A Holy Russia?

4 May 2022

Back in February I read an enlightening leader in The Tablet that sheds an important light on what is driving Vladimir Putin's urge to absorb and control Ukraine. The writer suggests that Putin's rationale is not only historical but also theological. Let me try to outline the thought behind this. Read the article for yourself - the link is below. These are my own thoughts.

In 324, Byzantium, now renamed Constantinople, became the emperor Constantine's "New Rome" as the seat of the Roman empire moved steadily eastwards. Tradition has it that St Andrew foresaw in Kyiv a future Christian city which might even be the Kingdom of God - what the writer refers to as "the eternal tsardom of God in heaven and earth". The conversion of St Vladimir the Great and his baptism in 988 marked the foundation of Holy Rus (also Holy Russia). In this view, Russia is a holy space, a mystical union of land and people, in which the one true religion is practised and the rulers of that space - the Tsars - were ordained by God to protect and preserve it. Could it be that Putin sees himself as inheriting that role?

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 2018 the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) came into being and broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate (the traditional "senior" patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, itself the spiritual glue of the nation), a move intended to be spiritual as well as political. However, the Russian Orthodox Church still claims jurisdiction over Ukrainian territory and does not recognise Ukraine as an independent nation nor the OCU as an independent Orthodox Church. Similarly, as we keep hearing, Putin clearly denies Ukraine independence on any level. The Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has supported that idea that the conflict be regarded as a spiritual battle and not simply political, and his outspoken support for Putin's military endeavours has already led to widespread condemnation across the Orthodox world.

Putin is totally committed to reclaiming Ukraine as he has reclaimed Crimea. He thinks he has enough military force to crush almost any opposition, although that belief is being severely tested. How many of his fellow Russians share this ambition is hard to tell. But it seems clear that he is determined to gain control over the vast region of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, come what may and to hell with the consequences. His phrase 'special military operation' was very carefully chosen (and the rest of the world understands this deceit very well !).

However, there may be a significant element of ancient history that is feeding into his thoughts and actions. Is it conceivable that his ambition may not be so much to be the emperor of this vast region (which is how most onlookers see his actions) as perhaps (as he might put it) its saviour - the one destined - ordained, even - to restore Holy Russia.

The article can be found here. It is well worth reading, and indeed subscribing.

Robin Blount

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