“It’s a war of Heaven against Hell”- Aleksandr Dugin
“I call this a holy war” – Vladimir Solovyov
In October 2022, a new goal was added to Russia’s initially stated goals of its invasion of Ukraine – “denazification” and “demilitarization”. In the Russian media, it was formulated as an urgent need to “desatanize” Ukraine.
The theme of the satanic nature of the West has long been developed in the Kremlin’s propaganda strategy. Dozens of publications on the matter, some claiming to be “scientific”, can be found on the pages of the “Izborskiy Klub” (from Russian: Изборский клуб) and the Strategic Culture Foundation, organizations considered as official Kremlin propaganda platforms. Aleksandr Dugin, Valentin Katasonov and Vladimir Putin himself develop the thesis of the satanic, morally degraded West, which only pure, morally elevated and Orthodox Russia can oppose.
It is no surprise that this narrative has now been adapted to serve the Kremlin’s goals in the war with Ukraine.
In recent months, Kremlin propaganda has been spreading misinformation about the growing popularity of cult of Satan in Ukraine, hostility towards the Orthodox Christianity, persecution of Orthodox Christians, and about the degradation and depravity in the Western world.
A satanic ritual in a church?
In early 2023, a video circulating on social media was meant to show satanic rituals taking place in an Orthodox church in Ukraine.
The video shows people in a variety of traditional Ukrainian and other costumes performing a theatrical performance in what looks like an Orthodox church. The footage is also distributed among Bulgarian users.
In most publications, the video is presented as a satanic ritual and a desecration of the church and the Orthodox faith.
In fact, it is a Ukrainian folk custom – vertep, which is performed at Christmas. The tradition is the presentation of plays through puppetry or theater related to the story of the Nativity of Christ. The purpose of the plays is to recreate the victory of good over evil, and the word vertep is associated with the “secret place” of Christ’s birth.
Vertep has been performed in Ukraine since the end of the 16th century. Despite the USSR’s ban on all religious elements, it managed to survive and remain a part of Ukrainian Christmas traditions to this day.
The ritual began to regain its popularity after the annexation of Crimea and especially after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The war of churches in Ukraine
About 60% of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians. However, they belong to two different Orthodox churches. A 2020 survey found that 34% of Ukrainians identify as members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), while 14% say they are members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). The UOC has close ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, although after the start of the war, the UOC officially dissociated itself from it.
The religious picture in Ukraine is complicated. After the country became independent in 1990, various lobbies emerged within the Orthodox society. Some of them were actively demanding independence or at least more autonomy from the Moscow Patriarchate. In the USSR all Orthodox Christians in Ukraine belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, some of whom were forced to join it after World War II – mainly the followers of the Greek Catholic Church in western Ukraine.
After the collapse of the USSR, three Orthodox churches appeared in Ukraine. The largest, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), was close to the Moscow Patriarchate, but was internally autonomous. The remaining two churches began to seek independence as they felt ecclesiastically and politically oppressed by Russia and wanted their own national church. In 2018, these two churches merged into the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).
The Moscow Patriarchate is the largest and most numerous patriarchate in the Orthodox world. The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate, which played a key role in the formation of the OCU, is the other largest Orthodox patriarchate. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has long been called by Ukrainian politicians to intervene in the church conflict in the country and give Orthodox Christians in Ukraine the opportunity to have their own independent church and to be able to choose their religious leaders. In 2018, he gave the OCU ecclesiastical autonomy, which led to the severing of ties with Moscow. After that, the Russian church leadership also broke ties with all the Orthodox churches that recognized the independence of the OCU.
The UOC case is different. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UOC announced that it was separating from the Moscow Patriarchate, but the process was not formally conducted according to canon law. Some senior church officials from the UOC have left for Russia since the start of the war, and others are being investigated for treason in Ukraine. However, most representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) denounce the war and no longer perceive Patriarch Kirill as their spiritual leader.
One of Moscow’s main goals is to create the impression that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) does not reflect the “traditional values” of Orthodox Christianity. In the same way, Moscow accuses the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, which shows closeness to the Western world.
The “Traditional Values” of the Russian Orthodox Church
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill has spoken in his sermons about how Russia must defend itself in Ukraine and fight against “aggressive Western values” – above all, in his view, secularism, pluralism and the decline of traditional values.
According to the Russian Orthodox Church, the war in Ukraine is a defensive war, and the people of Ukraine are being seduced by Western “evil forces”. This narrative served to theologically and ideologically justify the war and allowed Kirill to refer to the Russian invasion as a “holy war”. He is not the only one to use this term. TV presenters and influential figures such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have also used it on more than one occasion.
As for the identity of Patriarch Kirill, born Vladimir Gundyaev, in February 2023 it became clear from declassified documents of the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern that in the 1970s he was a KGB agent in Geneva.
Gundyaev is believed to have been recruited by the KGB at the age of 18. He quickly rose in the church hierarchy – at 23 he was a deacon, and at 29 he was already a metropolitan, although the canon required him to be older for both positions. Gundyaev traveled extensively during the Cold War, which at the time was only possible with the support of the KGB.
The Russian Orthodox Church refuses to comment on Kirill’s possible espionage activities in Geneva, and the World Council of Churches (WCC) says it has “no information” on the matter.
Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church’s outspoken support for the war in Ukraine is not surprising given the close ties between the church and the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin.
On February 6, 2023, during the solemn celebration of the anniversary of his ordination as Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill addressed Putin saying: “He is a true Christian, but not for people to love him or vote for him, he is a true Orthodox Christian . (…) Our kings have not always been as Orthodox as our current president is”.
Patriarch Kirill fully identifies with the political regime in Russia and with the elite around Putin. For more than a year now, he has supported Russia’s war of aggression, appearing demonstratively at events organized by the Kremlin, giving his blessing for assassinations and justifying the aggression of the Russian army.
Kiev: Russia uses churches to spread propaganda
In December 2022, the Security Service of Ukraine reported finding “propaganda literature” as part of a counterintelligence operation in Russian-linked UOC religious temples. An official announcement spoke of discovered passports, propaganda literature and passes issued by the Russian occupation authorities.
The services say that in the discovered materials, representatives of the Russian Federation deny the existence of the Ukrainian people, their language and culture and question the sovereignty of Ukraine.
In this sense, one of the objects to which the Ukrainian side treats with the greatest attention from the very beginning of the war is the headquarters of the UOC – the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. The UOC itself disassociates itself from Moscow, but Ukrainian authorities suspect that priests from the Lavra are spreading propaganda and supporting the Russian invasion.
In March 2023, the Ukrainian government ordered the evacuation of hundreds of priests, monks and students from the monastery in connection with the intelligence operations conducted since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The deadline to leave was March 29, and despite the resistance in recent weeks, the clerics removed a large part of their property from the monastery.
In addition, on April 2, the Ukrainian authorities placed the abbot of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, Metropolitan Pavel, under two-month house arrest, and among the accusations was proven praise of the Russian occupation troops. Pavel denies his guilt and defines what is happening as a political act.
Russian propaganda uses the cases of searches of UOC sites and the expulsion of monks from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra to justify the need for “desatanization” of Ukraine and to prove that the authorities in Ukraine are at war against Orthodoxy.
One of the most recent cases of spreading “evidence” of hostility against Orthodoxy in Ukraine is a video of an Orthodox church burning. It is widely shared by pro-Russian social media accounts and is said to be a church in Mykolaiv that was set on fire by Ukrainian nationalists. In fact, the video is from 2013 and is of a burning church in the region of the Russian city of Astrakhan.
In reality, Kiev is not at war against Orthodoxy, but against Russian influence, which is working its way through its long-established ties with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Russia’s attempts to justify its war of aggression in Ukraine through “sacred” motives are baseless.
Bulgarian clerics are also involved in spreading Russian propaganda that Ukraine is persecuting Orthodox Christians. An officially distributed letter of Metropolitan Gavriil gained popularity on social networks, and the most frequently shared quote from it is: “Whoever fights against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – fights against the Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ!”.
Ukraine’s war is not against Orthodoxy, but against Russian unjustified aggression.
Russia often presents itself as an alternative to the “degraded West”, as a country that protects “traditional and Orthodox values”. However, reports by prestigious non-governmental organizations rather show that Russia is far behind in terms of human rights and freedoms compared to Western European countries and the United States, which it persistently points the finger at. According to the latest report of “Amnesty International” in Russia unjustified persecutions on religious grounds of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses are observed. There are no data on such persecutions on the territory of Ukraine.
In addition to mobilizing the domestic public and influencing its near abroad, with the propaganda about the need for “desatanization”, the Kremlin pursues another, much more pragmatic goal. American researchers believe that one of the target groups of the Kremlin narrative about Satanism is conservative voters in the United States. Moscow’s messages about the satanic nature of the liberal West match QANON’s about the satanic practices of the Democrats. It is no coincidence that the topic entered the official Russian political and media agenda shortly before the midterm elections in the United States in November 2022.
Translated by Vanessa Nikolova