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Holy Russia? Holy War? Why the Russian Church is backing Putin against Ukraine by Katherine Kelaidis

02 June 2023

Patriarch Kirill’s notions clothe cruder war aims, writes Xenia Dennen

RUSSIA today and its war against Ukraine have clearly nothing to do with holiness. Religion itself, however, does play a part in the current geopolitical situation and is the subject of this collection of short articles by Katherine Kelaidis. The blasphemous nature of the link between the Russian Orthodox Church and the murder of thousands in the Ukraine war was recently highlighted by a protester in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, who daubed in red paint “Do not kill” within the precincts of a Russian Orthodox cathedral, dedicated in honour of Russia’s 20th-century martyrs.

Kelaidis is deeply imbued with the beliefs and traditions of her Greek Orthodox community in the United States, and has a good grasp of the international dimensions of Orthodoxy in today’s world. Her articles, organised into four parts, were originally published in Religion Despatches and cover 2018-22.

After considering the history of Eastern Orthodoxy in Part 1, she turns in Part 2 to the most interesting section of this book, Patriarch Kirill and his support for the Ukraine war; from there, the international shenanigans of the Moscow Patriarchate are explored in Part 3, ending with articles about Orthodoxy’s internal conflicts in Part 4. Because it is constructed out of brief articles, the book gives the reader only snapshots rather than a larger and more detailed picture, which a longer narrative could have presented.

Kelaidis uses broad brush strokes. Although her knowledge of Russian history is extensive, her brush would have done well to use a pointillist technique in places, to explain more effectively the complexities of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill’s obsession with Russian nationalism and imperial greatness.

She places this Church firmly in the obscurantist category, opposed to liberty and democracy: “The Russian Orthodox Church has, to say the least, a bad track record on issues of political liberty and civil rights.” This is a misleading generalisation: what about the many Russian Orthodox believers who, during the Soviet period, fought for religious liberty and human rights, such as Fr Gleb Yakunin, Boris Talantov, Anatoli Levitin-Krasnov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Nor was the Russian Orthodox Church, as a whole, allied with the Soviet state: a large part, known as the True Orthodox Church, rejected all association with it.

Can the war against Ukraine be called a “religious war”? Patriarch Kirill in his pronouncements, it is true, interprets it as a war against the Western powers of darkness in defence of traditional values and what he sees as human virtue; but these are simply useful trappings for Vladimir Putin, whose aims are crudely geopolitical. In reality, this is not a religious war, but a land grab by war criminals who will one day face their “Nuremberg”.

Xenia Dennen is a Russian specialist, and chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.


Holy Russia? Holy War? Why the Russian Church is backing Putin against Ukraine
Katherine Kelaidis
SPCK £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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