AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
In a quiet Ukrainian suburb near the Mariupol port sits a Renaissance-style church with three semi-baroque towers. A bold expression of faith in God, the church is home to an icon of Mary Mother of God that the city was named after, with the Greek Μαριούπολη literally translating to “city of Mary.”
In the early morning hours of February 24, invading Russian forces repeatedly targeted this orthodox church in a blatant attempt to destroy this centuries-old symbol of Kyivan culture and spirituality. The attack on the church underscored that Putin’s invasion is not just economic or political, but an all-out assault on Ukrainian identity.
Since the onset of hostilities in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Putin’s rhetoric has had undeniable religious undertones and, like his predecessors in the Soviet Union, he has expected church leaders to fall in line behind his aggression.
For Christians living in the west, “Christianity” in the form it takes in Russia would be almost totally unrecognizable. The church hierarchy in Russia actively serves the ideological goals of the government, teaching that the corrupt West, led by the United States and Western Europe, seeks to destroy the “Russian world” and all it holds dear – including the Russian orthodox church.
According to this ideology, the West has capitulated to “liberalism,” “globalization,” and “Christianophobia” and thus poses an existential threat to the Russian way of life. In the current conflict, the view is that the West, not Russia, has invaded the sacred cultural center of Kyiv, and Russian troops must liberate it from the pervasions of Western culture.
It’s worth noting that this full return of the Russian church to its Soviet roots is not a recent phenomenon. Following the collapse of the USSR, Alexey Senin, a veteran of the Soviet Communist Party Propaganda Department, launched a homecoming of sorts to Russia’s imperial past by using the traditional institution of the church to keep Soviet ideology alive.
Senin transformed almost overnight from an ardent Leninist (who was determined to abolish all religion) to a fervent Russian Orthodox Church nationalist. He established a newspaper, the Russkiy Vestnik, which became a tribune for ultra-nationalists. Carrying the logically erroneous motto “who loves God also loves Russia,” Senin quickly gained a following of dispossessed Russians eager to return to the glory days of the Soviet power and influence on the world stage.
As a well-connected figure in domestic politics, Senin successfully lobbied members of the Duma and presidential administration for a ban on Western churches in Russia, laying down the foundation for his new ideology of Russian chauvinism mixed with obscurantism, crudity, and primitivism.
Within a few years, virulent anti-Western ideology had become the official line of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was in part through the church that the government leaders – including a freshly-installed Vladimir Putin – convinced the public that Western-style democratic reforms would only be harmful to Russian society.
The new church leaders engaged in a brutal crackdown on any dissent reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s attacks on the priesthood in the early years of the Cold War. Father Gleb Yakunin, who published secret KGB reports that incriminated several high-level figures in the Moscow Patriarchate, was one of many who were removed from the church and threatened with violence should they continue to speak out.
As Alexander Yakovlev, one of the architects of perestroika, observed, the post-Soviet Russian church’s rejection of humanism and humanness encouraged instead submission to the repressive, exploitative, and unjust authorities who completely denied the need for individual liberties.
In reaction to the complete submission of the Russian church to the Russian state, the church communities of Ukraine, Estonia, and Moldova decided to separate. Not surprisingly, in the minds of these churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is viewed as the twin of the Communist-Soviet totalitarianism that targeted the pre-Soviet church in the 20th century.
This fact was only confirmed when Putin sought the blessing of the Moscow Patriarch before sending tanks and missiles against Ukraine. Leading figures in the Russian Orthodox Church have repeated false Russian propaganda pushed by the Russian government to justify the atrocities being perpetrated against the Ukrainian people.
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has also revealed that Putin’s grip over the church may not be as complete as he thought. Many lower-ranking clergy have protested the war in sermons and pleaded with Russian authorities to cease the invasion. Nearly 300 Russian orthodox priests have called for “the cessation of the fratricidal war,” saying that Russia and Ukraine must overcome the conflict and once again hold each other in mutual respect.
Russian prosecutors have also charged Father Ioann Burdin from a parish in Western Russia with “discrediting the use of the Armed Forces” because of a sermon he preached on “Forgiveness Sunday.” Other priests who have refused to bow to the Kremlin’s established narrative on the war have been transferred to small country parishes where their opposition to the war will go largely unnoticed.
In Ukraine, Russian Orthodox priests from eighteen dioceses – representing more than one third of the country – have stopped commemorating Supreme Patriarch Kirill during their worship services, arguing that his statements about the war, which seem to blame internal “evil forces” in Ukraine rather than Russian aggression, amount to a tacit endorsement of the attack.
Last week, forty theologians in Ukraine announced that Patriarch Kirill’s refusal to acknowledge the invasion of Ukraine is a threat to Orthodox Christian tradition since false teaching divides the Church.
The authors of the declaration rejected the concept of a new Russian realm, tsar, and divine authority in Moscow, and encouraged church leaders to condemn the “fratricidal war.”
Just like it did during the Soviet era, the church has a chance to be a crucial source of opposition to the evil Putin regime and occupation of Ukraine. It will undoubtedly take uncommon acts of bravery, grounded in faith and a belief in the church community. But as Christians have shown throughout history, it is these desperate moments which often produce the most powerful displays of courage.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, theologian, and researcher.