Faith, War, and Schism: Religion in Russia-Ukraine Relations

On April 9, Fletcher RLD invited Dr. George Weigel and Dr. George Soroka to speak on a panel about Russia and the Ukraine.

Dr. Prodromou introduced the panel by laying out background information. She explained how the self-governing Orthodox church was first officially recognized in January, 2019. This, she noted, is highly relevant as it gives Orthodox believers in Ukraine independence from Moscow’s authority primacy in global orthodoxy. Ukraine is one of the most diverse religious ecosystems in Eurasia, Dr. Prodromou noted.

Dr. Weigel, a biographer of Pope St. John Paul II first noted that there has been a visible lack fo interaction between Religion Law and Diplomacy in DC for the 35 years he has been involved in the area. He shared with us his experience talking to young leaders in Boeing before 2001, and having his understanding that assertive religious conviction in Islamic World, India, Africa and in the US will be significant in world politics me with disbelief at the time. There needs to be more of an emphasis in non-material measures of world politics such as faith and less so on, say, GDP and the military, he noted. “nations live by stories,” he said, and that can have a decisive effect on domestic and international politics. He uses Charles de Gaulle to illustrate his emphasis on the story of a nation.

Dr. Weigel then narrated the story that Putin has told. By portraying Russia as sole inheritor of the baptism of the Eastern slaves into Christianity, Russia built for itself an image of cultural and religious authority. Dr. Weigel however points out the glaring errors that Russia has made in painting such an image. The Baptism of the Russe prince took place near Kyiv which had a flourishing religious life when Moscow was a forest. He pointed out that this is why Ukrainian religious independence and Ukrainian independence threatens Russia, as it undermines the narrative that Russia has built around its religious authority.

As an expert on the moral justification of political action, Dr. Soroka first pointed out that political scientists make little of ideological dimensions as it is hard to measure. In dealing with post-Soviet societies, he said that we often hear that Russian orthodox church is largest. This is true in terms of nominal number. However, Ukrainians tend to be more religious – they are higher in cultural religiosity. There are those who proclaim to believe orthodoxy, but when asked what the ten commandments are, are unable to cite any. In Moscow, particularly, religion has had a stronger cultural dimension than functioning as a belief system. Dr. Soroka thus highlighted how Moscow and Kyiv both have weaponized religion politically. After continuous efforts to attain autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church, Russia has refused to recognize Ukrainian religious independence, continuing to violate the religious sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia continues to use religion as a tool of soft power, but Dr. Soroka noted that it is important to keep the Russian government and Russian church independent in understanding political decision making.