Western theologian Nicholas Sagovsky expresses shock and sadness


As a UK-based theologian, I have been trying to understand what lies behind the catastrophic Russian attack on Ukraine and ‘Putin’s War’, and pose the following theological questions.


(1) What did Putin mean when he said that Ukraine ‘has never had its own authentic statehood’? Surely, Ukraine has been, at least since 1991, an internationally recognized, democratic state, with a functioning government, clear borders and a rich history? Its existence is undergirded by international law. Putin’s refusal to recognise it as an authentic country – but only a constitutive part of a Russia which includes Moscow, Belarus and Ukraine – harks back to the days of the Russian Empire when international law as we know it was in its infancy and the institutions through which it functions, such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, had not yet been founded. Ukraine is a member of the family of nations that relate to one another in accord with international law. Putin has distanced Russia from this, and from the international institutions which protect human rights in the midst of bitter conflicts. His denial that Ukraine is a ‘country’ prepared the ground for a gross violation of international law. It highlights the need, from a theological point of view, to understand international law as far more than a pragmatic expedient to stop human beings killing and exploiting one another. It is rooted in the will of the Creator: it is ultimately a means of God’s blessing. 


(2) When the Ecumenical Patriarch (the Bishop of Constantinople) recognised the creation of a self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2019, why was the Patriarchate of Moscow so offended that it broke off communion with Constantinople – effectively choosing schism? We have to look at the history, going back to the moment in 988 when Prince Vladimir of Rus (a tribal area, mostly to the north and west of today’s Kyiv) accepted the Christianity of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). When he had been baptized, several thousands of his subjects followed suit. For more than two hundred years, Kyiv was a Christian powerhouse from which missionaries spread the Faith as far north as Lake Ladoga, near the modern border between Russia and Finland. However, in 1237-40, Kievan Russia was overrun by the invading Mongols. Much of its land passed under the control of Poland and Lithuania (and so under western, Catholic influence). Leadership of the Church in the east Slavic lands passed to Moscow. Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow came to see itself as the ‘Third Rome’. After 1686, the metropolitan of Kiev was appointed from and subservient to Moscow. 

With Patriarch Bartholemew’s recognition of an autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, pre-existing tensions between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate got far worse. There is now a deep split in Orthodoxy between the Churches loyal to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and those loyal to Moscow. Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow, who has been outspoken in his critique of western decadence (godlessness, consumerism, homosexuality, drug abuse etc), claims that in recognising the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Bartholemew exceeded his authority. This of course is highly questionable, but members of western churches which broke with Rome at the Reformation precisely because they saw the Pope as having exceeded his authority should at least understand what an important issue in Canon Law is here at stake. 


(3) Why does Kirill, the current Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, follow the government line so strongly? The Church in Russia suffered dreadfully under communist persecution; churches were routinely closed and destroyed. The Moscow Patriarchate, supported by Putin, has in recent years been using its conspicuous wealth to build new churches and other facilities in Russia and abroad. For the Moscow Patriarchate, there is a sense that in post-communist Russia the Church has at last been restored to its rightful place in the Russian nation: it should now give spiritual affirmation to the state’s political and moral agenda. 


(4) To what extent does Putin personally support this ‘spiritual and moral agenda’? For Putin, Ukraine’s primary offence is that of espousing a ‘liberal’ system which emanates from the West – and which brings prosperity without political control. He believes that the Russian way is different: it is not that of constitutional checks and balances but that of the strong leader and the ‘unity of soul’ in the people he (yes, he) leads. Timothy Snyder, possibly the most illuminating writer on contemporary Ukraine, shows in The Path to Unfreedom (2018) how indebted Putin is to quasi-Christian thinkers like Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954). For Ilyin, ‘holy Russia’ must not to be seduced by the forces of the decadent West, but, following her own distinctive path, must triumph over them decisively. Putin’s metaphysical vision springs from a Christianity improperly digested in a time of radical secular vacuum.

The situation on the ground is changing rapidly. By the time this article is published, things will doubtless look very different. I take hope from this: every time both the Russians and the Ukrainians celebrate the Orthodox Liturgy, the choir sings on behalf of all the people, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God’. In this tragic War, there are on both sides– within and far beyond the bounds of the Orthodox Churches (remember Russia and Ukraine’s longsuffering Jewish communities) – ‘children of God’ who long only to live in freedom and peace.