Does the Russian Orthodox Church Want Peace?
If there is one theme that has been associated with the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate since the Second World War, it is peace. In its latest iteration, this Church was re-established by Stalin during that War (having been nearly eradicated in the previous two decades), and contributed to the Soviet victory over the German invaders. Throughout the Cold War, Russian Orthodox leaders repeatedly condemned the United States for its nuclear arms program and its imperialism, calling on all humanity to support USSR “peace initiatives.”
Given this public commitment to peace, one could expect that the Moscow Patriarchate would oppose the war being conducted since 2014 by the Russian government against Ukraine. That, however, is not the case. It has remained remarkably silent. There could be two reasons. First, the Russian Church has long been so closely tied to the state that it is not in the habit of “speaking truth to power.” Owing its very existence to the good graces of the secular authorities, it is known for its unwavering support for its policies. Second, today some leading churchmen appear to share Vladimir Putin’s pseudo-historical vision of the Russian past, which looks nostalgically to both the USSR and the Russian Empire and denies the separate existence of Ukraine. Putin expounded this theory in a lengthy essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published on July 12, 2021. It resonates with the Russian Church’s role as a consolidator of the old empire’s Slavic core – a union of the Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian peoples. The very existence of an independent Ukraine challenges this vision.
The Church’s outlook and political role thus prevent it from recognizing Russian aggression against Ukraine for what it is, instead accepting Mr. Putin’s mendacious claims about a Ukrainian “coup d’etat” in 2014, Ukrainian “Nazis,” and alleged oppression and even “genocide” of Russian-speakers in the Donbas. This view has long denied any Russian role in the hostilities, instead blaming the victim for the acts of the perpetrator. As the Russian government moved steadily toward all-out war in the last months of 2021 and the first months of 2022, the Moscow Patriarchate refrained from criticism.
On January 29, Metropolitan Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, appearing on the “Russia 24” television program “Church and the World,” blamed the United States for stoking fear of a Russian attack.
After all, the Russian government had promised that it would not attack Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government believed it. Hilarion criticized certain politicians in Ukraine and Russia for urging war. He criticized the US for claiming that Russia was preparing to attack Ukraine, claiming that the US arms lobby was particularly interested in such a result.
On February 21, Bishop Savva (Tutunov) of Zelenograd, deputy chancellor of the Moscow Patriarchate, commented enthusiastically on President Vladimir Putin’s television address of that same day. (PDS RUSSIA RELIGION NEWS February 2022 (stetson.edu)) In that lengthy discourse, the President had reiterated his view that Russians and Ukrainians were historically bound together as a single people, and that Ukraine, at least in its present boundaries, did not have a separate history. Bishop Savva admired Putin for overcoming his country’s historical “amnesia,” opening up a thousand-year perspective on Russian history. Bishop Savva, incidentally, was born in Paris in 1978, left the Russian exarchate of the Patriarchate of Constantinople for the Moscow Patriarchate in 2005, and was consecrated a bishop in 2019.
The next day, February 22, Metropolitan Onuphrius (Berezovsky) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which remains under the Moscow Patriarchate, called on all leaders to prevent war, warning that it was a “grave sin before God.”
On February 24 – the first day of the renewed and massive Russian invasion of Ukraine – Russian Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) called on both Russia and Ukraine to avoid civilian casualties, to render aid to the civilian victims of war and refugees, and to restore peace. Moscow Patriarch Kirill, Ukrainian Orthodox leaders issue calls for peace (religionnews.com) He did not mention military casualties, nor did he criticize the Russian invasion itself. To Kirill, the solution to the conflict lies in Putin’s beloved theory of the historical commonality of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.
On the same day, Metropolitan Onuphrius appealed specifically to Vladimir Putin: “Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we appeal to the President of Russia and ask him to immediately stop the fratricidal war.” While accepting the “fraternal” ties of Russians and Ukrainians, the prelate characterized the conflict as one between Cain and Abel. Onuphrius called on his people to be steadfast in the defense of the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, and to pray for their people and their armed forces.
In this departure from the Moscow line, Metropolitan Onuphrius appeared to agree with Metropolitan Epiphanius, who heads the rival and independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine directly under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In fact, OCU-EP Archbishop Eustraty (Zoria) reportedly praised Onuphrius’s statement. Appeals for peace were also made by the patriarchs of the Georgian and Romanian Orthodox Churches and by the bishops of the Finnish Orthodox Church.
As the above events illustrate, all Orthodox churchmen preach peace. Conscientious churchmen call for peace regardless of politics. But for the top Russian Orthodox hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate, Christian notions of peace must defer to those of their secular masters, for whom -- to quote Orwell – war is peace, and peace is war.