On February 27, 2022, the fourth day of the invasion of Ukraine, Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow spoke about the unfolding events in a homily delivered at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. In particular, he denounced “evil forces fighting the unity of the Rus.”
The ostensible substance of this homily is a call to pray for peace and for the unity of the Church, and especially for Metropolitan Onufriy, Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate. But, what is the real significance of the Patriarch of Moscow’s words?
The words of Patriarch Kirill cannot be understood without their framework. This is given a little further on: “May the Lord preserve the Russian land. When I say ‘Russian,’ I use the ancient expression of the ‘Chronicle of past times’: ‘The origin of the Russian land.’ A land that today includes Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other tribes and other peoples.”
This “Russian land” is rooted in the fact that Russia and Ukraine come from the “same baptismal font” and are united by the same religious culture which must not be broken.
As Jacques Berset explains: It is “the idea dear to Russian ultranationalists, of a socio-cultural and supranational space encompassing not only Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, but which must also extend to other territories of Eurasia where Russian Orthodoxy, culture, and language are present. This civilization, from the point of view of both the Patriarchate and the Kremlin, must be defined outside the Western civilization described as ‘decadent.’”
However, Metropolitan Onufriy took up the cause of his country, Ukraine. He expressed his support “for the military who protect and defend our land and our people. May God bless them and keep them! Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we address the President of Russia and ask him to immediately end the fratricidal war.”
“The Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the baptismal font of the Dnieper and the war between these peoples is the repetition of the sin of Cain, who out of jealousy killed his brother. Such a war finds its justification neither before God nor before men.”
An Unbearable Fracture
As explained in the article “Ukraine: The Keys to a War with Religious Dimensions,” the majority of Ukrainian Orthodox have separated from Moscow, with the blessing of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Those who remained faithful are gathered in the UOC of Metropolitan Onufriy. His position is a new fracture intolerable to the Patriarch of Moscow. This is why he points out:
“God forbid that the current political situation in Ukraine, a brother country which is close to us, allows the forces of evil, which have always fought the unity of the Rus and that of the Russian Church, to prevail. God forbid that between Russia and Ukraine stretches a terrible line, reddened by the blood of our brothers.”
However, the message delivered by Kirill is ambiguous. On the one hand he would like the UOC and its metropolitan to remain faithful to the Muscovite Patriarchate, in a vision that is both religious and political: “We must pray for the return to peace, for the restoration of fraternal relations between our peoples. Our United Orthodox Church, represented in Ukraine by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church presided over by His Beatitude Onuphre, is the guarantor of this fraternity.”
On the other hand, he asks “that the Lord give them the strength and the wisdom to resist ... the attacks of the evil one, and, at the same time, that of serving their people faithfully, in particular by working for peace by all means.”
Thus, while avoiding condemning the patriotism of his metropolitan, Kirill pleads for the unity of the Rus, both from a political and religious point of view. Despite the skill of the formulas, his speech, indeed, is referring to a vision of a territorial and religious unity of the “Russian land.”