What is the “Russian World Heresy”
On March 13, 2022, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, scholars, clergy, and laity of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University and the Volos Academy of Theological Research published “A Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ (Russkii Mir) Teaching” through Public Orthodoxy.
The gist of the declaration is that the Moscow Patriarchate (or at least the leading figures of the Moscow Patriarchate) have used heretical ideas to justify and support the Russian Government in their deplorable actions in the world, not for the benefit of Orthodoxy, but for the benefit of Russia in particular. These heretical ideas culminate in the teaching of the “Russian World” which, in totality, can be considered its own heresy worthy of universal Orthodox condemnation.
The declaration defines “Russian World” as such:
“The teaching states that there is a transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world. It holds that this “Russian world” has a common political centre (Moscow), a common spiritual centre (Kyiv as the “mother of all Rus’’), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate), and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow), who works in ‘symphony’ with a common president/national leader (Putin) to govern this Russian world, as well as upholding a common distinctive spirituality, morality, and culture.”
Their primary argument against the “Russian World” is that it qualifies as ethnophyletism which was condemned in the 1872 Council of Constantinople, or rather, that ethnophyletism forms the basis of the teaching. Thus, the declaration makes the following points against the teaching:
- God’s Kingdom is not of this world. More specifically, “There is no separate source of revelation, no basis for community, society, state, law, personal identity and teaching, for Orthodoxy as the Body of the Living Christ than that which is revealed in, by, and through our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God.” Any teaching that seeks to replace the Kingdom of God with a kingdom of the world is to be condemned.
- Earthly Rulers and Spiritual Leaders have different roles and they should neither be mixed nor should the Church be subordinated to the state. Furthermore, any teaching which replaces obedience to God with obedience to a false claimant as God’s anointed is to be condemned.
- No division of humanity, whether it be racial, religious, linguistic, ethnic, or any other mode of division, is superior to another. We are all equal in Christ, and any teaching which asserts special sacredness or purity to any particular division is to be condemned.
- “The making of war is the ultimate failure of Christ’s law of love.” “Any teaching that encourages division, mistrust, hatred, and violence among peoples, religions, confessions, nations, or states” is to be condemned. “It is particularly wicked to condemn other nations through special liturgical petitions of the Church, elevating the members of the Orthodox Church and its cultures as spiritually sanctified in comparison to the fleshly, secular ‘Heterodox’.”
- Those who promote the idea that we should be spiritually “quiet,” in that they refuse to assist the poor, homeless, refugees, migrants, sick, or suffering, are to be condemned.
- “Any teaching or action which refuses to speak the truth, or actively suppresses the truth about evils that are perpetrated against the Gospel of Christ in Ukraine” and “all talk of “fratricidal war”, “repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy” if it does not explicitly acknowledge the murderous intent and culpability of one party over another (Revelation 3:15–16)” are to be condemned.
We must analyze the exact nature of this definition and then understand if anyone in the Moscow Patriarchate is guilty of it.
Before I begin, I find it notable that not a single quote is provided by any cleric of the MP, and certainly not Patriarch Kirill, professing anything close to what is defined in this article. In fact, they don’t cite any quotes by any Russian cleric at all. One of the first things done in this article is to accuse Patriarch Kirill of invoking and developing the “Russian World” teaching over the last 20 years. Rather than provide examples of this, they simply make the claim. One could say it was slander. I have so far seen zero statements from Patriarch Kirill or the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate justifying the war, supporting the war, or professing something similar to the “Russian World” teaching. This is not because I haven’t looked. I have seen every synodal statement since February 24, 2022 and newsworthy homilies of Patriarch Kirill and have not located a single instance of support for the invasion of Ukraine. I’d like to make this request to those who wrote the Declaration: What has Patriarch Kirill or any Russian hierarch said in support of the war in Ukraine or of the “Russian World Teaching.”
As a result of lack of evidence, the rest of this article will assume that no Russian Hierarch has professed the “Russian World” teaching.
Is the “Russian World” teaching a heresy? The 6 Points against it have tangential relation to the posited definition. Is it heretical to believe that there is “a transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan)?” I suppose it could be if the belief was that it is impossible for these areas to be separated from Russia or the Russian Church. However, that can’t be assumed and it is not included in the definition. Is it any more heretical to belief some countries belong to a Russian civilizations than it is to believe Constantinople belongs to Greek civilization? Is the Greek Megali Idea equally as deserving of condemnation as heresy because it professes that some areas of Turkey belong to Greece and should be populated by Greeks? Perhaps Greater Serbia is also heretical because they believe in a transnational Serbian sphere or civilization which includes Kosovo, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia united by a common Patriarch. Where is the declaration against the “Serbian World” teaching?
This transnational sphere also includes “ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world.” Again, this only could be heretical if it taught that it was a necessity for all Russians and Russian speakers to be of one Church. That would be the 6th type of phyletism. What is done by this Declaration is that it vaguely mixes in actually heretical ideas with a bunch of fluff so that they can condemn people who believe in the fluff as heretics even if they don’t profess the actual heresy.
Is it heretical to believe this Russian world has a common political center?
No. This is not a matter of doctrine or spiritual life and therefore cannot be a heresy.
Is it heretical to believe this Russian world has a common spiritual center?
The example given for this is Kiev as the “mother of all Rus’.” This is not heretical because it is not a matter of doctrine or spiritual life, but it is also not heretical because it is plainly a historical fact. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine all came from the Kievan Rus, and they all received their Orthodoxy at the same time when Saint Vladimir the Great was baptized. This is commemorated as “The Baptism of the Rus” in Russia, Ukraine, and in Belarus. So I wonder how this would be a facet of some heresy. The Declaration makes a distinction between this and having a common Church, so I wonder what they think it means to believe these countries have a common spiritual center. Believing Kiev is the mother of all Rus is a matter of fact. Disbelief in this would require denial of history.
Is it heretical to believe this Russian world has a common Church and common Patriarch?
It depends. Is the belief that they must necessarily and always have a common Church and Patriarch? That would be heretical. At present, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus actually do have a common Church and has a common Patriarch. Professing that to be true wouldn’t be a heresy, but saying they must always have a common Church and Patriarch would be phyletism as it draws on ethnicity being a marker of where to draw the borders of a Church’s jurisdiction. Believing that all Russians and Russian speakers in this world must have a common Church and Patriarch is a heresy. It’s the 1st type of phyletism which seeks overlapping jurisdictions for the sake of having some ethnicities be in one Church and some in another. The Russian Church, however, does not profess this idea and neither does the Patriarch.
Is it heretical to believe that there is a Patriarch works in ‘symphony’ with a common national leader?
No. This is how almost all Orthodox royals interacted with the Church from the beginning up until now. Notable examples include Saint Justinian, Saint Constantine the Great, Saint Sergius II the Patriarch, Saint David the Builder of Georgia, Tsar Saint Boris of Bulgaria, Saint Sava of Serbia, and so on and so forth. This contrasts with caesaropapism where the state controls the Church. The Declaration includes “symphony” in quotes. The meaning of this decision is unknown. It could be that the Declaration would like to explain the way in which the Church interacts with the state in a way the reader could understand. It could also be that the writers of the Declaration do not believe that adherents of the “Russian World” teaching believe in symphonia, but rather they suppose that its adherents really believe in caesaropapism which is condemned. I’d like to request those who wrote the Declaration clarify what is the meaning of this.
The above demonstrates that the definition of the “Russian World” barely qualifies as a heresy if at all, and if it does, it is only under specific conditions which are not spelled out by the definition itself. Much of the definition does not qualify as heresy at all because it concerns things which are not doctrinal.
Now that the definition has been sorted, we have to see if the 6 Points against the “Russian World” teaching.
Point 1: God’s Kingdom is not of this world. More specifically, “There is no separate source of revelation, no basis for community, society, state, law, personal identity and teaching, for Orthodoxy as the Body of the Living Christ than that which is revealed in, by, and through our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God.” Any teaching that seeks to replace the Kingdom of God with a kingdom of the world is to be condemned.
Nothing about this point is false. It is fully Orthodox. The problem here is that they attribute the accusation to the Russian Orthodox Church or to Patriarch Kirill as if they profess it when they do not. Furthermore, I am confused as to why this point is included in this declaration when it has very little to do with the given definition of the “Russian World” teaching.
Point 2: Earthly Rulers and Spiritual Leaders have different roles and they should neither be mixed nor should the Church be subordinated to the state. Furthermore, any teaching which replaces obedience to God with obedience to a false claimant as God’s anointed is to be condemned.
Again, this point is fully Orthodox. In fact it specifically rebukes caesaropapism. The problem is that they attribute the accusation to the Russian Orthodox Church or to Patriarch Kirill as if they profess it when they do not. Furthermore, this point, while true, has absolutely nothing to do with the given definition of the teaching. It condemns caesaropapism, but the definition talks about symphonia. This point would seem to indicate that the writers either believe symphonia and caesaropapism to be the same, or that proponents of the teaching lying about what they really believe. Clarification is required
Point 3: No division of humanity, whether it be racial, religious, linguistic, ethnic, or any other mode of division, is superior to another. We are all equal in Christ, and any teaching which asserts special sacredness or purity to any particular division is to be condemned.
Once again, the point is completely true. The issues are the same the last two: Neither the Church or Patriarch profess these beliefs, and it has very little to do with the definition of the teaching. The teaching does not speak of superiority or inferiority. In fact the Russian Church already condemns this idea in their social ethos. In the document called Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, it reads “Being universal by nature, the Church is at the same time one organism, one body (1 Cor. 12:12). She is the community of the children of God, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people. . . which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:9–10). The unity of these new people is secured not by its ethnic, cultural or linguistic community, but by their common faith in Christ and Baptism. The new people of God “have no continuing city here, but seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14). The spiritual homeland of all Christians is not earthly Jerusalem but Jerusalem “which is above” (Gal. 4:26). The gospel of Christ is preached not in the sacred language understandable to one people, but in all tongues (Acts. 2:3–11). The gospel is not preached for one chosen people to preserve the true faith, but so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).”
Here we see a blatant condemnation of ethnophyletism and the declaration of the Church, yes even the Russian Church, as universal. So the question remains as to who this Declaration is condemning if the Russian Church is not professing what it is being accused of professing.
Point 4: “The making of war is the ultimate failure of Christ’s law of love.” “Any teaching that encourages division, mistrust, hatred, and violence among peoples, religions, confessions, nations, or states” is to be condemned. “It is particularly wicked to condemn other nations through special liturgical petitions of the Church, elevating the members of the Orthodox Church and its cultures as spiritually sanctified in comparison to the fleshly, secular ‘Heterodox’.”
This point is where false ideas leak in. The Declaration engages in “sandwiching” where they start off with Orthodox statements and quietly include false statements in the middle in the hopes that you will not notice.
It starts by declaring war to be a failure of Christ’s law of love. They make a patristic citation which says nothing about war. The quote is from Saint Siluoan and says “The grace of God is not in the man who does not love his enemies.” It is such a short and unrelated quote that we wonder why it was even included. The writers of the Declaration seems to think that this is a condemnation of war because they write “As such, the making of war…” as if they think it is common sense that war is contrary to love. In fact, war has the potential to be a manifestation of love if it is done in defense of your own people or the Church. I am speaking in general about war, not about any specific war.
Ecclesiastes 3:8 - “A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”
Saint Athanasius the Great says, “The killing of the enemy in time of war is both a lawful & praiseworthy thing. This is why we consider individuals who have distinguished themselves in war as being worthy of great honors, and indeed public monuments are set up to celebrate their achievements.”
Canon 13 of Saint Basil says, “Our Fathers did not consider the killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that they are not clean-handed.”
(Note that this Canon was received dogmatically by Canon 2 of Trullo, and is referenced in Canon 1 of Chalcedon and Canon 1 of Nicaea II)
Saint Constantine XI Palaiologos said, “Let us die for our faith in Christ and for our fatherland!”
Speaking specifically to the call to love our enemies which is discussed by Saint Siluoan, Saint Philaret of Moscow says, “Love your personal enemies, hate the enemies of Christ, destroy the enemies of the Fatherland.”
War here is sanctioned if it is necessary, and it not called a failure of love. It is a facet of love if done for one’s faith and one’s country.
Metropolitan Dionysius of Warsaw called on the Orthodox Poles to “defend the Fatherland from the Germans.”
So to call war a failure of love is a blatant falsehood.
Saint Nicholas of Japan pastored his Orthodox Japanese flock during the Russo-Japanese war telling them that it was good and praiseworthy to enter the war in favor of Japan against the Orthodox nation of Russia. Did he fail to love them? Tsar Saint Nicholas did not think so, as he wrote to Saint Nicholas of Japan saying “You have shown before all that the Orthodox Church of Christ is foreign to worldly dominion and every tribal hatred, and embraces all tribes and languages with her love. In the difficult time of the war, when the weapons of battle destroy peaceful relations between peoples and rulers, you, in accordance with the command of Christ, did not leave the flock entrusted to you, and the grace of love and faith gave you strength to endure the fiery trial and amidst the hostility of war to keep the peace of faith and love in the Church created by your labours…”
Saint Nicholas of Japan was praised for his pastorship during war despite having his flock fight an Orthodox nation. Loving your nation involves fighting in its wars. If invading another nation is your contention, then you are left to wonder what lesson is learn by the lives of Saint Justinian, Saint Constantine, Tsar Saint Boris of Bulgaria, Saint David the Builder, Saint Nikephoros Phokas, Saint John Vatatzes, Tsar Saint Nicholas, Saint Stefan Nemanja, and Saint Elesbaan of Ethiopia, all of whom declared wars invading other nations (some of those other nations being Orthodox).
Then the point condemns the encouragement of “division, mistrust, hatred, and violence,” which is acceptable. Then it says “It is particularly wicked to condemn other nations through special liturgical petitions of the Church.” I am confused as to how this made it into the declaration given that this does not occur anywhere. Russian Churches do have a special petition which reads: “For the much suffering Russian Land and its Orthodox people both in the homeland and in the diaspora, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.” This is not a petition in condemnation of anyone. In the Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the following special petition is added: Furthermore, we pray to the Lord our God that he will cover with His Divine wings the Holy City of Jerusalem and all our brethren and sisters abiding in the Holy Land, in the province of Kosovo, the country of Syria, throughout the Near East and the Ukrainian lands; that their holy places and homes may be preserved from destruction and defilement; and that He may grant to His faithful children a tranquil and peaceful life in all piety and purity.” That’s a prayer specifically FOR Ukraine among others, not against them. In the Eastern American Diocese, there are multiple special petitions for Ukraine. So what is this condemnation referring to? Is it purely hypothetical? Clarification is required here.
The last thing condemned by Point 4 is “elevating the members of the Orthodox Church and its cultures as spiritually sanctified in comparison to the fleshly, secular ‘Heterodox’.”
This condemnation is a false one. It is a matter of fact that Orthodox Christians are more spiritually sanctified than the non-Orthodox. Although this should not be a source of pride or belittling against the heterodox, it still remains true. It is true because of our baptism and communion which unites us to Christ while the non-Orthodox are separate from Him.
Point 5: Those who promote the idea that we should be spiritually “quiet,” in that they refuse to assist the poor, homeless, refugees, migrants, sick, or suffering, are to be condemned.
Point 5 is correct. The reasoning for why it is included in the Declaration is because they want Patriarch Kirill to speak directly in condemnation of Putin for the war (because, according to them, he is being spiritually quiet if he does not).
Point 6: “Any teaching or action which refuses to speak the truth, or actively suppresses the truth about evils that are perpetrated against the Gospel of Christ in Ukraine” and “all talk of “fratricidal war”, “repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy” if it does not explicitly acknowledge the murderous intent and culpability of one party over another (Revelation 3:15–16)” are to be condemned.
Point 6 is interesting because it poses a seeming contradiction to the definition. Point 6 condemns referring to Russia and Ukraine as brothers -if- it does not acknowledge the guilty party in the war. However, that implies referring to Ukraine and Russia as brothers is acceptable if it does acknowledge the guilty party in the war. That would contradict what was written before as the Declaration condemned the belief that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have “a common spiritual centre (Kyiv as the “mother of all Rus’’).” So is this belief wrong? Is it heretical? Is it only circumstantially wrong? The writers of the Declaration are unclear.
Point 6 is the point most directly aimed at Patriarch Kirill. Both Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev have called the war “fratricidal” and a war between brothers, but only Metropolitan Onufriy has said that Russia started the war and is guilty for it. Point 6 condemns Patriarch Kirill for not doing that. Only Metropolitan Onufriy has said the war is a “repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy.” It appears that the writers are using him as an example to condemn Patriarch Kirill.
This ends the points of condemnation against the “Russian World” teaching.
I am not the only one critical of the Declaration. Andrey Shishkov, a regular writer at Public Orthodoxy, also wrote criticizing it. The main point of my article was to discuss that it was not a heresy and that the Russian Church is not guilty of it. Shishkov wrote condemning it as evil, but also stated that it was not a heresy. It is a political ideology which doesn’t have origins in Church circles.
Patriarch Kirill has spoken about an ideology which is called the Russian World. What he says about it does not correlate at all to what the Declaration against the Russian World teaching speaks about. According to Patriarch Kirill, the Russian World refers to the common Orthodox Culture of the Kievan Rus’ which includes Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Carpatho-Rus. The Carpatho-Rus are not all under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, but are of the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. This would seem to indicate that he does not view a common Church jurisdiction as being a mark of necessity for the so-called Russian world. He says the Russian world is not defined by political boundaries or the rebuilding of any empire, nor does it refer to anything ethnic/racial, but cultural. He also does not speak of this culture as superior to others, but worth preserving. The Declaration has nothing to do with what Patriarch Kirill actually professes and believes. It’s no wonder why they refused to cite a single quote from him.
Ultimately, what we have here is indeed a Declaration, but not one declaring truth. It falsely condemns Patriarch Kirill and the Hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church of a mythical heresy, of words they did not confess to believe in. This Declaration is little more than propaganda seeking to sow discord in the Church of Jesus Christ.
God be with ye.
Kaleb of Atlanta