Putin’s war is also Kirill’s crusade

Russian Patriarch Kirill during a visit to Kyiv in 2012. Photo: Shutterstock

The EU Commis­sion has given in to pressure from Hungary and removed Patriarch Kirill from the list of persons to be sanc­tioned in the draft Sixth package of restric­tive measures against Russia in response to the war in Ukraine. While this exem­pli­fies a disas­trous weakness towards Viktor Orbán’s regime, it also under­scores a fatal under­es­ti­ma­tion of the role of the Russian-Orthodox Church within the power structure of Russia and its campaign of destruc­tion against Ukraine.

Part 1: Histor­ical inter­con­nec­tions. Current dependencies

It is not just one war that Putin has been waging in Ukraine since 24 February 2022: it is at least four wars. Wars against different enemies, against hostile chimeras that in Putin’s world view are insep­a­rably bound together. But, as we aim to show in this paper, he is not alone in this world view.

Four wars focused on one destruction

A political war: waged against Ukraine as a free nation and sovereign state which defin­i­tively turned away from Moscow after the 2013/​2014 Euro­maidan events and pivoted towards the West.

A war against the construc­tion of a liberal, demo­c­ratic model of society: also perceived as a war in support of a revi­sionist, illiberal and author­i­tarian lead­er­ship model like the one Putin has constructed in Russia, where he continues to consol­i­date his hold on power.

In his address to the Russian nation in February 2022, Putin set out his diagnosis:

  • Egois­tical striving for freedom,
  • A false concept of individualism,
  • Multi­cul­tur­alism,
  • Pseudo-values, which lead to degra­da­tion and degen­er­a­tion, as they are against human nature and lead to a departure from the values of true nationalists,

a diagnosis summed up in one word, decadence.

And in this address, Putin justified the order to Russian troops to march into Ukraine.

A war also meant to correct an allegedly false view of history and the ensuing false concept of identity, mistak­enly, from this point of view, called ‘Ukrainian identity’, and the incor­po­ra­tion of Ukraine once more into the Russian Feder­a­tion. Under­lying this is perhaps a more specific concept: incor­po­ra­tion into the Great Russian Empire that Putin is striving to build — on geopo­lit­ical grounds and, most impor­tantly, on cultural and histor­ical grounds. Putin has concocted his own view of history, one in which there has never been an autonomous Ukrainian popu­la­tion and, de facto, no right to an inde­pen­dent state.

In this world view the nation which today calls itself Ukraine embodies an Anti-Russia within the legal territory of the All-Russian nation, a nation consisting of central Russia (Russia), White Russia (Belarus) and Little Russia (Ukraine). Whenever arguments in favor of a war against today’s Ukraine are needed, the creation myths of this All-Russian nation are put forward.

In Putin‘s world view, this All-Russian nation may have been broken up by outside forces but never­the­less its soul has always survived. In the centuries imme­di­ately before the First World War, it was the Poland of the 17th and 18th centuries that was the enemy, and then the Habsburg Empire. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the enemy became the ‘combined liberal decadent West’, specif­i­cally the European Union which, hand in glove with the USA, has been trying to hamper the recre­ation of this unified legit­i­mate Russian Empire. In line with this view, the soldiers of the Russian Army were sent not as conquerors but as liber­a­tors, to the Crimea and Donbas in 2014, and in 2022 to the whole territory. The fact that the majority of Ukrainians still cannot under­stand this only proves their advanced decadence and the residual influence of the West on their way of thought.

And last but by no means least, a war as a crusade in the name of the Russian Orthodox Church. In order to better to under­stand this specific motive for war and to be able to cate­go­rize it, it is helpful to look at how this inter­weaving of temporal and spiritual power came about in Russia and to consider the special rela­tion­ship between the incumbent Russian president and the current Patriarch.

Not even Stalin could manage without the clergy.

The consol­i­da­tion of the influence of the Orthodox Russian clergy on world politics began with a decision that was in fact designed to destroy this status for ever.  In the course of his later reforms, which were supposed to follow a western model to modernize Russian society, Peter the Great used the death of the patriarch, Adrian, in 1700, first to leave the Patri­archy without an incumbent and then to replace it with a Holy Synod. The members of the Synod had to swear fealty to the Tsar, the admin­is­tra­tion of the church was taken over by the state, church property was largely absorbed by the state and the juris­dic­tion of the clergy was reduced.

For two hundred years the Church fought for the return of its former rights until, at the end of 1917, the Patri­archy was rein­tro­duced and the sepa­ra­tion of Church and State was intro­duced, together with the guarantee of religious freedom. Shortly after­wards, however, at the beginning of 1918, this was effec­tively suppressed by a catalogue of interdictions.

There soon began what is seen as the most wide-ranging and cruelest perse­cu­tion of Chris­tians in recent history: in several waves, millions of Christian believers in the Soviet Union were impris­oned, tortured, sent to gulags, murdered. But when Stalin needed soldiers to defend the Soviet Union against Hitler’s troops, he knocked at the doors of the remaining Princes of the Church, ate humble pie, abandoned his brutal repres­sions, and even permitted the election of a Patriarch.

In return, the Church called on its tradi­tion­ally obedient followers to support the fight against National Socialism. The victory of the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is called in Russia) can be seen, in this respect, as the victory of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Stalin was well aware of this. By the time he died in 1953 thousands of previ­ously closed churches had been opened again and numerous positions in the Orthodox hierarchy had been filled throughout all the provinces. The dictator had a lot for which to thank his pact with the repre­sen­ta­tive of God on earth.

The Church as the long arm of the KGB

Khrushchev ignored the advan­tages of a quid pro quo between church and state, returned to the doctrine of an indis­sol­uble contra­dic­tion between communism and the Church, and had all those who were not prepared to renounce their faith perse­cuted. However, Khrushchev had to pay for his reversal of Stalin’s pragmatic church policy. The greater openness that followed de-Stal­in­iza­tion led to counter movements, petitions and protests. In 1961 a Church reform brought the power rela­tion­ship back to an approx­i­mate balance.

Brezhnev learned from this and tried a policy of relax­ation combined with an infil­tra­tion of the Russian-Orthodox clergy by the KGB. This procedure was much more successful and is still bearing fruit today: the incumbent Patriarch, Kirill, (in office since 2009), sits within this tradition, as did his prede­cessor Alexius II (Patriarch until 2008).

State Church thanks to Gorbachev and Yeltsin

Mikhail Gorbachev also knew how to use the apparatus of the Church to his best advantage. He attended church regularly, invited Orthodox digni­taries to the Kremlin, facil­i­tated the return of numerous churches, monas­teries and estates to the clergy and massively increased state financial support for the Russian Orthodox Church.

For Boris Yeltsin any thoughts of a secular form of state and society were totally taboo. On the contrary, he used the estab­lished church networks extremely effi­ciently and in 1997 he signed a religious law which speaks, in its preamble, of the Russian Orthodox Church as the church and doctrine that has had a decisive influence on the history and culture of Russia. This meant the effective recog­ni­tion of the Russian Orthodox Church as the state church of Russia.

Putin – President with the blessing of the Church

Calcu­lat­ingly and with one single act (it was hardly acci­dental that its symbolism was remi­nis­cent of the Tsarist era) Yeltsin made sure at the end of his term of office that the coop­er­a­tion between Church and State, so bene­fi­cial to both sides, could continue as a unity, so to speak.

Overnight, the retiring president named his chosen successor, a complete unknown, Vladimir Putin, as acting president although the consti­tu­tion did not recognize any such office and the successor himself would not have had a hope of winning an election against much more popular candi­dates. To solve this secular problem Yeltsin summoned the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch gave the acting president his blessing in front of tele­vi­sion cameras and a worldwide audience.

The sin of appointing a president of the Russian Feder­a­tion in an uncon­sti­tu­tional manner was to be washed away by this act of Orthodox blessing, healed by a religious conse­cra­tion. While it may have seemed at the time, and from a Western point of view, a grotesque spectacle, espe­cially in a state that claimed to be demo­c­ratic, it can be seen with hindsight as an almost prophetic act.  From this point on Putin would himself regularly use the method of a church blessing as a cover for political crimes. And the Patri­archy – most recently Kirill in March 2022 – would regularly acknowl­edge Putin as an emissary from God. The time-honored phrase for the vicious circle of cronyism and back-scratching, manus manum lavat, one hand washes the other, comes to mind.

The symbolism of this ceremony, obviously more than a mere blessing, placed the power of the Church above that of the State. A not totally unselfish present from the outgoing president to the Russian Orthodox clergy. Many accu­sa­tions can be levelled against Yeltsin and many were mindful of the need for self-protec­tion, for Yeltsin was not just a fearsome drinker, he was also a feared fox. And so, from the very moment he took the reins of power over Russia into his hands, Putin was in debt to the Russian Orthodox Church. Such things are binding. Manus manum lavat.

Part 2: Medieval façade. Modern power structure

Peace. Peace must return sometime.  But what could this peace look like?

Wars are also culture wars. The war in Ukraine is no exception. This fact cannot be disre­garded in nego­ti­a­tions about peace and the future of the two main parties – Ukraine and the Russian Feder­a­tion Awareness of this fact, along with the involve­ment of all the parties to the conflict, is just as critical to any nego­ti­a­tions as clarity in under­standing their interests and arguments, regard­less of whether or not these are substan­ti­ated by inter­na­tional law and /​ or cultural history.

Up to now the West has focused on the political conflict provoked by the Russians and on Vladimir Putin as the sole catalyst for the war and the main obstacle to a stable peace. The situation seems so patently clear that it is unan­i­mously assumed that a putsch against Putin, or even his death, would funda­men­tally alter the situation. But would it?

Even those among his potential succes­sors who, like Dmitri Medvedev, are seen as repre­sen­ta­tives of a more pragmatic course, have become compliant disciples of his world view, his goals and his cynical coldness. But what if the appar­ently auto­cratic power of the Russian president were a lot less inde­pen­dent?  What if, outside the Kremlin, there were a further system of power and influence in Russia, and this power were so strong that even Putin could not completely free himself from it?

The role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the current power structure of Russia and the histor­ical reasons for it are little known in the West and are given too little consid­er­a­tion in discus­sions about the causes and results of the war in Ukraine.

As a result, there have been both omissions and disas­trous decisions of far-reaching dimen­sions. One example is the EU Commission’s decision to remove the name of Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev alias Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus, number 1158, from the list of people to be sanc­tioned in the draft Sixth Package of Restric­tive Measures against Russia.

The problem is not just that the EU gave in to pressure from the Hungarian govern­ment and let itself be shown up once again by President Viktor Orbán. What is almost worse — the EU has given a free hand to a very doubtful figure and his corrupt, influ­en­tial and dangerous apparatus of power.

Lust for power and luxurious living behind a medieval facade.

Behind the pre-modern, perhaps even late medieval, façade culti­vated by the church hides an apparatus that is not bound by the care and salvation of the soul: the Russian Orthodox Church is one of the largest nongovern­mental landowners in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. In addition to churches and monas­teries it possesses a wide real estate empire. Experts estimate the total income to be up to approx­i­mately one billion US dollars a year. The Church also receives money from the State, in accor­dance with the consti­tu­tion, as well as donations from private indi­vid­uals and busi­nesses. A few years ago Kirill’s press office felt it necessary to retouch a photo that had already been released, in order to remove a luxury gold watch from the Patriarch’s wrist. His entourage’s shopping tours in dioceses such as New York, Chicago, London, Paris and Vienna are legendary.

To keep the clergy mobile, as befits it, there is an impres­sive fleet of high-end cars, heli­copters and even, according to some reports, aircraft. On trips abroad they are always the guest of the embassy of the Russian Feder­a­tion and live in four- or prefer­ably five-star hotels, enjoying all the hotel’s amenities. To admin­ister its posses­sions, the approx­i­mately 115 million believers in Russia alone, and around 150 million worldwide, and its dedicated offline and online commu­ni­ca­tions, the Russian Orthodox Church uses its own Church media services, including social network trolls, the so-called Kirill-Bots.

The personnel of the Russian Orthodox Church have been closely asso­ci­ated with the secret services since 1970. Ever since the Brezhnev era there has been no Russian Orthodox Patriarch who has not had roots in the KGB or its successor orga­ni­za­tion the FSB. ‘This is true,’ said a leading member of the Church during a confi­den­tial conver­sa­tion, ‘for most metro­pol­i­tans (arch­bishops) and for at least a third of all priests and candi­dates for the priest­hood here.’ ‘Recruit­ment takes place in the seminary,’ he added. ‘Writing reports for the FSB is as much a part of the life of the priest­hood as confes­sion is in the life of the believer.’

Pillar of the ‘Russian World’ and co-creator of the Putin state

The Russian Orthodox Church under Kirill sees itself as a supporting pillar of Russkii Mir – Russian World or Russian Peace, for mir in Russian means both world and peace. Its main task has become the defense of this ideal against the influ­ences of Western decadence – a concept that includes every­thing from the right to indi­vidual freedom and basic demo­c­ratic rights to sexual self-deter­mi­na­tion – alongside missionary work in regions of the Third World that are rich in raw materials. With a deter­mi­na­tion that is intensive and aggres­sive, the Church accom­pa­nies its procla­ma­tion of religious messages with presen­ta­tions of its ideal embod­i­ment of the anti-modern, anti-liberal Russia of the future.

Now when the Patriarch, his metro­pol­i­tans and priests bless soldiers, tanks and rockets every­where in Russia, this is not simply because they support Putin’s political war. The Church has a whole package of interests in a war against Ukraine: religious-histor­i­cally, religious-philo­soph­i­cally and Church-polit­i­cally.  And reason­ings that go back into history — much further than Putin’s deriva­tion of his political ambitions.

Any talk of a peace without the inclusion of a reversal of the Ukrainian nation’s move to becoming a modern, western-liberal society is even less desirable to the Church than to the political estab­lish­ment in the Kremlin. The Church would also prefer the peace to be combined with the oblit­er­a­tion of Ukraine’s cultural self-confi­dence, which in this case encom­passes the social, political and religious identity of the Ukrainian people.

For Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church is a close yet simul­ta­ne­ously demanding ally in this war. In order for Kirill and his priests to declare to the millions of believers that his ‘special operation’ is a holy war against evil, or alter­na­tively a crusade to preserve God’s will on earth, some return is expected. The restora­tion of the Russian Orthodox Church in the area that Kirill now calls ‘Little Russia’ rather than Ukraine would be not simply a matter of the Church’s political interest. It would help to support robust action against the assumed western decadence which has turned inde­pen­dent Ukraine, in Putin’s and Kirill’s eyes, into a Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Russian Orthodox Church is not just an insti­tu­tion that must be included in the list of those to be sanc­tioned in Russia. The Church must also be included at the nego­ti­ating table during peace talks. The Church may well turn out to be diffi­cilium inter diffi­cilii, the most obdurate amongst the hostile, but history shows that without the Church there can be no viable peace.

The Midwife, the Baptizer, the Godparent, at one and the same time

The Russian Orthodox Church claims to have been simul­ta­ne­ously the midwife, baptizer,and godparent of the Russian World /​ Russkii Mir, a myth that had faded away but which has been revived by Putin: an empire that stretches far beyond the borders of the current Russian Feder­a­tion and that is defined less by geograph­ical or political borders than by an inner cohesion of values, through language and culture, belief in Christian-Orthodox teachings and a consensus that society does not need the freedom of the indi­vidual but rather a common focus on a single leader.

An orthodoxy of fraternal struggle

When Putin justifies his goal of restoring the Greater Russian Empire, consisting of the trinity of Russia, Belarus and Little Russia, now called Ukraine, and which arose from the baptismal font of the Dnieper, he is referring to exactly the same legend as that which promoted the Orthodox Church, as midwife, baptizer and godparent, above secular Russia: in 988 AD Grand Duke Vladimir, ruler of Kyiv Rus, converted to Chris­tianity and was baptized. What grew in ascen­dancy in the following centuries in the larger region around Kyiv and Novgorod, along the trade routes between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, geograph­i­cally in the center of today’s Ukraine, is consid­ered to be the nucleus of Slavic-Orthodox culture.

The Seat of the Metro­pol­itan was Kyiv until 1299, then for a short time Vladimir, 200 kilo­me­ters east of Moscow, and finally Moscow from 1325. At the end of the fifteenth century there was a gradual splitting off of the Metrop­olis (diocese) of Kiev and all Rus from the Patri­archy of Constan­tinople, finally offi­cially confirmed in 1590.

The histor­ical back­ground is signif­i­cant. For ever since then the Russian Church has exerted a massive influence, not only on secular politics but in nurturing the long running internal dispute about the religious sover­eignty of inter­pre­ta­tion and the right to provide personal lead­er­ship. This was accom­pa­nied by efforts to separate the Ukrainian Church from the Russian Church, efforts which flared up cycli­cally but were always suppressed.

In 1918, during the procla­ma­tion of the first inde­pen­dent Republic of Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church finally agreed to an autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was founded in 1920, but, because of Stalin’s perse­cu­tions and complex internal church disputes, only came into being in 1937. In the following decades, known as the decades of tied hands, the Mother Church in Moscow became regent for the believers in the Ukraine.  Following the second inde­pen­dence of Ukraine in 1990 /​ 1991 there were further demands for church inde­pen­dence alongside secular inde­pen­dence. The Patri­archy in Moscow, supported by the Kremlin and by Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constan­tinople since 1991, prevented this. Bartholomew was not wrong in thinking that the divisions between the pragmatic Ukrainian Orthodox and the tradi­tion­ally dogmatic Russian Orthodox could lead to a split in the whole Orthodox Church.

The break that will never be forgiven

However three decades later, in 2018, Bartholomew felt compelled to send out a signal of histor­ical signif­i­cance and agreed to the appli­ca­tion of the Ukrainians for auto­cephaly, that is, the inde­pen­dence of the Ukrainian Church, and therefore a split from the Russian Orthodox Church. ‘Bartholomew is a wise man,’ said a Ukrainian Orthodox metro­pol­itan in an interview. ‘One cannot conceal from him where humility turns into arrogance, and respect for one’s coun­ter­part into the humil­i­a­tion of that coun­ter­part.’ A diplo­matic and apt descrip­tion of the humil­i­a­tion of every­thing Ukrainian on the part of Russian Orthodox fellow believers and their ever more aggres­sive attacks against those in the majority in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who favored a course open to certain gradual devel­op­ments towards a modern and liberal society. At the same time, it must be noted that although the majority of Orthodox Chris­tians in Ukraine have turned away from the lead­er­ship of the Moscow Patri­ar­chate, a small number, mostly in eastern Ukraine, have opted to remain under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church. Bartholomew’s decision may well have been the most far-reaching decision of any Supreme Patriarch of the worldwide community in hundreds of years. It was a public challenge to the reac­tionary and dogmatic course of the Russian Orthodox Church and so a personal challenge to Kirill, whose reaction was not long in coming.

Since the secession of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, not only have the number of publicly docu­mented meetings between the Patriarch and the Russian president increased substan­tially, but it is also notice­able that Kirill has been expressing himself ever more frequently and ever more explic­itly and aggres­sively about actual or suggested devel­op­ments in Ukraine. Finally, in agreement with Putin, he has come to the conclu­sion that ‘the Ukrainian people have fallen to the West, and their lost souls rage against truth and goodness, as once Saul raged against truth and goodness. But after their final sepa­ra­tion there is little hope that they will, like Saul, find the strength for conver­sion and a return to reason. If the rot is not to spread, their arrogance must be extinguished.’

Part 3: Ivan Ilyin – the god next to God

After Vladimir Putin had become the consti­tu­tional president of the Russian Feder­a­tion in May 2000 through more or less demo­c­ratic elections, he was deeply in debt to the Russian Orthodox Church, without whose deter­mined and bene­dic­tory perfor­mance Yeltsin’s plan would hardly have succeeded; at the same time the new Russian president needed a rapid and striking success that could give him the respect and support he needed among the Russian people.

The long smol­dering war against Chechen bandits and terror­ists was the obvious choice, and Putin delib­er­ately followed a course of serious esca­la­tion. The accom­pa­nying gesture of thanks to the Church, which had also given its blessing to this, was unmis­tak­able. It was not only orthodox priests who under­stood that the word Chechen in the much-quoted battle cry was meant as a synonym for Muslim. It is an irony of history that twenty two years later, in Putin’s war against Ukraine, Chechen soldiers are fighting alongside Russians and they cele­brated the destruc­tion of each block of flats and conquered street in Mariupol with cries of Allahu Akbar!

Normal is something you cannot change

The symbiotic rela­tion­ship and reci­p­rocal instru­mental consol­i­da­tion between the secular and eccle­si­as­tical power apparatus in Russia, developed over centuries and, as described above, main­tained even in Soviet times, has deepened even further under Putin. The majority of the Russian people merely shrug this off. Anybody who does not consider it normal still accepts it as a given and unchange­able. In any case criticism of the Church and its repre­sen­ta­tives is still widely regarded as sacrilege in Orthodox societies. People might complain about the municipal admin­is­tra­tion or condemn the governor as corrupt, but as soon as the conver­sa­tion comes round to the Church, even a circle of suppos­edly good friends falls silent. All the more so as in the Russian Orthodox Church there can be no question of an open and critical exchange of ideas between clergy and believers. ‘Teaching goes from the top down. Believers accept it humbly and inter­nalize it, without any complaints or questions. So it was, so it is, and so it always will be,’ says Andrei, a Ukrainian-Orthodox priest, who has distanced himself from this dogma and is, as he says, fighting for the future of ecumenism – now with weapons as well as words. ‘Prayers alone won’t save us. As God is our witness, we are defending what we have peace­fully created in His name. A church that blesses a war and deni­grates their supposed brethren as the enemy has forfeited every right to appeal to God. Patriarch Kirill’s mind must be as disturbed as Putin’s.’

The president and the patriarch: an unholy symbiosis

In addition to their shared interests, there was soon a close rela­tion­ship at a personal level between the two leaders. In December 2008 Alexy II, the Patriarch who had helped Putin become president, died. His cardiac failure came as a surprise at the time but was not further inves­ti­gated. Now, however, spec­u­la­tion continues to increase, given his KGB past (code name Drozdov), which is no longer in doubt, and his contin­uing engage­ment with the Roman Catholic Church. Appar­ently several meetings planned between him and Pope John Paul II were prevented by intrigues within the Church. The brother-in-faith who later became his successor is said to have played a decisive role in this. (During Alexy’s term of office Kirill was metro­pol­itan of Smolensk and Kalin­ingrad, two of the most influ­en­tial Russian Orthodox dioceses in eccle­si­as­tical-political terms.)

Two minds with but a single thought

To date, no absolutely certain proof has been found for the oft-repeated statement that Putin and Kirill knew one another from their time in the KGB. Even more inter­esting is the affinity demon­strated by the two shortly after Kirill’s elevation as the new head of the Church. Whether it is true friend­ship or, more likely, a strategic alliance that binds the two, it quickly became obvious that behind the symbiosis between the Kremlin and the Church there was more than temporal political power and material benefit.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev alias Kirill I are bound together by a shared ideology, a world view that has little sympathy for the achieve­ments of the Enlight­en­ment and the modern age, invoking instead a handful of national-chau­vinist, radically religious and mostly Russian thinkers. One in partic­ular stands out: Ivan Alexan­drovich Ilyin (1883 – 1954). His work provides them both with partic­u­larly useful arguments when it comes to the restora­tion of the Great Russian Empire and at the same time proves to be an ideal spiritual bridge between secular and religious power.

Kirill enthuses about Ivan Ilyin as ‘the greatest thinker that Russia has ever produced’; Putin answers schoolchildren’s questions about his greatest role model: Ilyin.

Histor­ical misrep­re­sen­ta­tion, lead­er­ship cult, messages of salvation

Large parts of Ilyin’s writings read like the pamphlets of a high school senior: a conglom­er­a­tion of misun­der­stood Kant, Fichte and Hegel, held together by powerful images and Old Testament dogmas, inter­spersed with wildly inter­preted and convo­luted theories taken from Sigmund Freud, sprinkled with political philos­ophy loaded with emotion and under­pinned by a radical orthodox philos­ophy of religion.

It would have been almost impos­sible to under­value suffi­ciently the contri­bu­tions of this so-called thinker to human endeavor, had not both President Putin and Patriarch Kirill found in his work their arsenal of arguments and reasoning in favor of a mixture of histor­ical misrep­re­sen­ta­tion, lead­er­ship cult, messages of salvation, national-chau­vin­istic phrases and meta­phys­i­cally loaded analogies. Anyone who wants to fully under­stand the reasoning behind Putin’s war and Kirill’s crusade cannot avoid submit­ting to the martyrdom of reading Ilyin’s works.

Hitler: not religious enough.  Mussolini: inspiring leader

The crucial tenet for Putin and Kirill is Ivan Ilyin’s core thesis that Russia is the nation through which a Christian promise of salvation is fulfilled.

God, according to Ilyin, created the world in order to perfect himself. With the creation of man, however, sin came into the world, which promptly broke into pieces. A righteous nation under a strong leader is needed to save every­thing that has been lost since then. At first Ilyin enthused about Adolf Hitler but had to recognize that Hitler did not value religion. In Mussolini he found a man who fitted in better with his ideas. Il Duce’s speeches and appear­ances provided the prolific writer with new vari­a­tions on a justi­fi­ca­tion for political totalitarianism.

For Ilyin, the rule of law is not a basic right and democracy is an aber­ra­tion. In partic­ular, the aspiring middle classes stand in the way of true leaders because of their self-confi­dence and their striving for inde­pen­dence. How can a nation stand united and strong in the world if it, like those in Europe, it is made up of indi­vid­u­al­ists? Instead, a dicta­tor­ship of national education is needed.

Ilyin saw an initial promising model in Mussolini’s fascism. ‘Fascism is the saving excess of patriotic despotism.’ But despite all his enthu­siasm for the Duce, there was only one people for whom the ‘act of redemp­tion’ entered the arena: the Russians. Had this people not ‘virtu­ously defended itself for centuries against attack and encroach­ment, while always remaining true to itself’? Was it not, among all western Christian people, the ‘one and only’ that had ‘never denied and never lost its divine central character’? Could it not always count on “God giving it strength of spirit’?

‘There is no Ukraine’

Ivan Ilyin always spoke of ‘Ukraine’ and ‘the Ukrainians’ with irony and sarcastic emphasis. Anyone who has read Putin’s speeches and Kirill’s weekly pastoral letters since 24 February 2022 will not only have noticed many simi­lar­i­ties but will also have noted their increasing aggres­sion, an increase which even Ivan Ilyin himself needed half a lifetime to achieve. It is difficult to work out exactly when Kirill discov­ered his so-called thinker while Putin, since taking office, has regularly referred to Ilyin in his speeches. Indeed, as Putin brought Ilyin’s remains back to Moscow from Switzer­land in 2005 and had them re-interred there with full eccle­si­as­tical pomp, he has undoubt­edly been fully aware of him and his work from at least 2000.

Ivan Ilyin – a new saint on a pedestal

Together Putin and Kirill have elevated the previ­ously and justi­fi­ably little known thinker Ivan Ilyin to the holy position of a saint on a pedestal in support of their ideology of a Holy Russia for modern, Christian-Orthodox times and made him compul­sory reading in schools.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was supposed to be the end of a failed epoch but, seen through their eyes, it was at most a turning point on the way to restoring Russia’s histor­ical impor­tance. Greater things are to follow, not only in terms of terri­to­rial power, but of temporal power combined with divine grandeur.

The future ‘Great Russian Empire’ that, under Vladimir Putin and with the vigorous support and blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church, shall emerge from the current Russian Feder­a­tion, will revise the errors of history and achieve that which has been awaiting comple­tion – and waiting for the savior who will accom­plish it – for thousands of years:  Russki Mir, the Russian World, as a kingdom of God on earth.

And, crucially: if he should not be able to complete this project himself, his succes­sors will. According to the plan, which has worked so far thanks to Kirill, the support of the people will be secured by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Whoever tries to bring peace after this terrible war must take into account the ideo­log­ical back­ground and, above all, the inter­twining of Church and State, of the political and religious myths that are funda­mental to this world view. The West urgently needs to move away from its sole focus on Vladimir Putin. What is currently happening in Ukraine is a collec­tive crime in which the Russian Orthodox Church is playing a funda­mental role. The re-education announced by Putin of all surviving Ukrainians remaining in the territory is intended not simply as denaz­i­fi­ca­tion. Its aim is re-Chris­tian­iza­tion. Putin’s war in Ukraine is, at one and the same time, Kirill’s crusade.


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