Nov 20, 2022
Since Russia began its attempt to eliminate Ukraine in February, there have been some very strange reactions in the West as people try to map their provincial ideological “priors” onto a landscape where they have little relevance. One aspect that has produced some of the most ironic—and, indeed, most amusing—Western reactions is the role that Christianity plays in the combatant societies.
In early October, there was a minor liberal freakout—on Twitter, of course—after a video of Ukrainian soldiers being blessed by a priest before going into battle circulated. The secular liberal tolerance that extends right up to the moment a different perspective is discovered was on full display, and it takes a heart of stone not to laugh.
Western secular liberal humanists bear the indelible stamp of Christianity, as the historian Tom Holland has documented, nowhere more so than in their identification with the oppressed and the weak, and the belief that this value is truly universal, rather than “culturally highly specific”. Christianity’s hegemony in the West has left the liberal secularists seeing themselves as locked in a struggle with Christians in their own societies, creating a tension when they are drawn to Ukraine’s cause by the Christian instinct to protect the vulnerable against the predations of the strong, and are then confronted with the reality of Ukraine, a profoundly religious country.
The polls vary slightly, but anything up to 80% of Ukraine’s 44 million people believe in God. Roughly speaking, 75% of the population are Christian: 65% are Orthodox; 8% are Greek Catholics (or “Uniates”), that is following Eastern rites but accepting the authority of the Roman Pope; and 2% are Protestant. Half of Ukrainians attend church, one-third regularly. Interestingly, there is no support for a state church: the belief that democracy requires separation of church and state is widespread, an unusual perspective in the Orthodox world. About 1% of Ukrainians are Muslim and there is a secure community of 200,000 Jews (0.5%). The remaining 20% or so includes people who are uncertain on the question of belief and decided non-believers.
Some of the most visible senior Ukrainian officials are serious believers. Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) within the Ministry of Defence, is an Orthodox Christian, as is the Commander-in-Chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and his friend Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser on strategic communications to the Office of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Arestovych, easily among the most interesting people involved in the Ukraine crisis, has held a daily livestream broadcast since Russia’s assault began that has served to calm popular alarm, while giving some insight into the thinking in Kyiv, and beyond that ranges broadly across subjects, very much including religion. Arestovych, from an atheistic family, came to God around 2007, in his early 30s. Arestovych’s is a “highly non-doctrinaire form of Christianity”, as Andrzej Kozlowski, who has studied Arestovych closely, told me. Arestovych is “strongly
influenced by [Carl] Jung” and thus “mostly concerned with the psychological effect of religion” on individuals and society, says Prof. Kozlowski. Scientifically minded as he is, Arestovych rejects “scientism” and believes Christianity is the foundation of morality, which makes him appreciative of Judaism and to a lesser extent some other creeds.
President Zelensky’s parents are devout Jews, and he has invoked this heritage at times. His wife, the formidable Olena Zelenska, is an Orthodox Christian, and their two children are reportedly baptised. The liberal worries about how Zelensky has dealt with being surrounded by pious Christians were perhaps most clearly answered when Zelensky spoke from the Great Saint Sophia Cathedral at Easter, notoriously the most touchy event either side of the hyphen in the Judeo-Christian world.
THE WESTERN RIGHT AND UKRAINE
The irony in this situation is not just for the Western Left, though: large sections of the Right, specifically the post-liberals and within that set particularly a coterie of Roman Catholics, have—with varying degrees of explicitness—sided with Russia, viewing Vladimir Putin’s government as a Christian bulwark against a degenerate American-led imperialism that goes forth under a “rainbow flag” to proselytise for the sexual revolution. Within this vision, Ukraine is seen as aligned with the wokenvolk and by some of them as “woke” itself—an absurd error.
The Christian officials in Ukraine “are not ‘progressive’, anti-Western, Christians of the kind one finds especially in Latin America with ‘liberation theology’, but traditional European Christians, strongly influenced by the Pope John Paul II and the thought of Thomas Aquinas”, says Kozlowski. At large in the Ukrainian population, the Uniate Church in particular, in the west of the country, “enjoys great influence” and prestige, because of its heroic resistance to Communist repression—a radical difference with the Russian Orthodox Church, which collaborated with the Bolsheviks and was publicly revealed as having done so at the end of the Soviet period. The pro-Russian tilt of so many Catholic intellectuals, and of the Church hierarchy, is especially tragic, since the Russian Orthodoxy hates Roman Catholicism with a venomous passion, while Ukrainian Orthodoxy—because of Ukraine’s separate history under Polish influence—is neither as theologically nor institutionally hostile to the Roman Church. Where the Russian Orthodox Church “now appeals mostly to the superstitious and the extreme nationalists (these two groups have a large intersection)”, Kozlowski sums up, Ukraine “represents probably the best hope [in Europe] for the revival of a Christianity that is both highly moral and ‘muscular’—able to defend itself.”
The Western anti-Ukraine Rightists have tried to flesh out their position by amplifying stories of Ukrainian corruption and anything related to supposed Nazism in Ukraine. This is not only highly suspect, given the role “denazification” rhetoric has played in Putin’s war propaganda, and not only largely empirically mistaken, especially as it concerns the Azov Regiment, but the good-faith of this line of attack is open to question—it is clearly mostly being used as a “gotcha” to liberals because quite a number in and around this set of Rightists hold it against Ukraine that the President is a Jew.
There are specifically American political factors at play in this mix. Ukraine has a special role in the resentments of Donald Trump and his supporters, not just for the first impeachment in 2019, but for complicated reasons relating to their theories of the origins of “Russiagate” in 2015-16. A broader reason why the pro-Russia arguments of the intellectual leaders of this “New Right” are finding an audience is pure partisanship: President Joe Biden is a Democrat, so Republican voters will oppose him.
Even so, it is interesting that Republicans are responsive to arguments that shift the blame for Russia’s most blatant act of aggression onto NATO—whether the provocation is posited as NATO “expansion”, the “Maidan coup”, or whatever. None of these arguments are very credible and are more like rationalisations for a viewpoint that emerges out of a larger underlying fact: the Bolshevization of large parts of the Trumpified Right. It is no accident, as the comrades used to say, that this faction of the Right always manages to find an argument that blames America: they have absorbed the hard-Left’s fundamental guiding principle of anti-Americanism; there is no conspiracy theory about the American state domestically that they will not entertain, and their hatred of America’s role in the world is limitless. It is in this context that we see the laughable parodies of Leftist radicals, who use street violence to cosplay at “revolution” against the American “regime”, and then whine pathetically when the state reacts.
Still, let us take the central stated argument of the post-liberals and other Christian apologists for the Russian government on its own merits: as they see it, Putin is defending their values; he is a Christian and promotes the faith, protects the believers and nurtures a traditional Christian order, acting as a barricade, however imperfectly, against the official creed of the West, which is at this stage an aggressive, repressive, militant secularism that is “trying to snuff out Christianity”.
A RUSSIAN HOLY WAR ON UKRAINE?
When discussing the role of Christianity in Russia, there is a distinction to be enforced between whether Orthodoxy has a role in motivating Putin’s attack on Ukraine, and Orthodoxy as a societal force in Russia under Putin’s governance: the post-liberal, pro-Putin argument rests on the latter, but the former is worth addressing.
My own view is that Putin is quite sincere in his belief the war on Ukraine is effectively a Crusade, or an “Orthodox jihad” as some have called it, to reunify the “Russian Orthodox people”. Putin regularly expressed his belief in private to world leaders (not that they listened) in the years before the all-out invasion that Ukraine was not a real country but a lost historical province of Orthodox Russia that had been improperly taken away. The Kremlin made no secret of its utter fury—and its belief America was behind—the 2019 split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church away from the Moscow Patriarch. (Moscow was made no happier when the Ukrainian remnant that was affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church severed those ties in May.) Putin has spoken publicly for many years in terms of Russia’s “spiritual security” and brought the Russian Orthodox Church back to centre stage within the state, including the Army, as part of this project. There is some suggestion that Putin became even more “a prisoner of his strange ideas” under lockdown, and in this isolation, accessing “extremely bad information”, all the restraints of reality withered away, leaving only his ideologised world to guide him.
There are other views on this. “Putin’s Christian faith is entirely insincere”, Kozlowski says, but he adds: “For Putin, Russian Orthodoxy became the ideology that was to replace Communism and provide the glue for the restored Russian Empire.” There is the rub.
The idea of religion as “something intimate [and] personal” is essentially a Protestant view. The inner beliefs of Putin and Russia’s senior officials are largely beside the point in the framework of Orthodoxy, which is a collective and public faith, deeply interwoven with national identity: it provides a “communal affiliation even in the absence of personal commitment … [that] provides a rationale for individuals to sacrifice … in the service of a cause greater than themselves”. Putin directly spoke to this aspect in his speech at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow a month after he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, referencing the directives of “Holy Scriptures”, which explain “how our guys act during this military operation: shoulder to shoulder … and if necessary covering their brothers with their own bodies [to protect them] from a bullet on the battlefield. We haven’t had such unity for a long time.”
Self-sacrifice for the greater national good is, all things being equal, a positive instinct; as practiced by the Russian Orthodox Church, though, it has a distinctly sinister edge, verging on a cult of death. After the Russian announcement of “partial mobilisation” in September, Patriarch Kirill, a “former” KGB agent (as was his predecessor), let it be known that “if you die for your country, you will be with God in His kingdom, in glory and with eternal life”. No jihadist could have put it better. Another Orthodox priest, Mikhail Vasiliev, recently killed in Ukraine, had become infamous for telling Russian women that if they had more sons they would be less resistant to losing them in this war.
Orthodox rhetoric and symbolism has appeared throughout the war, justifying genocidal treatment of Ukrainians as, among other things, a means of keeping Russia out of the hands of “Satanists” and homosexuals. Since at least late October, Russia’s state propaganda has shifted entirely from the “denazification” rhetoric to “desatanisation”. The theme of holy war is not just a staple of Russian state television’s coverage of Ukraine—and it has not just begun to be preached in the schools—but has come directly from high officials.
“Ukraine, as a whole, is our Russian territory. … We won’t take these shaytans prisoner. We’ll burn them. … This is a great jihad everyone should take part in”, said Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-appointed and -sustained warlord-president of Chechnya, on 25 October. Putin’s top television propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, quickly endorsed Kadyrov’s view. “We have the opportunity to send all our enemies to hell”, said Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s placeholder president from 2008 to 2012, about a week later. “The goal is to stop the supreme lord of hell, no matter what name he uses: Satan, Lucifer or Iblis.” Aleksandr Dugin, who has little influence over Putin’s Kremlin but acts as a sort of outreach coordinator with the Western far-Right, joined in, declaring the war on Ukraine to be a “a holy war against the Satanic West … an Orthodox battle, a final, apocalyptic … battle of the Orthodox Christian Rus, the Holy Rus, against the Antichrist.”
Allowances made for rhetorical excess, it is likely these statements reflect the beliefs of Putin and some of those around him.
ORTHODOXY AND SOCIETY IN RUSSIA
If Orthodoxy is at least part of the Russian government’s motive in its war on Ukraine, and forms part of the induction and indoctrination of the Army, the role of the faith at a societal level in Russia is quite different. As a Russian friend put it, the official promotion of Christianity in Russia has some support among older and more rural populations, who see it “as a way to uphold morality and good behaviour, and as an expression of Russian national identity on state level”, but among the urban and the younger—i.e., most Russians—it is generally viewed cynically, as “a political strategy of giving religious cover to authoritarianism and sanctifying the status quo”. And there is no disagreement about the Russian Orthodox Church itself, which “is more universally seen as corrupt and wholly subservient. Practically no one thinks that religion or the Church is a moving force in matters of state, a key difference with Western Rightists on the outside looking in.”
Kozlowski says the same: “the respect for individual [Russian Orthodox] priests is very low”; it is common knowledge that most of them had careers as KGB agents and people’s personal experience since 1991 has earned the clergy a “reputation for drunkenness and breaking the Biblical commandments”. Shattered and uprooted as a living faith by seventy years of Bolshevism, discredited institutionally by its collaboration in Soviet times and its behaviour afterwards, Orthodoxy has perished as a societal force in Russia, and the Church retains only a spectral existence as a prop of the autocracy.
Setting aside Putin’s personal corruption and the mistresses, since it is possible to run a religious regime without the ruler necessarily believing it, the state Putin presides over is hardly one of Christian ideals. The structure of the system is a “virtual mafia state”, where there is no serious distinction between organised crime syndicates and the secret police, whose main operating procedure domestically is to plunder the state and prey on its people. Abroad, this crime-intelligence complex sponsors a broad network of neo-Nazis and other violent racialists, pagan in orientation, making war on Christian principles wherever they can.
American Christians put a lot of emphasis on religious freedom in their activism, at home and abroad. It might be thought that the Orthodox Church being an instrument of the state, with no independence or actual influence on the moral character of state officials or the population, would have it viewed negatively, but “religious liberty” framing has led to far more bizarre apologetics for foreign despotisms in the past. On its own terms, however, and from a sectarian perspective, the Russian state is no kind of model: while Kadyrov runs an Islamic state with Moscow’s patronage and Islam receives official recognition in Putin’s Russia, there is hideous persecution for fringe Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the laws used to repress the Witnesses as “a cult” are regularly applied to other non-Orthodox Christians, Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics very much among them.
This cultic designation means many non-Orthodox Christians live the existence of Nicodemites, making it difficult to track exact numbers for church attendance. Surveys sometimes show Russians identifying as Orthodox in large numbers, but that is what it is: “a declaration of identity rather than faith. Just 6 percent of the population and 43 percent of believers go to church several times a month.” Not even Easter brings more than 3% of Russians to church.
(Again, this is by the statistics available for the Orthodox Church.) Survey data suggests “that religion plays an important role in the lives of only 15 percent of Russians”. Or, as my friend says, “it is truly rare to find those who look to scripture or sermons for guidance in life”. Putin’s church-building campaign has been notable mostly for the protests it has stirred up as local people react against corrupt friends of the regime taking over valuable land under the cover of restoring houses of worship.
America is often derided by post-liberals as wasteland of social ruin, and who is to doubt the problems, but, as a matter of what one might call practical Christianity, America is a paradise next to Russia. The half-a-million abortions in Russia every year is a full order of magnitude higher than Ukraine in absolute terms and double the rate when adjusted for population. Russia’s divorce rate is a third higher than Ukraine’s (and America’s). Russia loses tens of thousands of people every year to HIV/AIDS, a problem exacerbated by the large-scale use of drugs in Russian society—a trade the regime is very much involved in—and the widespread prostitution, which is effectively tolerated, not least because Putin’s oligarchs are involved in that “industry”, too. Social trust levels are higher in Ukraine than Russia, despite a considerably worse societal trauma in the 1990s and all the troubles of the last twenty years. Interestingly, there is a contrasting religious dimension here, too: “Religious individuals were more likely to trust others in Ukraine”. Russia is a markedly more unequal society than Ukraine, and less charitable—and dramatically less charitable than the U.S. or Britain. Russia’s war in east Ukraine since 2014 notwithstanding, Ukraine is still less violent than Russia.
Note that this is before we get to the Russian government’s habit of assassinating journalists and dissidents, using weapons of mass destruction on the territory of foreign states, and the war itself, a blatant aggression under even the most tortured reading of “just war” theory’s jus ad bellum, and in jus in bello terms conducted in the most deviant manner, by an army that loots everything that is not nailed down, uses systematic rape as a weapon of war, castrates enemy captives, and deliberately butchers civilians—all of which seems rather worse than cancelling cakemakers or forcing nuns to provide contraceptives.
To put it bluntly, everything serious Christians could claim to value—faith, charity, societal vigour and unity, bravery, the proper relations of the family where men will lay down their lives to protect women and children, vindicating the weak against the predations of the strong, treating even enemies decently, and the cause of peace—are on the side of Ukraine. These values are not only less apparent, but actively negated on the Russian side by a criminal political leadership and an army literally staffed by criminals that is in all practical senses a chaotic collection of militias skilled only in attacking civilians.
 Tom Holland (2019), Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, p. 610.
 Anyone who has Jewish friends who have been in Western Europe and Ukraine will have had the experience of speaking to them and hearing them explain—often in quite surprised tones
that Ukrainian Jews are so much safer that smaller communities living in, say, France or Germany, where Jews have had to be warned against wearing kippahs and other visibly Jewish clothing.
 Arestovych is former GUR intelligence officer, has been an actor in Russian films, a teacher of theology and philosophy, a practicing psychologist, a warrior in the Donbas, and then a blogger and social media commentator—it was during this latter period he famously exactly predicted the current invasion.
 Arestovych’s calm, intellectual yet blunt demeanour—and his refusal to play to popular passions, even in the darkest hours of this war for Ukraine—has caused him trouble at times. On no subject is this more true than his outlook on Russia and Russians: he is adamant on a distinction between the Putin state and the Russian people, and his broader view of how Ukrainians should conceptualise their historical relationship with Russia—as a partnership, rather than in terms of victimhood—runs against prevailing narratives, within Ukraine and among the country’s supporters abroad, causing considerable controversy.
 The bravery of the Uniate hierarchy in the face of Stalin’s persecution in 1946 was truly extraordinary: pressured to participate in a mock Synod that would have “reunified” the Greek Catholic Church with the Russian Orthodox Church, which had accepted Stalin’s offer of revival in exchange for being under the control of the Soviet secret police. All-but two of the Uniate Bishops refused, knowing they would be deported to the GULAG, which they duly were, along with thousands of priests and believers, who perished in terrifying numbers in the Communist concentration camps. The Uniate Church was thereafter the largest “illegal” underground religious movement in the Soviet Union, subject to relentless repression, but the believers prevailed: as the Soviet Union crumbled, the Uniates re-emerged; they had kept together their structures and maintained the hope and confidence that comes with being free from the moral taint of collaboration that has poisoned the Russian Orthodox Church and helped push it into the desiccated condition it is in down to the present day. See: Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (1999), The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, pp. 499-503.
 The Sword and the Shield, pp. 506-07.
 A parallel development making the same point in a different way is the switch in views about Poland—from both sides. Where Poland was previously lumped in with Hungary, with liberals regarding them as states backsliding from democracy and post-liberals seeing them as models, there now seems to be general agreement they are distinct. Nothing has changed within these two states since February, obviously, but a great gulf has opened within the “Visegrád Group” abroad: Poland has led within NATO as a defender of Alliance interests in Ukraine, and Hungary acts as Russia’s Trojan horse. If the sudden liberal silence about Poland’s apparent iniquities is noteworthy, even more noteworthy is that the post-liberals nearly unanimously fell down on the Hungarian side of the divide.
 Dominion, p. 418.
 The quote Putin used was derived from the Gospel of John (15:13): “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” [King James Version].
 The KGB’s conspiratorial obsession with “ideological subversion” from religious groups ranked Jews and “Zionists” first, followed by the Uniates and other Catholics, and then Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Protestant groups in the Soviet Union were far larger, and some, like the Reform Baptists, attracted international attention for their struggle, yet they still trailed behind the Witnesses on the KGB’s enemies’ list. There had not even been any Witnesses in the Soviet Union until Stalin’s seizure of the Baltics in the 1940s and by the late 1960s there were still only 20,000 of them, but for various reasons, above all the American connection—the Witnesses were created in Pennsylvania in the 1870s and their global headquarters has been in Brooklyn since 1909—the KGB waged a relentless war against an entirely imaginary “Jehovist conspiracy”. Not even the Nazi persecution of the Witnesses was on the scale and intensity of what the Soviets did. It “was, perhaps, the supreme example of [the KGB’s] lack of any sense of proportion when dealing with even the most insignificant forms of dissent”. See: The Sword and the Shield, pp. 503-06.
 A similar softness from Western conservative Christians, again with some Roman Catholic intellectuals in the lead, can be seen towards Communist China, with similarly ridiculous arguments made about societal stability and cohesion under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its apparent promotion of traditional values. This has been especially true since the agreement reached between Peking and the Holy See was on the horizon. The Chinese government’s open defiance of these terms and uninterrupted repression of the Church does not seem to have shifted this outlook. Again, this is remarkable simply from a factional perspective: if the lens is pulled out to China’s genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs and other Muslims, it becomes more remarkable still.
 Ukraine’s abortion rate is also about half of Britain’s, which has a similar rate to Russia. The U.S. rate is lower than Russia’s even on the worst interpretation of the available statistics, and potentially drastically lower.
Written by Kyle Orton, a freelance security analyst, the newsletter covers contemporary issues of terrorism and geopolitics, plus espionage, history, religion, books, and occasional film reviews.