The murderous silence of the Russian Orthodox Church

As the war in Ukraine, long declared but still unexpected, unfolds its whole tragedy, the religious factor is part of the discourse on reasons and prospects. While Putin’s agenda contains massive religious references to legitimize and sacralize his ideology and military actions, the major religious institution in Russia keeps silent. Since 2014, a dozen theologians and scholars of religion tried to explain, why religion is an important factor to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which then escalated in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Is this a religious war? I would still argue that it is not. Because while religion is undoubtedly a part of Putin’s ideology, the doctrine of Russian Orthodoxy is an unsound pillar for this ideology both theological and institutional – at least for now. 

In the institutional perspective, the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has supported the political elite increasingly since the end of the Soviet Union, particular in the field of militarization  and the ideology of traditional values. However, its support of the “Russian World” ideology broke upon the Russian annexation of Crimea and the violation of national borders, which was always a no-go in the concept of spiritual unity. Even more, the ecclesiastical concept of the “Russian World” has no theological content; it is a pure historical construction with a scaffolding of moral values, which are subject to deep and manifold global discourses. The ROC never managed to fill these values with a particular theological fundament; all of these values are highly ambivalent and flexible to specific contexts. Even in their narrow, ultra-conservative interpretation, they are not unique not to Russian Orthodoxy nor to Russia. The traditional value discourse is a foggy curtain for brutal power – and all Western allies of Russia and the ROC in this value discourse should be aware of this war-sponsoring context.

For the part of the ROC since 2014, we saw the rise of another concept taking over – the need to protect persecuted Christians. In itself a very important and burning global issue, the engagement of the ROC in this field is hypocritical. Granted that religious freedom is systematically violated in Russia under the sponsorship of the ROC, also against Christian groups, which the ROC recognizes as partner in its global value-networking. In the case of Ukraine, reports about alleged systematic, state-sponsored persecution of believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate, UOC) have been deliberately pushed on the headlines since the establishment of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018.There has been social pressure on the UOC as well as violent attacks, and the Ukrainian state and churches did a poor job in visible fact-checking and legal countering of these events. Today, in the situation of war, the idea of defending “our” people is a key argument for Russia and every new case of violence against a church of the UOC carries a significant weight in propaganda. However, the UOC made several clear public statements naming the Russian aggressor and weighting in its complete commitment to the Ukrainian identity, sovereignty and integrity. Now, the only threat for the spiritual and physical life of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine is not Ukraine or a liberal West, it is Russia. The fact that the ROC as mother church is silent about this, proofs all her commitment to religious freedom to be (or are) hypocritical. It shows, however, also that the idea of a religious war has no grounds.

From a theological point of view, the silence of the ROC is a moral and socio-ethical disaster. Several figures of the church justify their silence with the duty of the church to stay out of politics to help the people on both sides of the front line. Clearly, the argument of apolitical attitudes is absolutely intolerable in a situation, where orthodox arguments are part of the repressing and homicidal ideology. We witnessed this lack of critical distance to evil already during the repression of Russian civil society and during the crack down on nonviolent protest in Belarus, as well as during the annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbass. In all these cases, millions of Orthodox Christians have voiced dissent and have been repressed by the political regime. Now in Ukraine, Orthodox believers die from the regime that is confident about its Christian legitimacy. The ROC nurtured this confidence and does not contradict its murderous praxis. 

By staying silent about the victims of a regime calling itself orthodox, the ROC loses its ability and duty to witness the Christian message in the world, no matter how much it will pray for peace and help refugees. It is therefore no surprise that Orthodox friends and colleagues in Ukraine and Russia now cite no orthodox texts, but Hannah Arendt and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

Author

  • Regina Elsner is a theologian and, since 2017, a researcher at the Centre for East European and international Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin. Her work focuses on investigating the dynamics of Orthodox social ethics in Eastern Europe since the dissolution of the Soviet Union with a special focus on peace ethics and gender-related topics.

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