Orthodox theology must be de-Putinised

Orthodox theology

“The ideas of a ‘Russian world’ and an ‘Orthodox society’ are based on bad theology,” says Russian Orthodox priest and theologian Cyril Hovorun.

“They are heretical ideas. Theologically, they must be seriously deconstructed to reveal their fascistic and authoritarian dimension,” he insists.

Hovorun, a 48-year-old native of Ukraine, is an archimandrite in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).

An important and much published theologian of Orthodox Christianity, he has held important leadership posts in the Moscow Patriarchate over the years.

He served from 2009-2012 as vice-president of the Teaching Council of the Russian Orthodox Church and is currently an associate dean for political ecclesiology at Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy in Sweden, as well as senior lecturer at the Stockholm School of Theology.

Two weeks after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Hovorun gave this exclusive interview to La Croix’s Mikael Corre in which he explained the theological foundations underlying the Kremlin’s act of war.

La Croix: In a recent interview, you called on the Orthodox Church to re-evaluate its theology, in particular to condemn “the quasi-religious idea that there is a Russian world.”

Cyril Hovorun: A war must always be explained before it is launched. Before you need weapons, you need a narrative to convince your people of its validity, to get them to support it.

The idea of a “Russian world” is what underlies the attempted invasion of Ukraine, what gives it a conceptual framework.

In order to understand it well, it is necessary to recall that when Vladimir Putin came to power at the turn of the 2000s, Russia no longer had any ideology. The Kremlin was faced with the void left by the fall of the USSR and the abandonment of communism.

To fill this void, those in power then undertook the restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is the Church that will give the State what it lacks: a goal, a mission, both historical and metaphysical.

And this mission is the defence of the “Russian world”?

That’s right. This ideology served first of all to mobilise the Russians, to create the conditions in which they could live together.

It is a logic quite similar to that developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. Except that in the Russian situation, we are not just witnessing the emergence of a kind of civil religion that guarantees social cohesion and allows people to meet around common values.

No, in the Russian situation, the ideas are forged in the Patriarchate and mixed with Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialism, in a kind of blend. It is now used to define enemies and draw the outlines of a war against evil.

Do you think that the aggression against Ukraine has other goals than acquiring new territories, new resources, new access to the sea?

The Kremlin does not follow a simple logic of territorial expansion.

The war in Ukraine is of a different nature. It is being waged in the name of a special mission of religious unification, of protection of a kind of “holy land” against the West – against the Western countries considered heretical, bad and liars, because they are Catholic or Protestant.

It is, first of all, a logic of expansion of the “Orthodox civilisation”, which is the other major idea that Orthodox theologians must deconstruct today.

Where does this idea of an “Orthodox civilisation” come from?

It comes from a thesis that fascinated the Moscow Patriarchate when I was working there from 2009-2012: The Clash of Civilisations by Samuel Huntington.

What fascinated the Patriarchate of Moscow was not only the notion of civilisation, but also that of a “clash” and conflict.

The “Orthodox civilisation” was immediately thought of in terms of confrontation with others.

And of expansion?

Absolutely. Talking about civilisation allows the Kremlin not to limit Russia to its borders.

In 2016, Vladimir Putin made a very explicit speech during a gala in Moscow. On stage, the Russian president asked a young boy, “Where do Russia’s borders end?” “At the Bering Strait,” the child replied. “No, Russia’s borders have no end,” countered Vladimir Putin.

This is an imperialist idea that was already found in the Roman Empire, in Augustus, for example, the successor to Julius Caesar. The empire has no limits…

Let us return to Ukraine. Why should it, in the mind of the Kremlin, necessarily be part of this “Russian world”, of this “Orthodox civilisation”?

Because of history. Or rather a reinvented, mythical vision of history.

This is very clearly what came out of Vladimir Putin’s speech on February 21. When Vladimir Putin talks about Ukraine, he does not talk about the actual country, the people who live there or their aspirations. He denies these realities.

Instead, he talks about the “idea of Ukraine”, in the Platonic sense.

It’s as if the feudal kingdom of Kyiv Rus’, Christianised in the 10th century under the reign of Vladimir I, was still a relevant geopolitical reality today… It’s as if its destiny was to recover Kyiv, seen as the “cradle of Russian Christianity.”

As you describe it, this would be a religious war?

You have to understand that Vladimir Putin has a Hegelian relationship with history. For him, history is driven by ideas that justify his actions.

His speech on February 21 was nothing more than an imaginary frieze unrolled to speak of the “Russian world”, of which he sees himself as the redeemer.

His relationship to history is also very messianic: the “Holy Rus'”, which would embody the good, would be protected against the forces of evil, represented by the West…

It seems so Manichean, and caricatural… How can one believe it?

I’m not saying that Vladimir Putin, who is a cynic, believes it. But if you listen to the speeches, that’s really what comes out.

In a sermon on March 6, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow explained, for example, that the war in Ukraine is made necessary by the “genocide” that would be perpetrated in the Donbass by Ukrainians against those who refuse Gay Pride.

This may seem to you a mind-blowing, absurd statement, but it is very coherent: it paints a good picture of this “clash of civilisations” of which we spoke.

On one side, there is Christian Russia. On the other side, there is the West, ontologically evil, which promotes homosexuals, perceived as the incarnation of evil, and which should be exterminated.

Today, there is an urgency in Orthodoxy to attack these discourses. From the moment the world was created by God, it is theologically impossible to argue that any part of this world is essentially evil.

And how can one defend the extermination of gay and lesbian people if one believes that we were created in God’s own image?

The ideas of a “Russian world” and an “Orthodox civilisation” are based on bad theology. They are heretical ideas. Theologically, they must be seriously deconstructed to reveal their fascistic and authoritarian dimension.

What should this deconstruction process involve?

Through the same work of critical analysis of texts, of publication of books or articles, which took place in Catholicism and Protestantism after the Second World War.

Some theologians, for example, tried to demonstrate that Jesus was not a Jew, in order to go along with the anti-Semitic theses.

Catholic and Protestant theology had to be de-nazified, purged of these sick analyses.

Orthodox theology today must be de-Putinised, and more broadly rid of these fascist drifts.

In Romania, for example, the theses of an anti-Semitic and pro-fascist theologian like Nichifor Crainic (1889-1972) are enjoying a revival of popularity.

Our weakness today comes from a lot of work that has not been done, that of deconstructing theologies founded under authoritarian regimes in Greece, Serbia, Yugoslavia etc.

The idea of the “Russian world” is unfortunately not the only authoritarian theology of the beginning of the 21st century, but it is the worst.

In what way?

In theory, according to the Russian Constitution, the State and the Church are separate.

But, in fact, we can clearly see that the dream is to recreate a kind of “Byzantine symphony”, practically a fusion between political and religious powers.

Rather, I should say to create it from scratch, because this symphony never fully existed in the Byzantine Empire.

This undertaking is dangerous, because it takes any prophetic dimension away from the Church, and makes it a slave of politics. But for some Russian Orthodox, this is a return to a golden age, to past greatness.

So they need a strong man like Putin, who plays the Basileus [i.e. the Byzantine emperor], to dream of an Orthodox empire that is itself strong.

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