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Putin’s reliance on theological support for invasion of Ukraine has parallels with NGK support for apartheid

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BY Steve Briggs
RUSSIA’S invasion of Ukraine is increasingly seen as a religious war. And Vladimir Putin is using the Russian Orthodox Church for theological and political support, creating an interesting parallel between the support provided by the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, NGK) for apartheid and the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Putin’s aggression. This action calls into question the South African government’s assessment of the conflict and its distorted approach to Putin’s
government.

The NGK played a central role in justifying apartheid at the time. Putin has adopted a similar approach in using the church to justify the invasion, with questionable reasoning and leading some to call this an outright religious
war.

The Orthodox Church celebrated Orthodox Easter on Sunday April 24, 2022, a week later than the West’s liturgical calendar. Coverage of this important event contrasted Putin’s prayer for victory in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral with Zelensky’s prayer for strength in Kyiv’s famous Saint Sophia
Cathedral.

The opposing portraits of these two leaders: One the aggressor, the other the national symbol of resistance, could not have been more stark. Zelensky looked peaceful and bathed in other-worldly light, with the great Kyivan Cathedral’s iconostasis in its gold-braided glory, a blurred picture of Christ to his left; Putin clearly tense and
uncomfortable.

These two events took place just 400km apart, both in Orthodox cathedrals. At first glance, this may seem to be the time-worn story of warring leaders each claiming God’s favour for their side. However, if we examine this more deeply, the fault lines running through the Russian and Ukrainian strands of Orthodoxy make the Russian invasion of Ukraine a religious war, offering an important lens through which one can view the current conflict.

A brief history of the Orthodox conflict in Ukraine and Russia

The world of Orthodox Christianity is governed by the church in Constantinople (Istanbul), the authority for 300 million Orthodox worshipers worldwide. Until 2018, the global leadership recognised only one denomination across both Russia and Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church. Kyiv held a symbolically important role as the founding place of the church in 988 AD. After the Maidan protests in 2014, the Orthodox church in Ukraine sought independence from Moscow.

In 2018, the leader of the Orthodox churches, Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the right to self-determination. This move was bitterly opposed by the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow and staunch Putin supporter, Patriarch Kirill, who is also widely believed to be ex-KGB.

This split the Moscow-controlled Ukrainian churches from the hundreds of Ukrainian churches which voted to go with the new movement. Kyiv, the Slavic birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is now divided along denominational lines.

Heresy, apartheid, and the Russian Orthodox justification of ‘Russkii mir’

The Orthodoxy feud officially became a schism, complete with accusations of heresy. This is where things get particularly interesting from a South African perspective, given the apartheid government’s reliance for its ideology of separate development to be theologically underpinned by the Dutch Reformed
Church.

Apartheid was justified on religious grounds causing much theological conflict and was officially declared a heresy by the World Council of Reformed Churches in 1982.

The Russian Orthodox Church has long promoted its own philosophy of religion, nationalism, the defence of conservative values and a rewrite of history, which claims that Ukraine and satellite countries are part of the greater “Russkii mir”, the Russian world. This is, “a Russian world with Moscow as its political centre, Kyiv as the spiritual heart and Kirill as its religious leader”, according to Jack Jenkins. Putin’s Ukrainian invasion is thus officially endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church, with Kirill sanctioning it as a “holy
war”.

This has been met with significant opposition in Orthodox and Christian circles. A group of influential Orthodox theologians have gone as far as to declare Russkii mir to be a heresy, while the World Council of Churches is debating whether to expel the Russian Orthodox Church from its ranks as they draw a parallel between Russkii mir and the heresy of theological justification for apartheid.

Russian Orthodox nationalism and Putin’s aggression

Putin has used the loss of Moscow’s historical control over Ukrainian churches as another point of grievance against Ukraine’s tilt away from Moscow’s orbit.

But it goes beyond the loss of an important religious territory. For Putin, Russian Orthodox nationalism is about the restoration of the Russian Empire through a revised Russian Orthodox Church, which considers Ukraine to be “Russia heartland”, both spiritually and geographically. This adds depth and religious motive beyond conventional geopolitics and power.

Putin was secretly baptised by his mother at a time this was forbidden by the Soviet communist regime. Orthodox faith is important to both Putin and 71% of Russians who identify as Orthodox. A further 57% of Orthodox Russians insist that the Orthodox faith is fundamental to their Russian identity.

After the Maidan Revolution, where Moscow’s choice of president in the Ukraine was overturned, Russia’s secular authority over Ukraine was significantly diminished. The further loss of spiritual authority in 2018 was seen as the final insult by Putin, resulting in the subsequent invasion today.

Russia’s muscular nationalistic version of Orthodox faith has its own recently built spiritual epicentre in a Moscow military theme park on the outskirts of the city. The Cathedral of the Armed forces, inside Patriot Park, was consecrated on June 14, 2020, and is rich with symbolism: The khaki-green building has Nazi tanks melted into the floor and sports a dome with a diameter of 19,45m, in homage to the end of World War II.

The gold Orthodox cross tops the dome while mosaics celebrate angels gazing down on Russia’s military adventures in recent conflicts such as the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

From this perspective, the historic links between Ukraine and Russia emphasised by the Orthodox Church are obvious. Pushing the “liberation” of Ukraine as a God-ordained mission by the hardline clerics in Moscow is a religious endorsement that has helped entrench Putin’s internal propaganda.

  • Steve Briggs is a strategic leader of digital technology firms in disruptive industries.

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