How the Russian Orthodox Church is backing Vladimir Putin's new world order

A Russian serviceman, dressed in historical uniform, takes part in a military parade rehearsal in front of St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia, November 6, 2015.Reuters

The US presidential election race has focused attention on the role of religion there. Ostensibly a country that prizes freedom of religion, in practice its politicians who aren't seen to be "Christian" have a built-in disadvantage. The Republican nomination process in particular has highlighted the religious nationalism of many American evangelicals, who see patriotism and Christianity as deeply intertwined.

Thousands of miles away, however, there's an ideological synergy between Church and State which is just as unhealthy. Under its leader Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has backed the aggressive expansionism of President Vladimir Putin, which has seen him extend Russian power into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Kirill described Putin at a religious leaders' meeting in 2012 as "a miracle of God". It supported a government crackdown on "gay propaganda" in 2013. The ROC has made billions from trading concessions granted to it by the government. It is increasingly asserting its position as the largest of the 14 self-governing Orthodox Churches and is using its political muscle in support of Putin's aims. It's no friend to evangelicals, especially in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, seeing them as puppets of the West. 

But how has it become so powerful – and how is it using its power? 

The KGB, cigarettes and a Breuget watch

Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill leads an Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, Russi.Reuters

An answer has to begin with Kirill himself. An imposing figure, he looks – and plays – the part of a Russian Orthodox Patriarch to perfection. Ordained in 1969, Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, as he was then, rose through the ROC's heirarchy and was elected as Patriarch in January 2009.

According to material from Soviet archives, Kirill was also a KGB agent; as Patriarch he dedicated a church to the KGB.

While his political closeness to the regime has been criticised, he has also been tarnished by the ROC's financial dealings. After the fall of the Soviet Union the Church received special privileges, including the right to import alcohol and tobacco free of duty. It made massive amounts of money as a result through a string of companies with interests in areas ranging from TV to oil. Profits from the cigarettes operation alone – which ended in 1997 – were estimated at $4 billion by The Moscow News in 2006. Kirill has always denied profiting personally from the operations, though his credibility was undermined when he was seen wearing a Breguet watch worth $30,000 in 2012 – and further undermined when spin doctors made a clumsy attempt to airbrush the watch out in a picture on the ROC website.

Church and state in harmony

More important than his taste in wristwear, however, is Kirill's concept of how the Church and State should work together. Speaking at a conference on Ukraine in Lambeth Palace last April, participants highlighted the role of Orthodoxy in Putin's new world order. According to Mykhailo Cherenkov, a Ukrainian Baptist who is a Professor in Philosophy at Ukrainian Catholic University, the fall of the Soviet Union left Russia with an ideological vacuum.

What had held the USSR together, and Russia itself, was a belief in communism. When the Berlin Wall fell and Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms led to the abandonment of the communist enterprise, Russia needed a "new ideological binding agent". And, said Cherenkov, there was a tool ready to hand. The ROC fulfilled the same purpose as communism in giving Russians something to believe in. "It was Orthodoxy that served as the main ferment in the formation of a new Russian identity from the beginning of Putin's presidency. If, in Soviet times, the mark of the majority was political atheism, then now it is political Orthodoxy."

The Orthodox Church supports the state. It's patriotic to be Orthodox – and Orthodox to be patriotic. The Russian state's wars become holy wars. Cherenkov says of the Ukraine conflict: "The goal of the 'Holy War' is not seizure of territory, or change of power, or defeat of opponents, but the victory of faith over all lack of faith and false teaching, of the only right picture of the world over all wrong ones, of truth over all untruths. If Rus is Holy, then her faith and truth are the only Orthodox ones."

Only one Russian world

Another contributor, Antoine Arjakovsky, also from the Ukrainian Catholic University, cites Kirill's view that there's only one "Russian" world, which includes the historical territory of Ukraine. The Moscow Patriarchate has spiritual jurisdiction over all of it. He refers to a film made by senior cleric Metropolitan Hilarion in 2013 entitled The Second Baptism of the Rus. "Patriarch Kirill appears and says his priority is to gather together the lands of Holy Russia," says Arjakovsky. "There is even a parallel between the Trinitarian God and the trinity of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. President Putin also appears in person to tell how he was secretly baptised as an infant."

Russia's President Vladimir Putin makes a point of being seen in church.Reuters

Kirill's notion is that Church and state function harmoniously together, each supporting the work of the other, in what Orthodoxy calls 'symphonia'. But his critics say this approach is fundamentally flawed. According to Michael Bourdeaux, who founded the Keston Institute to monitor religious freedom in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and is a leading expert in the field, this symphonia is "a betrayal of the basic Christian – and democratic – belief in freedom of conscience".

Why the Church doesn't criticise the Kremlin

Speaking at the same conference, Bourdeaux referred back to the establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate by Stalin during the Second World War after its abolition by Lenin. Part of the deal, he said, was that it would never criticise the Kremlin. Keston understood the pressure the Church was under and did not criticise it – though, he said, they were "stunned" to discover, in the early '90s, the extent of collaboration between the Church leadership and the atheist state.

When Communism collapsed, he said, "the Church leadership saw its opportunity to re-establish itself as a leading player in the new Russian state".

He concluded: "Now free from Soviet constraints, church leaders might have been expected to write dispassionately about the troubled history of the Soviet period. But this is far from happening. There's been no act of repentance for the collaboration with the Soviet regime. Those who fought for religious liberty during the later Soviet period have been largely edited out of history, even though many lost their freedom – and some their lives – in the cause of freedom."

And, says Bourdeaux: "These attitudes explain why the Moscow Patriarchate hasn't been willing to use its voice to attempt to rein in the forces leading to the Kremlin's aggression in Ukraine and the Crimea. My prayer is that, one day – and one hopes sooner rather than later – the Russian Orthodox Church would discover a prophetic voice and use its immense in influence in an attempt to reach a just resolution of the conflict in Ukraine."

A fake patriotic religion?

A man cries outside his damaged house, which locals said was hit by shelling, in Donetsk, Ukraine.Reuters

This statement is echoed by Joshua Searle, a lecturer at Spurgeon's College and Visiting Professor at Ukrainian Catholic University. He told Christian Today: "It needs to be made clear that the ROC hierarchy is essentially a political construct. The church structure is based not on gospel values of freedom, truth and enlightenment, but on fear, authoritarianism and the promotion of nationalism under the guise of religious zeal. This kind of fake patriotic religion deifies the State and gives divine sanction to a nation's imperialism.

"The ROC can even invoke the name of "God" as an idol who has bestowed a special blessing and favour on Russia, which then allegedly gives 'Holy Russia' the right to invade and conquer neighbouring territories and subdue their peoples. Such a sham Christianity, which is a denial of Christ and the gospel, will always refuse to accept any higher power and will ruthlessly destroy any forms of genuine Christian faith that go beyond cultural or national identity."

Evangelical Christians are suffering disproportionately in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, he says; the ROC "regards evangelicals as 'sectarians' or even as 'Western spies' and as a dangerous presence on its 'canonical territory'". For Searle, this is "idolatrous, nationalistic official Christianity, which encourages war and hatred towards other nations, is inimical to the gospel and is under the control not of Christ, but of the dark 'powers and principalities' to which the author of Ephesians alluded".

After 1,000 years, a meeting in Havana

It's against this background that the meeting on February 12 at Havana airport between Kirill and Pope Francis has to be seen. The encounter was widely, and generally warmly, reported; moves toward healing a thousand-year rift make good headlines.

Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, embraces and kisses Russian Orthodox Patriach Kirill in the first meeting for nearly 1,000 yearsReuters

Francis and Kirill released a joint statement afterwards – prepared by their 'sherpas' and agreed in advance, obviously – which was largely uncontroversial. It referred to the terrible persecution faced by Christians, the desirability of unity, poverty, inequality and the family.

It also referred, as it could hardly avoid doing, to Ukraine. Francis, as head of a sovereign state, is accountable to no one in his diplomatic initiatives, but Kirill – whose visit had to be sanctioned by the Kremlin – the wording of these sections would have been hugely challenging.

That's not to say that it wasn't a diplomatic test for Francis too. Observant readers will have noticed that three of the theologians quoted are linked to the Ukrainian Catholic University (though they are not all Ukrainian Catholics). The Ukrainian Catholic Church derives from Orthodox bishops who re-established communion with Rome in 1595. They're regarded as schismatics by the ROC and there is constant tension over their buildings and property.

The Ukrainian Catholic problem

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk speaking on the Ukraine crisis at the Vatican Radio headquarters in Rome.Reuters

So the meeting between Kirill and Francis was deeply problematic for the Ukrainian Catholics, whose Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said the text of their agreement had caused "deep disappointment" for them and that he had not been consulted. While it expressed the hope that "our meeting may also contribute to reconciliation wherever tensions exist between Greek [ie Ukrainian] Catholics and Orthodox", it also said it was "clear that the past method of 'uniatism, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re-establish unity" – a clear challenge to the Ukrainian Catholics and an extraordinary concession by the Vatican.

It also said that "the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist" – a half-hearted gesture by the ROC. The Ukrainian Catholics are not 'ecclesial communities', which is a dismissive expression also used of Protestants, but a Church.

According to the Catholic Herald, Shevchuk said the two sides "existed on two completely different planes and were pursuing different goals", with Francis experiencing the meeting as a spiritual event while "From the Moscow patriarch, one immediately sensed that this wasn't about any Spirit, or theology or actual religious matters."

Shevchuk said the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which drew up the declaration, had been "exploited" during the drafting process by the Russian Orthodox Department of External Affairs.

While this apparent bickering over jurisdiction and ancient Church history might seem trivial in face of the suffering – now largely ignored in the West – of Ukraine, it's very characteristic of the ROC's concerns. In the bewildering array of Ukraine's competing Churches, it's also in dispute with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Each of these bodies was the product of post-Revolutionary politics in the region. The point, however, is that as far as the ROC is concerned, it's the only legitimate Church. It wants to reclaim the territorial authority of which it believes it was wrongly deprived – a desire that puts it right alongside the neo-imperial ambitions of Vladimir Putin.

Russians, the ROC and the future

And in a sign of how well the ROC is playing in Putin's Russia, a survey just released by the Levada Centre shows more than half (56 per cent) of Russians are satisfied with the role played by the Church and religious NGOs in state politics. Furthermore, growing numbers of Russians want to see the Church increase its influence on the maintenance of public morality, with 47 per cent of respondents in favour of this idea in February 2016.

According to Levada Center sociologist Karina Pipiya: "The authorities are constantly articulating the important role of Orthodoxy as one of the components of 'special national identity,' in contrast with Western values and patterns, and people willingly support this idea, especially during periods of worsening relations between Russia and the West."

On both sides of the Atlantic, religion is playing a role in politics. In neither case does it appear to be a particularly healthy one. And while there is, in the US, a system of checks and balances to control it, things are very different elsewhere. It remains to be seen how religion will continue to shape Putin's Russia.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods