Stanislav Panin holds a PhD in Philosophy from Moscow State University and is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Religion at Rice University.
For years Russian authorities worked to establish control over the public sphere and to suppress independent political parties, media, and non-profits. This control and suppression extend to religious associations; in the past decade, Russian authorities put great effort in prohibiting independent religious movements that were reluctant to profess their unconditional allegiance, had extensive international connections, or were otherwise perceived as a potential threat.
The current events in Ukraine, called “the Russian aggression against Ukraine” by the United Nations and a “special military operation” in Russian official jargon, provided a justification to tighten the restrictions. On 4 March, Russian authorities introduced new laws that made illegal “discrediting the actions of the Russian military,” “calls against the use of the Russian Federation military,” and “calls for political and economic sanctions against Russia.”
In these circumstances, religious associations that do not support the war in Ukraine and do not belong to mainstream Russian religions find themselves in a double predicament. While already being targeted as religious minorities, they risk much more if they call for peace. On the other hand, organized religions that seek support from the Russian government are expected to pay back with their loyalty and support. A group that hopes to remain an officially registered religious organization has to support Russian actions in Ukraine or at the very least remain silent.
In this post, I summarize public reactions of several minority religions to the situation in Ukraine. The post does not cover Christian denominations and Islam; being large, diverse, and complex communities, they warrant a separate, dedicated analysis.
Of two major Jewish organizations in Russia—the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR) and Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia (KEROOR)—the former took a more definitive stance concerning the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
On 25 February, FEOR’s president, Alexander Boroda, emphasized the value of peace in Jewish tradition, the inherent unity of Russian and Ukrainian people, and the readiness of Jewish organizations to participate in humanitarian relief. On 4 March, in an interview with Interfax, Boroda elaborated his views, now leaning more toward the official Russian narrative. He criticized Ukraine for the “heroization of [Nazi] criminals” and pointed out that “if they are called heroes, it is logical to assume that the nationalist ideology is used as an exemplar.”
The head rabbi of Russia, Berl Lazar, also from FEOR, emphasized in his statement the importance of peace. He called individuals to pray for peace and pointed out that God “now expects from us that every believer do everything in [his or her] power to save human lives” and that we “ought to use our influence, any opportunity, to stop the madness so that people stop dying.” The statement was composed in generic terms without mentioning anything concerning who is responsible for the conflict and which actions are expected to stop it.
KEROOR’s official website, on the other hand, remained almost completely silent with regard to the current situation. On 7 March, KEROOR published a news release stating that its Moscow branch organized an event called “the day of unification and support” in response to “requests for seminars dealing with the Jewish worldview in the context of current circumstances.” The event focused on providing support to community members, offering strategies to deal with anxiety, and emphasizing the importance of communication.
To summarize, Jewish communities in Russia responded to the situation in Ukraine by focusing on the well-being and unity of their members, calling for peace, and expressing their willingness to participate in humanitarian aid. Since 2014, Russian Jews tried to maintain neutrality and avoid strong statements with regard to the situation in Ukraine. At the same time, by emphasizing criticism of Ukrainian “nationalists” in the context of the current situation, Jewish leaders in Russia help buttress official Russian ideological narratives.
According to Interfax, the leader of the Traditional Buddhist Sangha of Russia, Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheev, said that
[O]ur boys, plucky and courageous, share the glory of Genghis Khan . . . . [W]e live in the united Russian state and protect the interests of our country, which faces a dirty information war. We should maintain a solid, reliable home front. Buddha . . . is with us!
Damba Ayusheev has a long record of controversial interactions with the Russian government. For instance, in 2009, soon after the Russian military operation in Georgia, he appeared in Russian media because he named then-president Dmitry Medvedev an incarnation of White Tara.
Not all Russian Buddhists share the same sentiment. For instance, the Buddhist journal Buddhism of Russia, founded in 1992, issued a series of statements condemning the war in Ukraine and called its readers to sign anti-war petitions. Its editor, Russian Buddhologist Andrey Terentiev condemned Ayusheev’s position, contrasting it with the Dalai Lama’s and saying that “Buddha is with everybody who is against the military action.”
Head Shaman of Russia Kara-ool Dopchun-ool is a leader of the movement that seeks for the institutionalization and official recognition of Shamanism in Russia. While not all Shamans recognize him as their leader, Kara-ool Dopchun-ool claims to represent “traditional Shamanism” in Russia. He often speaks about current events; for instance, last year he condemned Yakut Shaman Alexander Gabyshev, who became a popular media figure due to his march from Yakutia to Moscow “to expel Putin,” by calling Gabyshev an “impostor.”
In a recent interview, Kara-ool Dopchun-ool spoke about Russian actions in Ukraine. After arguing against the military conflicts and violence in general, he blamed the current escalation on Ukraine, in line with Russia’s official position, repeating a standard claim about Ukrainian “fascists” as the source of aggression and Putin as a defender of peace who intervened “to make order” and “ensure normal life.”
A Ukrainian Prophetess
While the above-described cases addressed the situation in Ukraine without attributing to it particular spiritual significance, some religious figures incorporate the situation in a large-scale metaphysical construct. An example of this is Marina Tsvigun—also known as Victoria Preobrazhenskaya and Maria Devi Сhristos—a leader of the New Community of Enlightened Humanity (YUSMALOS) movement that was visible in Ukraine and Russia in the early 1990s. Originally from a town near Donetsk, and having lived and preached in Ukraine for a long time, she now resides in Russia after serving a sentence in a Ukrainian jail for a takeover of Saint Sophia Cathedral in 1993.
Since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Tsvigun has commented extensively on events in Ukraine, incorporating them in her eschatological theology in which Donetsk and Kyiv play significant roles. Her position regarding the Ukrainian revolution is consistently critical and connects the revolution with the actions of “dark forces” serving the Antichrist. Tsvigun does not adopt a pro-Russian position either, because the Russian government, according to her, serves the same dark forces and is a part of an international conspiracy. Consequently, on 25 February she wrote that the Russian aggression in Ukraine is the result of a secret agreement aimed to prepare for a coming of the Antichrist: “Putin, Biden, and Zelensky agreed on how they will torment slavs of Rus’ by involving them in the war . . . .”
Tsvigun is by all standards a marginal figure. However, being on the margins can sometimes provide an opportunity to speak more freely. If stripped from its theological dimension, Tsvigun’s position would probably appeal to a substantial portion of the Russian population. These people do not necessarily support Putin’s actions and can be critical of them. At the same time, they are equally wary of Ukrainian, Western European, and North American politicians and media. Their experience in the past thirty years has taught them to trust nobody, keep their hopes low, and develop a cynicism that serves as a psychological defense. In response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine they prefer to abstain from any action and focus on their private lives.
To summarize, some Russian religious leaders like Damba Ayusheev and Kara-ool Dopchun-ool have actively reaffirmed narratives of Russian authorities and, while emphasizing the value of peace, have generally expressed support for actions of the Russian military and blamed Ukraine for the escalation of violence, in line with the official narrative. This behavior is particularly characteristic of well-institutionalized religious associations aimed at cooperation with Russian authorities.
Others, like leaders of Jewish communities, have tried to maintain a cautious position without clearly supporting the official narrative, even if they have reaffirmed certain aspects of it. Many small religious groups have preferred to keep silent, trying to avoid the wrath of Russian authorities as well as a possible divide within their own ranks.
While some private figures belonging to various religious traditions have publicly argued against the military action, this behavior is mostly typical of those who do not represent institutionalized communities and who only depend on the benevolence of Russian authorities to a limited degree.