By Sophia R.C. Johnson

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, much of the religious-cultural analysis of the newly sparked war focused on nationalist ideals within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). At the centre is the idea of the Russkii mir (Русский Мир, lit. ‘Russian World’) or Holy Rus, a united transnational Russian sphere focused in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, with a common political centre in Moscow and common spiritual centre in Kyiv. Much like the historical vision of the Holy Roman Empire, the Holy Rus is pictured as jointly led by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch and president to uphold Russian values, tradition, and culture. Historically associated with Russian imperialism, more recently, Orthodox religious fundamentalism has embraced the Russkii mir as a pan-Slavic spiritual identity and an imperative to form a united front against the insidious moral failings of the West. Though the head of the ROC, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has been the media’s main target of criticism for this Christianist ethno-phyletic teaching, President Vladimir Putin and his administration has proffered the Russian world ideology even more directly, both during the current conflict and during the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The media has also given important recognition of dissent and condemnation of Russki mir as heresy. Particular attention has been given to the “Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ (Russkii mir) Teaching”, produced by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University and the Volos Academy for Theological Studies and signed by over 1000 Orthodox scholars and clergymen—although many of them reside outside of Russia. While not explicitly addressing Holy Rus, a different petition from hundreds of specifically ROC priests calls for the cessation of violence in Ukraine, expressing that “the people of Ukraine should make their choice on their own, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East.” Since its publication, at least one signee has been arrested for preaching a sermon that purportedly “discredit[ed] the use of the Armed Forces.” These actions of protest have been lauded, and the current crisis in Ukraine has impressed upon scholars the dangers of religious narratives underlying nationalist movements. As such, there have been increasing calls from politicians, scholars, and religious leaders for Orthodox theologians and clergymen to immediately and resolutely deny the harmful Russkii mir ideology. But what political analysts often fail to realise is that because of the religious-cultural-political knit of Eastern Orthodoxy, rejecting such a doctrine is not simply a matter of intellectual disagreement or conscientious objection; it has very real consequences for those under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.

A Divided History

Unbeknownst to most of the Western world, a divisive shadow war has pervaded Eastern Orthodoxy’s recent history. The Mother Church, traditionally headed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, has seen a number of schisms within the last two centuries, not totally unlike the branching of denominations of American Protestantism. However, many Orthodox churches’ declarations of autocephaly (i.e. self-governance) followed their nations’ declarations of political independence, and thus were frequently tied up with issues of national, political, and cultural self-determination. For example, in 1872, as the Bulgarian people were beginning to demand national autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church broke away from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Constantinople, however, did not recognise it as an autocephalous patriarchate until after World War II, when Bulgaria became part of the Soviet Union and any last hopes of reuniting the Ottoman Empire were dashed. This is not to say that all such schisms were politically motivated—sometimes a matter of doctrine or religious praxis drove the divide, particularly where it clashed with cultural values or customs.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have sparred for control of the Orthodox churches in the former Soviet bloc, even leading to a temporary schism between the two in 1996. The most significant schism in modern Eastern Orthodoxy followed the 2018 declaration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of their intentions to form a new autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), despite the existence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) already under the Moscow Patriarchate. Taking place just a few years after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, there has been much speculation if indeed the Ecumenical Patriarchate established the OCU as a response to Russian military activity in Ukraine. Due to Ukraine’s central place in the spirituality of the Russkii mir, the new church was the last straw for the Moscow Patriarchate. The ROC cut all ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and broke communion with Constantinople, meaning that Russian Orthodox faithful and all those under their jurisdiction can no longer participate in sacraments administered by Eastern Orthodox Churches associated with Constantinople (and vice versa). Two Orthodox Churches now exist in Ukraine: the UOC, under the Moscow Patriarchate, and the OCU, autocephalous but associated with the Constantinople Patriarchate. Neither ruling Patriarch recognises the other’s Ukrainian Church.

The schism over the OCU-UOC divide reveals the lengths that the ROC is willing to go to punish those who would deny the Russkii mir. Moscow’s boycott of Constantinople has in turn had significant geopolitical and economic consequences. Hundreds of millions of dollars in financial support that Russian Orthodox faithful pledged to other parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially sacred sites like the monasteries of Mount Athos, were re-directed to Russian churches. The Orthodox Greek Church’s recognition of the OCU has strained relations between Russia and Greece, with the latter’s former defence minister, Panos Kammenos, blaming the Church for the “termination of guarantees granted by Russia.” Similar consequences have been felt even beyond the direct influence of Russia. In 2019, the Serbian Orthodox Church, a long-time ally of Moscow, divided Montenegrin communities by claiming that a new freedom of religion law had been introduced as punishment for their refusal to recognise the OCU. This accusation garnered so much back lash against the law from other religious communities, in fear of political reprisal for their own ecclesiastical decisions, that it was nearly repealed. Though the schism between Moscow and Constantinople concerned the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, its effects have been felt throughout Eastern Orthodoxy at differt political, economic, and ecclesial levels.

Personal Consequences for “Schismatics”

At the parish level, many Orthodox clergy decried the political turmoil caused by the schism between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Some who served Ukrainian churches but were of Russian descent felt caught between the needs of their flock and their own heritage. Even if they recognised the pressing political significance, to break from the ROC felt like a break from a culture that is precious to them. The process of transferring parishes from the UOC to the OCU in the years following the schism has thus been risky and sometimes divisive for congregations. This is especially the case in Eastern Ukraine where Russian ties are felt most strongly. Moreover, because Russian Orthodox priests often depend on compensation from the church hierarchy, those who seek communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate also risk their own economic security. Anecdotally, however, priests that face the decision of leaving the ROC above all fear the social isolation from those they respect and consider close community.

Open warfare between Russia and Ukraine exacerbates the consequences already felt by “schismatic” clergy in 2018. Recently, when one Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam condemned the invasion of Ukraine and sought to move to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a Russian archbishop visited to warn that both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Foreign Ministry are watching them closely. They received a number of anonymous threats throughout the following week. If this is the fate of ROC priests outside of Russia, what fate awaits those who speak out in Moscow or St. Petersburg?

A New Orthodox Vision

If leaders and experts outside of the conflict are to ask Orthodox theologians and clergy, especially high-ranking leadership, to reject the Russkii mir doctrine, and do not wish for them to suffer the same political, social, and economic consequences as so-called “schismatics,” a substantial support structure needs to be established. The relationship between the Russian State and the ROC is often utilitarian, but the grip of Putin’s soft power is not to be underestimated. Unlike during the 2018 church divide in Ukraine, priests who wish to remain in Russia may not have the option to join another Patriarchate. It is also important that scholars and analysts not rule out reformation from within the ROC, which still holds a strong cultural bond with many Russian peoples and has the potential to be a powerful agent of national change from within. But from what we have seen of people already publicly opposing the invasion and the Russkii mir, the key lies in tangible solidarity between those protesting in Russia and those protesting not only in the West but across Eastern Orthodoxy.

The idea of a Holy Rus has been a part of Russia’s political, cultural, and religious history for centuries. As much as Western political commentators may wish it, the Russkii mir cannot simply be wiped away without introducing a new ideology that can fill the gap. That said, particularly at the local parish level, many Orthodox faithful in Russia and Ukraine have expressed a desire for unity within the Mother Church regardless of political divisions. Ecclesial authorities and would-be “schismatics” could, potentially, draw on this desire to craft a new dialogue that explicates and remediates the harms of ethno-national Christianist politics. Such dialogue could, in turn, develop a strong religious counter-narrative that highlights the uniqueness of the various Eastern Orthodox traditions and celebrates the diversity of its communities far beyond Moscow and Kyiv. However, these theologians can only succeed in overturning the Russkii mir if they have a broad international support network to protect them against the socio-economic consequences of speaking out against Putin and his allies within the Russian Patriarchate. It is the responsibility of the same analysts, politicians, religious leaders, and theologians who are currently calling for the disavowal of the Russkii mir to step up and provide that support for the Orthodox communities who are already working to make this vision a reality.

If you would like to learn more about the role of Eastern Orthodox political theology historically in Eastern Europe and currently in the Ukraine crisis, you can watch the public lecture sponsored by the Centre’s Protestant Political Thought (PPT) project by Prof Fr Cyril Hovorun, an Orthodox priest and political theologian, on “Orthodox Political Theology between National Identity and Empire.” The lecture is followed by a roundtable discussion by experts from the PPT network on the effects of the “Russian World” ideology seen in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sophia R.C. Johnson is a doctoral candidate and associated lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. She also co-chairs the Protestant Political Though project jointly based between the Centre for Geopolitics in Cambridge and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Her research centres on the political uses of and influences on interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, both in its original ancient context and in modern reception history. Her most recent work uses the example of the concept of “covenant” to demonstrate the subliminal symbiotic relationship between religion and politics in biblical studies and political science (“‘We the People of Israel’: Covenant, Constitution, and the Supposed Biblical Origins of Modern Democratic Political Thought,” Special Issue of the Journal of the Bible and Its Reception 8.2 (2021): 247-268).


Event Review

The Geopolitics of Eurovision

Tuesday 14th May, 2024

The Geopolitics of Eurovision

Expert Analysis

An update on the neighbourhood: April in the Caucasus

Event Review

NATO at 75: Assessing the alliance’s past, present, and future

Event Review

The 2014 revolution in Ukraine and the Baltic – symposium review