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Leader comment: Kirill’s war — making sense of the attack on Ukraine

by
24 February 2023

A YEAR after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, it is still common to respond with incredulity. That there is a war is in no doubt: the prevailing images in the media are of buildings, even whole towns, shattered by Russian shelling. Less visible — because more dangerous to record — are the conditions on the front line, and the brutality inflicted on Ukrainian civilians, discovered often only after a Russian retreat. The UK’s involvement is significant and experienced by all, if indirectly through higher fuel and food prices and constraints on government spending. For many people, the presence of Ukrainian women and children in their community or their home provides a direct link with the war zone. Yet the incredulity persists, perhaps because President Putin’s actions remain, indeed, unbelievable.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s position since before the war started offers clues. Church leaders around the world have faithfully but mistakenly attempted to squeeze even a drop of compassion for the Ukrainian victims out of the stony Patriarch of Moscow. Instead, Patriarch Kirill has laid a foundation of religious justification for the war, echoing and, it appeared on Tuesday, informing President Putin’s accusations against the West. There is now no remnant of gratitude for Glasnost and the return of church property by Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead, the post-Soviet era is dismissed as a time of Western-infiltrated liberalism. The Orthodox hierarchy teaches the existence of a continuum through history of Russian Church and State in unison: a strong tsar blessed and supported by the hierarchy. The pantheon now includes Joseph Stalin, no longer a paranoid mass murderer, but a brave leader who fought off the Nazis (just as President Putin’s actions in Ukraine are being depicted) and whose “sacrifices” of Russian lives during and after the war were necessary for its survival (again, the same parallel).

How well this narrative has taken hold in Russia is genuinely unknown. No accurate opinion poll can be taken among Russians, who learnt early in the Putin era to practise reticence when asked about government policy. We know of many dissident voices, but the oppressive control of the media, using techniques learned during the Soviet era, works on the principle that restricting freedom of expression in turn reduces freedom of thought — and so we know, too, of many voices that support wholeheartedly this notion of a Holy Russian Empire. It is the sacramental quality conferred upon it by Kirill — an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual sense of entitlement — which brings President Putin’s year-long war and his willingness to escalate it indefinitely into the realms of the credible, and makes sense of a brutality that, by any other standard, is senseless. Belief, sadly, is what makes this war believable.

It is the sacramental quality conferred upon it by Kirill — an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual sense of entitlement — which brings President Putin’s year-long war and his willingness to escalate it indefinitely into the realms of the credible, and makes sense of a brutality that, by any other standard, is senseless. Belief, sadly, is what makes this war believable.

 

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