Despite all my effort, the Russian Church remains a mystery to me

Does using holy water for military material fit with a peace mission? The Russian Orthodox Church is sometimes amazing. Photo AFP, Vyacheslav Oseledko

Really, the Russian Orthodox Church remains a mystery to me. From the Crimea crisis onwards, I have been busy finding out what is happening in the Russian soul. But as soon as I think I know what Patriarch Kirill thinks, he suddenly says something that turns my picture upside down.

In September, the Russian church leader stunned the world with the following statement: Whoever dies on the battlefield in Ukraine finds an open gateway to heaven. After all, you die for others, a sacrifice that washes away your sins.

Evert van Vlastuin (1972) has been working as a journalist since the early 90s.

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Evert van Vlastuin

He has interviewed several Nobel Peace Price winners as the former South African president F. W. de Klerk and two leaders from Northern Ireland, John Hume and David Trimble.

From 2001, he worked as a foreign news reporter for the Dutch Reformed Daily. For that, he travelled to Kyiv during the Orange Revolution and to Moscow for some elections. Since 2021, he works as managing editor for the start-up CNE.news.

Just after Reformation Day, it would be easy to argue about the truth of this statement. If he has really said this, it would be fine for me –as a Dutch Calvinist– to say that this is completely false. But the point is what the Russian Church teaches. As I let this sink in, I thought: this is quite similar to the “holy war” in Islam.

Well, speaking about the Muslims: Putin’s other ally, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, literally said last Thursday that the struggle in Ukraine is “a great jihad”. However, Kadyrov is a true Muslim, and Kirill is not.

But last week, the Russian patriarch said the opposite to visitors to the World Council of Churches. He was asked to explain his support for the struggle in Ukraine. “A war cannot be holy,” he reportedly uttered in amazement, according to the report. “I don’t think a church can support war and destruction.” Look, you won’t hear that from Kadyrov.

Not radical

That a Christian is against war –and then always, against any war– also fits very well with the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which actually thinks that our Western doctrine of just war is not radical enough.

In short, our Western doctrine, which goes back to Augustine, is that war should only be waged in extreme necessity, under a lawful leadership, and by means appropriate to the evil to be fought. In other words, you cannot shoot with a cannon at a mosquito.

From the months of discussions leading up to the 2003 war in Iraq, I remember that this doctrine was not so easy to apply. Some thought the US-British invasion was okay from this perspective; according to others, “absolutely not.”

The Russian Church, however, rejects the term “just war” in all circumstances. At best, war has a “just purpose”. War itself remains an “evil” for Orthodox believers. Perhaps the “least evil”, but still evil. Returning from the battlefield with honour and glory is impossible.

Now, even in the Russian church, life is different from doctrine. Every year, in early May, President Putin organises a whirlwind show to commemorate the Great Patriotic War. And who sits in the front row at the Red Square? Indeed, Patriarch Kirill.

Water brush

The Russian church did make a small concession in its peaceful teaching over the centuries: clergymen are now allowed to become army chaplains. In the first centuries, this was unthinkable. But that these priests in the army also walk past arms with the holy water brush, apparently no one finds strange. While in the West, this evokes the very image of a church that approves of everything.

Celebration of victory at the Red Square. Photo AFP, Kirill Kudryavtsev

Is this just hypocrisy? Of course, that is too easy to say. There must be another explanation. In the World Council of Churches’ report of Kirill’s visit, there are a few sentences that may help. In it, Kirill complains about Ukrainian shells falling on Donbas from 2014 and about the 2 million refugees from Ukraine in Russia. He said the letters he wrote about this to Western church leaders had never been answered.

Different film

He gives this picture: The Russian military is on the defensive after years of attacks from Ukraine and the West. The military operation is undoubtedly evil but necessary to resist the attack on the motherland.

This is amazing for me. As a reporter, I visited Kyiv for the first time during the Orange Revolution in late 2004. From that moment, I tried to follow the developments closely. And I regularly discussed the “Ukrainian issue” with Russians too, during my visits to Moscow. To say this is a defence operation is baffling to me.

When I read this, I realise that this man has been watching –so to speak– a totally different film than me all these years. This is just beyond arguing. He has an entirely different view of Ukraine than we have in the West.

This is not just a matter of perception that could change if Kirill were to read a good newspaper, starting today. It is a completely different worldview. There is no beginning to change that. We will have to live with it. We must live with it.



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