The Orthodox Munition

Written by Miriam Yakobashvili

The Editor-in-Chief of RT (Russia Today), Margarita Simonyan, suggested that in the case of a reemergent 2008 scenario (referencing Russian invasion of Georgia), no one would send troops into the country, but rather launch a total destruction of Tbilisi through a strike.  Her reasoning was as follows: Tbilisi is not worth sparing as there is no Kyiv Pchersk Lavra there, implying that Russia did not take such measures against Kyiv due to the presence of the Orthodox monastery. While the story has been interpreted to say that Tbilisi has no notable Orthodox structures, it is representative of something far worse. While Ukrainians are worth sparing because they are Russians in the eyes of the regime, Georgians do not merit the same mercy. It is once again reminiscent of Russian ethno-dominance, where a Russian life is worth more than a Georgian one could ever be. 

Simonyan’s sentiment signals a wider weaponization of orthodox Christianity by the Russian government. While the rhetoric was not initiated upon the invasion of Ukraine, it has been significantly strengthened since then. Putin has framed religion to be one of the most important factors in uniting the nation’s spiritual unity; the Russian orthodox church declared that, “Just as the One Lord God is the indivisible Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus together are Holy Rus’ and cannot be separated.”Kyiv being home to the orthodox Christian monastery is not just indicative of religious unity, but also proof for Putin that Ukrainians are “little Russians.” In his speech “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin emphasizes the conflation between Russianness and orthodox – using the latter as a profound proof of unity. His reading of history states that, “Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory – from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov – were bound together by… the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith. The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod.” Notably, Russia decides who is “Christian enough,” as the historical narrative indicates that Russians are the only sacred holders and protectors of Orthodox Christianity. Throughout the speech, Putin emphasizes the connection 13 times, having Russian and Orthodox listed side by side as synonymous. Glaringly ignoring that 10% of the Russian population is Muslim, the comparison also portrays a false image of Russian Christians. 

With such a ferocious narrative, you would think that Russia is a booming centre of devote orthodox Christians. Yet, while an increasing number of the population has identified as “orthodox Christian” since the fall of the Soviet Union, church attendance remains low. In fact, estimates indicate less than 1% attendance at services. In reality, less and less of the Russian population comes in contact with the church. Neither is Putin a particularly God-fearing man. In 2006, Putin praised the former Israeli President Katsav, accused of rape and sexual harassment. He was quoted  in Russian media stating, “What a mighty man [Katsav] turns out to be! He raped 10 women; we all envy him.” The Kremlin insisted that the comments were a joke, claiming that the Russian language is very complicated, and that the translation is unable to reflect the meaning of a joke. 

Moreover, Moscow has failed to express religious sympathies in the war against Ukraine. For such strong claims to religious unity, it should be shocking for the Russian Orthodox Church to hear that between February 24 and July 15, 2022, at least 270 places of worship, spiritual educational institutions, and sacred sites (cemeteries, memorials, etc.) were either completely destroyed or damaged by Russian troops. The report documenting these atrocities states, “If previously priests on the occupied territories only received death threats, now religious leaders are tortured and killed.” However, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian orthodox Church, emboldens the “military operation,” declaring that Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine would be cleansed of sinsdue to their brave sacrifice and honour. 

Image from Christianity Today

Russia’s religious performances are just that: performative. The Russian government’s call for a ceasefire during Orthodox Christmas was perfectly suited for the narrative. Portraying his country as one that honours religious tradition, Putin aimed to frame the Ukrainian government as anti-Orthodox. For Putin, this was a win-win. If the Ukrainian government agrees, the Russian military can resupply and gather reserves. If the Ukrainian government refuses, they are just as fascist as they said in the first place! Yet, spectators miss the devastating reality; no Ukrainian will be able to celebrate Christmas in peace, as Russia has targeted energy and civilian infrastructure, making it utterly difficult to turn on the lights or have a Christmas meal. 

Naturally, the Kremlin has conveniently censored all voices of religious opposition to the war. A patriarchate priest was fined for refusing to support the war and a young woman was detained outside the Cathedral Christ the Saviour, Moscow’s main orthodox cathedral, for standing with a sign citing the 6th biblical commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”

The reality is that the church is not about religion; it’s about exertion of Russian power. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) was the primary institution which retained its connection throughout the former USSR. ROC centralises Moscow, despite Russia’s loss of power and influence in the former Soviet Union. The church and the regime share the same goal: to retain utmost power in the Ukraine. Thus, the church remains another imperial mechanism, by which Russia aims to grapple a hold on territory it no longer controls. Putin aims to utilise tool such as religion to justify exertion of power in the name of Russian national unity,


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