The Hill


Is the pope a Russian imperialist?

The answer, alas, may be yes, at least if Pope Francis’s closing words at the August 25th All-Russian Meeting of Catholic Youth in St. Petersburg are any indication of his views.

Speaking via video, Francis said the following to the young Russians assembled in the Basilica of St. Catherine of Alexandria:

“Never forget the legacy. You are the heirs of great Russia: the great Russia of saints and rulers, the great Russia of Peter I and Catherine II, that great and enlightened empire of great culture and great humanity. Never give up this legacy, you are the heirs of the great Mother Russia, go forward with it. And thank you. Thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russians.”

The Pope used the adjective “great” six times in reference to the country and the culture — which is not unusual — and to the empire and its rulers and their humanity — which is odd, to say the least, especially coming from a man of peace.

Surely Francis knows better than to describe the Russian empire, which was the product of centuries of bloody imperialism, as great. Surely he knows that Peter and Catherine, though termed “great” by their admirers, were bloodthirsty tyrants who crushed all opposition.

And surely Francis must cringe appending the words “great humanity” to the Russian empire and its rulers.

Can he truly be serious in advising young Russians to hang on to a legacy of death and destruction? Can he, while “great Mother Russia” is waging a genocidal war in Ukraine, truly admire Russians for their “way of being Russian”? Shouldn’t he be preaching peace, love and humility — characteristics in decidedly short supply in Putin’s Russia and completely absent on the frontlines in Ukraine?

The mind boggles. Is Francis taking history lessons from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin or from Putin’s good friend, the warmongering Orthodox Patriarch Kirill?

Worse, such sentiments aren’t a one-off for the pope. As the Canadian commentator Diane Francis points out:

“Pope Francis has never directly condemned Vladimir Putin or Russia by name in the 18 months since their horrific war began against the Ukrainian people. Worse, the Pope’s first quoted reaction echoed Kremlin talking points when he suggested that the war was a consequence of ‘NATO barging at Russia’s gate’ and the ‘international arms industry.’ This

Pope’s failure to publicly condemn Putin and Russia, and his moral equivocation when pressed, is unforgivable and reminiscent of the papacy’s tacit acceptance of Hitler and his Second World War.”

The pope’s silence in the presence of manifest evil is bad enough. Far worse — far, far worse, almost unforgivably so — is his open endorsement of Russian imperialism.

There are, after all, sins of omission and sins of commission. Francis has persistently failed to condemn the war and its instigator, Putin’s Russia, thereby effectively suggesting that both perpetrator and victim are equally responsible. This latest statement leaves nothing to the imagination and warrants no doubts. It is an open endorsement of the imperial Russian state and its leaders. It is an open endorsement of their crimes against humanity, whether committed in the 18th century or today.

There is, unfortunately, no alternative explanation for the pope’s statement. Patriarch Kirill and he are on the best of terms. And as Diane Francis persuasively shows, he’s also consistently treated Putin with kid gloves. In other words, there’s no plausible political reason for such Putinist views. The pope need not curry favor with them, since he’s done that already. Nor is it plausible to believe that the pope felt that Russian youth needs a hyper-patriotic shot in the arm: after all, that’s all they’ve been getting from the regime for years.

The pope’s endorsement of Russian imperialism — and his use of the word “great” so many times in so few sentences — suggests that he genuinely believes that it is a great and good thing. This is both tragic and sad. A Latin American Jesuit should know evil when he sees it.

Evidently, Pope Francis has forgotten the commandment “You shall not murder.” Such a pope is no pope. Francis should beg the world’s — as well as Ukraine’s — forgiveness.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”