The ideology known as the “Russian World,” embraced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch of Moscow Kirill, is driving a wedge between the Orthodox Christian world, said Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I – a wedge that has serious consequences for Church and society globally.
Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, criticized the president of Russia and the Patriarch of Moscow during a speech at an international meeting dealing with policy issues. The meeting, hosted by the “World Policy Conference – For a Reasonably Open World,” took place in Abu Dhabi.
Patriarch Bartholomew, who holds a place of honor among the world’s Orthodox primates, called Putin’s war in Ukraine an “unjust aggression” which “constitutes the worst European geopolitical and humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War.”
His speech last week took aim at the ideology known as the Russian World, or Russkii Mir, which, according to a declaration drafted by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, states that there is a “transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or ‘Holy Rus,’ which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world. It holds that this ‘Russian world’ has a common political center (Moscow), a common spiritual center (Kyiv as the ‘mother of all Rus’), a common language (Russian), a common Church (the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate), and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow), who works in ‘symphony’ with a common president/national leader (Putin) to govern this Russian world, as well as upholding a common distinctive spirituality, morality, and culture.”
Not the first time
But the ideology is not the first time Russian thought has presented problems, Bartholomew said. Even in the 19th century, Moscow instrumentalized religion and developed an “ideology of Pan-Slavism” as an organ of Russian foreign policy. That ideology acquired a religious component, he said.
“This is the idea that Churches should organize themselves according to the principle of ethnicity, the central marker of which would be language,” the Ecumenical Patriarch said. “It is this approach that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople denounced in 1872 as heresy (the heresy of ethnophyletism, a form of ecclesial racism). It is in flagrant contradiction with the universalism of the Gospel message, as well as the principle of territorial governance which defines the organization of our Church.”
However, this “heresy” was useful to Moscow’s objectives since it distanced Slavic-speaking believers from the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, said Bartholomew. “The aim of this strategy was to create, within the Ottoman Empire, and later in the form of an independent state, a separate political force, at the service of the Russian thrust towards the warm seas,” he said, in an apparent reference to campaigns under Peter the Great and Catherine the Great to expand Russia to the Black Sea.
Since the breakup of the USSR, he continued, the Russian Orthodox Church has sided with Putin’s regime, especially since the election of Kirill as Patriarch of Moscow in 2009. The Kremlin capitalized on the supposed newly rediscovered faith of a post-communist populace. And the Russian Orthodox Church “actively participates in the promotion of the ideology of Russkii Mir,” the Ecumenical Patriarch charged. “Moscow (both political power and religious power) would constitute the center of this world, whose mission would be to combat the decadent values of the West. This ideology constitutes an instrument of legitimization of Russian expansionism and the basis of its Eurasian strategy. The link with the past of ethnophyletism and the present of the Russian world is obvious. Faith thus becomes the backbone of the ideology of Putin’s regime.”
Tensions between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Moscow can be traced back to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, after which Moscow staked a claim on becoming “the Third Rome,” assuming that primacy of honor previously enjoyed by Constantinople. In recent times, those tensions have manifested in 2016, when Moscow backed out of participation in a long-planned “Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church” on the Island of Crete, and in 2019, when Constantinople granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine — a Church independent of the Moscow Patriarchate.
“The invasion of Ukraine on February 24  pushed the polarization to a fever pitch,” Bartholomew said. “Patriarch Kirill’s ambiguous stance on the war and support for President Putin’s policies have provoked strong criticism within the Orthodox world and beyond. The Orthodox of Ukraine who had chosen to remain under the tutelage of the Russian Church also expressed their disapproval.”
That state of affairs is exacerbating the division among various Orthodox Churches in the rest of the world, he pointed out. “Some Churches agree with the Ecumenical Patriarchate; others, whose countries are too dependent on Russia, blindly support the Moscow Patriarchate; still others prefer to keep a complicit silence,” he said. “Meanwhile, the Russian Church uses the means of the state to establish its influence on the canonical territory of other Churches, despite the most elementary rules of the ecclesiastical organization of Orthodoxy. Its interferences in Africa are presented as punitive actions against the Patriarchate of Alexandria for the recognition of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It is obvious that in these conditions, the peacemaking role of the Church becomes very difficult.”
What this means for Catholics
From a Catholic perspective – especially regarding the hope for restoration of communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches – the intra-Orthodox tensions and divisions present a serious challenge for ecumenical dialogue.
Bartholomew said that there are also other serious consequences for the Church in general.
“The ethno-religious fanaticism inculcated in Russian youth stifles prospects for peace and reconciliation,” he said. “The Orthodox world is divided, and this fragmentation is projected onto poor countries, whose people hoped to find relief in the faith. Above all, it harms the Russian Church, since sooner or later the people will realize the excesses of a Church subject to objectives that have nothing to do with its original mission.”
The complete text of Bartholomew’s speech can be found here.