The words Russia uses to describe the war in Ukraine are divided within the country: “a rhetoric from the Middle Ages”

Religious rhetoric has gained increased momentum since the fall, while Moscow has suffered several military setbacks, with senior officials and state media portraying the intervention in Ukraine as a ‘holy war’ and lashing out against the West.

In early November, former President Dmitry Medvedev, now number two in the powerful Russian Security Council, confirmed that the attack’s “holy purpose” was to “stop the lord of hell.” “We are fighting those who hate us, ban our language, our values ​​and even our faith,” Medvedev said, adding that Russia’s enemies are the Ukrainian “Nazis” and the “dogs” of the West.

Military chaplains

Beyond the speeches, the entanglement of religion and the military is also evident in the deployment of dozens of chaplains to the frontlines to support soldiers.

Military chaplain Sviatoslav Tchourkanov explains to AFP that the missions aim to prevent soldiers from “losing their souls (…), even if the situation pushes them”. A chaplain must instill in the army that “prisoners must not be tortured (…) we must not rob, we must not harm civilians,” he continues.

The cleric has no doubts about the merits of this attack on Ukraine, which, according to him, is in defense of the “traditional values” of which the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church present themselves as defenders. “In Ukraine, even in wartime situations, we organize gay prides to show adherence to Western values,” the priest is quoted as saying, echoing the rhetoric of Russian power in the “degenerate” West.

As a sign of the importance of these clerics in the conflict, Mr. Putin in November awarded the title of “Hero of the Russian Federation,” the country’s highest honor, to Orthodox priest Mikhail Vasiliev, who was killed in a war zone. Patriarch Kirill, the powerful head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has voiced support for the military offensive, saying support should be given to pro-Russian “brothers” in eastern Ukraine who have “rejected” Western values. During a sermon at the end of September, he said those killed while performing “military duty” had made “a sacrifice that washes away all sins”.

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Nikita Astakov, artistic director of the Russian Orthodox “spiritual” theater “Glass” (“The Voice”), stages plays dealing with religious issues, “Russia always stands against evil”. “Russia will never be defeated as long as more than half of the Russian population is Orthodox,” he told AFP.

“This rhetoric of holy war dates back to the Middle Ages”

But this involvement of the Church in the conflict and the increasingly religious rhetoric surrounding it was not unanimous in Russia.

“This rhetoric of holy war dates back to the Middle Ages,” Andriy Kordotchkin, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in Madrid, told AFP in an interview. “Pope Urban II used the exact word when he blessed the Crusades (begun in 1096), promising the crusaders that their sins would be forgiven,” he explains. “But it is impossible to go back to the past. (…) A war which is a form of killing cannot have spiritual meanings”, he adds.

If the Moscow patriarch showed open support for the military intervention, it would cause an uproar in the Orthodox world, with fierce fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

Even within the Russian clergy, there are differences: as of March 1, a platform against the “fratricidal war” had been signed by 293 Orthodox. “It is not only (Russian) society that is divided, but also the Church and the clergy,” said priest Andrei Gordotchkin.

Many of the signatories to the text have been sanctioned by the patriarchy, one of whom agreed on condition of anonymity. “Some were displaced from their parishes where they had served for years and replaced by priests loyal to the authorities,” he said, calling the Russian attack a “catastrophe.”

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“In recent years, the links between the High Orthodox hierarchy and power have been strengthened,” the priest continues. “The government has helped the church a lot and this help has created a huge dependency”.

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