Reciprocity and Power: The Russian Orthodox Church in the Era of Putin

By: Eber Condrell


For centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been a powerful social and political force in Russia. The many beautiful churches and cathedrals scattered throughout the Russian countryside, in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, and even within the Kremlin walls, attest to this rich church history. The Christian faith and beliefs tie Russia to the history and traditions of the West, but they diverge regarding the relationship between church and state. In the West, since the Enlightenment these two institutions have largely been separate, but in Russia they are deeply tied together. The ROC has a strong relationship with the current regime in Russia. This is a relationship of convenience for both sides rather than a real friendship. Both sides are using the other for benefit. This paper will examine the historical development of the church in Russia and its loss of influence during the twentieth century under Soviet political leadership to set up the discussion of the ROC and the Putin regime.

The Origins and History of the Russian Orthodox Church

The Eastern and Western branches of Christianity split in 1054 AD in an event labeled as the “Great Schism.” The Bishop of Rome, now called the Pope, claimed infallible rule over the whole of Christendom. The Eastern Bishops, or Patriarchs, denied this claim. The two sides broke communion with each other and formed the two main branches of Christianity. Western Christianity loosely refers to any tradition rooted in Roman Catholicism, this includes Roman Catholics themselves, traditional Protestants, anabaptist groups, and other non-creedal splinter groups such as Mormons. The history of the Western branch is fascinating and varied, but this paper is concerned with the Eastern branch of the Christian tradition. The Eastern tradition can trace its heritage back to the Patriarch of Constantinople who is still considered the “first among equals” of the Orthodox communion. While Eastern Christianity contains other branches, such as Coptic Christians, Oriental Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and others, the groups associated with the Greek Orthodox tradition coming through Constantinople are the focus of this discussion. As mentioned earlier, Russia became Christianized as a result of exposure to Constantinople.[1] This meant that as time went on and East and West split, Russia sided with the East and remained in that half of the Christian family tree.

The Orthodox Church is different from the Roman Church in its nationalistic tendencies. Because each national church is more independent from the center of the Orthodox world, each church could maintain unique national practices and significance. In addition to this, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Patriarch of Moscow saw himself as the natural successor of the Eastern Christian tradition just as the political rulers of Moscow saw themselves as the “Third Rome” after Constantinople.[2] Both of these things led to a religious and ethnic exceptionalism ingrained in the ideology and theology of the ROC.

The history of the ROC in Russia is long and storied. It began in 988 AD when King Vladimir of the Kievan Rus converted his nation to Christianity after being greatly impressed by the Eastern Roman Empire’s capital, Constantinople. During its thousand-year history, the ROC was further defined by Russia’s political leaders such as the pagan Mongols, as well as native Russian Tsars Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. The Mongol occupation forced the church to operate without the explicit support of the government, leading to much adversity and ultimately a tighter relationship between church and state as the region came out of Mongol control. According to Nicolas Zernov, “Before the Tartar invasion, the chief hierarchs of the Russian Church were mainly occupied with ecclesiastical matters. After the invasions, the Metropolitans became equally concerned with the national revival of the country.”[3] Under Ivan the Terrible the country got a taste of what a non-Christian ruler would do to their influence. While Ivan was born a Christian, he drifted from the faith later in life and earned his iconic moniker. Zernov describes him as “the first autocrat on the throne of Moscow.”[4] During the reign of Peter the Great, the church experienced its first significant restrictions in its history. Peter essentially publicized church leadership and abolished the hierarchical structure that the church used to govern itself, the Patriarchate. Peter replaced the old system with a system in which the Tsar personally appointed church leaders. This was a drastic change from the centuries-old status quo, so much so that Zernov refers to Peter’s Romanov Dynasty as “the foreign Empire.”[5] The political subservience of the church to the state continued through Romanov rule until 1917 when the Russian Communist Revolution toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia.

The Church and the Soviets

When the Communists took over in 1917 circumstances changed drastically for the ROC, persecution increased and religious freedom all but disappeared under Communist control. Marxism-Leninism is an inherently atheistic and anti-religious ideology. Lenin and his party believed that Christianity, and all other religions, were not profitable for the people of a communist state and therefore should be removed from society. Though at first Lenin did not take an overly aggressive approach, in time, he and his successor Stalin cracked down on all kinds of religious activities.[6] By the late 1930s the number of churches and priests in Russia had drastically decreased from their pre-1917 totals. This took place alongside the general purges conducted by Stalin during the 1930s. The process was only stopped during the Second World War when the government began to focus on fighting the Nazis rather than persecuting Russian citizens.

As the decades wore on, different leaders had different approaches to the church, but they all called for some form of strict control until the Gorbachev era. Gorbachev introduced religious freedom as part of his Glasnost and Perestroika policy.[7] This led to a huge resurgence in ROC activity in Russia. Since being able to win elections had become a necessary skill for Russia’s leaders, many politicians began to show fealty to the church even if they were not believers themselves. Boris Yeltsin and others were known for doing this rather frequently, helping to fund the building of a massive cathedral in Moscow using state funds.[8]

This is the religious milieu into which Vladimir Putin came to power. New cathedrals were being built, attendance was increasing, and church leaders were optimistic. However, if men like Metropolitan Kirill (later Patriarch Kirill) had learned anything from the past one thousand years of their tradition it was not to sit comfortably on their freedom. Kirill and others knew it would be important to secure government support for their church moving forward.

Putin and the Church

President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of the ROC are two characters that had an outsized influence on the development of 21st century Russia. These two men, their relationship, ambitions, and actions have characterized the state of the ROC in Russia in the last 20 years. When Putin came to power in 1999, Kirill held the rank of Metropolitan, just below Patriarch, but was already an influential member of the church hierarchy. He rose to the rank of Patriarch ten years later in 2009.[9] Today these two men are the two most powerful in Russia. The current relationship between the ROC and the state, through the lens of their complementary and distinct ideologies, has been unique in Russian history.

Putin, as opposed to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, has had a unique relationship with the church. His predecessors had differed from the Soviet rulers in their policy towards the church; legalizing its existence, funding its activities, and inviting its cooperation. However, they never went as far as to identify themselves as believers. This intentional omission was probably a personal decision on the part of the two men, but it had political implications. Gorbachev and Yeltsin may have been trying to walk a middle ground, much like politicians in the United States who pay lip service to religion but are not practicing worshipers themselves. Putin, on the other hand, explicitly makes himself out to be a believer, wearing a cross consistently and participating in religious ceremonies regularly.[10]

This shift may be the result of Putin’s personal faith, or conversely it may be the result of his political ideology. Putin’s ideology is a form of Russian exceptionalism, much like the similar ideology prevalent in the United States, that sees Russia as a great country and any failings are the result of outside forces. This ideology drives Russia’s foreign and domestic policy and is behind all of its rhetoric. Putin primarily gets this rhetoric from the writings of a fascist philosopher named Ivan Ilyin.[11] Ilyin was born in 1883 and died in 1954. Ilyin was a key scholar for fascist governments around the world and is cited by Putin in his public discourse. This philosopher provides the basis for Putin’s nationalistic ideology.

Ilyin is sometimes called a Christian philosopher. In fact as the YouTuber Kraut said, “Ivan Ilyin’s fascism is often called Christian Fascism because of its religious overtones.”[12] He sees Christianity, specifically the Russian brand of Orthodox Christianity, as a justification for his belief in Russian exceptionalism. He believed in a form of Christianity that saw Russia as the inheritors of God’s mandate to humankind to subdue the earth. Ilyin believed that Russia was the greatest nation in the world and would inevitably conquer the rest of the world through spiritual might using physical means. This is the basis of Putin’s political ideology, and it is part of a multifaceted ideology that led to his invasion of Ukraine.

It is worth noting that Ilyin’s views are not aligned with Orthodox Christianity, or any other branch of creedal Christianity. These beliefs do not reflect the traditional beliefs of Orthodoxy. It must be assumed that Kirill and other church leaders are not naive men. Rather, it appears that they have chosen to accept Putin and his regime because it supports their continued existence. However, this may not be the whole story. Kirill and the church more broadly, seem to align with Putin’s views in several important ways. This primarily becomes apparent in views expressed about Russia’s role in the world.

In public discourse, ROC authorities referred to the West as backward and immoral. They cite the sexual liberation movement as well as the gaudiness of capitalistic consumerism as symptoms of this moral decay, precipitated by the West’s inferior theology and social systems. To this point Patriarch Kirill (Metropolitan Kirill at the time) said that “liberal ideas” were the foundation of Western thought beginning during the Renaissance “have allied themselves with pagan anthropocentrism” which to Kirill is the primary problem of humanity.[13] The proscribed solution to this inferiority is to become Orthodox and adopt Russian community-oriented society. The voracity of these comments aside, they are echoed by conservative figures and politicians at home and abroad.

Putin and his political apparatus certainly share these sentiments about the West although they may prescribe a slightly different solution. Putin refers to the social decay of the West using similar terms as ROC leaders. He points to overindulgence in sexuality and consumerism. He blames the social organization of Western society. He also points to becoming more like Russia as the solution. However, Putin focuses on the democratic system as the main culprit in his discourse. To him democracy itself, and liberal political ideas more generally, are the root cause of the West’s decline into perversion. Despite being the president of an ostensibly democratic nation, Putin does not promote the principles on which liberal democracy is based.

The Invasion of Ukraine through the Church Lens

The invasion of Ukraine can serve as an exposition of these ideas in practice. Putin’s belief in Russian exceptionalism motivated his invasion of Ukraine. He often justifies his actions by arguing that Ukraine is rightfully Russian territory. By this logic, Russia has the right to rule other nations in its perceived sphere of influence because of its inherent superiority. He also incorporates the idea of “spiritually fraternal peoples,” a concept that argues that Ukrainians are rightfully under Russian control because of their ethnicity.[14] Another argument Putin uses is that Ukraine promotes Nazi ideology, an ironic claim given the fascist roots of Putin’s own ideology. Putin has used this type of language in much of his public discourse since the invasion, and even since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Patriarch Kirill parroted these statements and arguments in favor of the invasion in his public addresses since February of 2022.[15] This usage is clearly intended to mimic the official government line on the war and enhance its propagandistic power. It should not be surprising that Kirill has shown a willingness to side with Putin in his war effort. As mentioned above, the ROC often aligns with the government agenda on most policies. It also should not be surprising given the recent history of the ROC. During the Second World War, Joseph Stalin allowed the church more freedom than it had in the decade previous. This allowed him to galvanize the Russian people to fight for his regime. Once again, the leadership of the ROC is supporting Russia’s autocratic leader. This war is fundamentally different however, as it is an offensive war, not a defensive war like WWII.

Many priests have refused to toe the line in recent years as the invasion of Ukraine has stagnated. These refusals have taken several different shapes. Mostly it consists of priests refusing to incorporate prayers for Russian victory into their services, and instead praying for peace.[16] These men have mostly been defrocked for their actions. Being excommunicated/removed from the church seems to be the harshest consequence any of them has faced, but it shows the severity with which the ROC sees this kind of dissension.

Additionally, the war has caused international problems for the ROC. As mentioned previously, the international Orthodox Church consists of many national churches that loosely align themselves doctrinally with one another. The widely recognized head of that church is still the Patriarch of Constantinople, though he holds little power compared to his counterpart in Rome. The Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has condemned the invasion of Ukraine as an “unjust aggression” on the part of Russia.[17] This tension has put the ROC at odds with Orthodox churches around the world. Additionally, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has two branches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) which claims allegiance to the ROC and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) which claims independence from them.[18] The UOC has faced legal trouble from the Ukrainian government.[19] This religious conflict undergirds the military one going on in the country right now. It is a source of increased tension as well as a motivation for the ROC to support the war in Ukraine. To see a Russian occupied or subservient Ukraine would mean the reinstatement of all Orthodox churches in Ukraine back under the ROC’s ecclesiastical control.


Establishing motivation is important to decipher the nature of the connection between Putin’s government and the ROC. Is it a marriage of convenience? A pragmatic relationship? Is it an ideological alliance? Is it balanced? Who holds sway over the other? The ROC and Putin share a symbiotic relationship, each materially benefiting from the other. This is not the full picture, however, as Putin’s personal ideology and the ROC’s historical theology mean they may have immaterial reasons for working together.

Each side has similar beliefs regarding Russia’s position in the world and its relationship to the West. They share similar goals like restoring Russia to a perceived former glory. However, it is not clear that they have gotten these ideas from precisely the same origin. It has been shown that Putin’s ideological roots lie in fascist ideas. This is not the case for the church. The ROC’s reasons for believing in Russian Exceptionalism are rooted in their historical theology and inherent doctrinal exclusivity. Their grievances with the West stem from their belief in Christian morality rather than a dislike for liberal democracy. Whether these beliefs are correct or not, they certainly fall short of fascism. Today it is not clear if either side will benefit more from this symbiotic relationship, and it is hard to quantitatively gauge because each side benefits in different ways from the arrangement. Putin’s government gets an unquantifiable amount of additional support from its people, and the ROC gets government protection from religious competition. While this relationship has some similarities to past relationships between Church and state, it is naturally different because of the decades of Soviet dominance that severely damaged the Church’s influence on Russia. Putin is revitalizing the Church through respecting its existing influence and helping it expand. Kirill and others are reciprocating this support through propagandistic speeches. It is clear that this relationship will continue to influence Russia and the world for years to come.


Anderson, John. “Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church: Asymmetric Symphonia.” Journal of International Affairs 61, no. 1 (September 22, 2007): 185. https:// orthodox-church-asymmetric.

Burger, John. “Ideology Fueling Ukraine War Is Hurting Orthodox Unity, Says Patriarch.” Aleteia — Catholic Spirituality, Lifestyle, World News, and Culture, December 16, 2022. war-is-hurting-orthodox-unity-says-patriarch/.

Klein, David I. and Jayson Casper. “Ukraine Passes Law to Ban Russia-Linked Orthodox Church.” News & Reporting, October 23, 2023. ukrainian-orthodox-church-uoc.html.

ENDEVR. “How Ukraine Breaks Free from the Russian Church | The Orthodox Split | ENDEVR Documentary,” February 22, 2023. watch?v=oi1E0zPoCLA.

Department for External Church Relations. “His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia,” n.d.


Kraut. “The Ideology of Putin’s Russia,” November 1, 2022. watch?v=sdFtqa54TuM.

Manenkov, Kostya. “Russian Orthodox Priests Face Persecution from State and Church for Supporting Peace in Ukraine | AP News.” AP News, August 12, 2023. ukraine-war-21660b57105a95a04e6321fb8baffa9e.

Reznikova, Olga. “Why Ukrainian Government Is Fighting Orthodox Churches in Ukraine?” January 11, 2023.

Ready to Harvest. “The Orthodox Church’s Cold War over Ukraine,” February 27, 2022.

Timeline – World History Documentaries. “What Is the Russian Orthodox Church? | BBC Religion Documentary | Timeline,” February 14, 2019. https://

Zernov, Nicolas. The Russians and Their Church. Paperback. 3rd ed. 1945. Reprint, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978.

  1. Ready to Harvest. “The Orthodox Church’s Cold War over Ukraine.”

  2. Ready to Harvest. “The Orthodox Church’s Cold War over Ukraine.”

  3. Zernov, “The Russians and Their Church,” 25

  4. Zernov, “The Russians and Their Church,” 54

  5. Zernov, “The Russians and Their Church,” 125

  6. Zernov, “The Russians and Their Church,” 156.

  7. Anderson, “Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church: Asymmetric Symphonia,” 186

  8. Timeline – World History Documentaries, “What Is the Russian Orthodox Church?”

  9. Department for External Church Relations, “His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia.”

  10. Anderson, “Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church: Asymmetric Symphonia,” 188

  11. 11 Kraut, “The Ideology of Putin’s Russia”

  12. Kraut, “The Ideology of Putin’s Russia,” 10:18

  13. Anderson, “Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church: Asymmetric Symphonia,” 190

  14. Burger, “Ideology Fueling Ukraine War Is Hurting Orthodox Unity, Says Patriarch.”

  15. Kilp, “Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion on Religious Conflict and Secular War in Ukraine: A Diachronic Study of Religious Leaders’ Messages.”

  16. Manenkov, “Russian Orthodox Priests Face Persecution from State and Church for Supporting Peace in Ukraine”

  17. Burger, “Ideology Fueling Ukraine War Is Hurting Orthodox Unity, Says Patriarch.”

  18. ENDEVR. “How Ukraine Breaks Free from the Russian Church | The Orthodox Split”

  19. Reznikova, “Why Ukrainian Government Is Fighting Orthodox Churches in Ukraine?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *