The Russian Orthodox
Church’s Empire of Media
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strained the attempts of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to maintain control and influence over its far-flung flock. The ROC has attempted to revive an imperial-style of church governance without the legal structures of an empire. Instead, it relies on mass media to cohere the wide territory claimed as its jurisdiction. Through these media narratives, which exacerbate the church’s understanding of its own authority, the ROC has found itself a willing assistant to the attempts of the Russian state to diminish Ukrainian sovereignty. As Russia’s war against Ukraine wages on, however, this strategy appears to be faltering, especially among the members of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
At the heart of the contemporary organizational structure and ecclesiology of the ROC is the concept of “canonical territory,” which contends that the ROC possesses exclusive authority not only over Orthodox Christians in the Russian Federation, but also over believers in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, as well as other countries that were part of the Soviet Union. Wielding the concept of canonical territory, the ROC asserts a prerogative that transcends national borders.
Canonical territory is intimately linked to the notion of the “Russkiy Mir” or “Russian World” that has proved an important rhetorical mainstay during the Putin era. An appeal to the “Russian world” maintains that ethnic Russians and Russian speakers around the world are unified into one coherent whole and that the Russian state has a particular responsibility to defend and protect fellow Russians, wherever they may be. The ROC greatly contributed in lending the idea of the “Russian World” rhetorical and political efficacy. Take, for instance, the case of the World Russian People’s Council. The organization was founded in 1993 only through the cooperation of the ROC – whose patriarch, Kirill, is the head of the organization. Its mission involves hosting discussions to assemble priorities for Russia’s present and future. The World Russian People’s Council holds events that bring together peoples from across Russia, the former Soviet Union, and the globe to advance causes that benefit the Russian people. Often, these ideas are tinged with a great deal of Russian chauvinism and defense of “traditional values”.
Kirill’s deputies at the World Russian People’s Council are Konstantin Malofeev, the so-called “Orthodox oligarch” and founder of the far-right television network Tsargrad; and Aleksandr Shchipkov, a political philosopher who is known for his stridently conservative and traditionalist views. He is also the host of a television program on the ROC’s own network. The fact that these two men occupy such prominent positions at the World Russian People’s Council demonstrates the organization’s focus and direction as being principally concerned with furthering a Russian exceptionalist and radically reactionary narrative.
The “Russian World” concept combines aspects of Russian and Soviet imperial policies with elements of ethno-nationalism. Putin used this sort of rhetoric in his speech recognizing the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. He justified his actions by claiming that the Russian people and the Orthodox Church were under attack and thus needed to be defended. Due to the discursive work that the ROC media has accomplished in promoting the idea of the “Russian World” and casting aspersions on the legitimacy of both the Ukrainian government and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the ROC has helped pave the way for the current violence. Moreover, as is clear from his public statements, Putin believes that Russians and Ukrainians are one people; that Ukraine is “naturally” part of Russia; and, as such, he is justified in any actions he takes there.
One of the greatest threats to the twin issues of canonical territory and the “Russian World” has been the Orthodox Church of Ukraine’s reception of autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. This move, spurred by Putin’s earlier invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, offers a canonically recognized and nationally-focused Church for Ukrainians.
The Moscow Patriarchate responded by waging a wide-scale attack on the legitimacy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine through its official statements and media. For instance, the “Union of Orthodox Journalists,” a website created to publish pro-Russian and pro-Moscow Patriarchate news about the Church to Ukrainians, almost always refers to the head of the OCU, Metropolitan Epifaniy, by his last name, Dumenko. To an Orthodox and Russian-speaking audience, where to call an Orthodox prelate by their last name would be an example of disrespect and denial of their position, this subtle editorial decision speaks volumes, working to wholly delegitimize Epifaniy’s authority.
The Russian regime draws an immense benefit from the ideological tools of canonical territory and the “Russian World” in addition to the numerous social conservative policies that the ROC has championed in recent years. These positions and actions bolster Russia’s presentation of itself to the world as a messianic nation that will save the world from the threats of “Western values,” a bulwark for religious conservatives around the world. That religious conservative groups in America host events in Russia, and that individuals on the religious right often give fawning praise to Russia, is evidence of the effects of this turn. It has attracted religious conservatives from around the world, speaking to the efficacy of the media in assisting Moscow’s cause.
Indeed, it is the media that the ROC looks to as a means of holding together its canonical territory and as an aid in building the “Russian World,” both in the absence of a formal empire and given the necessity of having to deal with independent countries and governments. Russian Orthodox media takes many forms. There are television networks, like the previously mentioned Tsargrad and the Orthodox channel Spas which has a close association with the ROC; magazines such as Foma; websites like Pravoslavie.ru and Patriarchia.ru; as well as seemingly independent resources, like the “Union of Orthodox Journalists,” established in Ukraine specifically to amplify the message of the Moscow Patriarchate. These media outlets span an ideological spectrum within the church. What unites them is their support for the Moscow Patriarchate and the opposition to Ukrainian autocephaly. As of today, there is a new element that must be added: support for Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Russian Orthodox media has done a great deal of work to present the images of Russia as the besieged savior of the world against the decadent West. In recent years, Ukraine was primed as the battlefield for both a culture war and a more conventional war. In the ROC’s media narratives, the OCU was construed as a puppet of a CIA-infiltrated Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was a proxy not only for the Vatican but the West writ-large. Moreover, there has been a slew of articles and posts that speak of members of the OCU “capturing” church buildings from the UOC-MP and terrorizing clergy and Russian-speaking laypeople. Finally, there is a steady stream of fear mongering working to claim that Ukraine’s deepening ties with the West will alter social attitudes and further normalize the relationships and rights of LGBTQ+ people. This last issue was seen on full display in Patriarch Kirill’s sermon on Forgiveness Sunday, the day before the beginning of the Orthodox Great Lent. In his sermon, he explicitly referred to Gay Pride parades as a “loyalty test” for nations that want to prove they belong to the powerful, Western world. In the midst of Russia’s invasion, Kirill continues to reiterate the talking points of the culture war that have become the standards of Russian Orthodox rhetoric during the Putin era.
Building the narrative of conspiracy and besiegement serves as the basis for the Russian Orthodox Church’s campaign to convince Russians across the world of Russia’s moral correctness in the face of a materialistic and decadent West. However, the ROC relies not only on eliciting emotional responses and stoking fears in its narratives concerning Ukraine. Russian Orthodox media has also gone to great lengths to lay out the canonical legal basis for why the Ecumenical Patriarchate has no authority over Ukrainian believers and to claim that the granting of autocephaly to the OCU was entirely outside of canon law. This recourse to canon law and the demonstration that the ROC is the only party in this situation following it aims to bolster the ROC’s and the Russian state’s position of exceptionality and just actions. In this telling of events, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the OCU, and the Ukrainian state are violating canonical law and committing the heresies of “Papism” and “Ethnophyletism.” Russia and its church are construed to stand alone, the only faithful observers of canon law, working to protect the faith from any sorts of deviations and reforms.
Now, however, Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine is straining those connections to their limit. The war has the potential to split the Moscow Patriarchate apart, causing it to lose Ukraine, and potentially other parts of the Church outside of Russia, forever. In the first week of the war, Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the UOC-MP, made a direct appeal asking Putin to end the war. In addition, a number of metropolitans and bishops of the UOC-MP announced their refusals to commemorate Patriarch Kirill in the liturgy, a decision that is analogous to a Catholic bishop no longer praying for the pope at Mass.
These strong moves have been met with full disdain from the Moscow Patriarchate which released a statement saying that those who refuse to commemorate the head of the Church for what is labeled simply “different political views” are in schism. This statement goes on to exhort these prelates to remember the example of their predecessors who might have disagreed with Patriarch Sergius’s exhortation to follow Soviet authority but nevertheless continued to commemorate him in the liturgy. The message from the Moscow Patriarchate is clear: either get behind the Patriarch and Russia’s actions or find yourself on the outside.
The Russian Orthodox Church has tied its fate to the Putin regime as a way of gaining power and influence. It has worked to exercise this power not only in Russia but over much of the former Soviet Union and the global Orthodox communion. Through its promotion of the “Russian World” and its insistence on its understanding of canonical territory, the ROC has offered ideological justifications based on both Orthodoxy’s historical relationship to empire and Russia’s own vision of its role as a messianic nation and people fighting for true Christian values. However, in the contemporary world that lacks a formal empire and has a preponderance of national borders, the ROC has found itself in need of alternative ways of holding its territory together. Media and public statements have become its primary tool to do just that. However, Russia’s war against Ukraine has made clear that the media alone is not sufficient to maintain these ideological underpinnings. By its own declaration, many of the integral parts of the “Russian World” in Ukraine are now in open schism. These new realities make it difficult to see how the ROC can maintain its claims of spiritual pastorship over Orthodox believers in Ukraine and beyond. ♦
Jacob Lassin is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies at Arizona State University. He is currently completing a book titled, Sacred Sites: Russian Orthodox Cultural Politics Online, which explores the Russian Orthodox Church’s use of online media to spread its political agenda. He can be found on Twitter @jacoblassin and at the Melikian Center Twitter @MelikianASU.
Lassin, Jacob. “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Media Empire.” Canopy Forum, March 28, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/03/28/the-russian-orthodox-churchs-empire-of-media