war against the West, plenty of questions have been asked about his role and his motives. Is he a tool of Vladimir Putin or Putin’s spiritual adviser? Is his vision of “Russky Mir” (“Russian World”) the basis for Putin’s war or just a rhetorical glaze applied to it? How can a religious leader with any integrity support so brutal a war, and might another leader—Pope Francis, with whom Kirill entered into dialogue in 2016—persuade him to withdraw his support and urge Putin to stand down?


Leaders of religious communities in the U.S. with histories in the region have some answers. Throughout Lent—the penitential season prior to Easter, which for the Orthodox is this Sunday—Ukrainian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops, metropolitans, clergy, and scholars have been consumed with the issues of the war. At conferences, on Zoom, and on Public Orthodoxy, a Web site hosted by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, they have engaged in arguments that are often abstruse, but the underlying feeling is simple and shared: Anyone paying attention should have seen this coming.


At a conference at Georgetown University, Metropolitan Borys Gudziak, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop based in Philadelphia, who also serves as the president of the Ukrainian Catholic University, in Lviv, said, “There are so many precedents, and there are so many trends, that were under way for such a long time.” He listed several long-term developments that he saw as having enabled an eventual Russian invasion, from the lack of any Nuremberg-like reckoning with the evils of Soviet Communism to the personal friendships that Western politicians of all stripes have cultivated with Putin. “There are so many explicit expressions of intention that our surprise is actually a result of us not wanting to hear—not hearing,” he said.


Last week, on Fox News, George Demacopoulos, a theologian at Fordham who has been honored as an archon—a distinguished Christian—by Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, declared that “Putin is an instrumentalizer of religion.” Demacopoulos meant that, rather than looking to religion as a guide to action, Putin (who is Russian Orthodox) attacked Ukraine and then invoked Christianity to justify the invasion as an act of holy war. At a March 18th rally in Moscow, Putin paraphrased from the Gospel of John to exhort the self-sacrifice that his war against “genocide” in Ukraine would require of many Russians: “And this is where the words from the Scriptures come to my mind: ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’ ”


There’s no question that Putin is using religion for political purposes, yet it is also true that Kirill has instrumentalized the invasion for Russian Orthodoxy’s purposes. Eastern Orthodox and Catholic leaders in this country thought it improbable that Kirill would stand back from this war, because they see the war as an extension of the Russian Orthodox Church’s efforts in Ukraine. For two decades, the R.O.C. has used state money and propaganda to assert itself in that country. Through his full-throated support for the war for a greater Russia, these leaders say, Kirill is militating against their own transnational Orthodox project, which has been under way since the fall of Communism.


Ukraine is where, more than a thousand years ago, a warrior prince took up Christianity to marry a daughter of the patriarch of Constantinople, and then compelled thousands of others to convert as he had. The conversion of St. Vladimir—also known as St. Volodymyr—is claimed as the foundational act of Christianity in the region, to which both Russian Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy in Ukraine trace their roots, and Ukraine has been religiously controverted territory ever since. José Casanova, a sociologist of religion at Georgetown, with Ukrainian family ties, sets out the modern religious history of the country in a recent essay.


The historic center of Orthodoxy is Constantinople—present-day Istanbul—and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople is recognized by other patriarchs (there are nine in all) as primus inter pares, or first among equals. In the nineteenth century, national churches that were allied with Constantinople but autocephalous (each with its own head) became “the norm throughout the Orthodox world,” Casanova writes, but Ukraine, which had not gained national sovereignty, remained mainly Orthodox but dividedly so, with the west in the sphere of Constantinople and the east in that of Moscow, due in part to a grant of authority that the ecumenical patriarch gave to the Moscow patriarch in 1686—and which has been contested repeatedly since then.


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Russian President Vladimir Putin is using religion for political purposes, and Patriarch Kirill has instrumentalized the invasion for Russian Orthodoxy’s purposes. Photograph by Mikhail Svetlov / Getty

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