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What does it mean that the Russian Orthodox Church is calling Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a ‘holy war’?

Sainted czars and Western antichrists. A Northeastern professor says declaring holy war attempts to stir nationalism.

A Russian Orthodox Church priest gesturing while speaking to soldiers outside.
The Russian Orthodox Church has declared the invasion of Ukraine a holy war that puts Russia at odds with “satanic” West. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

The Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow ramped up the rhetoric over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine when it adopted a document declaring it a  “holy war.”

The declaration, approved during a March 27-28 meeting held under the leadership of Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarch Kirill, describes the attack on Ukraine as part of an existential struggle for the soul of Russia against globalism and the West, which it says has “fallen into satanism.”

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, a Northeastern University assistant professor of religion and anthropology and an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church, answered questions from Northeastern Global News about why Kirill, a Putin ally, is framing Russia’s aggression in messianic terms — and what this means for the U.S.

What does holy war mean to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow?

Patriarch Kirill has said repeatedly that this is a metaphysical war and he has positioned Ukraine as a battlefield for the fight against Western modernity.

Headshot of Sarah Riccardi-Swartz.
11/03/22 – BOSTON, MA. – Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology, says the holy war declaration is an appeal to nationalism and denunciation of modernity. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

He’s saying, “I’m going to bless the troops. I’m going to bless the tank and bombs and I’m going to declare that anyone who dies in the process of this war who is fighting for Russia will immediately go to heaven and have their sins forgiven” — which is not actually a doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church.

There’s a long-running idea in mystical Russian theology that Russia is holding back the antichrist, and is doing that specifically through the prayers of the departed Czar Nicholas II, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.

They believe Czar Nicholas II is in heaven, interceding on behalf of them, and through his intercessions Russia is successful in holding back the antichrist.

It’s part of a longer narrative that sees Moscow as the third Rome, after Constantinople, or the end of the line in terms of Christendom.

Why now? In the past, Putin has called the invasion a “sacred battle” but not a war.

Kirill is using this to justify what looks like a war that people on the ground are really tired of. People are tired, especially after the death of (Alexei) Navalny (Putin’s chief rival). 

They may feel like support is waning in Russia. 

To call this a holy war justifies and moralizes this sort of imperial nationalistic expansion beyond the borders and confines of Russia.

It’s saying, “Here’s another reason why you should support the war in Ukraine. Not only is it patriotic, it’s also good for you spiritually to support the war.”

To label the U.S. as satanic, as the antichrist, is to say Russia is the last bastion of preserving the world — and a traditional world at that. 

How traditional? Do Russia’s nationalistic tendencies appeal to outsiders?

We’ve known for a long time that American conservatives and European conservatives have been having conversations with Russian conservatives about family values.

You have the white picket fence, and you have the dad going to work and the mom staying at home.

That’s an American version of what they want in Russia right now and they’re so interested in traditional values that the Duma (part of Russian parliament) has been pushing forward legislation to create enclaves in the east of Russia that are specifically for Western expats disillusioned with what they call Western ideology.

These expats are typical Russian Orthodox converts who want to move to Russia because they see it as a haven for traditional values.

Putin’s been very good about using traditional values language as a marketing tool to Western audiences, and Kirill’s doing the same thing.

That’s why when Kirill positioned the war in Ukraine as a metaphysical battle, as a spiritual battle, he talked in the following sentence about gay pride parades. 

This is not only a human rights violation, but clearly a position, a spiritual position, that sees enforced heteronormativity as the corrective for secular, Western humanity.

What territory does Russia think it should win in a holy war?

It’s very clear Putin wants to expand Russian imperialism in a post-Soviet context.

The Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow is saying Ukraine and Belarus are subsets of Russians. Their state authority and bureaucracies — all of the things that make a state run — should run through the Russian state.

And the church leaders are trying to push into the global south. They’ve been telling African priests, African Orthodox priests, that they need to come under the Moscow Patriarchate to be saved.   

Russian church officials have blessed the Arctic Circle and planted crosses in the area, all while Russia and NATO face off over the frozen north.

Does Putin control all members of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow?

Putin’s imperial politics is one of absolute control.

His allies in the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church believe they’re the only church that matters.

But we know that many Russian clergy and Orthodox lay people have been jailed for speaking out against the war and for not being willing to pray for the war effort.

It’s very clear there’s growing frustration with this war.

What does the Russian Orthodox Church declaration of holy war mean for the U.S.?

It will depend in part on who is the next president. 

Trump has been very sympathetic to Putin, and Biden has been far more supportive of Ukraine in this war.

So it will depend on who wins in November.