Russian Orthodox Media Shows a House Divided Against Itself
Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine threatens to become the worst humanitarian disaster in recent history. The Russian Orthodox Church, already embroiled in a protracted conflict in Ukraine over Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, is facing even greater struggles to maintain unity among its flock as this calamity unfolds.
The Moscow Patriarchate bears a good deal of responsibility for this current conflict. Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church have been at turns enthusiastic cheerleaders or silent regarding Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, support of separatists, and annexation of Crimea.
Russian Orthodox media in both Russia and Ukraine has been working since 2014 to discredit Euromaidan and democratically elected Ukrainian governments and since 2018 to sow doubts about the legitimacy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Now, as Russian troops attack Ukrainians, we see how media and rhetoric divide Orthodox Christians within the Moscow Patriarchate.
February 23, the day before Putin began his invasion, was “Defenders of the Fatherland” day in Russia, a holiday that celebrates the military and veterans. On this occasion, Patriarch Kirill gave a full-throated blessing to Russian troops and their actions. As Sergei Chapnin mentions in his post on Public Orthodoxy, Kirill was silent for almost a day following the beginning of the invasion and then offered a rather mealy-mouthed and propagandistic statement that never actually called Russia’s actions an invasion or even addressed Putin directly.
The coverage on the official website of the Moscow Patriarchate, Patriarchia.ru, is largely focused on humanitarian relief for refugees leaving the Donbass for Russia. This stance helps to bolster the Kremlin’s false statements that it is sending troops to Donbass to prevent a “genocide” of Russians in the region. However, regarding the plight of Ukrainians in the rest of the country, there is only silence.
Even on different language versions of websites from the same Church organizations we see selective decisions being made as to what audiences receive certain information, presenting a curated view of statements, even from hierarchs within the Moscow Patriarchate. To take one example, on February 24, Metropolitan Onuphry of Kyiv, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, issued a strong statement that called on Putin to end the war. This has been the only substantial statement from anyone within the Moscow Patriarchate that explicitly notes that this is Putin’s war of aggression. This statement is available in translation on Orthochristian.com, but is entirely absent from Pravoslavie.ru’s main, Russian-language site. From this decision, one can conclude that the site is unwilling to offer any criticism of Putin and his unjust war for its Russian audience, but that it understands the poor optics of the situation around the world and wants to show the call for peace from the Ukrainian prelate to the international audience.
Lest one think that this is just the decision of a minor online outlet, it is important to understand that Pravoslavie.ru is one of the oldest and most influential Orthodox websites in the world. It was founded at the Sretenskii Monastery in the heart of Moscow by now Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Pskov. Tikhon is a powerful and polarizing figure within the Moscow Patriarchate and has even been referred to as “Putin’s confessor,” and he has strong ties to intelligence and policing agencies in Russia.
Tikhon has also been the main driver of attempts to recast the Russian historical narrative in a decidedly nationalistic key. He started an initiative to create multimedia museums across the country called “Russia–My History.” These installations offer a vision of Russian history that claims that all of Russia’s problems come from the outside and promotes a fundamentalist ideology that extols monarchism and clericalism. With Putin’s speech on February 23, we now see what happens when this historical narrative becomes a guiding principle in geopolitical decision-making.
Another outlet that offers insight into the role of Orthodox media in this conflict is the “Union of Orthodox Journalists,” a news site established in Ukraine by Viktor Vishnevetskii, a Ukrainian oligarch with strong ties to the Moscow Patriarchate. It was created in the wake of Euromaidan to spread pro-Russian and pro-Moscow Patriarchate views.
The “Union of Orthodox Journalists” publishes bombastic articles that accuse the Ecumenical Patriarchate of being a puppet of the United States; fear-mongering that the West is trying to impose LGBTQ+ values on Ukraine; and full-scale denunciations of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as mere schismatics with false ordinations, sacraments, and authority. All of the “Union’s” rhetoric has been designed to stoke fears among Ukrainian Orthodox Christians against their fellow citizens, making the claim that their only hope is in Russia. Up until Putin’s declaration of war, the site was contrasting the statements for peace and calm from voices within the Moscow Patriarchate with the calls for fighting to victory from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. And even now, its coverage still accuses those associated with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine of terrorizing Moscow Patriarchate priests and parishioners.
There is no mention of what Russian troops are doing in the country.
Based on its official statements and the selective media coverage that presents one view to Russians, another to Ukrainians, and still a third to an international audience, the Moscow Patriarchate is largely abandoning its brothers and sisters in Ukraine, save for the ones that Putin has decided to “save.”
Jacob Lassin is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.