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Putin believes he is defending Orthodox Christianity from the godless West

By supporting the war, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has both normalised sinful behaviour and polluted Russian Christian identity.

By Rowan Williams

We throw around the term “culture wars” so freely that it has become hard to recognise and understand what a real and bloody war about culture looks like. Vladimir Putin sees himself as the protagonist in a battle for the survival of an integral Christian culture as surely as Islamic State casts itself as the defender of Islamic cultural purity. Of course there are profound operational, historical and political differences, and it would be foolish to ignore these, or to slip into the sort of panic that is prompted by Islamist extremism. But a realistic picture of what lies behind the appalling conflict in Ukraine has to reckon with the parallels – and has to recognise that secular geopolitical calculations and bargains may not give us the tools for making sense of what is going on.

Putin’s close ally and supporter, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, made it clear in an extraordinary sermon delivered on 6 March, the day before Orthodox Lent began, that he regarded the Russian campaign as a war to defend Orthodox civilisation against Western corruption, of which gay pride marches were singled out as the leading symptom. This was no accident: despite high recorded levels of prejudice against LGBT+ people in Ukraine, recent Ukrainian policy has liberalised, and Kyiv has a high-profile activist community and annual parade.

For the Patriarch, this is both a normalising of grossly sinful behaviour and a pollution of Russian Christian identity, since Kyiv is where Russian Christianity has its origins. About three-quarters of Ukraine’s population identify as Orthodox, and it has a high level of church attendance, but its Orthodoxy coexists with the expressions of a very different set of cultural norms. It is difficult enough to cope with religious diversity: Russia’s recent history shows very low tolerance of non-Orthodox Christian (not to mention Jewish and Muslim) minorities. The prospects for minorities in Ukraine in the event of a Russian victory are not promising. But what is worse in the eyes of a certain type of Russian Orthodox is the toleration of ideological diversity in the public sphere.

[See also: Xi Jinping could stop Putin’s war in Ukraine. Will he?]

The Patriarch and others see the Western agenda not as a genuine liberal pluralism but as what we might call “coercive tolerance”, in which toleration is only a first step towards enforcement – at the very least of the recognition of Western ideals. Ironically, Russian anxieties here are distinctively modern ones, echoed in the language of the American religious right, who see the liberal securing of rights not as a guarantee of safety and civic dignity but a provocative declaration that certain moral options are being floated on the open market.

Thus, in a society dominated by consumerism, toleration is considered a kind of aggressive public advertising. It must all be about selling “lifestyles” to an avid and supposedly uncritical public. (We can recognise something of this in our own vitriolic disputes about trans rights, where it seems to be often assumed that recognising the gross injustices suffered by some groups of people is a covert way of “promoting” certain choices. This is a travesty of how individuals experience their identity and negotiate their decisions, but it is a rhetorically powerful myth.)

It is easy to lament all this as barbarous nonsense. But it may help to consider how Ukraine seems to some Russians like a dangerous hybrid of cultures: a place that looks Orthodox, with a history that’s key to Russia’s own Christian identity, but in fact is a Trojan horse for the godless indifference of the West. This is not so far away from the militant Islamist anger at Muslim societies that accept the public presence of some un-Islamic norms and habits. The problem arises in the assumption that culture, including religious culture, must of its essence be monolithic and that it can be maintained only through legal coercion – or, in the case of Ukraine, violent, unprincipled and unbridled aggression.

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[See also: Russia-Ukraine war: an invasion 30 years in the making]

But we might do worse than ask why non-Western cultures so fear being sucked into what they consider a moral vacuum. If all they see is a series of reactive demands for emancipation acted out against a backdrop of consumerism and obsession with material growth, the suspicion and hostility is a bit more intelligible. What do we in the shrinking “liberal” world think emancipation is for? Perhaps it is for the liberation of all individuals to collaborate in a positive social project, in a society of sustainable and fair distribution of goods. Perhaps it is for the construction of a social order in which our interdependence, national and international, is more fully acknowledged.

Solidarity with Ukraine involves sanctions that will cost us as well as Russians – decisions that will affect our reliance on oil and gas and open our doors to more refugees. If we are willing to accept these consequences for the sake of a positive vision of interdependence and justice, we shall have a more compelling narrative to oppose the dramatic, even apocalyptic, myths arising elsewhere in the world.

Unwelcome neighbours, after all, tend not simply to disappear; in which case, we must work out how we live respectfully with them. One thing that might be said in response to Patriarch Kirill is that neighbours have to be loved, not terrorised into resentful silence – a matter on which the God first acknowledged in Kyiv in 988 had a good deal to say.

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global