Orthodoxy, the Kremlin and Ukraine

Neil Kent
University of Cambridge

The Invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has shocked most of the world by reason of its extreme brutality, an event taking place at this very moment in the bosom of Europe. Like the invasion of Sudetenland by Hitler and Nazi Germany, it’s raison d’etre is two fold: the pretense of coming to the aid of one’s racial brothers, said to be persecuted by others amongst whom they live in the same state, but, in reality, an attempt to recreate a deceased empire, a political entity loathed by its neighbours and buried over a generation ago in ignominy. However, whereas the ideology of Nazi Germany was based on an atheistic deification of the German nation, this one is based on a messianic ideology of Holy Mother Russia, wedded to the Russian Orthodox Church. It purports to see itself in a life and death struggle with an alien and hostile ideology in the west, one in which atheistic secular values, amongst the most scandalous of which is toleration of sexual diversity and a rejection of traditional Christian values. This is why, in part, in 2012, Patriarch Kirill, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, notoriously praised President Vladimir as a saviour of Russia. Others, however, like the late Vladimir Sharov in his novels, lament this. As the Moscow liberal commentator Mikhail Epstein has written an essay on Sharov, translated by Oliver Ready, Putin’s sees a nuclear war in messianic terms, of the saints versus the sinners: “We’ll go to heaven as martyrs, while they’ll just die”. If this is true, then President Putin has much in common with modern Islamists.

Yet a closer examination of the Kremlin presents a rather different picture than one of Russian holy men promoting ancient and venerated Orthodox values to the decadent West. After all, many of the most prominent members of the Kremlin are in long and short term relationships with mistresses, some with offspring. According to the teachings of Orthodoxy this is a grievous commission of the sin of adultery, but in these cases nobody seems to mind. Also, strange is the fact that the offspring of many live and have much of their wealth in the very same western countries excoriated for their decadence. They even send their children there to school – a seeming paradox! Moreover, in the territories of Russia’s closest allies, North Korea, Eritrea and Venezuela, for example, none have set up residence.  Yet in Ukraine the Russian military bomb and set fire to entire cities, wreaking a devastation not seen in Europe since the Second World War, making the bombing of Serbia by NATO during the 1990s seem like a few mosquito bites in comparison, a military action, if must be said, now generally regretted in the West. Interestingly, however, whereas in Russian imperial days, before the Revolution, members of the imperial family and others of the higher nobility frequently fought and died in their wars, this seems never to be the case with Russia’s current ruling and economic elite who leave it to the poor to fight and die.

Of course, the threat of NATO increasing its forces on Russia’s western littoral is also seen as a major reason for war by the Kremlin. However, the logic of the invasion seems faulty. Not only has the so-called ‘operation’ left both patient and doctor severely wounded but it has led to the creating of unified NATO not seen in decades and one which is rearming, including formerly more or less pacifist Germany, to an extraordinary degree. Thus, the effect of Russia’s on-going invasion has achieved the opposite to what was the desired goal. Moreover, it has devastated the economy of an already feeble Russian economy to a degree that was undreamed of a few months ago. Furthermore, if the goal of the promotion of Orthodox values was paramount, it has led to the almost complete destruction of the Moscow led Church in Ukraine, with even the most conservative and formerly loyal prelates of the country heaping opprobrium upon the patriarch, not only there but worldwide. In late September, just before the invasion began, Metropolitan Hillarion of Volokolamsk, the second most senior prelate in the Moscow-led Russian Orthodox Church, warned on the Patriarchal Internet Site that war in Ukraine should be avoided at all costs, not least because its outcome could turn out very differently to what was desired. How sad then that his wise words – crying in the wilderness – found no resonance at the time in either the Kremlin or the Patriarchal Palace itself.

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