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