Threatened by an uprising from his treacherous generals, the Christian Emperor Basil II, based in the glorious city of Byzantium, reached out to his enemies, the pagans of the land of Rus. Basil II was an intelligent negotiator. If Vladimir of Rus helped him put down the revolt, he would give him his sister’s hand in marriage. This was a change of status for Vladimir: the marriage of a pagan with an imperial princess was unprecedented. But Vladimir first had to convert to Christianity.
Returning to Kiev in triumph, Vladimir summoned the entire city to the banks of the Dnieper for a mass baptism. We are in 988. It is the founding and emblematic act of Russian Orthodox Christianity. It was from there that Christianity spread and merged with Russian love of country, to create a powerful mix of nationalism and spirituality. In the mythology of 988, it was as if all Russian people had been baptized. Vladimir was declared a saint. When the Byzantine Empire fell, the Russians saw themselves as its natural successor. They were a “third Rome”.
Soviet communism tried to crush all of this – but failed. And in the post-Soviet period, thousands of churches were built and rebuilt. Although the West sees Christianity as something weakened and declining, in the East it is flourishing. In 2019, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, boasted of building three churches a day. Last year they opened a cathedral to the armed forces one hour from Moscow. Religious imagery merges with military glorification. War medals are affixed to stained glass, reminding visitors of Russian martyrdom. In a large mosaic, more recent victories – including “the return of Crimea” in 2014 – are celebrated. “Happy are the peacemakers” it is not.
At the heart of this post-Soviet revival of Christianity is another Vladimir. Vladimir Poutine. A lot of people don’t realize how much of a spiritual quest the invasion of Ukraine is for him. The Baptism of Rus is the founding event in the formation of the Russian religious psyche, the Russian Orthodox Church traces its origins here. That’s why Putin isn’t so interested in a few Russian-leaning districts in eastern Ukraine. Its terrifying objective is Kiev itself.
He was born in Leningrad – a city that has reclaimed its original saintly name – to a devout Christian mother and an atheist father. His mother baptized him in secret and he still wears his baptismal cross. Since becoming president, Putin has presented himself as the true defender of Christians around the world, the leader of the Third Rome. Its relentless bombardment of the Islamic State, for example, has been presented as the defense of the historic homeland of Christianity. And he will generally use faith as a means to strike at the West, as he did in this speech in 2013:
“We see that many Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that form the basis of Western civilization. They deny moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They implement policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with belief in Satan.
Putin sees his spiritual destiny as rebuilding Christianity, based in Moscow. When the punk group Pussy Riot wanted to demonstrate against the president, they chose to do so in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, a vast white and gold building, demolished by the Soviets and rebuilt in the 90s. synthesis of the national and spiritual aspirations of Russia. It’s not just Russia, it’s “Holy Russia”, part religious project, part extension of Russian foreign policy. Speaking of Vladimir’s mass baptism, Putin explained: “His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus”. He wants to do the same thing again. And to do that, he needs Kyev back.
“The spiritual choice made by Saint Vladimir still largely determines our affinity today,” Putin wrote just last year. “In the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ‘May it be the mother of all Russian cities.’
To this religious intensity we can add angry church politics. In 2019, the Ukrainian branch of the Orthodox Church family declared independence from the Russian Orthodox Church – and the nominal head of the Orthodox family, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, supported it. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described it as “a great victory of the devout Ukrainian nation over the demons of Moscow, a victory of good over evil, light over darkness”.
The Russian Orthodox Church furiously rejected this claim of independence, declaring that Ukraine belonged irrevocably to its “canonical territory”. This led to a historic split within the Orthodox family, with the Russian church rejecting Bartholomew’s primacy, stating that she was no longer in communion with the rest of the Orthodox family. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced Bartholomew as an American stooge. Kirill even claimed that the conversion of Hagia Sophia – originally the world seat of Orthodoxy – into a mosque in 2020 was “God’s punishment”. The Russian Church then proceeded to establish its own dioceses around the world, particularly in Africa. “They take to the streets with posters saying ‘Thank you, Putin! Thank you, Patriarch Cyril! is how the Russian church propaganda machine described it.
Such is the centrality of Ukraine in general, and Kiev in particular, in the imagination of the Russian church they have been groomed to break the age-old covenant of Orthodoxy. Again and again it all revolves around Ukraine, the imaginary site of the mother church of the Rus.
This conformity of the Russian Orthodox Church with the political goal of a greater Russia has been shameful. Officially, at least, they make much of the claim that they stay out of politics. But that was never true. In the post-Soviet era, the Orthodox Church was rewarded lavishly, not only with a grandiose state-supported church-building program, but also with involvement in lucrative business operations, including the importation of tobacco and alcohol worth $4 billion. In 2016, Krill was photographed wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch. He also called Putin a “miracle of God”. When Kirill says “the Lord will provide”, he could easily be talking about his lords and masters in the Kremlin. Few churches have sold themselves to the state more completely than the Russian Orthodox Church.
Last year, on the anniversary of the baptism of Rus, Kirill preached to his people, urging them to remain faithful to Vladimir’s conversion and the blood of Orthodox martyrs. He told them to love “our country, our people, our leaders and our army”.
The Western secular imagination does not understand this. He’s watching Putin’s speech the other night, and he describes him as crazy – which is another way of saying we don’t understand what’s going on. And we show how little we understand by thinking a bunch of penalties is going to make a blind difference. They won’t. “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” Putin said. That’s what it’s all about, “spiritual space” – a terrifying expression rooted in over a thousand years of Russian religious history.