09.01 Expertise

Reaping War: The Russian orthodox church and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Nikolai Mitrokhin
Researcher at the Centre for Eastern European Studies at the University of Bremen
Nikolai Mitrokhin

The position of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) regarding the Russia-Ukraine war is, in public perception, essentially equated with the stance of Patriarch Kirill. However, beyond such perception lies the position of the vast church itself, which is the largest not only religious but also public organisation in a number of post-Soviet countries. What is this position in reality? To what extent does the ROC support the war? And, is the Russian church as a whole a propaganda tool for the Russian authorities, as is often assumed? What processes has the war caused within the ROC itself?

These questions have become the subject of in-depth research by Nikolai Mitrokhin (Centre for Eastern European Studies at the University of Bremen), allowing us to overcome clichés and simplifications and to understand the social and ideological dynamics of the ongoing processes, the nature of the church's influence on these processes, and the impact of the unfolding events on the church itself.


The position of the Russian Orthodox Church is often conflated by the public with the stance of Patriarch Kirill, who is clearly part of Putin's inner circle of ideological servants and personally embraces the imperialist-anti-Western narrative promoted today as the official ideology and justification for the invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, the actual strategies of the patriarch himself are an attempt to find a compromise between the need and personal inclination to support Putin's invasion and the desire to minimise the damage it is doing to the ROC's position in the Orthodox world.

The attitudes towards the war held by most of the ROC clergy is even more strongly shaped by this compromise between political loyalty and commitment to the institutional interests of the ROC. However, this manoeuvring has failed to prevent either the destruction of certain church institutions caused by the war or the secession of some autonomous churches from the Moscow Patriarchate. Even the 'gifts of war' received by the ROC in return for its loyalty — substantial financial resources and Andrei Rublev's ‘Trinity’ - have not been able to compensate for this damage. Forcing the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to participate in Putin's 'imperial' project paradoxically makes it likely that it will lose its 'universal' character and influence and will 'shrink' to the borders of Putin's political empire.

At the same time, both within the episcopate and among the church's activists and parishioners, one can observe roughly the same spectrum of attitudes towards the war as exists in society as a whole: from active war enthusiasm to active rejection. However, for most of this society, personal attitudes toward the war are complicated by concerns about the schisms it provokes and its threat to the unity of Orthodoxy. This tends to shape a more disapproving, albeit reluctantly loyal (within the territories of Russia and Belarus), stance towards the war. However, these threats may be associated with both the war and the actions of the Putin administration, as well as with reciprocal political pressure on the Orthodox Church from national governments in Eastern Europe.

The invasion of Ukraine and the coercion of the Moscow Patriarchate into active support and propaganda have dealt a greater blow to the ROC than the collapse of the USSR, which it not only managed to survive but even strengthened its position in the Orthodox world, becoming, for a time, an institution of Russian ‘soft power’. This result looks all the more paradoxical because the real influence of the church outside its own religious community seems clearly exaggerated in the perceptions of both the media and the political class.


Patriarch Kirill as a politician

As already mentioned, in the public sphere, the church's position is largely identified with the stance of the patriarch, which, in turn, is perceived by liberal media and the public in the following manner: 'The war is being waged by Russia for the 'Russian world'; Patriarch Kirill is the main architect of the idea of the 'Russian world'; he has also blessed the war and prays for the Russian army and Putin.' There are certain ambiguities within this narrative — whether Kirill executes Putin's will or, on the contrary, gave him the idea — but the picture is essentially that. 

Patriarch Kirill is undoubtedly a member of Putin's ideological entourage, supporting nationalist and imperialist positions. Together with Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Crimea, film director Nikita Mikhalkov, economist Sergei Glazyev, and a number of second-tier figures, he forms a Russian-nationalist and pro-imperialist faction among the 200-300 people with whom Putin has personally chosen to interact on more than one occasion. They advocate the revival of a 'Russian Empire', aiming to combine the best of pre-revolutionary imperial and Soviet experience. They insist that Russia has always been a victim of unfair competition from the West, and argue for Russia's right to actively defend itself within the post-Soviet space. When it comes to Ukraine, they have expressed the spirit of 'unity' between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, denying any distinction between them and, on this basis, question the historical validity of the 'Ukrainian idea'. In recent years, Putin himself has repeatedly reproduced these ideas.

In January 2014, Patriarch Kirill directly participated in the preparation for the annexation of Crimea by sending a delegation to Kyiv and Crimea with the 'gifts of the Magi' — sacred items for worship. 'The gifts of the Magi' actually turned out to be 'gifts of the Danites,' as they were guarded by the future leader of the pro-Russian militants in Crimea and Donbas, FSB Colonel Igor Girkin (Strelkov). He used this trip for reconnaissance, while the Russian politicians from the delegation negotiated with the future leader of the collaborationist government in the region, Sergey Aksyonov, and pro-Russian deputies and officials, who would form the future authorities.

Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church had much less direct involvement in Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014-2015, and the justification of this invasion, than it was later credited with. The Holy Synod of the ROC did not adopt any documents justifying the aggression and annexation of Crimea, and the patriarch — the only one from the top ranks of the Russian state establishment — did not take part in the solemn act of Crimea’s annexation in the Kremlin. In Crimea, the metropolis remained under the leadership of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) in Kyiv, which has not been re-subordinated to Moscow. Until June 2022, new bishops of this metropolis were ordained in Kyiv, not in Crimea or Moscow. Thus, in fact, from 2014 to 2022, the UOC was the only major legally operating Ukrainian organisation on the peninsula, even if its existence was conditioned by tactical considerations, which we will discuss further below.

Contrary to popular belief and Ukrainian propaganda, only a small minority of the clergy in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) actively supported the annexation and war in Donbas. As of 2018, the Ukrainian activist database ‘Peacemaker’ listed only about 30 such individuals out of approximately three thousand priests serving in Crimea, Donbas and conflict regions of southern Ukraine at the beginning of 2014. This is obviously a smaller proportion than the number of officials, military personnel, intelligence and law enforcement officers, doctors, teachers, university professors and other comparable professional categories who were in these regions and supported the invasion or became active collaborators.

Also, contrary to popular opinion, Patriarch Kirill is neither the architect of nor a lobbyist for the idea of the 'Russian world' that has been used to justify Russia's aggression. The rhetoric of the 'Russian world' was not his invention but had been circulating in the Russian political elite since the late 1990s, introduced by political technologist Petr Shchedrovitsky for entirely different, cultural goals. The patriarch himself actively used the phrase 'Russian world' from 2013 to 2016, mainly in connection with the promotion of joint projects between the patriarchate and the ‘Russian World’ Foundation. However, he then practically excluded it from his vocabulary, a fact that can be verified by examining the corpus of his speeches on the Moscow Patriarchate's website.

In the ROC, the term 'Russian world' is occasionally used in the names of competitions and programmes at the diocesan level, but it does not stand out among other secular, ethnically, and politically coloured terms used for the same purposes at all levels of church education and social work. In practice, it can denote both entirely innocent programmes for the patriotic education of children and adolescents and real militaristic, imperialist and Russian nationalist propaganda. However, the idea and terminology of the 'Russian world' itself is not a prominent part of popular church narratives.

It should also be noted that in justifying the aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Vladimir Putin made no mention of the ‘Russian world’. In his two speeches, the defence of Russian-speaking and Orthodox Christians was far behind the subject of the military threat from Ukraine and NATO. Indeed, the argument about protecting the population of Donbas from the supposed Ukrainian 'terror' completely supplanted the idea of the 'unity' of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples, which was underpinned by the ideology of the 'Russian world' in the mid-2010s. Interestingly, in Russian propaganda at that point (unlike in 2014) the term was also used extremely rarely.

'God-given unity': the beginning of the full-scale invasion

In the Ukrainian and Western press, one can find the claim that the patriarch 'blessed the war'. This is not true. A blessing is a relatively formal religious act, performed either in writing or in a visually meaningful way. For example, in the journal of the meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on 22 December 2022 there is the following passage from the patriarch's report to the Synod: 'After the divine service, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill spoke with the members of the Arkhangelsk hockey team 'Vodnik' and, in response to their request, gave them a blessing before the start of the Russian championship'. But it is impossible to find any document, video or photo of a church event where the patriarch performs the act of blessing the SMO (‘special military operation’).

In reality, the patriarch's position at the beginning of the war appeared highly ambiguous. On 12 February, even before Putin announced his decision to 'protect Donbas' and even before the heads of the self-proclaimed LNR and DNR had applied for recognition as republics, the Patriarchate's website published strange information about Kirill's call to Metropolitan Illarion (Shukalo) of Donetsk. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church (according to a search on the same website) very rarely makes direct calls to bishops and only in extraordinary cases (for example, on the eve of the unification of the Archdiocese of Russian Churches in Europe with the Russian Orthodox Church). Moreover, this call was made 'behind the back' of Metropolitan Onuphrius, to whom Hilarion reports. Given further developments and the fact that Hilarion was (in the mind of Ukrainian President Yanukovych) to lead the UOC in the event of the death of its previous head, Metropolitan Volodymyir (Sabodan), this call was clearly not incidental.

Although in his 23 February speech Putin referred to the persecution of the UOC and discriminatory Ukrainian laws passed in 2019 as clear examples of discrimination against 'Russians' by the 'Nazi regime' in Ukraine, the ROC leadership neither confirmed nor denied these allegations when speaking about the ongoing war. On 24 February, the first day of the invasion, the patriarch made a rather ambiguous statement: 'I perceive with deep and heartfelt pain the suffering of people caused by the events taking place... I call on all sides of the conflict to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. I appeal to bishops, pastors, monastics and lay people to provide all possible assistance to all those affected, including refugees, people left homeless and without means of subsistence. The Russian and Ukrainian peoples have a common centuries-old history dating back to the Baptism of Rus by the Holy Great Prince Vladimir, Equal of the Apostles. I believe that this God-given unity will help to overcome the divisions and contradictions that led to the current conflict'. In other words, he did not condemn the aggression or call what was happening a war, but he also did not provide grounds for a straightforward interpretation of his position. 

After that, the patriarch remained silent for a week, during which there was intense fighting and bombardment of Ukrainian cities. Only when the situation in the UOC heated up, did he release a new text on 3 March, a brief 'Prayer for the Restoration of Peace' to be read daily in churches: 'From the one font of Baptism, under the holy Prince Vladimir, we, Your children, have received grace — establish forever the spirit of brotherly love and peace in our hearts. But forbid the foreign tongues that seek to fight and oppose Holy Russia, and overthrow their schemes. By Thy grace guide those in power to every good, establish the soldiers in Thy commandments, bring the homeless into homes, feed the hungry, strengthen and heal the sick and afflicted, give good hope and comfort to those who are in confusion and sorrow, and grant forgiveness of sins and blessed repose to those killed in battle.’ Despite the vagueness of the terms used, the prayer was read as a condemnation of the 'foreign' influence in Ukraine 'marching against Holy Russia' and as an encouragement to the invading soldiers.

'The masks are off'. Official narratives in the Patriarch's speeches

On 6 March 2022, on Forgiveness Sunday, the Patriarch openly expressed solidarity with the residents of Donbas, claiming they suffer because they refused to allow gay parades in their region. Putting aside his supposed neutrality, Kirill said, 'For eight years there have been attempts to destroy what exists in Donbas. And, in Donbas there is a rejection, a principled rejection of the so-called values that are being offered today by those who claim world power. Today there is a test of loyalty to this power, a kind of pass to that 'happy' world, a world of excessive consumption, the world of apparent 'freedom'... The test is very simple and at the same time terrible — it is a gay parade. The demand for many to hold a gay pride parade is a test of loyalty to that powerful world... We have entered a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical, meaning... we will be faithful to the word of God, we will be faithful to His law... we will never put up with those who destroy that law by blurring the line between holiness and sin, and even more so with those who promote sin as a model or as a model of human behaviour'. Thus, he reproduced one of the key narratives of Russian propaganda, justifying the 'existential' confrontation between Russia and the West that led to the war.

When the clergy and then the bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church, began to urge him to react to what was happening (there had already been casualties among clergy and parish activists, and dozens of churches had been destroyed in the fighting) and some of them refused to mention the patriarch, the Moscow Patriarchate first threatened those who initiated the letters and then directly justified the Russian aggression. In addition, the patriarch began personally expressing his condolences to priests who died at the front as chaplains of the Russian army (which is not his level at all) and, less frequently, expressing his support for Russian soldiers.

A year later, in one of his speeches, Patriarch Kirill formulated his 'creed' summarising his wartime political rhetoric: 'The moment of truth is coming, and it has probably already come, because everything has been put in its place — the masks are off, the false diplomacy of the era of détente is gone. Because the task was to take us with bare hands, without any war, to deceive us, to draw us into their world, to instil their values in us. But our people and our leadership realised that these values contradict our values, because Holy Russia, thank God, preserves Christian values, which have been included in the system of national values. But, when it became clear that we have nothing in common, all this led to military confrontation. And, we must remember that our current battle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers of the darkness of this age... We do not want to have parents number 1 and number 2. We do not want the distinction between the sexes to be lost... Therefore we must... preach the word of God with boldness... and not be afraid to go into secular communities... This also applies to our Armed Forces, to the entire military bloc, which today, more than many other segments of our society, is opening up to the Church'.

Similar 'political' proclamations by the patriarch can be found in his speech on 8 October 2023 on the commemoration day of St Sergius of Radonezh at the fraternal meal in the Holy Trinity Sergius Lavra: '...Some withdraw into the shadows, considering what is happening in the world not their business, they say: “I pray in my cell, and that is enough…” Of course, your first and main task is to pray. But to pray for real! Not the way we sometimes pray: we recite the words, we stand for the service, and that is it... Someone will say: “Well, I am not involved in politics”. And can you imagine the Venerable Sergius, who in response to Dmitry Donskoy's call would say, shrugging his shoulders: “I don't do politics, you deal with Mamai yourself”... That is why today I am addressing you with a special word. Pray for the Fatherland, because it is now confronting the world's evil...' Here, we see an example of a specific instruction from the Patriarch — a demand to address prayer to 'political reality' and at the same time a reproach to the most seemingly nationalistic and conservative layer of church society — monasticism — for evading such politicisation and not praying for Russia's victory or does so in a purely formulaic way.

It should be noted, however, that such passages were uttered by the patriarch as part of his sermons before a relatively small audience and were 'buried' within a flurry of words on a variety of topics. Neither the press service of the Moscow Patriarchate, nor the Russian official media, as a rule, has sought to propagandise the patriarch's pro-war views to a wide audience. For example, although the above-mentioned speech about 'unmasking' was reprinted on dozens of diocesan websites, by the end of September, it had been viewed by only 153 people on the website of the Saratov Metropolitanate, 588 people in the Tatarstan Metropolitanate, 116 in the Novgorod Metropolitanate, 257 in the Novokuznetsk Metropolitanate, and 39 in the Orel Metropolitanate. Only in the Mari El region was the number of views relatively significant — 2,064. Except for the anomalous views in Mari El, the average number of views on church media was less than 300 people per region. These statements gained prominence through liberal media and popular critics of the Russian Orthodox Church, such as Andrey Kuraev, who extracted quotes concerning the war and the current government from his regular speeches (the patriarch delivers an average of two per week, and five or six on his trips) and made them public.

Support and reward: spoils of war

Thus, although the liberal public in Russia and abroad has formed the impression that the patriarch 'blesses the war' and the 'killing of Ukrainians' day and night, acting as an 'ideological sponsor' of Russian terror; in reality, on average, once a month, in a stream of other statements does he express clear moral support for the Russian army and has only spoken about the religious motivation of the 'feat' in defence of the Motherland and Russia's right to resist the 'West' several times, thereby aligning himself with Putin's propaganda narrative. However, he did not call for the murder of Ukrainians, the storming of Kyiv or the occupation of Ukrainian lands.

These infrequent statements undoubtedly reflect his own political convictions, but they have also been part of a kind of 'dialogue with the authorities', in which he, as a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, has unsuccessfully tried to 'protect the church's interests' and, one might say, to sell the church's 'political support' to the regime, which badly needed this demonstration of support. As a result, at the meeting of the Moscow diocese in December 2022, it suddenly became known that after the financially challenging COVID years, the ROC had received about 2.23 billion rubles (about €28 million) for the completion of Moscow churches — roughly half the amount the patriarchate had sought for this purpose over the previous four years. 

Another even more striking example of the ROC's 'reward' for the patriarch's 'patriotic' stance was its receipt in the spring of 2023 of museum exhibits of national significance — Andrei Rublev's Trinity icon and Alexander Nevsky's sarcophagus. Although this move sparked sharp protests from the museum community and the public, the president and the patriarch executed it based on personal agreements, without even informing the leading experts of the ROC on such matters.

At the same Moscow diocesan meeting, however, the patriarch said: 'Our parishes reflect almost all the diversity of our society. Yes, many parishioners actively support the soldiers, but among them are those who distance themselves from the state's decisions or even leave the Motherland. All Orthodox people, regardless of their opinions on political issues, even when we disagree with them on these issues, remain our flock... Perhaps you will be approached by parishioners with a request to assess the current situation. Remember that a priest is called first and foremost to be the voice of the Church. And, if he is not sure that he is expressing the position of the Church on a particular issue, it is better not to speak at all, but to abstain. In any case, do not engage in discussions not befitting a cleric, which might easily turn into unrighteous anger...' Thus the patriarch gave the priests of his diocese (and de facto the entire Russian Orthodox Church) the right to refrain from discussing or expressing their position on the war.

Had it not been for the reaction of the Russian opposition, along with Ukrainian and international media, Russian society would not have learnt about the patriarch's position on the war. Just as they do not know about it at the front. The military is one of the least religious strata of Russian society, and despite the small number of military chaplains (there are no more than 150 of them among the troops stationed in Ukraine or on the border territories, of which no more than 50 are permanent), Russian media publish reports about significant 'religious pluralism' in the troops, clearly indicating that the level of the ROC's presence in the army is low.

As seen from this analysis, we see two types of statements coming from the patriarch over the past year and a half of military operations. The first type of statement, in which he speaks as if on behalf of the church, although containing veiled indications of his position and not condemning the war in any way, generally appears relatively neutral, addressed to the church members and society as a whole. The second type of statement, much more personal, is part of the pro-war discourse of the Russian authorities and echoes President Putin's speeches, even to the point of direct textual similarities and borrowings. This duality of patriarchal statements is determined by the difference in pragmatism, which in turn is directly related to the dilemmas that the war in Ukraine has posed for the church.


In order to fully understand the nature of the patriarch's dual — not in an ideological, but in a public and institutional sense — position and to see not only its narrow, material and symbolic acquisitions of the church, but also a broader pragmatism, it is necessary, first of all, to address the question of what the Russian Orthodox Church represents as a religious and social organisation and what challenges Putin's brutal aggression against Ukraine has posed to it.

What does the Russian Orthodox Church represent?

For a large number of people and modern media, the matter is reduced to a simple scheme. The ROC is a large religious (for some, pseudo-religious) organisation, fully subordinated to the Russian authorities, carrying out Putin's and the FSB's will,and for this it has the opportunity to earn huge funds for 'hoodwinking grandmothers', and allowing 'priests to drive Mercedes'. It is led by 'KGB agent' Patriarch Kirill, who issues instructions to the 'priests' who obediently do his bidding.

The reality, however, is different. The ROC is the largest centralised religious and social organisation in Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. It is a complex and dynamic structure that has managed to diversify the sources of its income in such a way that even a significant reduction in part of its revenues (for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic or the war in Ukraine) does not lead to a crisis in its infrastructure. It survives not only short-lived political parties, successive presidents and long-lived dictators, but also entire states like the collapsed USSR, and maintains communities and influence in states and regions far from Russian and Soviet borders. At the same time, the ROC occupies a fairly consolidated socio-political position on the far-right side of the political spectrum, making it inherently worthy of condemnation from the progressive mainstream.

However, how exactly the church’s social capital influences political processes in countries where the Russian Orthodox Church is widely represented is not clear in detail due to its secretive nature. This is actually the reason why the ROC attracts so much attention from the media, politicians and the public — perhaps not commensurate with its actual size, the reach of its influence and general dynamics of its development. Over the past twenty years the number of visitors to Christmas services (2004-2024) in Russian ROC churches has more than halved (from 3 to 1.4 million people), and attendance at Easter services (2004-2023) has fallen by 40% (from 4.9 to 2.8 million; author figures calculated on the basis of official data from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs). That is, the ROC’s real sphere of influence in Russia is now no more than 2-3% of the country's population.

But before discussing the church's position on the war, it makes sense to understand what the ROC represents as an institution. Three aspects are most important here: 1) the governance structure of the ROC as a public organisation; 2) the status and position of autonomous parts of the ROC and its communities in the 'far' and 'near' abroad; and 3) the functioning of the ROC as a religious organisation with its own doctrine and system of religious authorities.

The ROC is a self-governing public organisation where members with the right to vote are people with the status of a bishop (bishop, archbishop, metropolitan) who meet every few years at a bishops' council to approve decisions of the church leadership and to adopt changes in theological, doctrinal and other documents governing its activities. Each bishop has considerable status and autonomy within the ROC — for example, no bishop (including metropolitans and even the patriarch) can visit another bishop without an official invitation. The Council of Bishops approves the composition of the governing bodies of the ROC and, in principle, can remove the patriarch (despite the fact that he is elected for life) for particularly significant misdemeanours. It also recommends to the general church assembly — the local council — the candidacy of a new patriarch in the event of the death of the previous patriarch.

The day-to-day activities of the church are overseen by another collective body, the Holy Synod, which is composed of both permanent members appointed based on the diocese they occupy (chief bishops of the region — Moscow, St Petersburg, Kyiv, Minsk, Chisinau) or position (or example, the manager of the affairs of the ROC, the head of the Department for External Church Relations (DECR) of the Moscow Patriarchate), as well as temporary members from among the regional episcopate, who are co-opted into the Synod for a six-month term on the basis of principles that are not publicly disclosed. 

Meeting every two months, the Holy Synod primarily approves key administrative documents (including statements on behalf of the ROC), appoints and transfers bishops, and approves reports from the Patriarch and the head of the DECR. Operational matters are resolved at meetings of the Supreme Church Council (SCC), created by Patriarch Kirill, which brings together the heads of synodal institutions (administrative units of the apparatus) of the ROC. Almost all important church documents are developed in the sessions of the Inter-Council Presence, a church quasi-parliament formed by educated and distinguished representatives of dioceses, periodically rotated based on proposals from the Moscow Patriarchate (another initiative by Kirill).

The administrative structure of the ROC also includes several territorial and interregional structures with varying degrees of internal autonomy: the Ukrainian, Belarusian, Latvian, Moldovan, Estonian, Japanese Orthodox Churches, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and smaller organisations. They participate in the activities of the ROC at various levels, but operate on the basis of their charters, which give them a certain (sometimes considerable) degree of freedom, including in determining some religious rites and practices, the veneration of saints, personnel and language policy, finances, etc. Naturally, these churches have autonomy in political matters and in their relations with the governments of the countries where they are located. In fact, the existence of these autonomous parts (as well as the extensive system of parishes on all inhabited continents) makes the Russian Orthodox Church a global, not a national church, regardless of perceptions within Russia itself.

Finally, in religious terms in the ROC, there are distinctions between Orthodox dogma (much of which allows for broad interpretation), the personal religious authority of a specific clergy member (including a monk or even a layperson), the individual political views of a clergy member, the collective opinion of the church or its governing bodies, and the directive prescription (i.e., blessing) of a particular church leader. Thus, not every statement by any church figure (including the patriarch) is a) a statement on behalf of the entire church; b) conditioned by the dogmatic position of the church as a result of a collective (council) decision; c) binding; d) will be accepted for implementation by other members of the church, even if its initiator formally has the right to issue orders.

This internal structure and arrangement strengthens rather than weakens the church, as it allows a wide range of people with different socio-political views, religious motivations and interpretations of various aspects of Orthodox doctrine to remain in the church. In particular, this enables the existence within the church of a system of religious authorities — clerics — who often oppose the formal church authority (church administrators). Around some of these, spiritual movements of followers and devotees are formed. Certain movements outlive their initiators and shape the position on philosophical, ritual, or socio-political issues for hundreds of clergy members and a dozen or so bishops.

The position of the Holy Synod and the autonomous churches

Despite the activities described above, Kirill's support for the war has had a serious impact on the internal situation in the ROC and has effectively caused a major erosion of the mechanisms of church representation and governance. It has led directly to the strengthening of Kirill's influence in the short term and to the departure from the ROC of a significant portion of autonomous churches that do not agree with either Kirill's support for the war or the practical course towards ‘papalism’ (i.e. centralised authority) in church governance.

The destruction of the ROC's administrative management system, which had existed for almost 80 years and had survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, began as early as 2020, began in 2020 during the COVID-19 period. At that time, the central governing body of the ROC, the Holy Synod, stopped holding regular bi-monthly meetings in a single location and switched to a remote mode. The head of the UOC, Metropolitan of Kyiv Onuphrius (Berezovsky) last attended the Synod meeting in person in Moscow on 26 December 2019 (as recorded in photos from this event). In subsequent online meetings he did not always participate (judging by the photos published by the press service of the Moscow Patriarchate, only in half of cases), which was unofficially explained in Kyiv (in interviews conducted by the author of this article under conditions of anonymity) as a protest against the consolidation of power in the ROC in the hands of Patriarch Kirill. 

Indeed, by that time, Kirill had not only implemented significant administrative reforms in the ROC, creating the above-mentioned VCC and the Inter-Council Presence, but had also adopted the practice of pursuing independent policies in the field of interconfessional communications, informing his Synod colleagues about it post facto. The most striking example of this was his meeting with the Pope in Cuba in 2016, about which he deliberately did not inform the vast majority of Synod members beforehand. This caused open discontent among the conservative, strongly anti-Catholic Ukrainian episcopate, as recorded in interviews conducted by the author of this text with Ukrainian bishops in 2017-2022. Since 2017, for this reason, the first Ukrainian bishop, the ultra-conservative Metropolitan Longin (Zhar), who is (presumably) the spiritual mentor of Onufry and the leader of one of the Ukrainian spiritual movements, has ceased mentioning Kirill in his prayers. In addition, the administrative structures of the Moscow Patriarchate subordinate to the patriarch, which were supposed to mediate between the pan-church institutions and other parts of the ROC and the UOC, repeatedly exceeded their mandate, attempting to interfere in the affairs of this autonomous church.

Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, deputy chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church, who was in charge of operational communication between Moscow and Kyiv, was often mentioned in this context. Balashov was characterised by his sharpness and categorical nature in dealing with people formally above him on the hierarchical ladder, including members of the Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is not surprising that, on 25 October 2022, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church dismissed him from this post (but made him an advisor to the patriarch), and in January 2023, the Ukrainian authorities added him to the sanctions list of 'Russian citizens who, under the guise of spirituality, support terror and genocidal policies.'

Thus, even before the start of the war, the Moscow Patriarchate's hostile attitude towards Ukrainian statehood and attempts to exert pressure, violating the autonomy of the UOC had created tension in relations between the ROC and the UOC. Against this backdrop, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops and Patriarch Kirill's reaction to it exerted significant pressure on the UOC from the Ukrainian government and society. This created real risks for the UOC of losing the majority of parishioners in Volyn and Khmelnytskyi regions, as well as substantial reductions in the congregation in other regions of Ukraine. All these factors made the UOC’s withdrawal from the ROC almost inevitable through amendments to the charter of the Ukrainian Church. The withdrawal took place on 27 May 2022.

What is happening is a vivid example of how the structure of the ROC is falling apart in the absence of collective management and consolidation on fundamental issues. Since the beginning of the war, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (which includes, on a permanent basis, besides Russian hierarchs, the heads of the Belarusian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian autonomous churches, leaders of the Orthodox Church of Kazakhstan, and the Metropolitanate of Central Asia) has clearly distanced itself from any involvement in military matters, limiting itself to the adoption of a common prayer for peace and approval of church-wide activities to help refugees and internally displaced persons. The Synod did also speak up in defence of the UOC, which had come under pressure from Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, but from its point of view this was more of a defence of the principle of non-interference in the affairs of the church.

The permanent members of the Synod reacted differently to the war on an individual basis. Most of them chose to remain silent. Statements in support of the Russian military or justifying the war were made only by the Patriarch and (with a significant delay, by the end of the summer of 2023) the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Benjamin (Tupieko). The heads of the Orthodox Church of Kazakhstan and the Central Asian Metropolitan Church expressed cautious support for the Russian army at the beginning of the war, but then their voices on this matter became less audible. The head of the UOC, Metropolitan Onufry, harshly condemned Russian aggression in the first hours of the war and called for support for the Ukrainian army. The head of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Vladimir (Kantaryan), condemned the war in very cautious terms and has maintained full contact with Moscow — and only in January 2023, under pressure from a Deutsche Welle journalist, did he clearly state his rejection of the war. In October 2023, however, Vladimir's letter to Kirill, written in September, was made public, expressing systematic and wide-ranging grievances against the Moscow Patriarchate. Vladimir wrote that, because of Russian aggression, contacts between the Orthodox Churches of Moldova and Russia had broken down, the patriarchate did not take into account the fact that Moldovans belong not to the 'Russian' but to the Romanian 'world' and did not respect the wishes of the Moldovan Orthodox Church regarding the ordination of bishops. All this, Vladimir concluded, leads to the loss of the Moldovan Church's position in Moldovan society and its imminent collapse if it does not distance itself from Moscow. At the same time, in November 2023, the Moldovan Church rejected the proposal of a number of clergymen to join the Romanian Orthodox Church, prompted by the patriarch's support for the war in Ukraine. 

Even Russian members of the Holy Synod have taken a reserved and detached position. For example, the very conservative Metropolitan Varsonofii (Sudakov) of St Petersburg has mentioned the war no more than four or five times in his speeches between December 2022 and October 2023 (according to reports of his speeches). He repeated Patriarch Kirill's justification of the conflict 'with the West' and the patriotism of Russian soldiers, but he did not develop this topic on his own, even at thematic events (such as a conference on security issues), carefully reading out pre-prepared reports. His only direct interest was the multiple approving mentions of Putin's decree on the protection of traditional spiritual and moral values. During this time he never once participated in events with active military personnel (even at the consecration of the newly opened civil-military airport in Levashovo, he was only photographed next to civilian personnel) and has only visited a military hospital a couple of times. Meanwhile, his diocese has actively participated in humanitarian programmes to support refugees, collecting and sending financial and material aid to residents of the occupied territories.

Metropolitan Pavel (Ponomarev) of Kolomna, Patriarchal Vicar in the Moscow diocese, has followed the same line of behaviour: minimal words about the war, only brief bureaucratic reporting with an emphasis on helping refugees and the families of servicemen. According to reports, he has also avoided ministering for active military personnel, although some of his fellow bishops from other Moscow region dioceses do so willingly and often. Moreover, Metropolitan Dionisy (Porubai) of Voskresensk, the former (as of October 2023) administrator of the Moscow Patriarchate, gave only one, very ambiguous, interview during the year and a half of the war, in which he acknowledged the right to take up arms and defend one's country if the war is fought 'for the truth'. However, he did not specify who exactly he was referring to. It is not surprising that Russian members of the Synod avoid trips to occupied territories.

European dioceses and churches

The erosion of unity is even more pronounced in the dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church and its constituent autonomous churches operating within the European Union. The heads of two of them — the former 'emigrant churches', the ROC Abroad and the Archdiocese of Western European Parishes of Russian Tradition — have unequivocally condemned Russian aggression, albeit with varying degrees of firmness. The bishops of all three churches and dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Baltic States also condemned the aggression, although in different ways, and apparently, at least in Latvia and Estonia, under explicit pressure from the local authorities. Metropolitan Innokenty of Lithuania and Vilnius took the most radical stance. On 17 March 2022 on the website of the diocese he published an 'Address', which, among other things, said: 'The position of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania is unchanged — we strongly condemn Russia's war against Ukraine and pray to God for its swift end. As you may have already noticed, Patriarch Kirill and I have different political views and perceptions of current events. His political statements about the war in Ukraine are his personal opinion. We in Lithuania do not agree with it'.

However, even this did not convince the Lithuanian leadership of the Metropolis' loyalty to the country's authorities. Taking advantage of the conflict between a group of priests (who tried to organise parishes of the Patriarchate of Constantinople on the territory of the country while being in the Patriarchate of Moscow) and Innokenty, they began negotiations with Istanbul on the organisation of an alternative church jurisdiction in the country. By the end of the year, it was announced that the creation of such a structure was almost complete. Although, in practice, it has no more than four real (and small) parishes, which the author of this article personally confirmed in November 2023.

The Latvian authorities took a different path. Although the Metropolitan of Riga and All Latvia publicly condemned Russia's actions at the beginning of the war, as a result of a high-profile public and political campaign, on 8 September 2022 the Latvian parliament (Saeima) adopted amendments to the law on the Latvian Orthodox Church (LOC), effectively declaring its autocephalous status. On 20 October, the LOC Council, with an overwhelming majority, voted for autocephaly and sent a corresponding request to Patriarch Kirill. While initially many observers perceived this as a game played under pressure from authorities in a time of war, on 13 August 2023 the Synod of the LOC ordained the first bishop 'not approved' by Moscow. On 24 August the Synod of the ROC did not approve the ordination, postponing the consideration of the matter to the post-war Council of Bishops. This officially began the conflict between the churches. However, in early October, a delegation from the LOC represented by two archpriests visited Moscow, was received by the entire leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate, and received myrrh (an aromatic oil used in worship, which symbolises submission to spiritual institutions), thereby confirming that a final rupture is yet to occur (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church decided to brew its own myrrh).

In Estonia, the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (EOC), Metropolitan Evgeny (Reshetnikov), interspersed his statements condemning the war within questionable conversations with journalists, as a result of which he had to comply with the Estonian Interior Ministry's instructions to officially condemn the war. In January 2023, he even agreed to organise a joint event with one of the country's pro-Russian parties called 'Prayers for Peace'. The situation is made more acute by the fact that Evgeny was appointed head of the church relatively recently (in 2018), having moved to the post from Moscow, and had no prior connection to Estonia. Previously, the long-term head of the EOC was Kornily (Jacobs), who had formerly been a political prisoner during the Khrushchev era.

However, another aspect is also evident. The clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Baltic States as a whole have long realised that their prosperous existence there, both collectively and individually, requires loyalty to the national authorities or at least avoiding public political activity. That is why, for example, in Latvia — the country with the largest ROC community among the three Baltic states — an intra-church ban on priests expressing their political positions has existed for at least a quarter of a century. This ban also extends to public statements outside the church, interviews with journalists, and other forms of public-political activity. In Lithuania, the tradition of not just loyalist, but pro-national activism of the leadership and an active part of the clergy of the local diocese (and later the metropolis) of the Russian Orthodox Church dates back to the late 1980s, when the ruling bishop Chrysostomos (Martishkin), known since the 1970s as a supporter of dissidents within the Russian Orthodox Church, became a member of the board of 'Sąjūdis' and then later denounced KGB agents within the episcopate.

In the rest of the European Union, the situation for parishes and dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church looks freer and less precarious. There, priests (unlike bishops) can somewhat freely express their pro-Russian sympathies and engage in pro-Russian activities, including publicly fulfilling the wishes of Russian embassies or serving in embassy churches. It is difficult to determine the extent to which the clergy engages in such behaviour, but it can be unequivocally stated that at least a considerable part of the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church serving in the EU are directly or tacitly opposed to the war. This is evident, at a minimum, from the list of 300 priests who signed the anti-war Appeal of the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church. However, as the war continues, law enforcement agencies in EU countries will likely raise more questions about the activities of pro-Russian priests. The first sign of this, in September 2023, was the expulsion of a group of ROC clerics from Bulgaria on suspicion of espionage activities. Similar investigations are also under way in Germany.

'Prayer for Holy Russia' and the destruction of church institutions

Faced with the apparent reluctance of his Synod colleagues to openly and actively support the war, on 25 September 2022 the patriarch took a bold step for himself and a strange one for a church institution: in the Alexander Nevsky hermitage of his country residence in Peredelkino, he recited a brief 'Prayer for Holy Russia', the 'provocative' part of which consisted of a single line: 'Warriors and all defenders of our Fatherland, establish them in Your commandments, send strength of spirit to them, save them from death, wounds, and captivity!' For those who support the war, this text may be perceived as a gesture of prayerful approval, especially as he mentioned 'one nation' ('Behold the warriors who are against Holy Russia, seeking to divide and destroy its one nation'). However, the text itself does not contain such an explicit statement, and the terms 'Holy Russia' and 'Fatherland' remain ambivalent in their wider content. Moreover, the passage 'To Thy faithful children, who are zealously preserving the unity of the Russian Church, make haste, strengthen them in the spirit of brotherly love, and deliver them from misfortune. Forbid those who in the darkening of their minds and hardening of their hearts tear Thy veil, which is the Church of the Living God, and overthrow their schemes' revealed the peacemaking potential of the prayer, rather than a wish for an unambiguous victory for one side.

The patriarchate's press service turned this into a PR campaign, promptly releasing a video of the patriarch praying alone (he recited the text with pauses, as if he were reading it for the second or third time, not as its author), and the prayer text itself on its website. The text was subsequently republished by most Russian church media and diocesan websites. In addition, the patriarch held a service at the Alexander Nevsky hermitage and delivered a sermon, where he made an even more ambivalent statement: 'We know that today many people are dying on the fields of internecine warfare. The Church prays that this war will end as quickly as possible, so that as few brothers as possible kill each other in this fratricidal war. Moreover, the Church realises that if someone, driven by a sense of duty, by the need to fulfil an oath, remains faithful to his calling and dies in the performance of military duty, then he is undoubtedly committing an act tantamount to sacrifice. He sacrifices himself for others. And, therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that man has committed.'

There were quite a few theological criticisms of this passage, pointing out that it did not correspond to Orthodox doctrine as it is traditionally understood. However, the critics assumed that the patriarch thus 'absolved' only the Russian military, although the text implied the exact opposite. The patriarch spoke of those who died 'on the fields of internecine warfare,' that is, of soldiers from both sides of the conflict.

Subsequently, only the prayer itself (without the sermon) started being enforced on priests through the administrative hierarchy of the ROC. It is important to note that the prayer was not recited from the pulpit (i.e. it was not a prayer of the head of the Moscow diocese or the head of the Russian Orthodox Church), and its dissemination was not authorised by the Holy Synod, which would have had to approve it by a decision documented in its minutes. Thus, the prayer was a private initiative of the patriarch (as a political move), and its dissemination went through the church’s ecclesiastical-administrative system rather than through its spiritual authority. In a post-Putin perspective, the Synod could claim that, as a legitimate body, it was bypassed with such political statements and that it was Kirill's private initiative, not a church-wide decision.

However, such an illegal act from the point of view of the church-legal system — the promotion of 'private' prayer through the administrative apparatus — already holds great weight. Autonomous churches, dioceses and individual parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia can legally disregard it in their churches (since the sentiments of both believers and clergy there often differ from those in Russia) but also use this incident as an argument in discussions with local authoritiesIf there were a Synod decision on the prayer, it would mean that they ‘received instructions from Moscow to support the war'. If such a decision does not exist, then what is happening in Russia does not officially concern them. As far as this author is aware, in Germany, priests are left to decide whether to recite this prayer in their parishes. Although there are groups of active pro-Russian believers in many parishes who want to hear these prayers in the church, the majority of the clergy have refrained from doing so, fearing both political conflicts within their parish and complications in their relationships with local authorities and the public.

One can be sure that such a prayer could have been agreed by the Synod as mandatory, and that the division of support for the war into official and unofficial is an initiative of Kirill himself, who has played ambiguous legal games before (for example, by not appearing at the formal act of annexation of Crimea). However, Kirill's desire to 'sit on the fence' is dictated not only by his cunning, but also by his understanding that the open legalisation of support for the war through the Synod will lead to an even more rapid disintegration of the ROC and its transformation into a purely Russian church.

The disappearance of the Episcopal Council of the ROC as an institution affirming the Synod's decisions is quite indicative in this context. Instead, in the summer of 2023, an Episcopal Meeting with unclear composition and functions was held, attended by bishops from Russia and those serving abroad who could come 'despite the difficult international situation'. The main reason for holding the meeting instead of the Council is obvious — the UOC bishops refused to participate as the Ukrainian church announced its withdrawal from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Meanwhile, in 2023, the Moscow Patriarchate approved requests for the transition of several dioceses from the UOC to the ROC that found themselves in the occupied territory. This step was clearly premeditated, possibly with the help of Russian intelligence services, and was carried out without the agreement of the UOC. The latter, having granted the right to the dioceses at its council in Theophany in May 2022 to determine whether to accept autocephaly or not, did not prescribe the mechanism of transition to the Russian Orthodox Church. That is, the Moscow Patriarchate, on the one hand, does not recognise the withdrawal of the UOC from its membership, still considering it to be an autonomous church within the ROC, and on the other hand, by facilitating the transfer of its dioceses to the ROC, it thereby violates the autonomy of the UOC within the ROC and tacitly recognises the fact of the UOC's secession. By the autumn of 2023, a similar situation had developed in the Patriarchate's relations with the Latvian Orthodox Church.

Finally, it is indicative that church work in the occupied territories is carried out by representatives of a special Patriarchal mission under the leadership of the Patriarchal Exarch in Southeast Asia, Sergei (Chashin), who does not formally have any connection to the region. In other words, this work is not conducted by local dioceses, neither by the High Church Council, nor by synodal institutions, but within the framework of the Patriarch's personal mission. However, the results of this work are reviewed and approved by the Synod.

Thus, the contradiction between the ‘political’ and ‘ecclesiastical’ aspects of the patriarch's behaviour directly points to the central and strategic dilemma created for the Russian Orthodox Church by the invasion of Ukraine. Both in terms of his ideological beliefs and his position in the political system of Russian authoritarianism, the patriarch could not refrain from supporting the war. Moreover, it was this support that strengthened the position of Kirill and the Moscow Patriarchate in Putin's system of statehood, which expects the church consistently and sincerely to promote the war and its 'civilisational' ambitions as a bulwark against the West. However, for the ROC as a real institution, adhering to these expectations meant its almost inevitable rapid 'contraction' to the borders of Putin's political empire, the loss of its 'ecumenical' character and influence, as well as numerous problems and conflicts at the parish level and, as a result, an exodus of parishioners who did not agree with the propaganda of the unpopular war in society and in the church.


In the two previous parts of this study, we examined the position of Patriarch Kirill as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, a functionary of Putin's political regime and one of the ideologues justifying its radicalisation. We also explored the position of the church's leadership (the permanent members of the Holy Synod) and its largest autonomies. But what is the ecclesiastical world’s position in relation to the war? That is, what is the stance of the church as a large and social community with a complex organisation?

The position of the Russian episcopate and clergy

The above description of the various positions towards the war at the level of major factions of the ROC and members of the Holy Synod generally aligns with the perceptions of what is happening in the four main political groups of church activists that has developed over the past year and a half. 

The first group consists of war enthusiasts. At the level of the Moscow Patriarchate and its working apparatus, those who are actively engaged in pro-war propaganda and generously add to it their personal xenophobia towards Ukrainians are clearly visible. Primarily, this is the group that emerged during the 2014-2015 campaign in support of the 'Russian Spring' and 'Donbas'. Prominent representatives of this group include the key administrator of the patriarchate, Archbishop Savva (Tutunov), one of Kirill's key speechwriters, Alexander Shchipkov, the chief shadow expert of the Moscow Patriarchate on Ukrainian issues, Kirill Frolov, personal friends of the patriarch who fled Ukraine in the 2010s and received parishes in Moscow – priests Andrey Tkachev and Andrey Novikov, popular Moscow preacher and member of various diocesan committees, Archpriest Artemiy Vladimirov, and so on. Ukrainian sanctions have already been imposed against many of them.

In both the episcopate and at the level of dioceses in Russia, hundreds of priests with a similar sharp and radical position can be found (to a much lesser extent, they are present in Belarus, and only in isolated cases in other countries). However, they are a distinct minority in the overall array of clergy (in the ROC at the beginning of the 2020s there were about 30,000 priests).

The second group consists of the episcopate and clergy who engage in the bare minimum of war propaganda as prescribed by their superiors. These individuals recite the 'Prayer for Holy Russia' if they serve in Russia or Belarus, collect money and items for refugees and for dioceses in the occupied territories, but in reality, they do not endorse the war. However, they fear 'disturbances' (conflicts) in parishes or persecution by secular or church authorities, and therefore, they are less active. This is the approximate position of the majority of the clergy in Russia.

The third group includes priests who demonstrate 'delicate detachment' from military issues. They do not advocate for pro- or anti-war initiatives and are not willing to participate in their implementation without pressure, preferring not to discuss the war at all to avoid disagreements with supporters of both parties. This is the vast majority of Orthodox clergy outside Russia, as well as about two-thirds of the clergy in Belarus and Ukraine. In private conversations with trusted individuals, they demonstrate a variety of positions ranging from covert support for Putin, which cannot be expressed publicly in their country of residence, to vehement criticism of the Ukrainian authorities, alongside an admission that 'Russia was wrong to start the war' (a quote from a recent conversation I had with a priest), to fervent anti-Putinists who, at the same time, fear attracting the attention of the diocesan authorities and damaging relations with their pro-Russian parishioners.

In some cases, under pressure from the state or local authorities, representatives of this category are able to carefully condemn the fact of Russian aggression (although it is not always clear whether they are being sincere or not). On the other hand, many of these 'silent ones' at diocesan banquets held away from prying eyes, especially with the participation of secular superiors, will unanimously toast 'to Victory' or 'to our guys'. Like Patriarch Kirill, they attempt (not always consistently) to draw a line between the institutional position of the church (remaining a haven for both supporters and opponents of the war and for those fighting on both sides) and their personal political stance.

And, finally, the fourth group consists of more or less active opponents of the war with a clearly defined creed. Primarily, this applies to approximately a third of the Ukrainian clergy who consistently take patriotic positions or shifted from a moderately pro-Russian stance to a pro-Ukrainian one with the onset of the war. However, there is also a wide range of opinions among this group: from direct and open support for all (or most) actions of the authorities and the population of Ukraine, including their demands for the leadership of the UOC to publicly define their relations with Moscow (for example, a significant group of clergy in the UOC led by Father Andrey Pinchuk), to individuals who have explicitly condemned Russian aggression but criticised the Ukrainian authorities for their religious policies (such as Metropolitan Mark (Arndt), head of the ROC Abroad in Germany).

'Imperial', 'national' and socio-religious: what lies behind the diversity of identities

It is important to reiterate that the adherence of certain priests or bishops to conservative, ultraconservative, or even Russian-nationalist views does not automatically make them supporters of the war and followers of Patriarch Kirill. For many, including those who dreamed of uniting countries and recreating 'Holy Russia,' the methods of this 'unification' came as a complete shock. Others are more concerned about the practical consequences of such a step for the unity of the ROC, while another group dislikes the politicisation of the patriarch and his group, their contribution to the destruction of common church institutions and their relative liberalism in church matters. There are many such people in both the second and third groups. At the same time, practically all the clergy of the ROC, regardless of their views, unequivocally condemn the policy of the Ukrainian leadership towards the UOC (which they perceive as part of the ROC if they are outside Ukraine, and as an independent entity if they are within Ukraine). 

Indeed, as a result of brutal administrative pressure and provocations by 'turbo-patriotic' activists, the UOC has already lost more than a thousand churches, including its spiritual and administrative centre - the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Two dozen bishops are under investigation or are facing trial on dubious charges. The purpose of such pressure is to achieve the unification of the UOC with its hyper-patriotic rival church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), in order to achieve 'spiritual security'.

In the eyes of the Ukrainian political class, opposition to such unification or criticism of the Ukrainian authorities is often seen as 'support for Putin', although in reality this is not the case. Just as past, pre-war sympathies for Russia and for Putin personally, as well as agreement with the idea of unity (or close relations) of the East Slavic peoples absolutely does not imply approval of the war, the patriarch, and current Russian domestic and foreign policy.

As a similar example of 'blossoming complexity' (seemingly paradoxical at first glance), we can mention the military units of Russian neo-Nazis (Russian Volunteer Corps) or Nazi-monarchists (Free Russia Legion) fighting on the side of Ukraine, or various Russian right-wing radicals who fought in the Ukrainian Azov battalion, as well as the pro-Ukrainian stance of many right-wing radicals in Russia itself, some of whom, according to some reports, are willing to carry out terrorist acts. The motivation for vehemently condemning Russian aggression and being willing to assist Ukraine among these individuals can vary significantly, but it does not contradict their radically conservative, pro-Russian, or pro-Russian views and is no longer surprising to the Ukrainian political class.

In a similar vein, many Russian liberal Orthodox Christians have participated in anti-Putin protests and provided assistance to Ukrainians trapped in Russia who wish to return to Ukrainian government-controlled territory or seek asylum in Europe, while Russian Orthodox parishes in the EU and Moldova have collected aid for Ukrainians and donated it to the UOC for distribution to those affected by the war.

'Russian Orthodoxy' is by no means always has an aggressive imperial nature, and moreover it is not necessarily political, despite being undoubtedly focused on maintaining religious and social contacts among representatives of the peoples of Eastern Europe within the boundaries of a common 'sacred space' (associated with common saints and venerated places), the 'flow' of pilgrims and movements of clergy, and the exchange of literature and sacred objects. In this regard, it, on the one hand, unites not only carriers of Eastern Slavic but also other ethnic identities (the Moscow Patriarchate's website translates its materials not only into Ukrainian, but also into Romanian), and on the other hand, it serves as an undeniable obstacle to popular projects in various Eastern European countries aimed at ‘forging’ political nations with a clearly defined list of ‘enemies’.

Therefore, it seems important to look at the actions and understand the motivation of the clergy and believers of the Russian Orthodox Church not from the perspective of state-level 'imperial' (in Russia) or 'national' construction (in Ukraine, the Baltic States, Moldova), but from the perspective of private, personal, group or even (inter)regional interests. For example, the idea of a 'triune Rus' originated and developed in church circles in the northeast of Ukraine, on the border of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, where people often speak in common or similar 'Polesian' dialects, which are not recognised from the standpoint of 'literary' Ukrainian, Belarusian or Russian languages, and share a common understanding of Orthodox doctrine and their own set of symbolic heroes (saints and 'elders'). 

The perspective of the overarching church interests described above allows for a better understanding of the motivations behind various types of social interaction within the church, rather than explaining them through the lens of political goals and state propaganda that stigmatises different church groups as 'agents' of this or that political project.

From such a perspective it becomes clear why the propaganda of the war, which the Russian state had hoped the ROC would carry out in its interests, at least within Russia, has not been met, to put it mildly, with significant enthusiasm from the clergy and episcopate. An overview of diocesan websites, undertaken by the author of this article, shows that beyond 'rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's' no more than two out of ten online publications reacted with relative enthusiasm to war-related topics. Pro-war agitation is limited to the activities of specialised diocesan departments working with servicemen, Cossacks or law enforcement officers, along with the enthusiastic (at least according to reports) collection of 'humanitarian aid' (which may be distributed both to refugees or residents of occupied territories and to the military - the author has seen such 'lists of necessary items' distributed by parish activists). However, there are rarely any personal actions by priests or bishops to 'support our guys', special visits to military units, personal, or 'heartfelt' agitation in sermons or conversations with 'spiritual children' (as Patriarch Kirill lamented to the monks of the Trinity Lavra of St Sergius).

Moreover, the attitude to the war described above (and the range to which it varies) aligns quite well with the general attitude towards it in Russian society as a whole. Beyond sociological surveys, the reliability of which remains the subject of heated debate, there is much evidence to suggest that the format of previous 'imperial' mobilisation campaigns, such as 'Crimea is ours' or 'our Victory', has failed in the context of the current war. The authorities have failed to popularise the letters Z and V as symbols of 'national unity'. And the generally unsuccessful military campaign and massive grassroots opposition to people using these symbols (to the point of burning cars and 'acts of offence') have led to the fact that, in most regions of Russia, these symbols are now used by the very stubborn and rare fanatics, and formerly popular Z-fanatics are calling for them to be abandoned or removed from their sites.

Generally speaking, the war propaganda campaign is conducted only through local government bodies, the education system, and other institutions directly controlled by the state, not through enthusiastic allies of the government, as was the case with the propaganda of ‘Victory’ and ‘Crimea’. In the ROC such enthusiasts remain and primarily work in the aforementioned 'military' departments. Most of these individuals (including bishops) are former officers or graduates of military academies, people who identify as 'Cossacks', as well as people from the east and south of Ukraine, who strongly reject the Ukrainian national project/Ukrainian nationalism. Often these individuals combine several of these identities.

However, as in the case of various groups of clergy, a cautious, distant, or even covertly disapproving attitude towards the war from certain population groups does not necessarily indicate their liberalism or readiness to engage, for instance, in a liberal anti-war campaign (even beyond the question of the perceived danger of such a step).

The Russian Orthodox Church and the war: some concluding thoughts

As already mentioned, the Russian Orthodox Church is a global social institution with a complex structure and intricate relations between its parts. Its existence rests on the authority of 'Russian Orthodoxy' and Russian culture, but is also influenced by the Russian state. By launching an aggressive imperialist war against Ukraine, Putin has dealt a powerful blow to the authority of everything 'Russian' in the world, including the authority of the ROC and its central governing body, the Moscow Patriarchate. The ROC is faced with a difficult dilemma: the need to ensure the required support for the actions of the Russian government, on which it largely depends, and which is supported by a considerable part of both clergy and laity, at least within Russia. At the same time,the ROC needs to maintain its global status, including its structures in countries where the Church is seen as a ‘supporter’ of Putin's regime.

From the very beginning, the leadership of the ROC has adopted a 'fence-sitting' position. Patriarch Kirill initially made cautious and then increasingly unambiguous statements justifying the war, attempting simultaneously to 'blend' these statements into the flow of his speeches and avoid 'sharp movements' of the church-administrative plan. Meanwhile, the Holy Synod, as the central governing body of the Church (as well as the majority of its members), has distanced itself from the war in every possible way. Following the Synod, the majority of the clergy and episcopate of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted a politically neutral public position. As a result, the patriarch's speeches and the activities of certain church bodies under his direct control became somewhat his 'personal business'.

However, such duality has only helped the ROC to a certain extent. Governments of countries opposing Russian aggression, and more significantly, some of the autonomous churches and foreign parishes of the ROC, demanded from its leadership not only the condemnation of the war but at the very least complete neutrality and the cessation of pro-Russian and pro-war propaganda by the patriarch and his entourage, which they clearly could not and did not want to do. On the contrary, the patriarch increasingly demanded complicity from the clergy in justifying the aggression. This development of events has already led to the declared (but not yet fully implemented) withdrawal of two autonomous churches from the ROC and has clearly outlined the prospects for the withdrawal of a third (Moldovan). All of this, in the long term, threatens to transform the ROC from a global church into a national one and to lose the position in the Orthodox world, which it not only occupied, but also strengthened during the post-Soviet period of its history.

Contemporary 'mainstream' political consciousness assumes that any major religious organisation must take a public political position and that this position must be the 'right' one. It usually finds it difficult to accept the idea that religious organisations were created not to respond to the current political situation, but for other purposes, understandable and common to their regular participants, and that the existence of such purposes presupposes a high level of internal tolerance for the individual and group political views of community members, including the personal views of their leaders. 

For example, the somewhat left-wing views of the current Pope do not trigger serious discussions about the necessity of ‘separation’ from the Vatican in more conservative Catholic communities in African or Asian countries. However, in modern Ukraine, the Pope's peacemaking and conciliatory remarks about Russia and Ukraine are perceived with irritation at the official level. Local Catholics and Greek Catholics not only have to justify themselves but also condemn their spiritual leader; otherwise, they face the prospect of forced disconnection from the Vatican, which is already being called for by the Ukrainian political class. The high level of coordination among Jehovah's Witnesses does not mean that regional congregations receive instructions from Brooklyn on who their members should vote for. In fact, no one knows exactly and few are interested in whom the leaders of this organisation, which has millions of members, vote for. But, in Russia, at the official level, Jehovah's Witnesses were suspected of espionage and some kind of 'influence' and so have been banned and their activists were put on trial.

There are usually more claims to major ‘traditional’ churches in European states because they are considered more influential. At the same time, the fact that since the 1960s, their real influence on society as a whole has radically diminished, and the relationships with the state vary for each church, is ignored. Therefore, the idea of the state instrumentally using the church to achieve political goals does not work in practice and exists only in the minds of people who, in fact, do not attend church.

The leaders of post-Soviet states, especially Russia, are no exception in this regard. Ritual visits by Putin to certain church services or rumours about him having a spiritual advisor in the form of the current Crimean Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) do not negate his noticeably 'unchurchlike' behaviour and his purely formal attitude to the performance of rites. This explains his desire to use the ROC exclusively as a tool to support his own policies, as today's 'commissar'. Thus, when summing up the year on 14 December, Putin used a fabricated quote from Bismarck: 'Wars are not won by generals, but by school teachers and priests', although in the more common version, which is closer to the original, only teachers are mentioned. Clearly, the formula with priests better corresponds to Putin's vision of the patriotic education, where the education system should be complemented by the clergy. The answer to these expectations is a situation in which the patriarch's speeches, always ready to show support for the state, replace the real church and its position for the TV cameras and the Russian political class.

When assessing the real role of the ROC in the war, it is crucial to distinguish between the political views of the patriarch himself and the ideological group of supporters of the war surrounding him on the one hand, and the official position of the ROC as an institution, as well as the views of other active participants in the church community, on the other. It is also necessary to differentiate between the part of the ROC that is located in Russia and partly in Belarus, i.e. exists under a strict authoritarian regime, and its other autonomous churches, foreign dioceses and parishes, which do not have to comply with the directive instructions of the Russian authorities and are not threatened with a visit from the FSB in cases of, for example, publicly express disagreement with the policy of the Russian authorities regarding Ukraine.

Moreover, it is important to realise that an active part of the parishioners of the ROC may differ in their assessments of what is happening not only from the official perspective of Moscow, but also from the official point of view of Kyiv. They may oppose the idea of building a 'political nation' in Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities' desire to make it an instrument for achieving ideological homogeneity and repressive language and religious policies. This is especially true if the measures taken directly violate the interests of the church community and commonly recognised international and European norms regarding human and minority rights. Therefore, condemnation of Russian aggression by the active part of the ROC may well coexist with protest against Kyiv's consistent severance of bilateral ties between the countries at the grassroots level, direct repressive measures against the UOC, Russian-speaking socio-political organisations and declared plans for the Ukrainianisation of the eastern and southern parts of the country.

Every priest of the Russian Orthodox Church and active parishioners have a personal attitude towards the war and predominantly act based on this personal view, although they must take into account the conditions of being part of a large structure, from which for most of them, for various reasons, 'there is no way out'. It is obvious that, in Russia and Belarus, this attitude is largely formed by propaganda, especially through state-controlled television, and in this respect both priests and parishioners do not differ much in their attitudes from the bulk of the population. As in society as a whole, among them, there will be church goers who are pro-war (such as, for example, the St Elizabeth Monastery in Minsk), to whom the state and local authorities in Russia and Belarus will willingly provide platforms for appropriate agitation. At the same time, we will not learn anything about the position of 90-95% of parishes and monasteries that do not carry out such propaganda, because unlike the initiator of the construction of the Z-shrine or the priest who consecrated the monument to Stalin, they are not of any interest to the media.

How many of them are covert dissidents and supporters of Ukraine, we will also never know either, because in a strict authoritarian dictatorship they can afford to slow down the state propaganda machine, but most of them are unable to sacrifice themselves by participating in resistance. There are such individuals and we learn about them from sympathetic media that highlight such actions. How many opponents of the war and ardent critics of both Patriarch Kirill and Putin, or, on the contrary, their sincere supporters (among the clergy) are outside Russia and Belarus and cannot openly express their position for fear of their parish collapsing, or being on the receiving end of the anger of the diocesan authorities or local authorities (and often both together), is also completely impossible to estimate.

Nevertheless, the rapid departures from the ROC of the Ukrainian and Latvian churches and individual parishes (such as the parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam, which left in March 2022) show that the ROC as a whole has the potential for rapid change. The nature of these changes, whether it be the anticipated disintegration criticised by many opponents of the ROC or some internal transformations, will be revealed over time. Perhaps it will receive some major new benefits from the Russian authorities, but it seems quite likely that its losses outside Russian territory will be much greater than expected at the beginning of the war. However, the same can be said for the political influence and fate of the Russian state as a whole.

In any case, the internal unity of the ROC, the personal motivation of its parishioners and priests, the links between individual members and entire communities in different countries and locations, as well as the separation from the Moscow Patriarchate (as an administrative structure) by groups of clergy and communities within it, are much more stable and important factors determining its identity and future than external political and politicised pressure. However, these pressures, directly brought upon the church by the war, undermine and threaten to collapse intra-church ties.

As for the propaganda potential of the ROC, about which politicians are so concerned, in reality it appears much smaller than, for example, the potential of the Russian state-controlled media, army propaganda, the militaristic and Russian-nationalist part of the Russian book publishing community, computer games, social networks and the entire education system - from kindergartens to major universities - on the territories controlled by Russia and Belarus. However, unlike them, the ROC is a centralised and global organisation with an irremovable and internationally known leader, and therefore attracts the attention of the political class and the media. In one way or another, the ROC cannot escape its share of moral and political responsibility for its activities (and inactivity) during the war, and especially for its leader's public support for Putin.

This article is based on extensive research into Orthodoxy in post-Soviet states (primarily Russia and Ukraine). It draws on a large number of informal, in-depth interviews and field expeditions. This research was conducted with a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) between 2018 and 2022. Some initial thoughts on the ROC's support for the war and its conflict with the UOC were expressed by the author elsewhere, in the article 'Endgültig zerbombt. Die Scheidung der Ukrainischen Orthodoxen Kirche von der Russischen Orthodoxen Kirche'.