The war in Ukraine: history of relationship between religious and civil powers
by Giovanni Codevilla
To analyse Kirill’s position on the war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine, it is necessary to recall some of the stages that mark the evolution of the relationship between religious and civil power in the history of Russia. The original principle of the harmony of the two powers, enunciated in Justinian’s sixth Novel and based on their harmonic collaboration, is soon abandoned in favour of the pre-eminence of the Grand Prince over the metropolitans, who, if they do not obey the civil authority, are replaced without hesitation, if not killed, as happened to the Metropolitan of Moscow Philipp II (Količev), strangled on the order of Ivan IV – known as the Terrible – in his monastic cell on December 23, 1569.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were two opposing ideas. The first, promoted by the monk Joseph Volotsky, igumen of Volokolamsk, preached an absolute legitimacy of the ecclesiastical property and an absolute firmness in condemning heresies and heretics, in full agreement with the secular authorities. The second, supported by Nil Sorskij and his followers – called non-owners (nestjžateli) – preached the exercise of charity towards heretics, the poverty of the Church and its independence from the secular sovereigns. In the sobor (Council) convened in 1503 the theses of Joseph prevailed, and the subordination of spiritual power to temporal power grew over time, even though the hegumen of Volokolamsk had affirmed that no obedience was owed to an unjust sovereign.
This distinction between a «just» and an «unjust» secular power was soon forgotten, and the arbitrary interpretation of Joseph’s thought is considered the theocratic foundation of autocracy. The affirmation of the superior power of the Grand Prince was also consolidated by the idea of making Moscow the Third Rome, enunciated at the beginning of the 16th century by the monk Filofej (1465ca.-1542), igumen of the Spaso-Eleazarov monastery of Elizarovo in the Pskov region, who was a follower of Joseph of Volokolamsk. In a letter that Filofej addressed to the Grand Prince of Moscow Vasily III Ivanovich (1505-1533), after defining him as the «light of Orthodoxy, Christian czar and lord of all, who holds the reins of all great and holy Russia, of the Mother of the Churches, of the ecumenical, universal and apostolic Church our most pure Lady Mother of God and of her venerable and glorious Assumption, of the Church that today shines in place of those of Rome and Constantinople» he writes: «[Orthodoxy] has fled again, in the third Rome, or in the new, great Rus’ […] Observe, oh Sovereign, how all the Christian kingdoms have come together in your one [kingdom], how two Romes have fallen, while the third stands, and there will not be a fourth one, your Christian kingdom will not pass to anyone else. In the whole world under the sky, you are the only King for Christians».
In this sense, Moscow and Muscovy replace Byzantium as the centre of the Christian ecumene and Moscow affirms its leading role in the Christian world. The translatio imperii was accompanied by the translatio fidei.
The detachment of Moscow from Constantinople will become definitive with the recognition of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1589, obtained by Boris Godunov in violation of canonical norms, given that the appointment of Iona as Metropolitan of Moscow had not received the consent of Constantinople, while the union of the Churches had been approved by the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1439), accepted by Constantinople but rejected by Moscow.
So, the fracture between Moscow and Byzantium was born before 1500 and was only worsened after the Muslim conquest of Constantinople (1543).
After the creation of the new patriarchal see in Moscow, the ecumenical patriarch visited the Polish Lithuanian Confederation and proposed the establishment of a patriarchate also in Kyiv. This project did not go through, but it embodied the aspirations of the Ruthenian Orthodox to be independent from Moscow, which resulted in its union with Rome as well as the birth of the Greek-Catholic Church, propitiated by the Jesuits, and favoured by the King of Poland. It is important to remember that from the middle of the 14th century, Kyiv was part of the Rzeczpospolita, together with the lands of Belarus and Ukraine, a region where was possible to breathe a very different cultural air than that of Muscovy. As an example, Kostyantyn Vasyl – the Prince of Ostroh (Ostrih), called the Unconroned King of Ukraine, who was a staunch defender of Orthodoxy – in 1576 founded the first Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy of Ruthenia, inspired by the model of the Jesuit institutes. In 1632, this School will merge with the School of the Confraternity of the Epiphany of Kyiv, founded in 1615, giving life to the Kyiv College.
In 1694, after the return of Ukraine to Russia sanctioned by the peace of Andrusovo – stipulated at the end of the Russo-Polish war in 1667 – the College will become the Kyiv Academy, based in the Epiphany monastery, alma mater of higher education of the whole Slavic Orthodox area.
It is worth mentioning here the importance of the contribution given in all the fields of the arts, sciences, and culture by Ivan Stepanovyč Mazepa (1639-1709), Hetman of the Cossack State (1687-1709), to whom we owe the conceptual elaboration of Ukraine as an independent res publica, whose future would depend on its equidistance from Poland and Russia, contrasting Ukrainian independence with Russian absolutism. So, we can see how Russia and Ukraine, despite having a common root in the baptism of Rus’ in 988, are not identical realities, and this is confirmed by the linguistic difference.
The presence in Ukraine of a significant number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians depends on the forced migrations of the Stalinist period and on the policy of forced Russification which favoured the formation of mixed families, composed of Russian and Ukrainian speakers. Moreover, the spread of the Ukrainian language was hindered starting with Peter the Great and subsequent sovereigns until the fall of the Tsarist empire and since the beginning of the 1930s, when the short period of Ukrainization initiated by the Bolsheviks ended to make room for the forced Russification of Ukraine.
During Soviet rule, Russia and Ukraine were divided by the great famine, generated by the Stalinist policy which fostered the export of cereals to have the economic means for the modernization of agricultural machinery. The Holodomor was terrible, in some part overcome by cannibalism. So, Russia and Ukraine are not really brothers or sisters. The implosion of the Soviet Union and the birth of Ukraine as an independent state sharpened the differences between the two countries, giving way to Putin’s Ukrainophobia, also determined by the Ukrainian aspiration to full political and cultural independence. This process underwent a strong acceleration after the ousting of the pro-Russian Yanukovič regime, the Maidan revolution, and the beginning of armed confrontation in the lands of Donbass (Luhansk and Donetsk) supported by Russia.
The invasion that began on February 24, 2022, should be read as a sign of continuity in the Russian policy of repressing Kyiv’s aspirations for independence and achieving full submission of the country to Russia.
2. The attitude of the Churches in relation to the war unleashed by Moscow
In the Eastern Slavic world, the harmony between Sacerdotium and Imperium lasted for a very short historical period, and precisely at the time of the patriarch Philaret (Fëdor Nikitič Romanov, 1619-1633) and his son, Tsar Michail Fëdorovič Romanov (1613-1645), and during the reign of Alexei Michajlovič (1645-1676).
With the abolition of the Patriarchate in 1721 and its replacement by the governing Holy Synod, made up of ecclesiastics and lay people pleasing to the sovereign, Peter the Great boasts an absolute and exclusive ius territori and proclaims himself custos utriusque tabulae, i.e. guardian of the precepts relating to duties towards God and towards men. This relationship of subordination of the Church to the State continues, albeit with different nuances, for two centuries and becomes particular violent during the Bolshevik regime, that declared a war against religion to bring about its definitive disappearance.
After the implosion of the Soviet Union, a more apparent than real symphony is re-established between the State and the Church. The latter renounced its independence to enjoy the generous economic benefits guaranteed by the civil authorities. As a result, a judicial system is recreated and the ancient synallagm is re-proposed which sees the State as a defensor fidei and the Church as a source of legitimation of the power of the State.
In other words, the Church does not claim its autonomy and agrees to perform an ancillary function: the attitude of Patriarch Kirill (Gundjaev) and his relationship with political power are therefore the rule, and not an exception. However, it cannot be said that Kirill’s position in relation to the war in Ukraine is shared by the entire Russian Orthodox Church and by the other Orthodox Churches.
In fact, if the leaders of Russian Orthodoxy slavishly follow Kirill’s positions and sometimes surpass them for obsequiousness, the statements of the other Churches present in Ukraine are quite different. Thus, Onufrij (Berezovsky) – who is the Metropolitan of Kyiv and of all Ukraine, so the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (of the Moscow Patriarchate), that is the largest among the Orthodox Churches present in Ukraine – did not hesitate to openly distance himself from his patriarch. He has always been loyal to Kirill, even opposing the recognition of the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church, but the day before the armed invasion of the country, he stated: «the problem has arrived. Unfortunately, Russia has initiated military action against Ukraine, and at this fateful moment I urge you not to panic, to be courageous and to show love for your homeland and for each other […]. At this tragic time, we offer special love and support to our soldiers who stand guard, protect, and defend our land and our people. May God bless them and protect them! Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we appeal to the President of Russia and ask for an immediate end to the fratricidal war».
After the invasion of the Russian army in numerous Ukrainian eparchies belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate (Sumy, Žytomyr, Ivano-Frankivsk, Vladimir-Volynsk, Vinnica and Mukačevo), at the request of their respective bishops, the celebrants refuse to commemorate the patriarch during the liturgy, as do the monks of the ancient Caves Lavra of Kiev, where the monasticism of Rus’ was born, and this means that a large majority of this Church renounces the authority of the patriarch of Moscow, from whom it is spiritually detached, even if not (yet) canonically. What happened in 1927 is therefore repeated, when following the Declaration of Fidelity to the Soviet regime signed by Metropolitan and future Patriarch Sergij (Stragorodskij) the bishops and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church were divided between commemorating and non-commemorating (pominajuščie and nepominajuščie) depending on whether they accepted or refused to mention the name of the metropolitan in the Divine liturgy.
Patriarch Kirill reacted in an extremely irritated way, writing on March 2 to Bishop Evlogy of Sumy of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate: «the cessation of the commemoration of the Primate of the Church, not because of doctrinal or canonical errors, or disappointments, but because of the discrepancy with certain opinions and political preferences, it is a schism, for which whoever commits it will answer before God, not only in the age to come, but also in the present».
Metropolitan Onufrij, who rarely spoke out against the war that began in 2014 between Kyiv and the Russian separatists of Donbass, in criticizing the Russian aggression against Ukraine uses the biblical image of Cain: «The Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the baptismal source of the Dnieper, and the war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his brother out of envy. Such a war has no justification either with God or with men».
For his part, the synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, nominally belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate, warns that: «if the bloodshed is not stopped, the abyss between our peoples could remain forever».
Because of Kirill’s pro-Putin attitude, reduced by the Russian president to the rank of minister of religion, and his refusal to condemn the war against Ukraine, we are witnessing an abandonment of the Church linked to the Moscow Patriarchate. With Metropolitan Onufri’s clear stance against the war, 700 parishes of the patriarchate of Moscow have passed to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. This emigration of the faithful appears more significant if we consider that in terms of the number of practitioners the Ukrainian Orthodox Church constitutes half of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose prestige in the Orthodox world suffers serious damage.
This transmigration of the faithful will favour the aggregation of the Orthodox into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which the Greek-Catholic Church may perhaps approach, feeling how tepid its support is by Rome, especially interested as it is in interreligious dialogue with the Orthodox.
Kirill’s utterances are not shared by the Orthodox Churches abroad: so the Orthodox parish in the Netherlands has decided to withdraw from the jurisdiction of Moscow and the Metropolitan of Tallinn Evgenij (Rešetnikov), primate of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, has signed a declaration of strong condemnation of the war in Ukraine which is a prelude to a detachment from Moscow and in all likelihood its example will be followed by other parishes and eparchies, compromising the dominant role of Moscow and nullifying the long-term efforts of the Patriarchate to obtain the adhesion of the foreign Orthodox communities to the jurisdiction of Moscow and so their abandonment of the canonical link with Constantinople.
The extremely firm position taken by Metropolitan Onufrij is shared by Metropolitan Epifanij (Dumenko), Metropolitan of Kyiv and of all of Ukraine, who leads the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, born out of the Unification Council of 15 December 2018 and recognized by Constantinople. Epifanij declared: «As primate I appeal to the Russian assassins: do not aggravate your crimes by destroying the shrines, especially because you hypocritically justify yourselves as defenders of the Church». And again: «I appeal to the international community and, in particular, to religious leaders: raise your voice against this crime of Russia. With words and actions, do everything possible to stop the bombing». «Loudly ask Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate to put an end to these barbaric bombings. Do not hide behind generic desires for peace but speak the Truth as our Lord has taught us». In an interview with Greek TV, Metropolitan Epifanij declared that he had suffered three attacks and that he was in fifth place on the list of people to be killed in Ukraine, and speaking to the German Broadcaster Deutsche Welle, he accused Patriarch Kirill of behaving like Putin.
Svyatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which is the Eastern Rite Catholic Church with the largest number of followers spread over all the continents, did not hesitate to condemn the invasion of Ukraine in the strongest terms, expressing concern that «a humanitarian catastrophe is beginning» in Ukrainian cities that have been surrounded by Russian forces.
The support given by Patriarch Kirill to the Russian aggression has greatly isolated him in the Orthodox world: for example, the Serbian Orthodox Church, traditionally a friend of Moscow, has declared that it is sending aid to Metropolitan Onufrij; Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria and all of Africa said: «Putin thinks he is the emperor of our times. Power can get you drunk. And the great authoritarian power blinds the eyes, and you forget that you are human. It is not possible to cross oneself, to pray to God, and at the same time to kill children and people».
The patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches of Serbia, Romania and Georgia also asked Kirill to intercede with Putin to put an end to the war in Ukraine. Even the Russian priests and deacons of the Moscow Patriarchate do not hesitate to expose themselves in the criticism of Kirill, just consider that over three hundred of them have signed an appeal against what the Russian authorities do not call war but «special military operation» (special’naja voennja operacija), even if it must be said that a part of the clergy, especially the monastic one, unconditionally approves the invasion of Ukraine. The criticisms of the Patriarch formulated by the clergy are flanked by authoritative exponents of the laity, such as Sergej Čapnin, former editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate and deputy director of the Patriarchate publishing house, who in an articulated intervention in the periodical «Dary» analyses the speeches of the patriarch highlighting the guilty silences and contradictions and concludes with bitterness: «Today it is completely clear: Patriarch Kirill is not ready to defend his flock – neither the Ukrainian people nor the Russian people – against the aggressive Putin regime. Human suffering is not one of his priorities. The Patriarch’s intercession with the holders of power remains only in the history books».
In protest the war, the Metropolitan of Ternopil, Sergij Genšic’kyj, once very devoted to Moscow, returned to Putin the Order of Friendship conferred on him ten years ago.
Protests against the invasion of Ukraine took place in many cities of the Russian Federation and thousands of citizens were arrested; the demonstrations continue even after the Duma, meeting in an extraordinary plenary session on 4 March , unanimously approved the introduction into the Criminal Code of the Federation a new type of crime Public dissemination of notoriously false information on the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (art. 207.3) which provides for very severe fines and imprisonment of up to fifteen years in the event that such behaviour has caused serious consequences (tjažkie posledstvija).
The well-known proto-deacon Andrei Kuraev has spoken out against the war, while the elderly theologian Alexei Osipov, former professor at the Moscow theological seminary, unconditionally approves the special military operation.
For his part, on February 27, Patriarch Kirill, in the Cathedral of Christ the Savioor, where he has rarely appeared in recent times, said: «God forbid that a terrible line is found between Russia and Ukraine, stained by the blood of brothers. We must not let dark and hostile external forces deride us. We must protect our common historical homeland from all those external actions that can destroy this unity».
Expressing themselves in support of the patriarch are, among others, Tikhon (Ševkunov), Metropolitan of Pskov and spiritual father of Putin, and Pitirim (Voločkov), archbishop of Syktyvkar. Even the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church of Old Believers, Metropolitan Kornilyj (Titov), supports and approves the actions of «our army», stating that in Ukraine people have been killed «just because they think and speak Russian […] The Slavic peoples no longer want to put up with this illegality», he continued, inviting the Ukrainians to lay down their arms and to «stop the genocide and madness».
Much less surprising are the statements made by some members of the clergy. An example is the homily of the protoierej Artemij Vladimirov, a well-known preacher with a calm and persuasive voice and a member of the patriarchal council for family problems and the defence of motherhood. The protoierej refers to «fascists, cannibals, monsters of the human race» who «exercise their tyranny in brotherly Ukraine», over «raped girls and living compatriots, from whom their organs have been extracted and sent to Europe […] So we will prepare for the beginning of Great Lent and for a special Easter, as we believe, of 2022, when all of Great, Small and White Russia will be able to march from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad as a single immortal regiment […] We hope that in near future Moldova, Kazakhstan, the unfortunate Ukraine will join us, Georgia is on its way. Well, you can imagine what will happen to the Baltic states which today constitute the transhipment base for the extermination of the Slavs».
To the chorus of those who approve Putin’s policy and the invasion are added the lay representatives of the establishment such as, for example, the rectors of Russian universities, who, moreover, do not have access to free information as a result of the news being monopolised by government forces and by the introduction of censorship.
In the sermon on Forgiveness Sunday (March 6), the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, Kirill addressed the theme of the war in Ukraine, which he sees as a struggle against the promotion of lifestyles that conflict with Christian tradition., «a struggle that does not have a physical meaning, but a metaphysical one», explaining that the populations of Donbass in particular are undergoing the imposition of a Western culture that «violates the law of God»: and concluding with the words: «To enter the club of those countries it is necessary to organize a gay pride parade». This statement, at the very least inappropriate and surprising, has aroused not only bewilderment but also the irritated reaction of the Western world. In reality, that of Kirill is a quote from the aforementioned letter that the monk Filofej of Pskov in the fifteenth century sent to the Grand Prince of Moscow to tell him that the Tsar must defend the Church, Russia and the whole world from three dangers: first of all heresy, including Roman Catholicism, then the danger of the invasion of the Saracens, that is, of the Muslims, who took Constantinople, and finally sodomy, which was considered the highest expression of immorality. Citing gay pride, therefore, the patriarch of Moscow certainly wanted to provoke the contemporary Western mentality, but above all to reaffirm what is believed to be the historical mission of Russia and the Russian Church, namely, to save the world from moral degradation and heresy. In his sermon, the patriarch invites us to pray «for all those who fight today, who shed blood, who suffer, so that they too may have the joy of the resurrection in peace and serenity», a phrase referring only to the Donbass separatists.
During the meeting with Archbishop Giovanni D’Aniello, apostolic nuncio to the Russian Federation, Patriarch Kirill claimed his position of non-disapproval of the war and indirectly criticized the other Orthodox Churches that have taken a position of condemnation towards of Moscow and declared: «We are trying to take a position of peacekeeping, even in the face of existing conflicts, because the Church cannot participate in the conflict, it can only be a peacemaking force». «Churches must never take part in conflicts, but be peacemakers»: with his attitude, Kirill openly supports Putin’s ideas.
From various sides, including the Conference of European Churches, Kirill has been urged to speak out against the invasion of Ukraine and to help end the conflict and restore peace, but the patriarch refuses to take a position on the events of the war and limits himself to remind people in official speeches of the principle of Russkij mir, that is, the unity of Russia and Ukraine. Before the invasion, at the end of January, he reiterated previously stated concepts: «Ukraine is not on the periphery of our Church. We call Kiev the Mother of all Russian cities. Kiev is our Jerusalem. Russian orthodoxy starts there. It is impossible for us to abandon this historical and spiritual relationship». The Patriarch of Moscow defined those who fight against the historical unity of the two countries as «forces of evil» and added: «May the Lord protect the peoples who are part of the same space, that of the Russian Orthodox Church, from fratricidal warfare […]. A land which today Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, other tribes and other peoples are all part».
For Kirill, Ukraine is the canonical territory of the Church of Moscow and for this reason any claim to autonomy such as the recognition of the Ukrainian Church’s autocephaly is unacceptable as it removes Ukraine from the “Russkij mir”, ie the Russian world.
The denial of the ethno-cultural identity of Ukrainians and of Ukrainian statehood and the idea that the Russian Federation and Ukraine are to be considered as a single homeland being united by a sharing of faith appears clearly from the document Fundamentals of the social conception of the Russian Orthodox Church, which after having reaffirmed the principle of the harmony between State and Church, he dedicates the entire second chapter to the theme Church and Nation, in which the idea of Orthodox patriotism is defined. The document states: «In all times the Church has exhorted her children to love the earthly homeland and not to spare their lives to defend it, should it be in danger […] Christian patriotism is manifested simultaneously towards the nation both as an ethnic community and as a community of citizens of the state. The Orthodox Christian is called to love his homeland, which has a territorial dimension, and his blood brothers who live all over the world. This love is one of the ways of carrying out God’s command of love thy neighbour, which includes love for one’s family, fellow countrymen and fellow citizens. The patriotism of the Orthodox Christian must be effective. It manifests itself in the defence of the homeland from the enemy, in work for the good of the homeland, in the concern for the organization of the life of the people and through participation in the government of the state. The Christian is called to safeguard and develop the national culture and the self-awareness of the people. The nation, whether civil or ethnic, when it is wholly or for the most part a single-denominational Orthodox community, can in a certain sense be considered as a single community of faith: an Orthodox nation».
It seems clear that Putin, in full harmony with the ecclesiastical leadership, intends to re-propose the ancient Tsarist and Soviet anti-Ukrainian legislation and to impose the Russification of Ukraine with violence and manu militari, in the undisguised aspiration to reconstitute the Russian-Soviet empire, to overcome the humiliation of its dissolution thirty years ago.
The Ukrainian resistance, determined to defend its freedom, the one sung in the national anthem, opposes Putin’s determination:
The glory of Ukraine is not yet dead, nor is her freedom, on us, young brothers, fate will smile again. / Our enemies will disappear, like dew in the sun, / and we too, brothers, will reign in our free country. / We will give body and soul for our freedom, / and we will show that we, brothers, are of Cossack stock.
The Cossack lemma (kazak in Russian and kozak in Ukrainian) derives from the Turkish word quazaq’, which means free man.
*Giovanni Codevilla taught Comparative Law and Religion at the University of Trieste. He is the author of several books on Russia and Soviet system. The most important work is the quadrilogy Storia della Russia e dei Paesi limitrofi: Chiesa e Impero, Milan, Jaca Book 2016.