Russia’s Constitutionalized Civilizational Identity and the Moscow Patriarchate’s War on Ukraine

Robert C. Blitt is the Toms Foundation Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law.

Russia’s 2020 constitutional amendments signaled another ominous chapter in the Kremlin’s hardening “autocratic legalism.” Among the many notable changes introduced, the amendments incorporated as legal norms of the highest order a potent mix of sovereignty and civilization-boosting provisions. Today, these provisions lie at the crux of Putin’s dubious justifications for war in Ukraine. Along with President Putin, the Moscow Patriarchate has unflinchingly reaffirmed these justifications to support a vision of Russian civilization that preserves Russia’s (and the Church’s) status and influence over religion and politics in the post-Soviet “near abroad” and on the global stage.

The 2020 amendments function to constitutionalize a muscular assertion of state sovereignty by entrenching constitutional supremacy over international law, embracing Soviet-era international legal theories that place ideology before law, and asserting Russia’s territorial inalienability—including its illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea. Less than two years after ratification, the thrust of these amendments has conspicuously furnished the Kremlin with constitution-level rationales for its so-called “special military operation” and its rejection of United Nations Security Council intervention in the crisis. As but one illustration of this phenomenon, the Kremlin has proffered a repackaged version of the long discredited Soviet doctrine of peaceful coexistence to justify its invasion. Like the Soviet Union before it, Russia has sought to override the sovereignty of a neighboring state by framing the conflict as a purely internal matter. Only this time, instead of wielding the defense of communism as a pretense for intervention, the Kremlin has sought to trample Ukraine’s sovereignty in the name of protecting the sacrosanct banner of Russian civilization and unity.

Given its fixation on promoting Russkiy Mir (Russian World), the Kremlin’s war justifications rest equally on a second set of constitutional amendments. This latter collection of provisions heralds a newly constitutionalized Russian civilizational identity that transcends the state’s contemporary borders. This identity is premised on resuscitating and rehabilitating Russia’s connection to Soviet great power status; anchoring the state’s national persona in a selective historical narrative platformed on “millennium history,” imperial glory, and traditional values of Russian Orthodoxy; [1] and entrenching an extra-territorial obligation to defend this civilization, including as manifested in the form of compatriot populations living abroad. As one Putin ally summarized, the constitutionalization of these civilizational hallmarks “becomes a moral reference for Russian society, reflecting its ideals and traditional features of collective consciousness.”

As the Kremlin has tramped out these sovereignty and civilizational justifications, often to absurd effect—invading Ukraine to stave off Nazis and ultraliberals alike—the Moscow Patriarchate has served as a loyal and unswerving ally. But nowhere is this steadfast support more evident than regarding the Kremlin’s effort to justify its war as part of a larger civilizational battle to defend Russia’s traditional values against the onslaught of an all-corrupting and unfettered Western ultraliberalism.

Long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate installed itself as the chief global advocate of the identity hallmarks now enshrined in Russia’s constitution. Harnessing Russia’s history, its exceptionalism, its deep connection to Orthodoxy, and the necessity of elevating the institution of family above individual rights, the Church spearheaded a global campaign to propagate Russia’s traditional values and vociferously oppose Western norms both at home and abroad. This campaign has operated alongside President Putin’s suggestion of a looming “clash of civilizations” with the West. Betraying classic imperialist overtones steeped in spiritual and existential terms, Putin has framed this battle as one that compels Russia to confront and subdue the intolerable threat of Western barbarism at its gate:

They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan. . . .

. . . I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis. . . .

. . . Without the values ​​embedded in Christianity and other world religions . . . that have taken shape over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity. We consider it natural and right to defend these values​​.

The Kremlin’s strident reaction in 2018 to the mere possibility of Ukraine’s assertion of religious autonomy from the Moscow Patriarchate testifies to the linkage it draws between Russia’s national security and its external spiritual dominance. So grave a blow did the prospect of an autocephalous Ukrainian national church pose to the extraterritorial projection of Holy Rus’—and its overarching civilizational parallel Russkiy Mir—that it necessitated the convening of Russia’s National Security Council. At the time, the Kremlin and Moscow Patriarchate both blamed Western plotting for Ukraine’s religious schism rather than authentic spiritual or national yearning on the part of the Ukrainian people. Faced with the prospect of another blow to the Moscow Patriarchate in Montenegro less than a year later, President Putin threatened that efforts to sever “cultural and humanitarian ties between our compatriots abroad and Russia” would entail “dire consequences, primarily for those who are doing this. It is our shared duty . . . to do everything possible to preserve spiritual and historical unity.”

Today, these civilizational themes are a driving force behind the Kremlin’s justifications for its Ukraine war. Just three days before the 2022 invasion, in a speech recognizing the independence of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin emphasized that Ukraine is an inseparable part of the Russian state’s heady millennium history:

Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. . . .

Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.

More directly, Putin accused Ukraine of squandering the gift of its civilizational inheritance from Russia, “spen[ding] and embezzle[ing] the legacy inherited not only from the Soviet era, but also from the Russian Empire”; preparing “the destruction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate”; and “root[ing] out the Russian language and culture and promot[ing] assimilation.” In Putin’s words, Ukraine’s insolent rejection of its inalienable connection to Russia’s ancestral memory and belief in god meant its existence was premised “on the negation of everything that united us, trying to distort the mentality and historical memory of . . . entire generations living in Ukraine.” The Kremlin’s scorn for Ukraine’s sovereign right to independently determine its own identity was warranted because any effort to sever the narrative of a collective historical memory and shared spiritual unity—including diminishment of the Moscow Patriarchate’s standing abroad—ultimately empowered the “so-called pro-Western civilizational choice” at the expense of Russian power and influence.

In announcing Russia’s invasion three days later, President Putin stressed the contemporary civilizational threat posed by Ukraine’s rejection of Russian patrimony and Russia’s ensuing imperial obligation to confront that threat. Here, he pointed the finger not at NATO but explicitly at Western liberalism’s permissiveness around same-sex marriage and rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity:

[T]hey sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen. No one has ever succeeded in doing this, nor will they succeed now.

Patriarch Kirill was quick to endorse Putin’s justification for the need to invade Ukraine to prevent degenerate Western values from poisoning Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Across all his public pronouncements on the war, the Patriarch has repeatedly emphasized the civilizational stakes of the conflict, the corrupting Western hand operating at Russia’s doorstep to erode the nation’s influence and status, and the existential urgency of retaining the unity of “Holy Rus” under Moscow’s thumb.

During a sermon two weeks into the war, Kirill asserted that the war from its very beginning in 2014 was about nothing less than “which side of God humanity will be on.” Specifically, he vilified gay pride parades as demonstrating “that sin is one variation of human behavior” and a prerequisite for “join[ing] the [Western] club.” Reinforcing the Kremlin’s claim that Western values will destroy not only conservative religious belief like Orthodoxy but nations and history as well, Kirill declared: “[I]n Donbas there is . . . a fundamental rejection of the so-called [Western] values . . . . If humanity accepts that sin is not a violation of God’s law, if humanity accepts that sin is a variation of human behavior, then human civilization will end there.”

Blessing the war: Patriarch Kirill’s sermon on 6 March 2022 /

The Church has harnessed this framing to make Russia’s case in international forums as well. In a letter penned to the World Council of Churches, Kirill doubled down on his claim of a civilizational battle unfolding in Ukraine, suggesting Western weapons were less harmful than Western values: “[T]he most terrible thing is not the [Western] weapons, but the attempt to ‘re-educate,’ to mentally remake Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine into enemies of Russia. . . . This tragic conflict has become a part of the large-scale geopolitical strategy aimed, first and foremost, at weakening Russia.” Six months later, at the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions held in Kazakhstan, Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, the chair of the Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations (DECR), unabashedly pronounced before the world’s religious leaders that the war in Ukraine was the justifiable “consequence of indulgence in human vice.” Blame for the war thus rightly rested, in the Metropolitan’s view, with the “proponent[s] of a secular godless worldview” who promoted a “paradigm of the modern mass culture [that] elevat[ed] human vices and deviations over the value of healthy human society . . . inspired by the Creator and . . . preserved for thousands of years.”

Channeling Putin’s existential framing of this clash as pitting a divine and unspoiled Russia against Western degenerates committed to the fall of humankind, Kirill has readily harnessed God to depict a malevolent Western plot to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s civilizational orbit:

It must not be allowed to give the dark and hostile external forces an occasion to laugh at us; we should do everything to . . . protect[] our common historical Motherland against every outside action that can destroy this unity. . . . May the Lord preserve the Russian land[,] . . . . the land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples.

Kirill has continued to reiterate this message of God-forged unity on multiple occasions throughout the invasion: “Someone must pray for our united people. Someone must defend God’s truth that we are really one people.”

One year into the war, the Church’s civilization-based justifications for the invasion of Ukraine show no signs of abating. Speaking in Buenos Aires, DECR chair Metropolitan Anthony described the invasion of Ukraine as the “most dramatic period and a test for solidarity of compatriots.” Channeling the constitution’s “memory of the ancestors” and leaning on Russia’s compatriot communities to signal the expansiveness of Russian civilization as transcending the territory of the Russian Federation, the Metropolitan asserted,

The ability to stand up together for the values of our people, regardless of how far we may be from the Motherland, is an indicator of the maturity of the community abroad. Precisely at such moments, a diaspora is formed binding its members not by the soil or local mode of life but by the culture, language and faith of the ancestors[].

. . . [T]he space of our traditions and culture should not be artificially limited to [an] exclusively ethnic principle.

Confronted by the Moscow Patriarchate’s full-throated blessing of the Kremlin’s civilizational war aims, policy makers and civil society leaders alike should take concrete measures to lay bare the gravely diminished moral stature of the Patriarchate’s leadership. At a minimum, this should include rejecting Patriarchate efforts to coopt international outlets for the Kremlin’s advantage. For example, the World Council of Churches (WCC) should revise its ill-conceived failure to expel or directly condemn the Moscow Patriarchate for its support of the Kremlin. Continued WCC membership lends the Patriarchate’s claims of humanitarian peacebuilding an undeserved aura of legitimacy and Christian solidarity. The Patriarchate wields this and other instances of international fellowship and contact to reinforce its message of global support for the Kremlin’s actions among audiences in Russia and abroad. But this false aura is especially egregious when the Moscow Patriarchate openly celebrates Kremlin treaty-signing ceremonies intended to cement Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory by force. Likewise, international efforts to secure sanctions against Patriarch Kirill and other hierarchs should be redoubled. This initiative can clearly signal that unbridled support for the war from high-profile figures comes at a financial cost and that religious officials are not exempt from terrestrial consequences for their actions.

At the same time, greater effort must be directed at discrediting the “civilizational” struggle justification wielded by the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate. Confronted with the prospect of sanctions targeting Patriarch Kirill, the Moscow Patriarchate falsely reasoned the move was driven by hatred for Russian civilization, rather than the Church’s role in endorsing the invasion. According to the Church, it signaled a “completely useless initiative” by “those who hate Russian Orthodoxy, and Russian culture in general.” Instead of allowing these narratives to go unanswered, the international community should decisively communicate that the conflict does not lie in any hatred of Russia but rather in the Kremlin’s violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty. This response will require, among other things, a greater effort to address human rights violations in Ukraine and elsewhere that the Kremlin invokes as a source of grievance. Resolving legitimate criticisms in this realm will do much to deflate Kremlin claims of Nazis lurking about, “endangered” minorities, the destruction of churches, or other existential threats, and more fully expose the hollow imperial aspirations underpinning its war.

Finally, states should develop a long-term strategy for supporting war dissenters within the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian Orthodoxy who mitigate in favor of peace. This support should be tangibly expressed at international forums and in domestic contexts, as well as through any other means available to help signal international recognition for another vision of Russia—and the Moscow Patriarchate—that, however seemingly distant, must remain a conceivable possibility.

[1] Article 67.1(2) specifically embeds in the constitution the “memory of the ancestors who conveyed to us ideals and belief in God.” Despite the constitution retaining a provision that declares Russia to be a secular state, Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner, offered an unqualified endorsement of the reference to belief in god: “[T]he appeal to faith and the moral foundations is worthy of attention, especially as there is only one God. . . . [Including a reference to God in the constitution] is a call to all religious denominations and I believe it will not encroach on the views of atheists in some way.”

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