Beneath the golden onion domes of Danilov Monastery, a few miles south of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin’s chief shaman explains why Russia is determined to destroy Ukraine.
“If we see [Ukraine] as a threat, we have the right to use force to ensure that the threat is eradicated,” Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril recently preached to his church’s 90 million followers. “We have entered into a conflict which has not only physical but also metaphysical significance. We are talking about human salvation, something far more important than politics.
The war coalition between Putin and his patriarch is called symphony, an ironclad alliance between Church and State that ensures reciprocal respect, with no institution claiming to dominate the other. Theologians have spent centuries bickering over the fine points, which have now impaled 44 million Ukrainians as victims of a bloody land grab that Putin and the patriarch have touted as a holy campaign to purify souls.
“A new world order is being born before our eyes,” is how Putin described the relationship in a statement released at the start of the war, later warning those who disagreed with him “to inflict maximum damage to people”. He said: “The Russian people will be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths.
Certainly, the only remaining question is how far Putin and his patriarch can descend into repression and hideous cruelty before the means no longer justify the end.
Byzantine and Orthodox Church historian Henry Hopwood-Philipps believes that NATO and all those who oppose Putin’s klepto-theocratic regime will have a long wait. “Information warfare, military warfare against Putin seems to be working,” says Hopwood-Philipps. “But for all the digital gunpowder of the West, we are faced with nearly 700 years of a deeply rooted otherworldly belief system.”
“Putin and Kirill are tied at the hip.”
In the eyes of the patriarch, Ukrainians are sinners. “Many people out of weakness, stupidity, ignorance and more often than not a willingness to justify Bible condemned sin is a test of our ability to profess faith in our Savior,” Kirill told his flock.
In Western capitals, says Hopwood-Philipps, Kirill’s muscular significance has either been ignored or lost in translation. “Putin would execute any Russian clergyman who disagrees with Kirill,” he says. “Putin and Kirill are attached at the hip, and they shaped religion to provide the Russian people with spiritual nourishment instead of physical sustenance.”
Putin’s plan to resurrect symphony and harnessing it to gain influence beyond Russia’s borders reached its crescendo at a ceremony in Moscow in 2007, when Putin welcomed the signing of the Canonical Act of Communion with the Orthodox Church Russian Abroad. Kirill was appointed Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in 2009, leading a worldwide congregation of more than 140 million people.
Since then, about 100 of the 340 clergy who administer the Church Abroad community have swapped their cassocks to join Orthodox churches unaffiliated with Putin, according to Dr. Stratos Safioleas, spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of New York. So far, 145 other American Church congregations overseas have followed suit.
A Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam has also left the parish following threats it received for condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “It is no longer possible for [us] operate within the Moscow Patriarchate and provide a spiritually safe environment for our worshippers,” the parish council of St. Nicholas of Myra said in a statement.
As for the rebel priests who remained in Russia, history could offer a lesson in what to expect from the Kremlin.
According to the diary of Johann Korb, the Austrian secretary of the legation at the court of Peter the Great, the Ukrainian-born exarch Stefan Yavorsky begged the tsar to stop torturing those who disagreed with him. “How does it feel to come here,” shouted Tsar Romanov. “It is a duty I owe to God, to save my people from evil, and to pursue with public vengeance the crimes which lead to common ruin.”
So what would it take to stop Putin and the Patriarch from further destroying Russia and wiping out Ukraine?
“We need Frodo,” sighs Sergey Buntman, the program director of the now muzzled Echo Moscow Radio, eyeing the Hobbit who overthrew Mordor in The Lord of the Rings as the only liberator with the mystical punch to save both countries.
And Buntman was not flippant.