Explained: The Religious Motivations Behind Putin’s Unholy War | Magazine Features
Justin Brierley (JB): Can you fill us in on some of the religious history that informs this particular war, Father Cyril?
Father Cyril Hovorun (CH): It is clear that Putin is obsessed and possessed with the idea of taking over Ukraine. It’s irrational: he’s destroying his own country to take back Ukraine, which seems increasingly unlikely. This behavior can only be explained if we take into consideration the non-rational, non-secular dimension.
From a secular point of view, Putin is inscrutable and unpredictable. That’s what puzzled many Western leaders, I think, because they can’t read his mind. They see him as one of them: a secular leader with a pragmatic approach to things, but he is not. It is moved by a kind of metaphysics. I wouldn’t call it religion, although there is a component of traditional Christianity in it. It’s really a kind of metaphysical gaze, which I find dangerous.
His KGB career changed when the Soviet Union collapsed. It seems that he became disenchanted with communist ideology and became a kind of non-ideological personality. He had some conversion experience, but I would say the type of religion or metaphysics he converted to reflects late Soviet religiosity much better than mainstream Christianity. This kind of post-Soviet religiosity is very simplistic. Just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about cheap grace, I would say Putin embraced cheap spirituality. It’s ritual, it’s superstitious. He seems to be very interested in numerology; he started his campaign against Georgia on 08.08.08. And the first troops were brought to Ukraine from the eastern borders on 22.02.22. So this kind of crazy numerology is very much rooted, it seems, in his spirituality. Also, he consults spiritual charlatans who are neither priests nor traditional Christians. It’s a mixture of post-Soviet metaphysics, superstition and, I would say, a dualistic worldview. There’s a part of the world that’s good, and he thinks it’s Russia, and then there’s a part of the world that’s bad, and he thinks it’s the West.
AT ONE TIME THERE WAS A CONVERGENCE OF THE RHETORICS OF THE CHURCH AND THE KREMLIN
What he’s doing in Ukraine isn’t just about Ukraine, it’s actually about conquering the West; he wants to destroy it through Ukraine, which serves as its proxy. Let us also remember the other crimes against humanity: the poisonings of Salisbury, the interventions in the American electoral process, etc. For Putin, it’s a global campaign; a cosmic task, I would say. Yes, he’s a lunatic, but he’s a calculating personality driven by the kind of worldview I’ve described.
JB: Clifford, can you add a bit of history as I think it will help us get an idea of what Putin had in mind when he launched this invasion?
Clifford Longley (CL): A key phrase here is “Holy Rus”, and its center has long been Kyiv, which is why Kyiv is still so important to Putin today. In other words, Moscow was a suburb of kyiv, not the other way around. (I’m not even sure Moscow even existed 1,000 years ago, to be honest with you.) So it’s embedded in that kind of history – it was a unified entity. And I think Fr. Cyril is quite right to say “metaphysics”. I would even say it is a mystical notion: the three parts of Holy Rus being Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and they were ruled by the Tsar, who had a special duty from God to protect it of his enemies. His enemies were in the west, and indeed, to some extent, his enemies were Catholics. There was a lot of tension between Poles and Lithuanians who were, historically speaking, Catholic nations. They were considered the embodiment of what threatened Holy Rus. There have been wars, territorial boundaries have changed – moved here and there – and indeed moved again after the second world war, but basically the idea is that there is a holy space – whose soil is holy, whose people are holy and whose Church is holy – and they are unified under the Moscow Patriarchate.
Now the interesting question is: to what extent does this metaphysical ideology of Putin correspond to the understanding of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church? I know we can find remarks from the spokesperson for the Patriarch of Moscow saying that there is such a thing as Holy Rus’ and it needs to be protected from its enemies, but I don’t know if the whole package which you have described so eloquently, Cyril, is subscribed to by [the head of the Russian Orthodox Church] Patriarch Cyril.
CH: I mentioned that Putin was disappointed when he left the [Communist] Party. He became disappointed with communist ideology and any ideology, and for a long time he remained, I would say, a non-ideological person. Even when he became president in 2000, I don’t think he really aligned himself with any ideology. But what happened then was that there was an offer from the Russian Church; an offer of some sort of ideology to replace communist ideology. This ideology was conceived from the beginning by the Russian Church… although it is more appropriate to call it mythology. And that was exactly that idea of Holy Rus, as mentioned by Clifford, and the idea of sacred space to be protected. The Russian Church, and in particular Patriarch Cyril himself, are the authors of this ideology. And the Russian Church succeeded in “selling” this ideology to the Kremlin and the Kremlin adopted it.
I remember it very well, because I was working in Moscow at the time, when the Kremlin adopted the language of the Church to describe its political objectives. There was a convergence of rhetoric, of the Church and of the Kremlin, with the Church playing the main role in producing this rhetoric. When I listened to Putin, just before he launched his attacks on Ukraine, I heard the voice of the Church: the argumentation, the tropes. And if we go back to 2014 when Crimea was annexed and Putin sent his troops by proxy to the Donbass region, many came to fight in eastern Ukraine with the idea that they were protecting space sacred of the Holy Rus, and they fought against the impious, demonic and diabolical West. And this idea was inspired, I fear, by the Church.
And it’s reciprocal. As soon as you influence someone, you are influenced by him, especially in the symphonic relationship that the Patriarch of Moscow has with the Kremlin. Yes, the Moscow Patriarchate provides the Kremlin with rhetoric, language, and it is affected by ideas, by ideologies, which come back like a boomerang.
JUST AS DIETRICH BONHOEFFER TALKED ABOUT CHEAP GRACE, I WOULD SAY PUTIN HAS ADOPTED CHEAP SPIRITUALITY
JB: Father Cyril, do you think that at this point Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow, actually approves and encourages this war in Ukraine?
CH: I’m sure. Unfortunately.
JB: There is a story that says that religion is responsible for many wars. What is your response, as a Christian, to the fact that these religious tensions have, to some extent, contributed to this war in Ukraine?
CH: I believe the opposite. That the lack of religion contributed to this war. Putin’s atheist background, secular background and poor religious upbringing made this war possible. Just like in the 20th century, when the Great War and the Second World War took place because of increasing secularization – these were not wars of religion, they were wars of secularized ideologies like Communism, Nazism and fascism. So I don’t think it’s entirely correct or useful to consider this conflict as provoked or inspired by religion. War is underpinned by misunderstanding of religion or abuse of religion.
This conversation first aired on Unbelievable? as “The Religious Roots of Putin’s Invasion”. To listen to it in full, download the podcast or watch online at youtube.com/unbelievableshow