All started on the eve of Orthodox Christmas celebrations, when president Putin had ordered his armed forces to observe a cease-fire of 36 hours “to allow believers to respect the tradition”. But Russian forces will respond if attacked directly by Ukrainians. According to the Kremlin, the president had been responding to a call by Patriarch Kirill, who is a divisive figure in and outside Russia because of his proximity with the Kremlin. Both the West and Ukraine rejected the ceasefire as cheap propaganda and cynicism. And till today, the motivation of Putin is everyone guess, the most credible being to be found between a communication exercise and a political signal.
Politically, it looks like an evolution of the Moscow’s narrative about the war in Ukraine, from the “special military operation” to a war, without saying it properly. In his address to the nation, Putin told the Russians to expect more human and financial costs, the price to pay for defeating the enemies, as they did through centuries. He ought to have detected a change of mood, in which even opponents believe that the war will be long and that too much blood has been shed for simply packing back to the 1992 borders. The recent publicity of funerals for soldiers killed in Ukraine looks also like a step into a new social tacit contract. But in term of communications, the address highlighted the persistent Kremlin’s blindness to the deterioration of Russia’s image, and that of Putin. It was not helped by this odd picture of a lonely figure attending a Nativity service, in contradiction to Orthodox services, which are acts of collective celebration. Putin was also breaking a self-created tradition by attending the mass in the Annunciation church inside the Kremlin walls instead of a rural church or monastery.
The motives were more obvious in the case of President Zelensky, for whom the military and social mobilisation is part of the construction of a ‘modern’ Ukrainian identity. “Religious security’ is now an element of national security, but with 3 main churches, reflecting internal divides, the concept is perilous to handle. Zelensky decided to deliver three messages for the holiday seasons. The first, on 24th December, was aimed at the Greco-Catholic believers, a community of about 3,5 million Ukrainians living in the Eastern Ukraine, never part of the Russian empire, and in the diaspora. They celebrate Christmas on the 25th, together with the “civilised” Christian world. The tone was less defiant in his 7th January message, to Orthodox Christians. But he repeated that “Freedom comes at a high price”, that “slavery has an even higher price”. In the meantime, there was his New Year address, during which he announced that he had just signed a decree approving the general action plan of the National Security and Defence Council for 2023. It states that the key priority is to “ensure our independence and strengthen our ability to defend ourselves”. All means will be used to that effect, including new measures against people glorifying the “terrorist state”.
More symbolically, and in graphic terms, the sensation was the retransmission of the Christmas Eve Orthodox service celebrated by the Kiev Metropolitan Epiphany in the Dormition Cathedral of the Kiev Caves monastery. Also knows as the Pecherskaya Lavra, it is a sacred site of Orthodoxy that always belonged to the Moscow and all-Russia patriarchate. Epiphany is the head of the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognised in 2019 by the Patriarch of Constantinople. But, contrary to the expectations, Ukrainian believers did not rushed to join the new Kiev Patriarchate, and the clergy who joined this autocephalous church had never got access to the Lavra, nor to the properties and valuables of the Church under the Moscow patriarchate. For this celebration, he had invited all Orthodox to attend, the cathedral was full, but mostly with people in uniforms. All participants have been thoroughly checked.
As expected, the leaders of the Moscow Orthodox Church denounced the move as an “attempt to seize its churches by force” and the Russian media talked of attempts to “destroy the Russian heritage”. In Ukraine, comments were dithyrambic. The “return” of the Lavra under Ukrainian control was compared to the fall of the Berlin wall and saluted as an “historic event”; the takeover of the Lavra churches was hailed as a “Christmas miracle”. Once again, one was left with the impression that 30 years after independence, the quest for an Ukraine national narrative still consists mostly in discovering what they are not than – basically proving that there are not Russians. In cultural and religious matters, the SBU (Ukraine’s secret services), whose subordination to successive presidents had never been obvious, took a key role. It has worked to ‘convince’ parishioners and clergy to reject canonic links with the Patriarchate of Moscow and all-Russia (UOC). In November, it raided numerous religious sites, including the Lavra, and found evidence that the UOC clergy was spying on Ukrainian forces and indoctrinating their parishioners to support the enemy. In late December, 13 clergymen, including the Metropolitan of the Tulchnyn Eparchy, were stripped of their Ukrainian citizenship by presidential decree. Then, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine had upheld the law requiring the religious organisations governed from abroad to register under a name that reflect their affiliation. In this case, the UOC should be called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which it refused. Just before orthodox Christmas, on 4 January, the government announced that the Lavra’s two main shrines should be run by the state; and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church announced that Metropolitan Epiphany, would led Christmas prayers in the monastery; the UOC unsuccessfully called on the administration of the Lavra to prevent Epiphany to enter its main cathedral.
This accent on ‘religious security’ is expected to continue in 2023, reason why some Ukrainian commentators, while fully supportive of the ukrainisation of all the Orthodox churches, have questioned the timing of this Christmas ‘coup’. They put the responsibility on the UOC, for not having severed its ties with Moscow when the invasion started. But they also believe it was not the moment to indulge into a divisive move, when president Zelensky speaks of regaining all the lost territories, including the Donbass and the Crimea, where Ukrainians speak Russian, are attached to the UOC, and resent the influence of Western Ukraine in political and cultural fields. If Zelensky wants to have his forces received as liberators, and not as occupiers, the Christmas episode was poorly inspired. For them, the reunification of all Ukraine’s Orthodox believers in the autocephalous church will come from a long dialogue, not by force. Some remarked too that, among the Western allies, the cooptation by Zelensky of his predecessor campaign slogan – “one army, one language, one faith” – hurt the concept of religious freedom and separation between the state and the church.