In this Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 file photo, then Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill during his meeting with Russia's religious leaders in the St. Daniel Monastery in Moscow, Russia. (Yana Lapikova/Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP)

Despite pleas from Western religious leaders, Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has refused to criticize Russia’s criminal assault on Ukraine and its torture, rape, and killing of fellow Christian noncombatants. On the contrary, he has given full-throated support to the Russian war as a righteous crusade.

Why?

The Russian patriarch has his reasons, and the most obvious ones are personal. He is a member of President Vladimir Putin’s innermost circle of trusted confidantes, a relationship that extends back to when Putin was a KGB colonel and Kirill was among those Orthodox bishops whom the secret service had recruited and compromised—a corruption that Kirill, unlike some other bishops, has never apologized for in public. Nonetheless, were Kirill to hint at dissenting from Putin’s war, he would likely disappear instantly from public view. A martyr, he is not.

Moreover, the Russian president and the patriarch are united in their judgment that Western culture is morally decadent, specifically in its acceptance of same-sex marriage and gender fluidity, and therefore a threat to Russian moral and social values. This view of the West is, of course, not new nor limited to Russians: Many other Slavs, including the late Pope John Paul II, have been highly critical of Western consumerism, individualism, and what they regard as lax moral values.

From what we know of Putin’s private life—his avaricious wealth accumulation through political power, his many mistresses—he exhibits the very vices he and the patriarch publicly deplore. That’s not what matters.

What does matter, what cements their comradeship of conviction and convenience, is Putin’s support of the Russian Orthodox Church as a necessary component of Russkiy Mir, or Greater Russia—a “social imaginary” (to use the philosopher Charles Taylor’s fertile concept) more real and more powerful than mere nationality through which a people integrate history, land, religion, and even language to imagine the social or communal whole that they inhabit. This integration is a distinguishing feature of Orthodox Christianity and is found in different forms in each country and culture where it is deeply embedded. It is also poorly understood in the West. Because it is more powerful than mere nationality, Putin, the patriarch, and almost all other Russians can really believe that its existence is real, and that the nation of Ukraine is not. 

The Armenian Apostolic Church offers the clearest example. This church traces its origins to the first-century missionary work of the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus of Edessa. Early in the fourth century, the kingdom of Armenia became the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion—a designation that continues today. The current constitution states, “The Republic of Armenia recognizes the exclusive historical mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church as a national church, in the spiritual life, development of national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” All other Christian churches are regarded as intrusive sects.

The church’s identification with Armenians is not limited by geography. During an assignment to the Soviet Union in 1988, I made a side trip to interview the leader—or Catholicos—of the church, Patriarch Vazgen, in Etchmiadzin, near the capital of Yerevan. Outside his office, there was a display of eminent Armenians from around the world, each pictured on a feather of a bejeweled peacock. One of them was the American writer William Saroyan.

In my interview, I asked Vazgen about the meaning of the display. “It means that I am Catholicos of all the Armenians in the world,” he said.

“Wherever they may be? I asked

“Yes.”

“Including, say, an Armenian American Presbyterian who coaches football at a Roman Catholic university?” He nodded in affirmation, though I do not think he knew of Ara Parseghian, the hugely popular former coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

As I was leaving, Vazgen directed me to another display: a pair of gold tablets bearing the Armenian alphabet. The alphabet was created in the fifth century by St. Mesrop to give the Armenians a Bible in their own written language. “We believe our language was inspired by the Holy Spirit,” my guide said, “just like the holy scriptures.”

I came away impressed. At that time, Western Christians, especially Roman Catholics, were busily trying to adapt their theologies and liturgies to African and Asian cultures, and liberation theologians in South America were attempting to create a church “of the people.” But those efforts, it seemed to me, would never achieve the depth and resonance of inculturation enjoyed by the various Orthodox churches.

I was naive. Patriarch Kirill’s wholehearted blessing of Putin’s war in Ukraine demonstrates the dangerous downside of traditional Orthodox symphonia (accord) between society’s religious and political dimensions.

Armenian Christianity was already a millennium old when Prince Vladimir of Kyiv converted to the faith and with him the Rus, a people of disputed ethnic origin who lived in what is now Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Today, Russian Orthodoxy exhibits virtually the same exclusivity and prerogatives as the Armenian Church, only on a larger and more geopolitically significant scale.

Like the Armenian Church, the Russian Church regards other Christians as sectarians, and the presence of the relatively few Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian minorities in Russia is a barely tolerated affront to their territorial rights and integrity. This attitude is one reason why, despite repeated overtures from Rome since Vatican Council II, no patriarch of Moscow has ever agreed to meet a pope on Russian soil.

Much like the Armenians, the Russian patriarchs claim ecclesiastical authority over Russian Orthodox beyond the country’s borders, though not those who are members of other Christian denominations. This claim is crucial to understanding the role that Kirill and Russian Orthodoxy play in Putin’s justification of his invasion of Ukraine.

Kirill’s full title, “Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus,” is the ecclesiastical equivalent of Putin’s geopolitical claim that the sovereign nations of Ukraine and Belarus, created after the Soviet collapse, belong by history, geography, and culture—and therefore by right— to Greater Russia. This claim is buttressed by a grant of authority over the churches in these territories given to the patriarch of Moscow in 1686 by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, the “first among equals” among the world’s nine Orthodox Christian patriarchs.

However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine as an independent state, Ukrainians instituted freedom of religion, thereby disestablishing Orthodoxy and creating a denominational society. With this change, Ukrainian Orthodox formed new national congregations independent of the Moscow Patriarchate with worship in their native tongue. In 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew granted official recognition to an independent (autocephalous) Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of Constantinople (now Istanbul) rather than Moscow. As expected, Patriarch Kirill denounced Bartholomew’s action and refused to recognize the UOC.

But the conflict between Constantinople, the historic center of Orthodox Christianity, and Moscow, the wealthiest and most populous of the Orthodox churches, is not just about ecclesiastical politics. Ukraine’s embrace of religious diversity and freedom, especially for its Orthodox Christians, is of a piece with its establishment of free elections and other liberal Western values so anathema to Putin. This is the glue that binds the president and the patriarch.

Will it hold? Certainly, as long as Putin remains in power. But if Putin settles for reabsorbing just the eastern portions of Ukraine as client states and—as now seems possible—moves south to occupy the Russian-speaking areas of Moldova, Russian Orthodoxy will cease to be a force in the rest of Ukraine. Moscow will become an outlier among the ancient patriarchal sees that tie Orthodoxy to the apostolic age. And in time, the ecclesiastical version of Russkiy Mir will become merely a religious cover for naked Russian aggression.

Kenneth L. Woodward

Kenneth L. Woodward, former Religion Editor of Newsweek, is the author of Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Ascent of Trump.