Not all Russian social and political actors have the same representations of it, and these vary according to the audiences they address. But the words used remain the same. How to explain this recourse to a religious vocabulary within the framework of what remains, officially, a “special military operation”?
Putin, Kadyrov and the “Satanism” of the West
During the first months of the war, Vladimir Putin expressed his intention to denazify ukraine. On September 30, during the annexation ceremony of the lands of eastern Ukraine, he denounced the Satanism of the West, symbolized, according to him by “the total negation of the individual, the subversion of faith and traditional values, the suppression of freedom”.
This term Satanism has been circulating for a long time in conservative circles around the world. Already in 2013, Vladimir Putin condemned before the Valdai Club the "Euro-Atlantic countries" for which “Faith in God is equal to faith in Satan”. But the use of this rhetoric could well be explained today by the influence of the far-right ideologue Alexander Dugin on the President of the Russian Federation. Indeed, according to well-informed observers, if its weight in the first months of the war was greatly exaggerated, it would be most listened to since the death of his daughter Daria Douguina, victim of an attack where he was probably targeted himself. On September 15, the ideologue explained in an ultra-conservative media that "open Satanism and outright racism thrive in Ukraine, and the West only supports it".
This invocation of the Satanism of the West and of a necessary “de-Satanization” of Ukraine practically became, during the months of October and November, the official justification for the “special operation”. It was used several times by Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, on his Telegram channel (he had already used it before, and in particular on May 18, 2022).
On October 25, he declared that “Satanist democracy” is “when we protect the rights of atheists and insult believers”; he recalled to illustrate his remarks the publication of the caricatures of the Prophet in Charlie Hebdo, against which a demonstration of several hundred thousand people had been organized on January 19, 2015 in Grozny.
Like Vladimir Putin, he condemned homosexuality and asserted in a particularly crude way that "the more the themes 'below the belt' are liberated, the happier they (the West) are".
The theme of a " Holy war " is also very present in his interventions, as is that of patriotism. His October 25 post also begins with these words: “I love my homeland. My country. The people. The traditions ".
The denunciation of “cults”
Satanism was linked to another theme by the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council, Alexei Pavlov He compared Ukraine to a "totalitarian hyper-sect", claiming in particular that it was Satanists, pagans and members of "sects" who organized the Maidan revolution in 2014.
This reference to sects, seen as a major danger for Russia, dates at least from the beginning of the 2000s; their members were also considered CIA agents during the Soviet period.
Ever since his first term, Vladimir Putin has stressed the importance of “spiritual security”, understood as the defense of traditional religions and the fight against religious extremism – a concept with vague and arbitrary contours. Nikolai Patrushev, the current secretary of the Security Council, was then director of the FSB, heir to the KGB: he had made an alliance with the Orthodox Church to fight against “totalitarian sects”. This rhetoric of Alexei Pavlov therefore appears as the reuse of older processes to designate the enemy of Russia, an enemy always defined by the fact that he would fight a poorly defined Russian tradition.
The specific role of Patriarch Kirill
What about the Rhetoric of Patriarch Kirill, at the head of the patriarchate of Moscow and all the Russias since 2009? He maintains a unwavering support for Vladimir Putin, for the sake of retaining its power over an institution crossed by ultranationalist and conspiratorial currents.
Just as in previous conflicts in which the Russian power has engaged, he presents Russia as a besieged citadel : the war in Ukraine would, according to him, be of a defensive nature. He also follows his own agenda: to fight against the unipolar world, globalization and secularized liberal culture, against the invasion of values which would be opposed to the culture of Russia and more generally of this space which he calls Holy Russia and which goes beyond the political borders of the Russian state. These themes go back at least in the early 2000s.
The Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill and Putin (France Culture, August 14, 2022).
In addition, the Moscow Patriarchate is in competition with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Kirill tried to keep the many parishes of his Ukrainian Orthodox Church within his fold, while another Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (to which autocephaly, that is to say ecclesiastical independence, has been granted by Constantinople in January 2019) continues to attract Orthodox Christians anxious to break away from Moscow. But Kirill's compromise with Russian power prompted the Synod of the Ukrainian Church to break away from it on May 27.
From the beginning of the conflict, Kirill presented the special operation as a metaphysical fight between good and evil. His remarks also took up apocalyptic motives conveyed by certain currents of the Russian Church, in particular those linked to the army and the forces of law enforcement, the siloviki.
On October 25, during the 24th World Russian People's Council, Kirill called to "keep the tradition to prevent the end of the world". He took up this idea, developed for many years in nationalist circles, of a Russian people who would be the katechon, this force which holds back the coming of the Antichrist and of which Saint Paul speaks in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. A month earlier, on September 25, he had claimed that the Russian soldiers who will die in the war in Ukraine will be "washed from all their sins".
This idea of sacrifice in the name of the country refers to the soviet rhetoric which values heroic death for the collective. It goes back more than a century, we find it in the about other Christian churches at the time of the First World War.
On October 17, before a delegation from the World Council of Churches (CoE), a delegation which included his own nephew Mikhail Gundiaev, Kirill declared that he did not believe that “a Church or a Christian could support wars and murders” and that the Churches “are called to work for peace and to defend and protect life”. And to add: “War cannot be holy”. But when one has to defend himself and his life or give his life for the life of others, things appear differently, remarked the patriarch ».
Kirill's position remains ambiguous, the speeches intended for the West differ from those for Russia. The report on the Patriarchate's website of the CoE's visit is less precise than that published by the COE itself.
Loyalty to the regime above all else
In all these official speeches the same words are repeated again and again on the defense of Russian tradition and on the Western enemy, whose qualification evolves with the radicalization of the context. This factory of tradition against the West, the Russian Orthodox Church has largely contributed to it during the years 2000-2010, intervening in fields as varied as the debates around juvenile justice, domestic violence, sexual relations say "non-traditional" or contemporary art. This discourse served the interests of a power weakened by opposition and created an illusion of consensus. He continues to play this role.
But make no mistake about it: all these speeches are addressed to a population of which [70% claim to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church], but only 53% say they are very or somewhat religious. The patriarch was not among those who have authority in a end of 2021 survey. No matter. As reminded anthropologist Alexei Yurchak,
just as in the Soviet period, it is more important to repeat ready-made formulas, attesting to loyalty to the regime, than to ensure the veracity of their content.
In such a model, what counts is the performative dimension of discourse, its capacity to be effective for political action. " Facts ", even the most absurd, are at the service of patriotism and the antagonism to be built against the West. This rhetoric will be effective until the population expects power to tell them the truth.