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Onward Christian Soldiers

The lethal cocktail of military power and religious fervour

I once heard a pastor inform his church that he was quitting as the senior leader. But he quickly added that “no back story” was behind his resignation. Maybe the man was living in ignorance or denial, or both. Whatever the case, it was simply not true. Not then. Not now. Not ever. There is always a back story behind every thought, every word, every decision, and every action. There is always a history behind the present moment.

Take, for example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin did not wake up on the morning of February 24th, 2022, and suddenly think, “Gee, it’s a nice day, I think I’ll invade the Ukraine!” This so-called “special military operation” was the culmination of years of meticulous planning and methodical preparation. It was, in a sense, an inevitable development following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the seizure of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts of Ukraine’s Donbas region by Russian-backed paramilitaries in 2014.

But a careful appraisal of the centuries-long relationship between Russia and Ukraine suggests that the back story behind the present conflict may be even more complex than first thought.

Vladimir the Great

On June 11th, 980, Vladimir I Sviatoslavich (also known as Vladimir the Great) was proclaimed Grand Prince of Kyiv and ruler of Kyivan Rus', a medieval state in Eastern and Northern Europe controlled by the Rurikid dynasty. The founder of the dynasty, Oleg the Wise, had declared a hundred years earlier that Kyiv should be “the mother of Rus' cities.” The modern nations of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine all attribute their cultural ancestry to Kyivan Rus'.

In 987, after studying the religions of various neighbouring peoples, Vladimir decided to accept Orthodox Christianity as his religion, and instructed his people to abandon the Slavic-Norse deities and worship the One True God. However, there is evidence to suggest that Vladimir’s conversion may have been incentivized by political and commercial gain. (When it comes to religion and politics, there is nothing new under the sun!) At the time, the Byzantine empire was experiencing a renaissance in letters and arts, and unprecedented levels of prosperity due to its control of strategic trade routes linking Europe and Asia.

According to Arab sources, both Muslim and Christian, the Byzantine emperor Basil II, was facing a revolt from two of his generals. In desperation, Basil II turned to the Kyivan Rus' for help, even though they were considered enemies at the time. Vladimir agreed to aid the emperor on the condition that he be given the hand of Basil’s sister, Anna, in marriage, thereby sealing the alliance between the two powers. In return, Vladimir promised to Christianise his people and bring them into the Orthodox orbit of Constantinople.

Political expediency notwithstanding, Vladimir was baptised at Chersonesos, adopting the Christian name of Basil in honour of his newly acquired brother-in-law. The baptism of Vladimir is depicted in a painting by the Russian artist, Viktor Vasnetsov (1890), himself a key figure in the Russian revivalist movement. The painting is proudly displayed in St Volodymyr’s Cathedral in the centre of Kyiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a keen admirer of his namesake, Vladimir the Great. On November 4th, 2016, Putin unveiled a 17-metre statue of Vladimir the Great near the Kremlin walls, thus proclaiming the Russian State and the Russian people as his true progeny. However, Putin himself has an even deeper visceral connection with Vladimir the Great. He sees himself as the spiritual successor to the Grand Prince of Kyiv, the one who is destined to re-establish Russian derzhavnost (being a great power and being recognised as such by others).

Restoring the Russian world

Vladimir Putin’s worldview is based on a concept known as Russkiy Mir (literally, “Russian World”). In essence, it is a belief in the superiority of Russian language, culture, and history over all others, and in a transcendental way, links ethnic Russians living outside of Russia’s borders to the motherland.

According to this dogma, the “Russian World” has a common political centre (Moscow), a common spiritual centre (Kyiv), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church), and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow), who collaborates with a common national leader (Putin) to govern this transnational sphere.

Not surprisingly, the ideology of Russkiy Mir is espoused by many in the Russian Orthodox Church, including the supreme leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, as it consolidates the Church’s influence in both the Orthodox world and the Russian State. In a speech at the grand opening of the Third Russian World Assembly on November 3rd, 2009, Patriarch Kirill defined Russkiy Mir as “a common civilisational space founded on three pillars: Eastern Orthodoxy, Russian culture and language, and common historical memory and a common vision on further social development.”

At the heart of Russkiy Mir is the mythical notion of Holy Rus', the idea that God chose the Russian land and people to be a light to the nations, a means of salvation for the world, a kingdom of heaven on earth. If Russia is the kingdom, then Putin is the Messiah — the one anointed with the Spirit and power, sent to regather the lost sheep of the House of Rus' and execute divine judgment on decadent Western culture.

In one sense, Holy Rus' is the Russian version of the 19th century doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that one nation (the United States of America) was divinely ordained to expand its borders and promulgate its ideals for the benefit of others — an ideology that is now denounced by some historians as a form of imperialism.

Prior to the 2022 invasion, Putin asserted that Ukraine was simply an extension of Russia with no historic independent existence. To Western and particularly Ukrainian ears, Putin’s claim sounds absurd and offensive. Indeed, it only makes sense if viewed through the prism of Russkiy Mir. In a speech aired on national television on December 25th, 2022, Putin accused the West of “aiming to tear apart Russia, the historical Russia.” He then declared that his goal was to “unite the Russian people,” which in his mind includes Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Kazakhstan, as well ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world.

That said, Putin is not the first Russian leader to attempt to annex neighbouring territory or “gather the land of the Rus'.” The conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman army in 1453 and the demise of the Byzantine Empire signalled a shift in the balance of power in the Orthodox world. In 1492 (the year that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World) Metropolitan Zozimus proclaimed Ivan III as “the new Tsar Constantine of the new city of Constantine — Moscow.”

In 1510, a monk named Philotheus, leader of the Yelizarov Monastery in northwestern Russia, wrote a letter to Vasili III in which he pleaded with the Tsar to alleviate the suffering of his people. He concluded his supplication with these words: “And if thou rulest thine empire rightly, thou wilt be the son of light and a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem, as I have written thee. And now, I say unto thee: take care and take heed, pious tsar; all the empires of Christendom are united in thine, for two Romes have fallen and the third exists and there will not be a fourth; thy Christian empire, according to the great theologian, will not pass to others …”

True to form, the Russian tsars continued to depict themselves as protectors of the Orthodox faith and custodians of the Christian world throughout the following four centuries. However, they often used this as a pretext to intervene in the affairs of neighbouring countries and extend their sphere of influence and their territorial boundaries. It should come as no surprise, then, that Putin justifies the invasion of Ukraine by claiming its purpose is to protect the millions of Russian-language speakers and the Orthodox faithful living there.

An Orthodox War

Behind the guns and tanks and missiles and bombs, there is a battle taking place for the Orthodox soul. In some respects, it is a war within a war. And it is, perhaps, the real issue in the Russia/Ukraine situation. Secular observers may scoff at the notion that a struggle for religious supremacy is at the core of a modern, sophisticated conflict between two well-armed nations.

However, as recently as 100 years ago, “the war to end all wars” was fought between major powers which, apart from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, shared a common religious ideology: Christianity. As historian Philip Jenkins points out in his book The Great and Holy War, the First World War in which approximately 20 million people died, was essentially a civil war within Christendom. Britons, French, Russians, Americans, Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans all believed that they were fighting for a just cause, and that God was on their side.

Although approximately three-quarters of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox, the religious community is divided between two rival churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. In December 2018, then-President Petro Poroshenko tried to put an end to this inter-church rivalry by forming a new church — the Orthodox Church of Ukraine — under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.

President Poroshenko underlined the importance of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine receiving its tomos of autocephaly(documentation of independence among Eastern Church bodies), describing it as “a charter of Ukraine’s spiritual independence,” and the equivalent of Ukraine saying, “Away from Moscow, Europe now!” On December 15th, 2018, Poroshenko declared that the autocephalous church would be “without [President] Putin and without [Patriarch] Kirill, but with God and with Ukraine.” Moreover, he said that it was “part of our state pro-European and pro-Ukrainian strategy.”

On January 5th, 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew signed the tomos at St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul. He then presented it to the Metropolitan Epiphanius, leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church reacted with predictable fury.

Having already broken communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople on October 15th, 2018, Kirill wrote a letter to his Ecumenical counterpart on December 30th, warning of dire consequences: “You forever will lose the possibility of serving the unity of God’s holy churches, and will cease to be first in the Orthodox world …. The sufferings you cause to the Orthodox Ukrainians will follow you to the Last Judgment of our Lord.” Perhaps the untold sufferings of the Ukrainians, to which Kirill alluded, are now unfolding before our eyes.

Little wonder that Patriarch Kirill told worshippers in a sermon on September 25th, 2022, that “if someone, driven by a sense of duty and the need to honour his oath, stays loyal to his vocation and dies while carrying out his military duty, then he is, without any doubt, doing a deed that is equal to sacrifice.”

And little wonder that dozens of Orthodox priests aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate, are being investigated by the Ukrainian government for collaborating with Russian forces, including the notorious Father Mykola Yevtushenko, who reportedly offered benedictions to the Russian soldiers during their barbaric occupation of Bucha and betrayed locals who resisted the invasion.

Under Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a return to power as a key ideological partner of the Russian government. After decades of persecution by atheistic authorities, Kirill is basking in the glory of his close friendship with Vladimir Putin, whom he once hailed as “a miracle of God.” Now it seems that Kirill is banking on Putin’s tanks and missiles to preserve the institution of the Russian Orthodox Church and his own canonical authority throughout the so-called “Russian World.”

The Pentecostal politician

However, it is not just the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy supporting Putin’s war against Ukraine. On March 29th, 2022, just over a month after Putin launched his “special military operation”, the State Duma of the Russian Federation hosted a round table on the topic, “World Religions against the Ideology of Nazism and Fascism in the 21stcentury.” (Spoiler alert: the Russian authorities used the term ‘Nazism’ to denote anything that threatens the regime’s strategic goals and political interests. It has nothing to do with Fascism or the Third Reich).

According to the official report, “representatives of all traditional religions of Russia expressed their categorical and unanimous rejection of Nazism and spoke in support of the ongoing special operation to denazify Ukraine.” One of the principal speakers was Sergey Ryakhovsky, whose list of titles reads like a page out of Marquis Who’s Who:

Chief Bishop of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals), a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, a member of the Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations under the President of the Russian Federation, co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the Heads of Protestant Churches of Russia, Council of ROSHVE.

Simply put, Ryakhovsky is one of Putin’s closest associates and one of the most powerful religious leaders in the country. Some people believe he is more of a politician than a Christian pastor. Ryakhovsky told the meeting, “Today we have seen that we are together and we are stronger. Today we have a clear, understandable, Christian mission for our peoples in Russia and Ukraine.”

That is all well and good. However, Ryakhovsky’s concept of a “Christian mission” needs to be interpreted in the context of his unwavering loyalty to Vladimir Putin and his unequivocal support of Putin’s nationalistic ideology. As Olga Timofeeva, Chairperson of the State Duma Committee on the Development of Civil Society and Issues of Public and Religious Associations, told the meeting:

“Our common task today is to …. find those points of contact so that each religion helps and supports our President and our people and defends our national idea, because today it is more important than ever.”

Ryakhovsky claims that during a humanitarian relief mission to Syria some years ago, he had a “Damascus Experience.” “When I saw how the children suffered, it changed my life forever. I returned to Russia with a promise to God that I would spend the rest of my life standing up for the Persecuted Church around the world and to focus on the children who suffer the most and die first.”

One can only wonder if the compassion engendered by Ryakhovsky’s “Damascus Experience” extends to the tens of thousands of Ukrainian children who have been orphaned by Putin’s missiles, or maimed by Putin’s shells, or butchered by Putin’s soldiers, or abducted by Putin’s bureaucrats.

An unholy alliance

When Pontius Pilate, the regional representative of the most powerful empire in the world, asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here” (John 19.33,36).

As a former military officer of the Equestrian order, Pilate would have been familiar with the Roman policy of conquest and expansion. In effect, Jesus was saying to Pilate, “Yes, I am a King, but not in a way that you would understand. Your kingdom is all about controlling people and territory through force; My kingdom is all about serving people through love.”

Yet it seems that the Russian Orthodox Church, like other state-sanctioned churches throughout the past 1700 years, is very much of this world. Anthony, Constantinople's patriarch, said to Grand Duke Vasili I in 1393, “It is impossible for Christians to have the Church without having the Emperor because the Empire and the Church constitute one unity and one community.”

Throughout its storied history, the Russian Church has been an essential part of the structure of government — the exception being the 70 years of Communist rule in which the Church was considered a rival ideology and a threat to the State. Under Putin, the Church has been allowed to return to prominence and has become a strategic partner in the realisation of his “national idea.”

To what extent Putin is using the Church or the Church is using Putin, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: when Vladimir Putin immersed himself in the icy waters of Lake Seliger in western Russia on January 19th, 2018, in a ritual to commemorate Jesus’ baptism, he was evoking the primeval image of a priest-king — a ruler chosen by God to reign over his people and lead them to glorious victory.

In a carefully choreographed performance broadcast on national television on the eve of the Presidential election, Putin descended into the water under the glare of floodlights and crossed himself. Behind him stood a supporting cast of five Orthodox priests dressed in black, each holding gold-plated icons mounted on wooden sticks. As one commentator wryly observed, the only thing missing from this scene was a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

The rise of political cult figures such as Vladimir Putin is a timely reminder of the sage advice of the apostle John: “Beloved, do not believer every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world … and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world” (1 John 4.1,3).

The term antichrist can mean either “against Christ” or “instead of Christ,” or as B. F. Westcott suggests, a combination of the two: “one who, assuming the guise of Christ, opposes Christ.” R. H. Mounce defines antichrist as “the deification of secular authority.”

The events in Eastern Europe are yet another manifestation of the Luciferian ambition to usurp the glory that belongs to Christ alone

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