Katherine Kelaidis is the resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches. She also serves on the editorial board of the Wheel, an independent journal of Orthodox Christian thought. Her current work focuses on contemporary Orthodox Christian identity in geopolitics and the role of historical memory.
While it seems obvious to draw comparisons between recent Russian aggression in Ukraine to examples from the Soviet period or even to Hitler’s Germany, it is equally possible (and perhaps more helpful) to make analogies with more recent current events. As I have argued elsewhere, the Russian invasion of Ukraine must be understood, at least in part, as a religious war. The rhetoric of Vladimir Putin and his ally Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, suggests a type of religious nationalism that is most comparable to the ideologies that animate the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Seeing these connections is particularly important because both in political Islam and in political Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the fundamental forces at work are to be found in the intrasocietal conflict that arises in cultures that find themselves on the periphery of Western secular modernity, simultaneously tied to it and alienated from it by the realities of history and geopolitics.
Particularly over the past three decades, an incredible body of work has been done on political Islam. Much of this scholarship, as well as popular attention, has focused on the extent to which political Islam has been successful in building global networks and the ways in which those global, trans-nation-state alliances have been encouraged by the historical memory of multinational Islamic empires and the aspiration to their re-creation and supersession by a new global caliphate. Furthermore, there has rightly been a great deal of attention paid to ways in which intra-Muslim conflict has fueled the rise of political Islam around the world. The understanding that the struggle over political Islam is essentially a conflict within the Islamic world over its imperial past and its future relationship to liberalism has been crucial to understanding the consequences of political Islam and working towards the resolution of its more violent effects.
At the time, scholarship (and some much milder popular attention) has been paid to the increasingly robust political role being taken by the Russian Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, other Eastern Christian jurisdictions. This work has been, to some extent rightly, dominated by a focus on the connections between the Russian Orthodox Church and American right-wing evangelicals. To be clear, these connections are real and important, and it is not hyperbolic to suggest that the post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church would likely not have taken on its current political character without the intervention of American evangelicals. However, if we stop once these connections have been made, we run the risk of an incomplete analysis, one that obscures the unique history of the Eastern Christian world and imposes upon the sphere of Eastern Christianity historical narratives and cultural understandings that are foreign to it.
This is in no small part because unlike the notion of an “Islamic World,” the concept of an “Eastern Christian World” remains largely hidden from Western eyes, who tend to see this civilization as a collection of smaller, lesser spheres.
There are the Greeks, who have a glorious ancient (pre-Christian) past, but whose present fate is to be Europe’s unfortunate stepbrother; the Balkans, that land of inexplicable ethnic conflict; and then Русский мир (Russkiy Mir)—Russia world—the sphere of influence left over from Soviet days. Others might occasionally spare a thought for the Christians of the Middle East and Ethiopia, to the extent to which they understand that there are Christian populations in these places.
This shortcoming in the popular Western understandings of Eastern Christian geography and history, this failure to see the unity of this cultural space, hinders the ability of the West to understand the kind of religious nationalism at work in Eastern Christianity too. For Eastern Christians, religious nationalism is principally about the historical memory of lost empire. The Byzantine and Russian empires are of particular importance, but one can, under certain circumstances, hear someone wax nostalgically for, say, the Serbian Empire. The memory of these empires is defined by the belief that each embodied an example of symphonia, the Byzantine concept that the church and state should serve as complimentary, co-equal institutions.
Moreover, particularly in the case of the Byzantines and Russians, the empire is understood as the rightful successor of the Roman Empire and ipso facto global in its scope and ambition: A Christian Rome is meant by God to rule the world.
It is the importance of this imperial historical memory that separates political Eastern Christianity from its American evangelical counterpart and drives it closer to its Islamic one. The fact is that American evangelical Christians—for all their global ambition and infatuation with American exceptionalism—are fundamentally culturally oriented toward America and simply do not possess that multilingual, multiethnic, multicultural understanding of empire, religious or otherwise, that animates the thinking of older, previously imperial, cultures. It also means that while American evangelicals find themselves embroiled in seemingly unending culture wars with their fellow Americans, and fellow Protestants for that matter, the nature of that conflict is fundamentally different. American evangelicals are waging a cultural war to determine the type of modern liberalism that will govern their society.
In both the case of Eastern Christianity and Islam, the intrasocietal conflict is about whether their societies should embrace liberalism at all or instead default to previous pre-liberal or arguably even anti-liberal models.
As Russian tanks roll through Ukraine and Russian missiles fill Ukrainian skies, both Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill have continued to ramp up the religious rhetoric in their defense of this indefensible war. As such it is increasingly important to understand the audience and context of these remarks. We are absolutely witnessing an example of religious nationalism in its Eastern Christian costume in Ukraine. It can be tempting for those in the West, particularly upon seeing the word “Christian,” to try and assimilate this political religion to the political religion they are most familiar with, particularly because connections do exist. But we cannot let this instinct—or these recent ties—cloud our ability to see the wider, much more ancient, picture. Eastern Christianity, like Islam, are different worlds. The sooner the West comes to see that, the better for us all.