Russian Orthodoxy and Christian Nationalism

Russian Orthodoxy and Christian Nationalism March 10, 2022

We’ve been blogged about the religious dimension of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Jim Geraghty adds some points about that in his article In Some Ways, This Is a Religious War.

The Orthodox Church still comes in a package with Putin and the state, even if the modern presidential base of power is secular. In Putin’s system and formulation, it is Rus’ (Russia) that is divine (svyataya or holy). The president is certainly not divine or holy. The stress on svyataya Rus’ picks up on another older Russian Orthodox and tsarist tradition, where Rus’ refers to something larger than the idea of the Russian state and people and encompasses the entire Russian orthodox religious community.

Before the Russian Revolution, citizens of the empire who were baptized as Russian Orthodox Christians were seen to be Orthodox (pravoslavnyy) and therefore Russian (russkiy), no matter where they lived or what their specific ethnic origins. Tartar nobility, Baltic German aristocrats, Georgian princes and princesses, and their subjects, all became pravoslavnyy on conversion. Religion and language became the primary identifying markers of a Russian, even if an individual did not russify his last name. The overarching pravoslavnyy identity was one of the mainstays of loyalty to the tsar and to the Russian state.

This idea was captured in an interview in July 2014 by the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, Neil MacFarquhar, of a Russian believer participating in a pilgrimage to the monastery founded by Russia’s most important saint, Sergey (or Sergius) of Radonezh, in commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the saint’s birth. The pilgrim told MacFarquhar, “We are all one people, we are all part of Holy Rus’. . . .  Any person, regardless of where he lives, if he is Russian in spirit, he must be defended by this president, by his country, because he is an indivisible part of the nation.”

Putin and the Russian Orthodox patriarch repeatedly underscored the idea of svyataya Rus’ in speeches about the annexation of Crimea. For example, in his March 18, 2014 speech in the Kremlin, Putin spoke of Crimea as a territory full of places that are holy for Russia. These included, “symbols of Russian military glory and unprecedented valor,” and the site of the baptism of svyatoy knyaz Vladimir (holy prince Vladimir), the Grand Prince of Kyiv* who assumed Christianity on behalf of all Russia in 998.

So if the Russian Orthodox Church baptizes you, that makes you a Russian?  As opposed to putting on Christ and being engrafted into His body the church, so that for the baptized there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 1:27-28 )?

I was under the impression that Orthodox churches, in all of their various regional variations, constitute, in the words of the creed it professes, a “catholic”–that is, a universal–church.

Is Russian Orthodoxy outside of that catholicity?  How can a church be truly orthodox if it holds that a particular nation is “divine”?

I guess this is what some American Christians would like to see.

Integrating church and state is the goal of Catholic Integralists, Reformed Theonomists, and Pentecostal New Apostolic Dominionists.  They are profoundly wrong, exchanging the Gospel for the Law, and exchanging the Kingdom of God for the Kingdoms of Man.  But they at least have the church ruling the state, as bad as that would also be.  The government is held to a higher moral law.

But Christian nationalism of the Russian Orthodox sort strikes me as worse.  The church divinizes the state, so that whatever the state does is “holy.”  The religion gives supernatural sanction to the status quo, just as pagan religions tend to do.  Thus, whatever the state does–invade the Ukraine, shell civilians, exploit its citizens–is justified by bestowing on the government an aura of sanctity.  Therefore, the church is complicit in manipulating citizens to acquiesce in their leaders’ tyranny.

I believe that patriotism is a virtue.  We should love our country just as we should love our families.  But we mustn’t turn our country–or even our families–into an idol.

American Christian nationalists, take note.

By the way, I have heard it said that while Russians today are highly supportive of the Russian Orthodox Church, hardly anyone actually goes to church.

Ukrainians, on the other hand, with their more catholic brand of Orthodoxy, are devoted churchgoers.  “With the possible exception of Poland,” says George Weigel, “Ukraine is the most religiously observant country in Europe.”


Photo:  Dedication of the Main Church of the Russian Armed Forces by, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.  [Read this for a description of this church dedicated to Russian nationalism and militarism.]

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