WHEN Patriarch Kirill of Moscow addressed the Federation Council in Moscow last month, he repeated the anti-Western stereotypes that are being used to justify the war in Ukraine, apparently blaming foreign interference for every misfortune since the 16th century.
He lauded his Orthodox Church’s record in resisting “ideological diktats and bossy orders” from the West, where “unshakeable Christian values” were now being rejected in favour of a dangerous “acceptance of moral relativism”.
The Ukrainian government has vowed to continue pressing for Kirill to be blacklisted by the European Union, after his name was not included last week in the EU’s sixth package of sanctions.
Whether officially sanctioned or not, Patriarch Kirill and his Oxford-educated deputy, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), will be judged for providing religious and cultural inspiration for President Putin’s brutal invasion — as will Churches in Britain and elsewhere that choose to share a platform with them at forthcoming ecumenical forums.
Claims about irretrievable Western decadence, often drawn from superficial media images, have long been made by Islamic fundamentalists, as well as by conservative church Establishments in Eastern Europe seeking to rally support at home.
Since they are now having murderous consequences, it is worth reflecting on how they might be challenged. Are we really as irrevocably fallen as these obsessive critics suppose?
PATRIARCH KIRILL’s Federation Council diatribe was only the latest in a narrative long pre-dating the invasion, which has presented post-Soviet Russia as the guardian of a traditional Christian order.
The notion of a reborn Russian civilisation, or Russki mir, pursuing its manifest destiny in holding the line against corrosive outside influences, has been a great asset to President Putin.
Suggestions that Kyiv, historic wellspring of Orthodox culture and spirituality, was aligning with a hostile, secular, and Russophobic West naturally fuelled outrage. The stream of justifications for Moscow’s bloody response has marked the high point of a new Church-State symphony, forged to defend Russian identity against physical and spiritual assault.
A day before the invasion, Kirill lauded Mr Putin’s “high and responsible service to the people”, and assured Russia’s armed forces that they had “chosen a very correct path”. Four days later, as Russian missiles and shells rained down, he endorsed Mr Putin’s view that Ukraine had never been a real country, lamenting, on 6 March, how Orthodox Ukrainians had been forced “to deny God and his truth” and participate in “gay parades” (News, 11 March).
“We have entered into a struggle that has not just a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” the Patriarch told his compatriots. “Let us pray that all those fighting today, shedding blood and suffering, will enter into the joy of resurrection.”
On 9 March, Kirill equated Western countries with “the devil and father of lies”. Russians and Ukrainians were “united by faith, common saints, common hopes, and the same prayers” — practically one people, “bound by historical fate, who all emerged together from Kyiv’s baptismal font”.
“We are a peace-loving power . . . inoculated against all military adventures, against any ability to be aggressive,” the Patriarch persisted without a hint of irony on 30 May, this time to military cadets in Moscow. “The only reason we need to strengthen our armed forces is so that no one will ever dare cross our country’s sacred borders.”
IT WOULD be easy to dismiss such outbursts as just paranoia — the masking and inverting of aggressive and expansionist aims into a putative defence of truth and freedom.
It would also be easy to reject the “Christian values” offered by the Patriarch — by which Russia’s Church uses state power to enforce its own hegemony, distorts national sovereignty and religious freedom, and shows a cold and terrifying indifference to the suffering of innocent people.
What is more alarming is that Kirill’s anti-Western tropes are carrying weight with his audiences — with the implication that liberal value systems are now everywhere degraded by self-willed immorality and permissiveness. Anyone with a genuine experience of liberal democracy knows that such claims are profoundly untrue.
The age-old drive to extend individual autonomy has often led in controversial directions. Yet Western values, nurtured over centuries — equality before the law, economic initiative, mutual respect, social participation, and solidarity — are Christian in inspiration and still very much alive. So are the rights to freedom of conscience, speech, movement, and association enshrined in our constitutions and protected by our institutions.
Our Churches have struggled to ensure that these values are properly expressed. There have been mistakes and misjudgements along the way. But the values are still there, guiding and directing the way in which we live.
Should Western Christians be doing more to explain this to the world — to avoid the kind of cruel, myopic, and destructive misunderstandings to which Ukrainians have now fallen victim?
Kirill and his political backers and protégés are unlikely to listen. In his Federation Council speech, the Patriarch called on Russian lawmakers to begin implementing a new social and moral order, based on a reassertion of Russian self-reliance and “a deep rethinking of the vector of social and state development”.
“The enemy of the human race is very strongly active now, seeking to destroy the spiritual unity of Holy Russia. . . When I say Russia, I mean Belarusians, Ukrainians — a historically united people,” Kirill told a congregation in Belarus last weekend.
“The Orthodox faith must be strengthened, especially in the hearts of young people, because they are strongly influenced by the modern information flow and have not yet developed the ability to evaluate what reaches their sight, hearing, and consciousness.”
That will be the harsh ideological Orthodox vision imposed on Ukrainians if Kirill’s vision prevails. It is one that Western Churches should unite in rejecting and repudiating.
Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of martyrdom, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing.