‘The Russian World’: The Document That Rocked Orthodoxy

By Jovan Tripkovic

April 14, 2024


(ANALYSIS) The Congress of the XXV World Russian People’s Council, headed by Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, issued a document on March 27 entitled: “The Present and Future of the Russian World.”

In the document, the leadership of the XXV World Russian People’s Council describes the conflict in Ukraine as a “Holy War” and accuses the West of Satanism, while highlighting the geopolitical interests of the Russian state, currently headed by President Vladimir Putin.

Neither the Moscow Patriarchate nor the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church approved the document. The endorsement from the Synod only came afterward.

What is the World Russian People’s Council? 

According to its website, the World Russian People’s Council is an international public organization established in 1993. The council’s initiator and spiritual leader was the Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who is now the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the division of the Russian nation by newly established borders led to the establishment of the World Russian People’s Council, whose mission, according to them,  is to unite Russian people “regardless of country of residence or political views.” The website says that “the birth of the Council took place during a difficult period of national history, when the Russian people were in dire need of unification.”

The World Russian People’s Council is a forum, “a meeting place” for those “concerned about the present and future of Russia.” Since 1993, it has hosted and provided a platform for hundreds of prominent academic, political, and cultural figures.

In 2022, Alexander Dugin, a Russian political philosopher often described by the Western media as “Putin’s brain,” spoke to the Council about the war in Ukraine. Last year, Putin addressed the plenary session via videoconference, praising the Council’s mission.

The Council’s leadership also includes dozens of influential individuals, including the controversial Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev, who has been sanctioned by the United States. Malofeev was appointed deputy chairman of the Council in 2019.

Toward ‘Russian World’

The main theme of the “The Present and Future of the Russian World” document is the reunification of the Russian people. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, millions of Russians were left to live outside the borders of the Russian Federation.

In 2014, Putin justified the annexation of Crimea by evoking the concept of a “Russian World.” Eight years later, he approved a new foreign policy doctrine based on this concept. This foreign policy doctrine is used to legitimize military intervention in the post-Soviet space in support of Russian-speakers. Putin often speaks about Russians as a “divided nation” and emphasizes the “aspiration of the Russian world, of historic Russia, for the restoration of unity.”

“The Present and Future of the Russian World” decree points to Ukraine as part of the “Russian World.”  It proclaims the total destruction of Ukrainian statehood and sovereignty upon the conclusion of the war. It also states that Ukraine should be under Russia’s exclusive zone of influence, categorically rejecting any possibility of the existence of a political regime in Kyiv hostile to Moscow’s interests.

The new decree calls for a return to the doctrine of the trinity of the Russian people, according to which the Russian nation consists of Great Russians, Little Russians and Belarusians. This doctrine denies the right to self-determination and national identity to Ukrainians and Belarusians, integrating them into the “Russian World.” The concept, however, was condemned as heretical by hundreds of Orthodox theologians.

The Kremlin’s playbook  

The narrative of the new proclamation of the XXV World Russian People’s Council strictly follows the Kremlin’s playbook on Ukraine. The Kremlin’s euphemism for the war in Ukraine — the special military operation — is prominently used in the document.

The Russian Orthodox Church leadership goes a step further by describing, “from a spiritual and moral point of view” and the invasion of Ukraine as “a Holy War.” According to the decree, the war in Ukraine is justified because the Russian people have the right to protect their “spiritual space” and to defend “the world from the onslaught of globalism and the victory of the West.”

The document paints a picture of good versus evil and Huntington’s clash of civilizations — Russia versus the West, which, it said, “has fallen into Satanism.” This wouldn’t be the first time that Patriarch Kirill used this kind of language when referring to the West. In 2022, he described the war in Ukraine as ”restraining the Antichrist.”

This narrative doesn’t align with Putin’s initial argument for the invasion of Ukraine, which was a response to the country’s potential NATO membership.

Dire demographics 

A significant part of the document is dedicated to demographic policy. Russia is faced with a serious demographic crisis at the moment. Its population could drop to 130 million by 2046 due to declining immigration numbers and low birth rates, according to a worst-case projection by Russia’s statistics agency, Rosstat.

“The main threat to the existence and development of Russia is the demographic catastrophe our country is experiencing,” according to the document. However, practical solutions and policies are rarely mentioned. Instead, the Congress of the XXV World Russian People’s Council sets an unrealistic long-term goal: To bring Russia’s population (through sustainable demographic growth) to 600 million people within 100 years.

Geopolitics over Orthodoxy

Christian churches are known for issuing encyclicals addressing social and theological issues. It is rare for church leaders to release documents that justify wars or territorial ambitions. Instead of addressing the need for evangelization of the Russian nation, promoting peace and healing the Orthodox rift, the Congress under the chairmanship of Patriarch Kirill produced a geopolitical manifesto, defining Russian national interests.

In the 3,000-word document, Russia is mentioned 53 times, church once and Orthodoxy not at all. This clearly shows the geopolitical and ideological priorities of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The content of “The Present and Future of the Russian World” decree has more in common with the work of Alexander Dugin than with the official document of the Russian Church. Some of the goals stated in the proclamation, such as destroying Ukrainian statehood and the doctrine of the trinity of the Russian people, can be found in Dugin’s famous book, “The Foundations of Geopolitics.

One could argue that “The Present and Future of the Russian World” contradicts the “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” document, which was adopted by the Sacred Bishop’s Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in order to provide the basic provisions of teachings on church-state relations.

According to the document, Orthodox Christians should obey the law, regardless of how imperfect and unfortunate it is. It also states that Orthodox Christians should speak out against the law if it threatens their eternal salvation and forces them to commit a sin before God and their neighbor. In case legal action is impossible or ineffective, this document (issued by the Russian Orthodox Church) calls for Orthodox Christians to take up the position of civil disobedience.

There is no doubt that these two documents contradict each other, displaying inconsistency in the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church.

International outcry

“The Present and Future of the Russian World” document has already received international criticism.

World Council of Churches General Secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay, on behalf of WCC member churches, said that the WCC cannot reconcile the Decree of the XXV World Russian People’s Council describing the conflict in Ukraine as a “Holy War.

“In light of the established positions of WCC’s highest governing bodies, the WCC cannot accept the decree’s presentation of Russia’s illegal and unjustifiable invasion of its sovereign neighbor Ukraine as a new stage of the national liberation struggle of the Russian people against the criminal Kyiv regime and the collective West behind it, conducted in the lands of South-Western Russia since 2014, or the perspective that ‘all territory of modern Ukraine should enter into a zone of exclusive influence of Russia,’” said Pillay.

Massimo Faggioli, an Italian theologian and columnist for La Croix International, described the document as “a step into the frightening unknown” and “a return to ‘wild Christianity.’” George Weigel, a distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, compared the document to “madness on the scale of ‘Mein Kampf.’”

In her recent piece for Public Orthodoxy, Sister Vassa Larin, an American Orthodox nun and liturgiologist, argued that by supporting this document, Patriarch Kirill preaches heresy.

A turning point

The XXV World Russian People’s Council’s decree symbolizes a turning point in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Early on, the cause of the conflict seemed to be NATO’s potential enlargement eastward and Ukraine’s membership. However, after its publication last month, that is no longer the case.

For the Russian leadership, the invasion of Ukraine is “a Holy War,” a sacred mission, and a zero-sum game against globalism and the West.

The document also sends a clear message to the international community: there will be no compromise until the complete destruction of Ukrainian statehood.