AAn important factor in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is its religious aspect. It is understandable and essential that the focus on overwhelming suffering is making headlines. Yet, if we are to learn from this ongoing tragedy, we must face its multiple dimensions, one of which is religious. By his own admission, Vladimir Putin has found religion in recent years; although secretly baptized as a child, the former Soviet-era KGB agent has since openly embraced the belief structure of the Russian Orthodox Church. More darkly, he needs the Church and the Church needs him in the common pursuit of a new Russia in an old guise.
Then there is the temptation of more than one dictator: messianism – the idea that one is a man of destiny with a divinely appointed mission. Academics Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy draw attention to Putin’s “firm belief that his personal destiny is intertwined with that of the Russian state and its past”. Great Britain Church hours noted, “Mr. Putin, of course, would not be the first dictator with a messianic complex, nor the first to believe he can enforce belief through brutality.”
One of Putin’s cruel predecessors, the Orthodox Iosif Dzhugashvili (Stalin), manipulated religious sentiment to his advantage in the 20e century. Although he became an atheist, he was apparently not ashamed to be presented in a Moscow shop window as Christ at the Last Supper, with a framed picture of Lenin (in the style of John the Baptist) gazing approvingly through- over his shoulder. But Putin, it seems, is not trying to imitate Stalin. While his embrace of religion in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church may be equally cynical, it is not a return to Soviet-style communism that he desires.
As with other issues he has chosen to focus on, Putin appears to be using religion as an additional means of identifying with a segment of the population in a new “sovereignly democratic” Russia.
“Every appearance Putin adopts, and actions he takes, pays respect to a certain group and validates that group’s place in Russian society.
And here Ukraine can be exploited from a religious point of view. As he told the Russian people in a nationally broadcast speech days before launching his invasion in February 2022, “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. What he means by “spiritual space” is the former territory of medieval Rus’ which converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the ninth century. Rus’ covered what is now Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia.
In this respect, the schism between Ukrainian and Russian orthodoxy, which was exacerbated by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and now aggravated by the invasion of Ukraine, goes against all that is svyataya Rus‘ (“Holy Russia”) from Putin’s point of view. He accepts the war support of the Russian Orthodox primate Kirill, and the church appreciates that Putin defends his desire for unity of faith. According to Hill and Gaddy, “in Putin’s system and formulation, it is Rus’ (Russia) who is divine (sviataya or holy). . . . The stress on svyataya Rus’ takes up another, older Russian Orthodox and Tsarist tradition, where Rus’ refers to something broader than the idea of the Russian state and people and encompasses the entire Russian Orthodox religious community. From Kirill’s point of view, Putin is “a miracle of God” sent to support his desire to make Moscow the “Third Rome”, a 16ethe idea of the tsarism of Rus’ to position Moscow as the successor of Rome and Constantinople, and therefore as the center of Christianity – but also, from the 19e century, as heir to the political power of the Roman Empire.
Nothing in this complex historical context can justify the destruction of other believers, not to say other human beings, many of whom are civilians – men, women and children – in a crusade for political-religious unity. Unfortunately, the history of empires and ideological aggressors always ends in the same way, but not without untold suffering.
Is there still a path to peace? The very man whose example these attackers claim to follow taught non-violence: “As many as take the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Without a commitment to all of Christ’s teachings, those who say but don’t do will never have His blessing and will not be successful in the long run.