Vladimir Putin And The Orthodox Church: Using Faith To Serve The State

Nov 17th, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Vladimir Putin often repeats the claim that Russia and Ukraine are “one people.”  Yet, his annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his subsequent “little war” in eastern Ukraine have pushed Orthodox religious folks in Ukraine farther away from his dream.  What is his dream?  Namely, to portray his government as a reincarnation of the old czarist empire where the Russian Orthodox Church served the interests of the Russian czar.  Church and state were inextricably linked in czarist Russia.  The Kremlin used the church as an instrument of its old imperial control. Putin has the same vision for Russia in 2018.  But the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not buying into Putin’s dream.

Ukraine has campaigned for an independent Orthodox church, devoid of any allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church.  Therefore, in mid-October, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Church, signaled his support for the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (called autocephaly).  The Russian Orthodox Church responded by severing ties with Constantinople, warning of a historic schism.  Ukrainians see a fully independent national church as an essential means of breaking from Moscow’s orbit.  Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, supports this independence movement but Putin sees it as a challenge to his concept of a “Russian World,” united by common Orthodox roots, encompassing both Ukraine and Belarus.  The Economist reports on two further developments that pose a serious, if not fatal challenge to Putin’s vision of a “Russian World,” united by common Orthodox Church roots:

  1. On 11 October, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople rehabilitated Filaret Denysenko, a bishop who broke with Moscow’s authority just after the Soviet collapse to create a self-styled Kiev Patriarchate.
  2. The Patriarchate of Constantinople also withdrew the 1686 decision that gave Moscow some authority over the metropolitan see of Kiev, signaling that Constantinople does not regard Ukraine as Moscow’s canonical territory. For that reason, the Russian Orthodox Church severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  It also threatened punishment to any Orthodox church member who prayed in any church belonging to Constantinople.  Putin’s government has declared that Russia would “protect the interests of Orthodox Christians” just as it had always protected the interests of “Russian-speakers”—language Putin used ahead of his annexation of Crimea.

What is the historical context of these moves in Ukraine for independence and Putin’s determination of keep all Orthodox Churches united under Moscow’s authority?  President Vladimir Putin has maneuvered diligently in recent years to revive the idea that Moscow should be the capital for all Eastern Orthodox Christians, in effect making the Russian Orthodox Church an extension of his efforts to restore Russia’s superpower status.  As Neil MacFarquhar has argued, Putin “bolstered the church both to sell Russia as a bastion of ‘traditional values,’ and to paint his Kremlin as heir to the holy traditions of the czarist empire.”  But, the Ukrainian Church’s decision to break away from Moscow threatens that dream.  In effect, this dispute pits Constantinople against Moscow for control of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has the title of “His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople—New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch.”  (According to tradition, as the “first among equals,” Bartholomew, has the authority to create new, full-fledged branches of the Orthodox church).  His opponent in all this is Patriarch Kirill I, the Moscow Patriarchate, who is also a close ally of Putin.  Several important aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy:

  1. Unlike Roman Catholicism, which sees the Bishop of Rome, the pope, as the undisputed leader of the Church, there are 14 branches of Eastern Orthodoxy, each of which enjoys significant sovereignty.
  2. The current dispute involves various interpretations of the degree of supervision over Ukraine originally granted to the Moscow patriarchate in 1686. Moscow has now suspended contacts with Bartholomew I and dropped his name from its prayer services.
  3. Many in the Eastern Orthodox Church are weary of what they call “Russian arrogance and the excessively nationalistic attitude of clerics under the Kremlin’s control.” Many therefore applaud what Patriarch Bartholomew has done.
  4. The Russian Orthodox Church boasts a membership of 150 million people, with 30 to 40% of this number from Ukraine. With Ukraine’s autonomy, a smaller church for Russia would undermine Putin’s effort to call itself the protector of all Orthodox Christians and the so-called Third Rome, after the loss of Rome in the original Christian schism (in 1054) and the loss of Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  This loss would also blunt Putin’s effort to have Russia be the reincarnation of the old czarist Russia.
  5. Putin and Patriarch Kirill I speak frequently of the “Russian World” of one people, one church and one culture. Granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ruptures the last significant imperial link to Ukraine and could thereby inspire other churches to seek independence.

Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that it is the one true church on earth, tracing its origins back to the apostolic church in unbroken succession.  The implication of this position is that both Roman Catholics and Protestants have departed from the true church and the true faith.  From Eastern Orthodoxy’s perspective, in the Great Schism of 1054, the Western Church centered in Rome, left the “mother Church” of the East.  This formal break between Western and Eastern Christianity continues today.  From Russia’s perspective, when the Ottoman Turks succeeded in their conquest of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church shifted to Moscow, which then assumed the position of the Third Rome, insisting that it was the new center of Eastern Orthodoxy.  That perception today informs Patriarch Krill I of Moscow and Vladimir Putin.  They do not see Ukraine’s decision to be independent from the Moscow Patriarchate as legitimate.  This development threatens entirely Vladimir Putin’s vision of restoring the greatness of imperial, czarist Russia, linked forcefully with Russian Orthodoxy, the glue of the new Russian empire.  The authority of the Russian Orthodox Church is to serve the political power and goals of the new “Russian Czar”—Vladimir Putin.  This is what happens when the church is linked resolutely to the state:  The church ends up serving the state.

See The Economist (20 October 2018), p. 51; Neil MacFarquhar in the New York Times (8 October 2018); and James Maron in the Wall Street Journal (12 October 2018).

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