Decades of church-military ‘symbiosis’ behind Russian Orthodox Church’s pro-war stance: scholar

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A decades-long “symbiosis” between church and military has planted the Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership on the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a leading Georgetown University scholar said Friday.

At the same time, the rightward stance of Patriarch Kirill — who described the invasion of Ukraine as a consequence of “gay pride parades” around the world — has alienated Russians and diminished the church’s influence in society, Marlene Laruelle, director of the GWU Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, told an assembly of the school’s Global Affairs and Religion Network.

“There was a long tradition of [a] kind of sympathy of power to this idea that the spiritual and the temporal power should walk together” in Russia, she said.

Noting that Soviet-era security forces exerted control over the Russian Orthodox Church, Ms. Laruelle said the church “really emerged as a kind of a pillar of the new Russian statehood, [an] important element of cultural identity and national tradition, but it’s much more of a structural element that matters.”

Russian Orthodoxy, she said, has made “a very strong push … to become a key actor on a lot of different issues,” such as countering LGBT rights, trying to restrict abortion, and to “take control over the discussion on domestic violence and juvenile violence” in Russian society.

But the church’s push for such “conservative values,” Ms. Laruelle said, has alienated many Russians. While 70% identify as Russian Orthodox, she noted, a “smaller number of 40% only consider themselves to be practicing” the faith, with what she called the “urban middle class” leading the backlash.

“One of the big difficulties for the Russian Orthodox Church is that they cannot really motivate Russian citizens to become very religious anymore,” she said. 

“So they have to function in an environment where people are symbolically attached to the orthodoxy or the cultural identification elements” of the faith, she said.

The support of Kirill for Russia’s side in the Ukraine war has caused tensions within the worldwide Orthodox Christian movement, Ms. Laruelle said. At the beginning of the war, Greek Orthodox priests talked about severing fraternal ties with Moscow and there have since been calls for a church trial of Kirill from within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate, a body aligned with Kirill.

On Monday, it was revealed that more than 290 UOC-MP clerics signed a letter demanding an “International Ecclesiastical Tribunal” to investigate what they called “heresy” by Kirill in preaching “the doctrine of the ‘Russian world.’”



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