Monday, June 22, 2015

Putin's Holy War And The Disintegration Of The 'Russian World

 I am the first to admit that i was oblivious to the religious ramifications involved in the recent shift in Russian attitudes.  Where did all this come from?  Yet as this article spells out, it is very much a fact on the ground.

We forget that our world has been conditioned for generations into a different mindset regarding religion.  Yet Russia had a completely divergent path. 

Today the dice is been rolled and i do expect less to come of it than usual because of Russian disarray.  Yet this changes the face of conflict there.


Putin's Holy War And The Disintegration Of The 'Russian World'

Paul Coyer  

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Dugin’s vision of “Holy Russia,” which is shared with the Russian Orthodox Church, sees Russia’s mission as being to expand its influence and authority until it dominates the Eurasian landmass by means of a strong, centralized Russian state aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, championing “traditional” social values over against the cultural corruption of a libertine West. The partnership between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been aimed not only at articulating this sacralized view of Russian national identity to the domestic audience, but also in advancing the mission of the Russian nation abroad. The manner in which the Russian state and the Church has been cooperating, however, is undermining their jointly-stated goal of building a “Russian world” that dominates Eurasia under Moscow’s benign imperial oversight.

The Church, for its part, acts as the Russian state’s soft power arm, exerting its authority in ways that assist the Kremlin in spreading Russian influence both in Russia’s immediate neighborhood as well as around the globe. The Kremlin assists the Church, as well, working to increase its reach. Vladimir Yakunin, one of Putin’s inner circle and a devout member of the ROC, facilitated in 2007 the reconciliation of the ROC with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (which had separated itself from the Moscow Patriarchate early in the Soviet era so as not to be co-opted by the new Bolshevik state), which reconciliation greatly increased Kirill’s influence and authority outside of Russia. Putin, praising this event, noted the interrelation of the growth of ROC authority abroad with his own international goals: “The revival of the church unity is a crucial condition for revival of lost unity of the whole ‘Russian world’, which has always had the Orthodox faith as one of its foundations.”

Cooperation on Russia’s reach into the outside world has even become formalized by a joint working group that meets regularly and is made up of officials of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the ROC’s Department of External Church Relations (renovation of these ROC offices was paid for by another close Putin friend, Konstantin Malofeev, further illustrating Putin’s interest in cooperation with the Church internationally). Because the ROC has significant influence within the former Soviet states around Russia’s periphery through its branches in those neighbors, this fact of ecclesiology gives the Russian state political leverage over its neighbors in which the ROC plays a major role. This is why the Belarussian Orthodox Church, which currently answers to the Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, has appealed to Moscow for greater autonomy in terms of church governance. The issue is not so much church governance, but a desire for greater political autonomy from the Kremlin in light of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, a fact that both Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who is trying to distance himself from Putin’s vice like grip, and Vladimir Putin, both understand well.

While Kirill and the ROC hierarchy have strongly supported Putin, cooperation between the two outside Russia’s borders has given Kirill a few headaches in the past year or so as aggressive Russian actions have served to alienate many of the clergy and laity who lead and belong to Orthodox Churches of the Moscow Patriarchate within Russia’s neighbors. Making this worse is the perception that the Church has merely become the soft power arm of the Kremlin, and evidence that the ROC has been closely cooperating with Putin on Ukraine in particular. As one example, the Church has been willing to act on the Kremlin’s behalf in wielding Russian influence over the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Last year, when the rebels were convinced to release the OSCE observers they had captured, it was the ROC that negotiated for their release, allowing the Kremlin to continue to pretend that it had no relationship with the rebels.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, the branch of the ROC in Ukraine, has been losing members quickly as Ukrainians do not wish to be part of a church body that they deem to be merely an appendage of the Russian regime they believe to be tearing their country apart. These believers have been moving to the two independent Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate – the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox church which split from Moscow at the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous (Autonomous) Orthodox Church, which is the 1990 reincarnation of an earlier autonomous church that had been killed off by the Soviets. In addition to losing laity, the ROC’s branch in Ukraine has been losing clergy and whole churches, as well. In addition, a large number of clergy, including numerous bishops, serving within Russia itself are Ukrainian, which highlights the risk the ROC faces of schism within Russia itself over this war.

A destroyed church near the airport in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in February. (VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps most importantly, the ROC makes up approximately 70% of all Orthodox believers in the world, which gives it what could be considered dominant influence within the global Orthodox communion. Were the Ukrainian Orthodox churches currently answerable to Kirill to leave the Moscow Patriarchate en masse, this would simultaneously significantly reduce the numbers of Orthodox believers that would fall under Moscow’s authority and also make the Ukrainian Orthodox community one of the largest in the world – and in direct opposition to Moscow’s ecclesial authority and goals. The threat to both Kirill and to Putin, therefore, is that Moscow’s pretensions to international leadership of Orthodoxy are likely to ring increasingly hollow, and Russia’s culturally influence globally is likely to shrink rather than to increase.

Illustrating Kirill’s difficult position was his notable absence last year when Putin spoke before the Russian parliament announcing his annexation of Crimea. Putin clearly expected the Church to put its seal of approval on his annexation of what Putin described as the spiritual birthplace of the Russian nation, yet Kirill did not want to be too closely associated with aggressive Russian actions that threaten major schism within his global communion. Kirill sent the aged Metropolitan Juvenalij to Putin’s speech in his place.

Kirill’s desire to not completely alienate Orthodox believers on Russia’s periphery has nevertheless not reduced the militantly supportive attitude of the Church to Russia’s confrontation with the West, in which Ukraine is seen as only the immediate battleground. ROC priests are known to visit the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, providing spiritual support for the Russian troops and pro-Russian rebels. Most importantly, because the confrontation over Crimea and Ukraine are viewed as part of a struggle having eschatological implications to protect a Russian civilization believed to be under siege from unholy forces, the conflict has taken on the characteristics of what one analyst has termed an “Orthodox Jihad”, resulting in violent repression against all who are not Russian Orthodox and a severe polarization among religious groups in the region. As much as any geopolitical confrontation between Vladimir Putin and his Eurasianist vision of Russia, on the one hand, and the West with its liberal values on the other, the conflict has from the beginning had characteristics of being a holy war, and the lines between ecclesiological/religious and political differences have become increasingly blurred.

Putin justified his annexation of Crimea in predominantly spiritual language, asserting that Crimea has “sacred meaning for Russia, like the Temple Mount for Jews and Muslims”, and that Crimea is “the spiritual source of the formation of the multifaceted but monolithic Russian nation . . . It was on this spiritual soil that our ancestors first and forever recognized their nationhood.” Religious impulses have long animated Russian attitudes toward Crimea. Few remember today that the Crimean War of the 1850′s was fought by Czarist, Orthodox Russia against the Ottoman Turks (the Muslim superpower of the day), who were allied with Great Britain (which entered the war in order to keep Europe from being dominated by Russia) and Roman Catholic France (which was, among other things, conflicting with Moscow over whether the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox Church would control the holy sites in the Holy Land) over religious divisions as much as anything else with Russia, then as now, viewing itself as the defender of Orthodox Christianity. (Also relevant to the current conflict is the fact that the war gave rise to a Ukrainian national consciousness that eventually led to an independent Ukraine.) Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, has written an excellent summary of the historical religious roots of the conflict which can be accessed here.

In Crimea, under Russian rule, severe restrictions on religious practice have been imposed on all non-ROC religionists. Many religious leaders have reported surveillance from the security services and questioning by FSB officers. Jewish synagogues, numerous Muslim mosques, and Christian groups seen as “Western” such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or pro-Ukrainian, have all experienced police raids and other forms of pressure. All 1,546 religious organizations which held registration as religious organizations under Ukrainian law prior to Russian annexation have been forced to re-register under the new government. According to statistics of the Russian Ministry of Justice, only 1% of those which had such registration status previously have succeeded in regaining such status under the new rule – partially because many did not even apply as they expected their applications to be rejected by the new authorities, and partially because very few of those who did apply were granted legal status. Those groups which do not have legal status do not have the ability to publish literature, have bank accounts, or own property, among other things, meaning that a lack of legal status effectively paralyses groups from virtually all activities that can influence public life.

The vast majority of non-ROC religious leaders in Crimea, particularly those with Ukrainian and other citizenship, have been expelled or face expulsion – the stripping of the legal status of most religious organizations nullified the basis for the visas and residency permits of their leaders, creating the legal justification for their expulsion. Most of the approximately two dozen Turkish imams who had been working in Crimea prior to annexation, for example, have been expelled. The leader of the Salvation Army in Crimea has fled after reporting harassment by security officers, and the home of the bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate in Simferopol and Crimea was burned down.
Crimea’s Muslim Tatars the original occupants of the peninsula, which still make up a little over 10% of Crimea’s population, had their last television station in Crimea closed down on April 1. Jews, too, have experienced persecution, with synagogues being defaced with Nazi swastikas, and the prominent Reformed Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin being expelled from Crimea after his outspoken condemnation of Russian annexation.

In rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine, ROC priests bless the Russian soldiers and pro-Russian rebels fighting, as they see it, for the very soul of humanity. As one priest articulated shortly after visiting Russian troops in Donetsk last year, Ukranian forces and their Western supporters are fighting for “The establishment of planetary Satanic rule.” He went on to explain that “What’s occurring here is the very beginning of a global war. Not for resources or territory, that’s secondary. This is a war for the destruction of true Christianity, Orthodoxy.” Speaking of those who control policy in the West, the priest, known as “Father Viktor”, went on to explain that “They are intentionally hastening the reign of Antichrist.” He then declared that “the soldier is also a monastic, but wages not an inner war with the spirits of evil, but an outer one.”

A Pro-Russian rebel shows his tattoo and a wooden Orthodox cross on his chest in the rebel-held town of Starobesheve, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

With apocalytic views such as this dominant among pro-Russian combatants and spread by the ROC, it is perhaps not surprising that there are widespread reports that non-ROC religionists are being targeted by pro-Russian militias and are being kidnaped, tortured and killed. The rebel government in Donetsk, the self-styled “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, which has declared the ROC its official religion, has been particularly aggressive in its crackdown on non-ROC believers. Many Protestant and other non-ROC believers have fled to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, which is still controlled by the Ukrainian government. A refugee camp outside of the city has grown up in the past few months composed of non-ROC Christians fleeing persecution in Donetsk.

Rebel Donetsk authorities have closed Donetsk Christian University, which is Baptist, and have also been reported by displaced ministers to have seized Protestant church facilities and begun using them as weapons storage facilities. Segiv Kosiak, pastor of Word of Life Evangelical Church in Donetsk, reported that armed men stormed his church, declaring that the church would be destroyed, and threatening clergy and parishioners with the firing squad if they protested.  Human Rights Watch has reported numerous examples of arbitrary detention and torture, including one report of an evangelical pastor from Donetsk who was arrested and tortured merely for holding an ecumenical prayer marathon for peace and unity in this region torn apart by war.

Part of the reason for the persecution of Protestants, in particular, is that many of the Protestant groups in Ukraine have strong links to the United States, which immediately makes them suspect. Protestants are therefore viewed as, at a minimum, being liable to spread “corrupting” influences, and, possibly even being American spies. Catholics, too, both Latin and Greek, have been aggressively persecuted, although the Greek Catholic Church, which is based primarily in western Ukraine, is pro-European, and was one of the strongest supporters of the Maidan protests, has come in for special attention. Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, has stated that “Any number of statements emanating from the Kremlin of late leave little doubt of Russian Orthodox hostility and intolerance toward Ukrainian Greek-Catholics”, and has warned that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is “menaced with extinction” both in Crimea by the Russian authorities and in eastern Ukraine by the pro-Russian rebels. He went on to predict regarding Crimea that “If Russia remains in control of the region, it is hard to imagine that Catholic life, whether Greek or Latin, would be allowed to return.”

As in Crimea, it is not just non-ROC Christians who are experiencing persecution in the portions of eastern Ukraine that are rebel-held. According to the Jerusalem Post, the vast majority of the approximately 10,000 strong Jewish community that existed in Donetsk prior to the Russian-inspired rebellion have fled, leaving the city virtually devoid of Jews. As Russian troops and their pro-Russian rebel allies have advanced, Ukraine’s Jews have had to move further into Ukrainian-government held territory.

For their part, believers belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kievan Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, Catholics, Protestants, etc., have been assisting the Ukrainian soldiers in their fight against the rebels and the Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. The Patriarch of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Filaret, has directly challenged Putin’s spiritual claims, lamenting the fact that Putin “is misleading some people, and they think that in fact this ruler protects traditional spiritual and moral values from the ravages of globalization. But the fruit of his actions, which the Gospel calls us to evaluate, suggest otherwise.” Filaret has called on Putin “to stop sowing evil and death, [and] to repent”, and has gone so far as to say that Putin has been possessed by Satan. Ukraine has had a history of religious diversity, yet the political polarization within Ukraine has been mirrored by an increasing religious polarization.

The cultural impulses that are driving the revival of state-based religious fervor from within Russia are deeply enough ensconced within Russian society that a mere change of Russian leadership at some future point is unlikely to address the issue. Rather than building a new Orthodox empire, however, Putin’s aggressive and neo-imperial actions, encouraged by a militant Russian Orthodoxy, have served to alienate those peoples living around Russia’s periphery, making it increasingly unlikely that Putin will find success in his efforts to build a “Russian world.”

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