On March 6, immediately after the Russian Federation began its military action against Ukraine, I issued a personal statement. In it, I said that historians are all about “the big picture”, which it takes a fact-based perspective to understand. The historian must not succumb to outside pressure to issue hasty condemnations of the actions of certain public figures or political leaders.
On the latter count, my position has not changed. That said, I do have some preliminary conclusions to offer about our new reality.
Both in Russia and in Ukraine, Orthodoxy has come to be perceived as a philosophy of opposition to civil society. This has to do with the historical entanglement of Orthodoxy and Empire and the ambivalent relationship between the two.
The recent past shows that when the Church is integrated into the apparatus of Empire, it has to “pay the empire’s dues” when the latter ceases to exist. Therefore, the frontier of the conflict now is about Russia, as an empire, not ceasing to exist and becoming a self-sufficient civilization in a system of moral and ethical values in which Orthodoxy would occupy an important place. The fact that the majority of citizens of the Russian Federation support the domestic and foreign policies pursued by President Putin is an impressive fact for understanding the processes taking place there.
The collectivist ideology currently preached in Russia has its strengths, in that it consolidates society and strengthens the position of the Church. But it also has serious shortcomings: the absence of dialogue and de facto rejection of the system of “checks and balances”, without which a state can devolve into tyranny.
All the Ecumenical Councils took place in the Eastern Roman Empire. Our whole way of life is imbued with Byzantium. But the world has changed, and in this, Russia is no exception. Under these conditions, the first three centuries of Church history, when Christians lived in a non-Christian society, might serve as a more promising point of reference for us in seeking answers to the challenges of our times than the imperial period of the history of the Church.
We live in interesting times. On the one hand, the Russian Church Abroad now finds itself in the shoes of the Moscow Patriarchate parishes during the Cold War. (Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh never ceased liturgical commemoration of the Moscow Patriarch in London.) On the other hand, in canonical terms, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has gone over to the position that the ROCOR was in at the time. As long as we continue to be called the “Church of Russia”, this new reality can help us to take a more responsible attitude to what is happening in Russia: on the one hand, maintaining a spiritual connection with the Mother Church and on the other, beginning a thoughtful, conciliar conversation within the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia about the times in which God has led us to live.