Will Russia Become an ‘Orthodox Iran?’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 9

(Source: AFP via Svoboda)

On the eve of Eastern Orthodox Christmas celebrations on January 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a 36-hour “Christmas ceasefire” (Gazeta.ru, January 5). Yet, the Office of the Ukrainian President declared that Russia had violated the ceasefire from the beginning, as on January 6, an air raid alert was announced throughout Ukraine and a fire station was attacked in Kherson (Aa.com.tr, January 5).

The Ukrainian side rejected the Russian proposal for a ceasefire, terming it a “hypocritical propaganda gesture.” An advisor to the Office of the Ukrainian President, Mikhail Podolyak, suggested that Moscow wanted to buy time to conduct further mobilizations, construct fortifications in the seized territories and reinforce the army (Tsn.ua, January 5). Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council and former President Dmitry Medvedev, known for his scandalous posts, immediately commented on this, stating that “Ukraine rejected the Christian hand of mercy extended by Moscow at Christmas” and that “pigs have no faith” (Gazeta.ru, January 6).

Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin commentators did not conceal the fact that one primary goal of the ceasefire proposal was to achieve a propaganda effect. According to them, “Ukrainians are much more religious than the inhabitants of Russia,” and when the enemy proposes a ceasefire during Orthodox Christmas but Kyiv refuses, then Ukrainian believers must doubt their government’s “godliness” (T.me/mayorthunder, January 5).

Such manipulation is far from the only example of using the Christian Orthodox faith to achieve the Kremlin’s interests. From the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), including Patriarch Kirill, has fully supported the war and proclaimed personal solidarity with the Russian army. Patriarch Kirill has stated repeatedly that Russian soldiers in Ukraine “are driven by an inner moral sense based on the Orthodox faith” and they “are defending Russia on the battlefield” (Svoboda, June 19, 2022).

The Patriarch personally presented an icon to the head of Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard), Viktor Zolotov, who in turn reported that “National Guard forces are carrying out all the tasks assigned in the course of the military counter-operation” (YouTube, March 13, 2022). This scene seemed more reminiscent of a report to a higher command than a conversation with a priest.

Meanwhile, many members of the clergy are trying to prove their loyalty through maximum support for the war. For example, in the summer of 2022, Archbishop Pitirim of the Syktyvkar Diocese (Komi Republic) demanded that all churches in the region read his appeal to support the president and the army “in a just military operation to protect Russia from Western aggression” (Regnum, July 11, 2022). Church functionaries called for “crushing the Nazi evil,” and Father Dorotheus, the hegumen of the Belgorsk Monastery in Perm Krai, even volunteered to go to war (Facebook, May 9, 2022; Svoboda, December 5, 2022). The rector of the Orthodox church in Telma in Irkutsk Oblast, Sergey Kandybin, distinguished himself by betraying the confidence of the confessional and reporting a parishioner to the Russian Federal Security Service who was praying for a Ukrainian victory (Svoboda, October 14, 2022).

In another example of the ROC’s support for the Russian invasion, Orthodox “psychotherapist” Vyacheslav Borovskiykh regularly releases videos to inspire the belief that it is “God’s will” that the war should “melt down” the Russian people and eradicate the “poison of Western civilization” (YouTube, September 21, 2022). The Ukrainian Security Service reports that close ties were being maintained between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian army, witnessed by the discovery of Russian military supplies warehoused in churches on the liberated territory of Kherson Oblast (Meduza, January 6). Kremlin propaganda, in turn, termed such searches “a persecution of Orthodoxy” (Ukraina.ru, December 25, 2022).

Within the framework of the existing symbiosis of church and state, Putin has repeatedly positioned himself as a defender of the Orthodox faith and “traditional values.” On November 9, 2022, he signed the decree “On the Preservation and Strengthening of Traditional Spiritual and Moral Values,” officially strengthening the “special role” of the Russian state in conforming to Orthodoxy (Aif.ru, November 10, 2022).

Yet, not all Orthodox priests approve of using religion to justify a war. For example, Archpriest Andrey Kordochkin of Madrid believes that the “‘traditional values’ in which their adherents unconditionally believe are from the Middle Ages.” The priest recalls that, during the Middle Ages, religiosity included approval of torture, besieging cities and public executions. Based on this logic “an ideal Russia built on ‘traditional values’ is nothing less than an Orthodox Iran” (Facebook, January 3).

Another critic of the war, Archpriest Fyodor Shumskikh, fled Russia with his family and requested political asylum in the United States. In a recent interview, he called Putin “the Antichrist of Russia” (Golosameriki.com, December 24, 2022).

Nevertheless, the authorities are hardly likely to build an “Orthodox Iran” out of modern Russia. Even priests recognized by the ROC as researchers admit that, out of the 80 percent of Russians who consider themselves Christian Orthodox, only 3 percent are active churchgoers. The rest, in their words, call themselves Orthodox “to designate their ethnic and civil affiliation as Russian” (Pravoslavie.ru, May 8, 2019).

On a personal note, these people perceive the church as a key government element, the basis of national identity and mental protection from “destructive outside influences.” Nevertheless, they do not plan to change their lives in accordance with Orthodox canons. For such people, the official ROC is perceived more similarly to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—something necessary and “irreplaceable” but not inspiring true religiosity.

For example, despite the active promotion of patriarchal values, sociologists refer to Russia as “a country of single mothers,” given the fact that one-third of Russian children are raised without fathers (Ridus.ru, September 9, 2021). In the first half of 2022 alone, the number of divorces in Russia increased by 3.3 percent, while the number of marriages rose by only 0.2 percent (Secretmag.ru, August 6, 2022). Each year, the number of child suicides and attempted suicides in the country grows, and now, every third woman admits to having had an abortion (RBC, July 7, 2022). Compared with 2016, this indicator has tripled (Wciom.ru, June 6, 2022).

The majority of Russians are extremely negative about attempts by the state or the church to regulate their lives and are still trying to fence themselves off from becoming over-involved in the war. Russian propagandists, who employed two types of propaganda on New Year’s Eve, understand this. One, intended for a radically patriotic audience, included news from the front and gloating about the bombardment of Ukrainian cities (Kherson-news.ru, January 1). The other, intended for the Russian majority, was the usual holiday fanfare with occasional congratulations from the military and low-brow jokes about Ukraine (YouTube, January 1).

Against this backdrop, it is entirely possible that, if the Russian authorities refuse to compromise with the “apolitical majority,” rather than the hoped for “popular mobilization,” they may instead trigger the further growth of popular discontent. At the same time, the gradual imposition of pseudo-religious ideology is indeed capable of increasing the number of Christian Orthodox radicals ready to kill in the name of a “holy war.”