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"Holy war". How the ROC is partaking in the information aggression against Ukraine

11.11.2022, 13:56

The Russian Orthodox Church actively participates in the political and social life of its country. Russians are quite satisfied with such a situation: according to the polls by the state sociology center WCIOM, the majority of respondents (58%) believe that the Russian Orthodox Church should influence their political and secular life. Still, 31% of Russians noted that the Church is too proactive in political affairs. In terms of calls for an attack on Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin really work together. All the government's and the Church's narratives are broadcast via the most popular Russian media, financed by the state. The Russian Orthodox Church's collaboration with the state bodies has been noticed even by foreign politicians. In late October, French President Macron called on the ROC to resist the Russian government's "manipulations". Macron said that "today, the people in power in Russia are manipulating the Orthodox religion to justify their actions, and these actions must be resisted."

IMI researchers have analyzed what Russian propagandists have been writing about Ukraine and what statements the Russian Orthodox Church has been making in verified Telegram channels of Russian state-sponsored media (RIA Novosti, RT, TASS, KP, and Sputnik) from February to October 2022. The sample included 189,851 posts, it was compiled with the help of IMI's own monitoring bot and the Semantrum monitoring service; the results of the bots' work were processed manually by the experts. According to IMI's estimates, the posts' total audience during this period amounted to about 30 million. The readers interacted with RIA Novosti's content (which constituted 67% of all mentions of the Russian Orthodox Church) the most.

The study showed that the Russian Orthodox Church's speakers (including Patriarch Kirill and the Church's other leaders) were most often endorsing the following four narratives about Ukraine:

  • the UOC and Orthodox people in Ukraine are being persecuted;
  • Ukrainians are prone to terrorism, aggression, paganism;
  • Russians and Ukrainians are one indivisible nation;
  • non-recognition of Ukraine as a separate independent country.

Most often all these messages were coming directly from the mouth of the leader of the ROC, Gundyaev, and the heads of the ROC's various departments.

The militarist Patriarch

Kirill (Gundyaev) is the Patriarch of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. When in February the Russians started shelling Ukraine, seizing territories, and killing civilians, Patriarch Kirill in no way condemned the attack on another state.

On the contrary, in his Sunday sermon in March, he blessed Russian soldiers to fight. His rhetoric has remained the same since: for example, in September, Patriarch Kirill was saying in his sermons that if a Russian soldier died in Ukraine, all his sins would be undone. By an incredible coincidence, the "absolution of all sins" claims coincided with the announcement of partial mobilization in Russia.

Analyzing the content of Russian pro-state Telegam channels shows that through the mouth of the Russian Orthodox Church leader, Kirill, the propagandists are pushing four types of narratives:

  • "Ukrainians and Russians are one people";
  • denial of Ukraine's statehood and independence;
  • sacralization of war;
  • denial or justification of the Russian aggression.

Most often, Patriarch Kirill said that "Ukrainians and Russians are one people." This doctrine was extensively outlined by Putin in his essay "On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians", which was posted on the Kremlin's website in July 2021. On the fourth day of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the ROC leader Gundyaev started speaking about fraternal nations and their shared homeland, "Rus'". In his sermons, quoted by the Russian state media and even by their Telegram channels, Patriarch Kirill is using pseudo-historical facts to manipulate his listeners. We quote:

  • 💬 "May the Lord protect the Russian land. When I say "Russian", I am using an ancient expression from "The Tale of Bygone Years": "Where the Russian land takes its beginning," the Russian land which now includes Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other tribes and peoples. May the Lord protect the Russian land from its enemies without, from disorder within, may the unity of our Church grow stronger, and may, by God's grace, all temptations and provocations recede, so that our pious people in Ukraine can enjoy peace and tranquility."

However, Kirill's sermons mention not a single word about the fact that, say, at that very moment, Russian troops in Kyiv oblast were bombing, exterminating, torturing the civilian population and killing people en masse. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church talks about some abstract wishes for "peace and tranquility" and resorts to traditional propaganda narratives about "enemies without" and "provocations".

Dictating the idea of ​​a "united Rus'", pseudo-historical facts about the shared cradle of nations only benefits the Russian authorities, which want to seize more territory, and is only needed to justify the Russian aggression. Timothy Snyder, history professor at Yale University, says that when Kievan Rus' emerged on the territory of modern Ukraine, there was no such nation as Russians, and Prince Volodymyr, who gave Rus' its name, actually had Scandinavian backgroud himself. However, the occupiers have no interest in true historical facts, as their goal is to justify an attack on another country.

  • 💬 "The next message endorsed by propagandists cites the head of the Russian Orthodox Church as saying that "the separation of the Orthodox people of Russia and Ukraine will never be achieved." ROC leader Gundyaev emphasizes that if a person is "Orthodox", they are part of "the one people of Russia and Ukraine".

In his sermon in September, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church openly denied Ukraine's independence as a state and implied that it is due to pressure from others (clearly meaning the West) that Ukrainians are hostile towards Russia. Patriarch Kirill had no other reasons to explain why Ukrainians may be hostile to Russia and Russians. His sermons, quoted by the Russian media, said nothing at all about the war or about the Russians attacking and occupying the territory of an independent state.

  • 💬 "Today, the historical Russia is going through difficult trials. We all know what is happening in Ukraine, we know what danger looms over the Ukrainian people, whom they are trying to recondition, to turn a part of a united Rus' into a state which opposes this Rus', hostile towards Russia. It is very important that in our hearts, we do not feel that they are our enemy," he said in his sermon.

Moreover, there have been multiple remarks denying or justifying Russia's aggression coming from Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the message being that Russia is actually a peaceful country which has not attacked anyone (?) and is only defending its borders. Such statements are part of the doctrinal vision that Russian propagandists have been actively promoting for years. For instance, this is what the Russian patriarch has been saying in state media on multiple occasions in May 2022:

  • 💬 "Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill considers the Western opponents' accusations against him for allegedly making "militaristic speeches" to be nonsense. He notes that Russia does not wish harm on anyone and does not intend to take over or occupy anyone." / TASS 05/08/2022
  • 💬 "We don't want to go to war with anyone, Russia has never attacked anyone. It is amazing when a great and powerful country has never attacked anyone, but has only defended its borders." / KP 05/03/2022
  • 💬 "Russia is a peace-loving country, and its citizens are 'vaccinated' against all kinds of military adventures and aggression, says Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill." / TASS 05/30/2022
  • 💬 "Patriarch Kirill calls on believers to pray for a new global war to be prevented. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church called the current period in history difficult, dangerous, and fateful for Russia." / TASS 06.05.2022

"Sinful Ukrainians deserved this war"

There were many posts on pro-state Russian Telegram channels that contained statements from a supposed Ukrainian Orthodox priest of the Moscow Patriarchate claiming that "Ukrainians are reaping the war for their sins." Such statements sound like justifying the attack on Ukraine. Quite a convenient propagandist message for whitewashing themselves and accusing Ukrainians of sin.

The state propaganda channel RT published an anonymous report justifying Russia's military aggression against Ukraine. The channel is supportive of the "special operation" because "the Russian Federation had no other choice." We consider it to be one more way of justifying the genocide of Ukrainians.

There was another example of shifting the blame for the war onto Ukrainians coming from Patriarch Kirill. He has repeatedly parroted the Russian propagandists claims about "Ukrainians bombing the Donbas." This is one of the most typical arguments used to justify the Russian invasion and Russian aggression in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill reminded his listeners that "the people of Donbas have also been suffering all these years" from war, but no one responded to it the way the world is responding now, when the Russians are destroying the Ukrainian land.

  • 💬 "Repression and extermination of the Donbas people has been going on for eight years, and the whole world is being silent about it, says Patriarch Kirill." / TASS 05/03/2022
  • 💬 "For eight years, the people in the Donbas have been suppressed and exterminated. For eight years, this suffering has lasted, and the whole world is being silent. We know that our brothers and sisters are going through real suffering, moreover, they may suffer for their loyalty to the Church," the Patriarch noted in his post-mass sermon at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior." / KP 03/06/2022

"Russian angels" vs. "Ukrainian demons"

One of the components of genocidal rhetoric is sacralization of war. That means exploiting religious narratives and theological concepts, justifying crimes by supposedly good intentions which religion encourages. An example of such sacralization can be found in a RIA Novosti story about the ROC leader's visit to a hospital where wounded Russian soldiers who had been away killing Ukrainians were receiving treatment. RIA Novosti filmed a mystical story 90s style: they say that "a silhouette of Virgin Mary" manifested on the door of the intensive care unit where Russian soldiers were being kept. This story is a vivid example of Russia's aggressive war propaganda that involves war sacralization elements, as it assignes a divine meaning to the war, paints it as the last crusade against "demonic Ukrainians."

Whenever Russian pro-state Telegram channels make posts citing the Russian Orthodox Church, quite often the quotes they include say that Ukrainians are terrorists and that Ukraine is a terrorist state. Such messages have been around even since before the start of the full-scale war, and intensified before Easter. There was an interesting case when the Russian Orthodox Church was informing the media of supposed "possible provocations" on Ukraine's territory. It raises questions as to why the Russian Orthodox Church would report on such things, isn't this the government's job? And another question: why would the Church interfere in the political and security affairs of another country?

Russian pro-state Telegram channels also cited the Russian Orthodox Church in two "humanitarian" narratives. The first one was about supporting the Orthodox people of the Donbas, as they are part of the Russian Orthodox world. These statements contained quite frank disregard for Ukraine as an independent state and are nothig new – they are a repeat of that same "one people" doctrine.

The second narrative is more interesting and shows that the Russian Orthodox Church is trying to influence Ukrainian refugees who were forced to leave for European countries because of the war. The Russian Orthodox Church claimed it was "providing humanitarian aid" to Ukrainian refugees:

  • 💬 "Patriarch Kirill consecrated Easter cakes and eggs at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Some of them will be sent to the Donbas along with humanitarian aid." / RIA 04/23/2022
    💬 "The Russian Orthodox Church expressed its gratitude to representatives of the Polish, Romanian, and other local Churches, as well as to Christians of other confessions, for providing aid to refugees from Ukraine." / ТASS 05/11/2022

As IMI's monitoring shows, the Russian Orthodox Church is actively sacralizing the war, encouraging Russians to take part in the mobilization, denying Ukraine's statehood, and even claiming that Ukrainians deserved the war.

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