Serbian Journalist Vladimir Veljkovic On The Ukraine War And Orthodoxy’s Future

By Jovan Tripkovic

November 6, 2023


Since Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine in 2022, global media have focused on war atrocities and crimes against humanity. The faith dimension of this conflict has very often received less attention.

Only a few scholars and researchers have a comprehensive understanding of the religious aspects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are not many Orthodox theologians and journalists who delve into discussions about Orthodox Christianity and its compatibility with Western values.

Vladimir Veljkovic is a Serbian religion journalist who regularly contributes to Pescanik, a liberal online publication in Serbia, where he covers topics related to the Orthodox Church. Through his work, he engages with Orthodox teachings and explores concepts such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Veljkovic stands out as one of the few Orthodox journalists in Serbia who has openly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Veljkovic believes that Orthodoxy needs to undergo reforms in order to effectively address contemporary cultural, political and social trends. His ideas are not widely explored by conservative or liberal theologians in Serbia. Veljkovic’s opinions stand in contrast to the teachings of the Serbian church and are not well-represented in the public discourse.

Religion Unplugged interviewed Veljkovic to gain a deeper understanding of the war in Ukraine, the role of Orthodoxy and the Orthodox perspectives on contemporary issues. This interview occurred before the Ukrainian parliament voted to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church over alleged links with Moscow.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Tripkovic: We are approaching the second anniversary of the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. It appears that the end of this conflict is not imminent. What are Moscow’s objectives in this war? 

Veljkovic: Since early 2022, Russia’s goals have shifted. Initially, Moscow’s aim was to occupy the entire territory of Ukraine. However, in the first months of the war, it became evident that this was a mission impossible. This is why the annexation of four regions: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson was announced in September 2022. The Russians didn’t have full control over these areas and relied on the offensive capabilities of the Russian army to complete their conquest.

A convoy of Ukrainian soldiers prepares to take on the Russian army. (Wikipedia Commons photo)
A convoy of Ukrainian soldiers prepares to take on the Russian army. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Meanwhile, the Russian army has evidently lost the capacity to launch a large-scale offensive. Moscow’s current objective is to maintain control over the territory they presently hold, which includes Crimea. The robust Ukrainian resistance and Western aid prompted Russia to adjust its goals in response to the situation on the ground.

Tripkovic: Is the war in Ukraine a conflict between two different visions for the future of Orthodox Christianity?

Veljkovic: The Ukrainian church issue was resolved in accordance with previous models of inter-Orthodox relations. The Ukrainian aspiration for an independent church mirrors the aspirations of the Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians and Greeks. After establishing their national states during the 19th and 20th centuries, they too sought to have their own autocephalous churches within those newly formed countries. The Ukrainian church question aligns with previous models, asserting that each nation-state should also have its own autocephalous or national church.

The nation-states in the Balkans were established through liberation and secession from the Ottoman Empire. During this historical process, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul couldn’t maintain canonical jurisdiction outside the empire’s borders, as political influence often extended through church jurisdiction. Today, we witness a similar situation in the relations between Russia and Ukraine. Russia was projecting its political influence in Ukraine through the Russian church. Given these circumstances, the Ukrainians had little choice but to fight for their church’s independence from the imperial influence of Russia, just as other Orthodox nations had done before them.

This is the historical reality of post-Byzantine Orthodoxy and it’s unfolding right before our eyes. It can be argued that the organization of the Orthodox Church is inherently local rather than national. I don’t dispute that. Honestly, I believe that, in practice, we are currently far from such a model. Its implementation would necessitate substantial reforms within the Orthodox Church, for which there is presently neither the readiness nor the energy.

The theological perspective of the conflict still needs to emerge. On one hand, we see a resolute determination within the Ukrainian nation to uphold Western values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. On the other side, Russia has positioned itself against these values. Consequently, Orthodox Ukrainian theology may be more receptive to these principles, especially considering that during the Russian aggression, Ukrainians experienced firsthand the consequences of rejecting these ideals. I would hope to witness progress in this direction. It would position Ukraine as the potential future of Orthodox Christianity within a united Europe.

Tripkovic: What does the future hold for Orthodox Christianity in Russia and Ukraine? Once the war ends, what will be the role of Orthodox Christianity in the process of reconciliation between these two nations? Do you believe that Orthodoxy can help both sides overcome hatred and hostility?

Veljkovic: Throughout history, conflicts have arisen between Orthodox nations, such as the disputes between the Serbs and Bulgarians in the 19th and 20th centuries. In these conflicts, the role of the church was often notorious. Following the resolution of these conflicts, there was a noticeable absence of any concerted effort by the churches to engage in the reconciliation process. Even today, this topic is not addressed by both sides.

The involvement of religious communities in the reconciliation process is a more recent development. Following the Yugoslav wars, there were initiatives to engage religious communities, including the Catholic Church in Croatia, the Islamic community in Bosnia, and the Serbian Orthodox Church, in the reconciliation process. However, these initiatives were primarily driven by non-governmental organizations rather than the religious communities themselves. This is why reconciliation efforts have yielded modest results.

The future of Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Christianity and their contribution to reconciliation depend on numerous factors. First, we are uncertain about how the war will conclude. I hope for Ukraine’s victory, given that they are the aggrieved party and did not provoke the conflict. The precise nature of this victory remains uncertain. I believe the future will be shaped by both parties’ willingness to confront the challenges ahead. For Ukraine, this means addressing nationalism, which must be marginalized within the framework of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. The challenge for Russian Orthodox Christianity is even greater. The current Russian Patriarch Kirill openly promotes a false church tradition, known as the ideology of Holy Russia. His legacy must be rejected by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Relations between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy will also hinge on the broader situation within the Orthodox Church. Specifically, it will depend on the resolution of the division between the Ecumenical and Moscow Patriarchates. Thus far, the Orthodox Church has proclaimed its unity more in words than in practice. Unfortunately, in reality, Orthodox churches are mostly self-sufficient.

Tripkovic: For years, President Putin branded himself as an Orthodox emperor, a legitimate successor of the Romanov dynasty, and protector of the faith. Do you think he has managed to maintain this image up to the present day.

Veljkovic: In the 19th century, Russian emperors aimed to position themselves as protectors of the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Such a policy was already anachronistic at that time. It often led to international conflicts. This anachronism stemmed from the fact that during the 19th century, Enlightenment ideas prevailed, and religion had lost much of the political influence it once held in previous centuries. None of the Orthodox countries recognized the Russian czar as the “protector of the faith.” This stands in stark contrast to the Middle Ages when the Byzantine emperor held such a status in Orthodox countries outside of Byzantium.

What does this concept mean today? Does it imply that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a protector of United States citizens who adhere to the Orthodox faith? These ideas are ridiculous and dangerous. President Putin represents an authoritarian, undemocratic form of government. Russia’s struggle to embrace democracy and achieve a peaceful, democratic transition of power has allowed radical ideas to gain traction. Authoritarian regimes often seek to rationalize their actions by promoting irrational political ideologies. I view the current efforts of the Russian authorities to portray themselves as defenders of Christianity from this perspective.

The separation of powers in the modern state, encompassing the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, aligns more closely with church teachings on the Holy Trinity. Modern states have an obligation to respect fundamental human rights, which precede the concept of the state and are not in contradiction with the Bible and the Holy Scriptures. It is important to remember that God created man, not the state. Given that man is prone to sin and the abuse of power, it is much wiser to have mechanisms in place to limit power. This is why, from a Christian perspective, liberal democracy with its principle of limited power is a far superior solution than authoritarian-Caesarism forms of government, which possess unlimited power and are prone to its abuse.

Tripkovic: In 2016, President Putin visited the Holy Mountain of Athos, an all-male monastic community in Greece. Some Orthodox theologians believe that during that visit he was crowned by Orthodox monks as an Orthodox emperor. What’s your take on that? 

Veljkovic: We would be trapped in a logical fallacy if we were to enter into an argument on this matter. Since there is no existing Orthodox empire, the notion of a coronation or anointing ceremony for an Orthodox emperor is unfounded. Engaging in such a debate would be a futile exercise. It’s important to recognize that the aim of these malevolent ideas is to manipulate Orthodox believers worldwide. It constitutes a form of pure manipulation that ultimately serves the dictatorial regime of Vladimir Putin.

Many across the globe have protested Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Unsplash photo)
Many across the globe have protested Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Unsplash photo)

Tripkovic: While some Orthodox perceive him as an Orthodox emperor, others believe that President Putin is the Antichrist. Ukrainian archbishop and spokesman for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Yevstratiy Zoria, is among those who hold this belief. In an interview for the BBC’s Global News Podcast, he referred to Putin as the “Antichrist of our current time.” Is there any support in Orthodox teachings and literature for such a claim?

Veljkovic: Recently, I watched a right-wing documentary about Donald Trump. In the film, Protestant pastors discussed the United Nations as a tool for the Antichrist. Patriarch Kirill views Russia as the sole bulwark against the Antichrist. Similarly, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of today’s Iranian regime, held a comparable belief. He described the United States as the “Big Satan” and the former Soviet Union as the “Little Satan.” The Antichrist is consistently depicted as someone else, somewhere else; never us, nor anyone we support. This is a reflection of how ideologies and the human tendency towards idolatry operate. It’s why the Holy Scriptures advocate for self-reflection, even questioning ourselves.

According to Christian tradition, the Antichrist can be portrayed in two ways: as pure evil or as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, masking itself in goodness and piety. Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, in his work “Tale of the Antichrist,” opted for the latter portrayal. In his book, the Antichrist performs good deeds, deceiving both others and himself, remaining unaware of his true nature. In Solovyov’s narrative, the majority of Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox recognize him as the ruler of the world. However, a minority of believers from every Christian denomination refuse to do so. In today’s context, what interested me most was understanding the main reason behind the acceptance of the Antichrist by the Orthodox in this book.

The Antichrist promised them that he would establish a museum of Christian archaeology in Constantinople, where sacred traditions would be preserved. While it is a work of literary fiction, Solovyov, being a proficient church historian, adeptly portrays traditionalism as the primary temptation of the Orthodox Church. In contemporary times, Russian Patriarch Kirill presents himself as a champion of “traditional values,” using them to rationalize aggression against neighboring Ukraine and perpetration of crimes against humanity.

The Nazis also incited World War II in the name of German culture. Another Russian Orthodox philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, remarked that the Nazis never truly engaged with the works of eminent German intellectuals like Kant. Similarly, Russia justifies its actions in Ukraine by invoking Orthodox and Russian culture. However, it’s evident that both Putin and Patriarch Kirill are not very well-versed in Russian history, culture, and literature.

Tripkovic: You come from Serbia, a country with several pro-Russian far-right political parties in the National Assembly, not to mention the support of Serbian citizens for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What is the influence of Aleksandr Dugin, often described as Putin’s brain, on the Serbian right-wing scene?

Veljkovic: Aleksandr Dugin has long been recognized and published in Serbia. Within the Serbian right-wing scene, he is seen as an authentic interpreter of contemporary Russia. The issue isn’t merely his influence on the Serbian right. The main concern lies in the fact that his articles can be found on the official websites of certain dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Dugin is considered a pro-fascist thinker. In the context of Dugin and church media, it’s important to note that he is also seen as a kind of neo-gnostic. Dugin was influenced by the French writer René Guénon and Traditionalism, the anti-modern intellectual movement that Guénon founded. Followers of Guénon, like the Italian Julius Evola, who were more politically inclined, would go on to inspire neo-fascist terrorism after World War II. Jacques Maritain assessed Guénon as a Gnostic. This implies a significant intellectual confusion in church media, which, without any explanation, republishes Dugin’s neo-gnostic works, giving the impression that he is an Orthodox Christian author.

Tripkovic: Why hasn’t the Serbian church explicitly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine? How does this make you feel as a Serbian Orthodox?

Veljkovic: After the breakup of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union, both the Serbian and Russian churches found themselves in a similar canonical position. The autocephalous status of both churches was recognized within the framework of those countries. Since those countries no longer exist, it raises the logical question of the extent of their canonical territories. The question is whether newly formed states can have their own canonical churches, or if the Serbian and Russian churches can maintain the extent of their canonical territory acquired on the basis of the previous country. As soon as the Yugoslav wars ended, it was crucial for the Serbian Orthodox Church to declare that it still bore responsibility for all Orthodox believers on the territory of the former country. This is the first reason why these two churches have close relations and share similar views.

Another reason is Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, over which Serbia lost sovereignty after the war in 1999 and the declaration of independence in 2008. Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country, a position supported by Russia. The Serbian Orthodox Church aligns with the official government’s policy, viewing Vladimir Putin as the protector of Serbian Kosovo, which they perceive as having been occupied by the West. Some Serbian bishops even share mystical stories about Putin. Considering all of this, the Serbian Church and the Serbian government have not explicitly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

To answer your second question, I’d like to quote the renowned Russian priest and theologian Georges Florovsky. He stated, “I never thought that I was baptized in the Russian church and that such a church exists. There is only the Orthodox Church.” I completely agree with this perspective. I believe we need more of this mindset in today’s world. I must admit that I grapple with the question of whether a unified Orthodox Church even exists anymore.

How the Orthodox Church will handle democracy and human rights remains a key question. (Unsplash photo)
How the Orthodox Church will handle democracy and human rights remains a key question. (Unsplash photo)

Tripkovic: In the interviews with Rod Dreher and Mother Katherine, I inquired about the compatibility of Orthodox Christianity with human rights, democracy and civil society. Considering the ongoing war in Ukraine, do you believe the Orthodox Church is prepared to embrace modern concepts like democracy and human rights?

Veljkovic: For me, the year 2010 was crucial in this regard. During that year, right-wing extremist organizations clashed with the police, practically destroying the downtown area of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. This violence was incited by opposition to the Pride March. The campaign of destruction was justified in the name of traditional values and Orthodoxy and found support in the newspaper ‘The Orthodoxy’ (original name being Pravoslavlje), which serves as the official and central publication of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Following that event, I no longer harbored doubts about the necessity for Orthodox theology and the Orthodox Church to assert a more positive stance towards democracy and human rights. The war in Ukraine has only strengthened this conviction.

However, there are many challenges along the way. The Enlightenment of the 18th century made a key contribution and laid the cultural foundations for the development of modern democracy and human rights. If we were to delve further into history, we would discover the roots of this development in the Renaissance and even in Western scholasticism. The Orthodox tradition, however, typically views this historical progression as misguided.

Tripkovic: You are one of the few religion journalists in Serbia who believe that Orthodox Christianity grapples with issues of nationalism and ethnocentrism. In your opinion, what factors contribute to the negative impact of the nationalism project on Orthodox Christianity?

Veljkovic: In my articles, essays and op-eds, I aim to present arguments from historical, theological, political and sociological perspectives. Throughout my career, I have maintained a keen interest in exploring the intersection of faith and politics. I deliberately use the term ‘faith’ rather than ‘religion’ because I consistently ask myself what kind of public engagement, be it political or social, arises from my personal Orthodox faith. What social values should one uphold as an Orthodox Christian?

In one of his essays, the renowned Russian-American theologian Father Alexander Schmemann cites various passages by Paul the Apostle. He concludes that these passages sometimes lean towards conservatism, and at other times towards liberalism. Depending on which portion one reads, different, even opposing, political positions can be derived. The values we choose to advocate in public can significantly impact the lives of real people, including our neighbors (all people are our neighbors). This is why I believe that Orthodox Christians should approach this issue with greater responsibility and seriousness.

As for nationalism and Orthodoxy, I perceive a negative impact in the sense that this connection tends to lead to polarization within society. Despite Orthodox nationalists often calling for unity, it’s important to note that this unity doesn’t necessarily encompass the basic human rights that every individual should inherently enjoy simply by virtue of being human beings and citizens. From a strictly ecclesiastical perspective, Orthodox nationalism gives rise to false traditions, which in turn have a detrimental impact on the unity of the Orthodox Church.

Considering concepts like Holy Russia, the Russian world, or the Orthodox civilization, would a council of Orthodox bishops from various nationalities endorse these ideological constructs? In addition to the Old and New Testaments, the Serbian Orthodox Church has introduced a third covenant, known as the Kosovo Covenant. Could a pan-Orthodox assembly affirm the Kosovo Covenant? Similarly, when the Serbian patriarch and bishops proclaim “Kosovo is the Serbian Jerusalem,” one can’t help but wonder if such a statement could ever be echoed by the patriarch of Jerusalem. It’s simply impossible, because it doesn’t belong to the Orthodox tradition.