Russian Orthodox Church
The ROC provides societal control and indoctrination for the Russian state.
April 10, 2023
March 15, 2023. Updated April 10, 2023.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Moscow Patriarchate is a fully controlled subsidiary of Russia’s secret police and has acted as an accomplice to the genocide of Ukrainians. Upon Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis told Patriarch Kirill that "we are not clerics of the state...the patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin's altar boy."
Yet that is precisely the situation of Kirill and the ROC. The Russian Orthodox Church has been an organ of Russian state security services since at least 1943 and has played a central role in Russian imperialism and hybrid war.
On March 22, 2023, Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Orthodox Christianity, denounced the Russian Orthodox Church 's complicity in war crimes before the Lithuanian parliament:
"The church and the state leadership in Russia cooperated in the crime of aggression and shared the responsibility for the resulting crimes, like the shocking abduction of the Ukrainian children…Our interreligious dialogue has to focus on ways to resist and neutralize the capacity of the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate to undermine unity and to theologically legitimize criminal behavior."
Patriarch Bartholomew noted that “Russian authorities were using the Church as an ‘instrument for their strategic objectives.’” It was no surprise that the Russian Orthodox Church backed Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko following a blatantly fraudulent election, and its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was never in question. For over ten years, the “partnership of Putin and Kirill laid the ideological and theological groundwork for the current invasion” of Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s Support of Atrocities
Russian “Patriarch” Kirill has offered “full-throated blessing for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine,” construing “murderous orders” as a type of “holy crusade.” Not only did Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church support Russia’s full-scale invasion of “Ukraine without any provocation and without any credible justification,” but they assisted in fabricating false pretexts for war and provided cover for atrocities. Far from denouncing Russian atrocities against innocents on foreign soil, Kirill has claimed that the “sacrifice” of Russian soldiers who die while invading Ukraine “washes away all the sins that a person has committed.”
The Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine has spread anti-Ukrainian propaganda. According to the testimony of locals in subsequently liberated occupied areas, Russian Orthodox Priests in Ukraine bribed local officials, cached arms, and paid Russian sympathizers for “coordinates of potential targets and for the locations and movements of Ukrainian troops.” This treasonous conduct is forbidden to non-combatants under international law.
Russian Orthodox priests have visited occupied territory of Ukraine, urging invaders to kill Ukrainian women and children and stating that "the soldiers of Putin's army are God's warriors." Andrii Tkachov, a Ukrainian-born Russian Orthodox archpriest and graduate of the Faculty of Special Propaganda of the Military Institute of the USSR Ministry of Defence in Moscow, has urged invaders to kill civilians in Ukraine and is a frequent "guest" on Kremlin-aligned propaganda programs where he justifies Russian war crimes.
Ukrainska Pravda reported that Metropolitan Onufrii (née Orest Berezovskyi) of the Kremlin-controlled Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) and numerous other UOC-MP priests are Russian citizens. Hedeon (née Yurii Kharon), UOC-MP bishop and abbot of the Church of the Tithes in Kyiv, is also a Russian citizen and conducted a religious service in Kazan, Russia which "included words in support of Russian troops and the Russian attack on Ukraine."
ISW’s Appraisal of the ROC as a Russian State Actor and Accomplice to Genocide
On Easter Sunday 2023, the nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War offered a sobering analysis of Russia’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church as a state organ and accomplice to the genocide of Ukrainians. Providing documentation for each item, they wrote, in part:
“Russian authorities systematically repress religious liberty in Russia as a matter of state policy…Russia is exporting its state policies of systematic religious persecution to Russian-occupied Ukraine…
Russian occupation officials have been repressing Ukrainian religious communities in proxy republics in eastern Ukraine and in illegally occupied Crimea since 2014…
Russian occupation officials have been repressing Ukrainian religious communities in proxy republics in eastern Ukraine and in illegally occupied Crimea since 2014…
Moscow’s religious persecution campaign seeks to eradicate the Autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU)...
Russia’s systematic religious persecution supports a larger Russian campaign of cultural genocide against Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that Russia is conducting mass deportations of Ukrainian children and depopulating Ukrainian territory in what likely amounts to a deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign. ISW has assessed that this ethnic cleansing campaign is part of a larger Kremlin campaign of cultural genocide that seeks to eradicate the notion of a unique Ukrainian cultural identity.”
Persecution of Non-Russian Orthodox Believers
By August 2022, over 400 Baptist churches in Ukraine had been shut down or destroyed by Russian invaders. Numerous other Protestant churches were shut down and pastors arrested, as Russia has done since its invasion of Crimea in 2014. Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches, too, have been shuttered by Russian occupiers and their pastors detained with false charges.
Kyiv-based researchers identified that “between February 24 and July 15, 2022, at least 270 places of worship, spiritual educational institutions, and sacred sites (cemeteries, memorials, etc.) were either completely destroyed or damaged by Russian troops.” They wrote:
“If previously priests on the occupied territories only received death threats, now religious leaders are tortured and killed – again, but on a scale far worse than in 2014. If previously Russian occupational authorities expelled Ukrainian believers from their churches and prayer houses, now Russia is destroying the spiritual heritage of Ukraine with missile attacks, shelling, and looting of religious buildings without justification by military necessity.”
The Russian Orthodox Church’s Propaganda Campaign
Russia’s violent suppression of non-ROC churches in occupied territories goes hand in hand with disconnecting access to independent media and communications and imposing state media monopoly for propaganda. In occupied Mariupol, for instance, the first vestiges of Russian control were not rendering humanitarian aid to a city without water or power, but Russian propaganda vans blaring Kremlin falsehoods on large screens and the forced closure of non-ROC churches.
Patriarch Kirill has articulated a shared world view with fascist philosophers Aleksandr Dugin and Ivan Ilyin and with Putin himself. Putin has worked closely with his KGB crony Patriarch Kirill for years to consolidate power through propaganda and intimidation. Kirill stated on television that “liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse,” also calling Putin’s rule “a miracle.” Violent Russian Orthodox vigilantes aligned with Kirill’s ideology “have been critical in helping Putin recast the liberal opposition's fight against state corruption and alleged electoral fraud into a script of ‘foreign devils’ versus ‘Holy Russia.’"
Following the Soviet tactic of accusing others of doing what they themselves are doing, the Russian Orthodox Church declared in December 2022 that “spreading destructive ideologies” should be criminalized in Russia. Yet the ROC itself has been a principal perpetrator of spreading destructive ideology and a leading instigator of persecution against other faiths. As is the case in every totalitarian system, such regulations are intended to be weaponized against opponents whereas they themselves are exempted.
The Russian Orthodox Church has falsely represented itself as a defender of “traditional values” against the “decadent west.” This is a propaganda facade of a pervasively immoral and corrupt institution. Ted Lien observed:
“Those conservative Christians in the United States who delude themselves that President Vladimir Putin and Russia, under his authoritarian, corrupt, and dangerous rule, defend traditional and Christian values should take note of this statistic: Only 1.4% of declared Russian Orthodox Church members in the Russian Federation attended Christmas services this year.”
Even while brutally suppressing non-ROC Christians, Patriarch Kirill has cynically complained in Russian state media that Ukraine was persecuting the Russian-controlled Orthodox Church in Ukraine at the behest of foreign actors: a common propaganda refrain from the Soviet era.
Patriarch Kirill: An Oligarch Wearing Different Clothes
“Patriarch” Kirill is not a holy man or even a bona fide priest, but merely an oligarch wearing different clothes. Spotted with a $300,000 luxury watch, Kirill has been described as “Putin’s personal patriarch” and was estimated by the Moscow Times in 2006 to have a net worth of over $4 billion. In 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church was reported to have a 40% stake in Russian oil exporter MES as well as major tobacco and wine businesses. The Russian Orthodox Church reportedly reported over 8 billion cigarettes - some 10% of Russia’s total tobacco imports at the time - duty free as “humanitarian aid” in a scheme organized by then-Metropolitan Kirill.
Racketeering and Money Laundering
The Russian Orthodox Church engages in racketeering and money laundering. By claiming religious exemption for its alcohol and tobacco businesses, and because neither Europe nor the US has been willing to sanction religious figures, the ROC and its leaders help Russia evade sanctions.
In the Russian mafia state in which business and organized crime are closely intertwined, the Russian Orthodox Church’s conduct is par for the course among Russia’s other transnational criminal organizations which engage in racketeering, money laundering, and support for Russian state terrorism.
Putin's invasion of Ukraine was also an avenue for the Russian Orthodox Church to attempt to forcibly regain upwards of 30 percent of its members who left its orbit when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church became independent in 2019 and, according to some reports, a similar portion of its revenue.
Russia’s Secret Police Control the Russian Orthodox Church
For decades, the Russian Orthodox Church has been led not by actual clergy, but by agents of the Soviet-era secret police sharing common background with Vladimir Putin. Soviet era archives have confirmed that Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, is not an actual priest who joined the clergy in response to a spiritual call, but an officer of the KGB (Soviet secret police) using the code name Mikhailov. Kirill spied for Moscow in Switzerland in the 1970s with the assignment of influencing the World Council of Churches: the organization that now refuses to expel or censure the ROC. Kirill's predecessor Patriarch Aleksy II was also "more than a mere collaborator" but "a fully fledged KGB agent" since at least 1958 with the code name "Drozhdov."
State control of the Russian Orthodox Church has consolidated in the post-Communist era. In 2019, Yehor Bozhok, head of Ukraine's Foreign Special Intelligence Service, noted that the Russian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate was "99 percent controlled" by the special services of the Russian Federation, the FSB [Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB] at home and SVR [Russian foreign intelligence service] abroad. Notwithstanding “overwhelming evidence,” Bozhok stated that “many in the West cannot accept it because it is beyond their imagination.”
Religion under Communism
Karl Marx saw conscience as a product of society and wrote in 1844: “the first prerequisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion.” Whereas Soviet communism is widely viewed as being hostile to religion, its position developed considerably over time.
For decades, overt hostility was extreme. Vladimir Lenin “demanded that communist propaganda must employ militancy and irreconcilability toward all forms of idealism and religion.” Over 106,000 clergymen in the Soviet Union were executed between 1937 and 1941 alone.
Russian moralist and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn detailed in his masterwork The Gulag Archipelago that religious believers were singled out for the harshest sentences in Soviet prison camps, with few surviving. James Nelson wrote that “estimates of the total number all Christian martyrs in the former Soviet Union are about 12 million" and that "estimates from the 20th century of Christians who died from secular antireligious violence worldwide are over 25 million, more than all previous centuries combined." The persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union has been cited as the largest martyrdom event in world history.
As a result of brutal suppression, church attendance in Russia fell from approximately 52% of parents and 40% of children in the 1920s to less than 3% by 1980., The resulting institution was only a husk of its former self, infiltrated by informants and KGB agents.
Reinvention of the Russian Orthodox Church as a Tool of the State
With time, Stalin and his successors found that the Russian Orthodox Church could be a useful tool for control of the masses. Historian Oleg Bazylewicz told the Kyiv Post:
“The Russian Orthodox Church is not really a church, but rather a state bureau for fooling the population of Muscovy and an instrument of influence on the population of those lands that Muscovites still want to ‘collect."’ Without the Russian Orthodox Church, the rulers of [Muscovy] would never have managed to intimidate and fool people for centuries and drive them into war.
“From the middle of the 15th century, this pseudo-church continuously performed the function of serving the internal and external needs of the Muscovite state. The Bolsheviks initially tried to fight against religion but quickly realized their mistake and reverted to the traditional servile role. This happened in 1943 when the Russian Orthodox Church received its ‘Tomos [letter of autonomy] from Stalin.’”
Rather than continuing to attempt to eradicate the Russian Orthodox Church, Stalin and his successors worked to direct it towards their own aims. They remained deeply hostile towards Christian principles and beliefs, but they found utility in a “fake” church led by plants and infiltrated by informants that could even help them maintain social control. Independent churches, of course, continued to be harshly repressed.
The Russian Orthodox Church was thus hollowed out by Stalinist persecutions and reinvented as an organ of the secret police.
Refinement of State Church Control Under Putin
Putin’s so-called revitalization of the Russian Orthodox Church does not represent a radical departure from late Communist era policies. It is rather a refinement, completing the Church’s transformation from an infiltrated and occasionally useful tool to a visible institution of the state. The goals of power and societal control while offering a veneer of legitimacy remain the same.
Whereas the number of Russian Orthodox believers in Russia has increased from some 30% at the breakup of the Soviet Union to over 80% today, including some 90% of ethnic Russians, the level of belief remains superficial. For most, the Russian Orthodox Church is a national and political institution and not primarily a spiritual one.
The Moscow Times reported in 2019 that “while almost 81 percent of adult Russians consider themselves Orthodox, this is often a declaration of identity rather than faith:” only 6 percent of Russians attend services regularly, and that figure continues to decline. Avowed atheists constitute some 30% of Russian Orthodox believers, and the faith of most others is nominal.
Fascist Russia leverages the Russian Orthodoxy similar to how ISIS and Iran militate Islamic extremism to rationalize terror and aggression for political aims. That their dogmas are morally bankrupt, antithetical to human rights and international law, and contrary to the faiths’ own scripture and professed principles does not matter to their leaders or indoctrinated devotees. Their concern is only that they are able to mobilize their own adherents to achieve their political agenda, whether through propaganda or violence.
The Failures of “Westsplaining”
David Satter wrote in Forbes in 2009:
"The installation of Kirill I as the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church last month will not end the subordination of the church to the Putin regime. On the contrary, the church is likely to emerge as an even stronger supporter of dictatorship and anti-Western ideology."
This observation, which was apparent at the time from Kirill’s own history and statements, has proven precisely accurate. Yet numerous commentators have continued to construe the Russian Orthodox Church as an independent entity notwithstanding abundant contrary evidence. Luchenko’s Carnegie Endowment essay acknowledges the ROC’s “exclusively Russian perspective” while missing the larger picture. Scott Kenworthy provides an interesting overview of Russian Orthodox history in The Conversation, but misses the crucial connection that Kirill and the ROC are an agent and institution of the state, respectively, and not independent actors joining forces to serve common interests. Both authors missed that supporting Putin’s war was not a real question for Patriarch Kirill which involved weighing various considerations. Rather, Kirill has worked with Putin for years to establish ideological conditions for the invasion.
The Russian Orthodox Church has colluded with the Russian state to require the identification of international churches operating on Russian territory as “foreign agents” and to severely restrict their activities. The “foreign agent” allegations have puzzled Western pundits, who understand that western churches are autonomous entities insulated from governance by walls of separation.
The “foreign agent” restrictions are logical from the Russian perspective. The function of the Russian Orthodox Church is precisely that: furthering interests of the Russian states at home and abroad. No such church-state separation can or does exist in Russia. Historically, principled religious believers have resisted totalitarian abuses and have been seen by authoritarians as “enemies of the state.” The success of other faiths beyond token membership is perceived as depriving the Russian state of opportunities for indoctrination and control.
The ROC’s support for Russia’s war has been denounced as sacrilegious, contrary to scripture, and a betrayal of the faith by other Christians. Commentators have noted that Kirill’s call for an anti-Ukrainian crusade with promises of salvation upon “martyrdom” is in the same vein as jihadi calls to terrorism by leaders of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), Al-Qaeda, and Iran. Russian Orthodox priests have blessed soldiers, missiles, and military vehicles used to commit atrocities in Ukraine.
The ROC has regularly engaged in anti-Christian conduct and is neither Christian nor a church in the regular sense. It is an apparatus of the Russian state for mass control and propaganda. Even the nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War acknowledged the Russian Orthodox Church as a Kremlin-controlled institution.
Western Inaction Against Russia’s Fake Church
Ruthless persecution of non-Russian Orthodox Christians at home and in occupied territories while exploiting Western goodwill and naivete have been central elements of Russia’s “hybrid war” strategy. Yet the World Council of Churches has resisted calls to expel the Russian Orthodox Church. Even as other clergy noted the ROC’s complicity in Russia’s war crimes, WCC leader Ioan Sauca stated that it would be a mistake to lose opportunities for dialogue and cooperation even during disagreement by excluding or expelling the ROC.
Sauca’s tone-deaf statements in the face of the ROC’s complicity in Holocaust-style atrocities fail to acknowledge reality. While reasonable people can have different perspectives, Christianity is defined by good faith efforts to implement Christ’s teachings. The ROC offers only the shallowest veneer of Christianity while co-opting the Christian name as a cover for moral licensing of atrocities. Including the perpetrators of genocide in ecumenical activities does not promote responsible dialogue or reform. It enables and legitimizes their conduct while making those who associate with them complicit, as belatedly acknowledged by the German Catholic clergy who were complicit with Hitler in their silence.
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