Many Russian Orthodox Christians consider parts of present-day Ukraine to be a sort of holy land, replete with sacred sites filled with historical significance. It was on the territory of today’s Ukraine that Kievan Rus, claimed by many as Russia’s historical forebear, developed and spread. It was ostensibly at Cherson, on the Crimean peninsula, that Prince Vladimir was baptized in 988, laying the groundwork for the eventual emergence of today’s Russian Orthodox Church.
In short, Ukraine is justifiably regarded as the homeland of Russian Orthodoxy. But thanks to Ukraine’s complex history as a borderland, the religious landscape of the country today is highly diverse, encompassing not just the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Moscow’s management, but two other major Orthodox churches, an Eastern-Rite Catholic church in communion with Rome, and sizeable Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other minorities.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this pluralistic religious landscape has become implicated in the ongoing struggle between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels. The propaganda value of religion is not lost on any party to the conflict, with historical divisions becoming ever present in rhetoric from Moscow to Kiev to the battlefield.
In the vacuum of values that is the post-Soviet space, Vladimir Putin has increasingly relied on the resources of the Russian Orthodox tradition, especially its more conservative, patriotic manifestations, to consolidate the Russian diaspora in neighboring states and create a new form of Russian nationalism. While the upper echelons of the Russian Orthodox Church have generally been cautious about taking sides in the conflict, anecdotal evidence suggests individual Orthodox priests have sometimes actively aided pro-Russian rebels.
But the real political utility of Russian Orthodox nationalism lies in its persuasiveness more as an ideological than a religious force. For the Kremlin, politicized Orthodoxy constitutes a powerful propaganda weapon in the fight to keep Ukraine within its geopolitical orbit and out of a Western political, military, and social sphere.
Orthodox Propaganda in the Field
The rhetoric and iconography of militant brands of Russian Orthodoxy have been commonplace in rebel-controlled territories in Eastern Ukraine since the fighting began in April of last year. Journalists and academic commentators alike have noted the prevalence of vehemently nationalistic strains of Russian Orthodoxy among rebel groups in the Donbas, further encouraged by supporters arriving from the Russian Federation.
The degree of politicized exaggeration and distortion of canonical Orthodoxy can sometimes seem outlandish. Russian volunteers describe themselves as holy warriors defending Holy Rus and the Russian people from the “fascist” Ukrainian government and Western aggressors, with one prominent rebel battalion calling itself the Russian Orthodox Army. Recently, the Russian Orthodox Church’s inflammatory but well-known spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin even went so far as to compare the current struggle against “the American project” in Ukraine with Russia’s costly sacrifices in the wars against Napoleon and Hitler.
Particularly in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which has declared Russian Orthodoxy as the official religion, there have been widespread reports of religiously motivated persecution targeting non-Orthodox confessions, including Protestants, Jews, and both Greek and Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, Donbas rebels insist it is the Russian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian ancillary that have suffered the most from the protracted war in eastern Ukraine.
Crimea, Holy Land
The language and symbolism of Russian Orthodoxy also played a key role in justifying the annexation of Crimea. As previously mentioned, a millennium ago, Crimea was the purported location of the baptism of Prince Vladimir, whose conversion to Christianity enabled the eventual development of Russian Orthodoxy. It is for this reason that Putin in a speech celebrating the annexation claimed that Crimea is to Russia what Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is to Jews and Muslims. Never mind that both Russian and foreign historians have called this comparison both strange and inaccurate.
Today, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) on the peninsula claims to be on the verge of extinction, edged out by new laws and competition from the Russian Orthodox Church. And there have been numerous reports of harassment and even disappearances of Crimean Tatar Muslims. The case of Crimea may offer a foretaste of things to come for residents of the rebel-controlled Eastern territories, where violent Russian Orthodox extremism threatens to destroy the pluralistic religious and social fabric of post-Soviet Ukraine.