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How Russian Christians View the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine

Torn between “pro-Putin” and “pro-prayer,” only a minority have spoken out publicly against the invasion. Ukrainian seminary leaders call for repentance.
How Russian Christians View the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine
Image: Kirill Kudryavtsev / Getty
A sunset view from Zaryadye park with Christ the Savior Cathedral in the background in downtown Moscow, Russia, on April 19, 2022.

Russian sermons—to the extent legally possible—reflect the national mood.

“Honor the tsar!” preached Alexey Novikov of Land of Freedom Pentecostal church in Moscow two days after the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, quoting from 1 Peter 2:17. While not pro-war, it was certainly pro-Russia. Once a lawfully elected president commits troops, he said, it is a Christian’s duty to support them.

One month later, Mikhail Belyaev of Source of Living Water Baptist church in Voronezh, Russia, asked, “Why are the churches silent?”

Many Ukrainian evangelicals are fuming at their cross-border colleagues for failing to speak out against the war. They also cite the apostle Peter, placing priority on the same verse’s earlier command: “Love the family of believers.”

But Belyaev’s sermon was not pro-Ukraine. His congregation 320 miles south of Moscow provides a different answer.

The churches are not silent, he said. They are preaching the gospel and praying for peace.

“Russians take the Ukrainian complaint seriously,” said Andrey Shirin, associate professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, a Baptist seminary in Virginia. “But they put God before the nation—and think many Ukrainians put too much stock in their nationality.”

Shirin left Russia 30 years ago and said that, then as now, most believers are wary of politics. And while some pastors have criticized the war, a pro-Ukraine sermon would be hard to find.

Throughout the war, polls have shown strong support for what Russia has legally mandated be called a “special military operation.” Between 65 percent and 89 percent have signaled approval; 71 percent said they feel “pride” and “joy.”

Some analysts have suggested propaganda is at play: Three in 4 Russians rely on television for the news, and 2 in 3 from state-run broadcasts. Only 5 percent have access to a VPN for outside reporting.

Others have suggested falsification: A “list experiment” in which Russians did not have to answer the war question directly resulted in an approval rating of 53 percent.

Specific polls do not exist for evangelicals.

Shirin, noting the difficulty of precision, estimated pro-Russia sentiment like Novikov’s would register only 20 percent. But pro-Ukraine sentiment and a clear antiwar position would fare worse, registering only 10 percent. The “silent majority” of his estimated 70 percent—such as Belyaev—would be characterized as “pro-prayer,” which in their Russian context means abstaining from judgment.

“Being an evangelical makes a huge difference in attitude,” Shirin said. “It makes for a more neutral stance.”

But this does not satisfy Ukrainian evangelicals.

“We strongly condemn the silence, detachment, and open support of the war with Ukraine exhibited by the Russian Christians,” wrote a group of seven Ukrainian seminary leaders in an April open letter drawing nearly 300 signatures. “The suffering of brothers and sisters in Christ requires a public identification with them.”

Among the chief alleged offenders is Sergey Ryakhovsky, head of Russia’s largest Pentecostal union, who spoke at a March 29 parliamentary conference gathering to reject Naziism, which President Vladimir Putin has identified as the ideology of Ukrainian leadership.

“We are together, and we are stronger,” he said of the ecumenical participation. “Today we have a clear Christian mission for our peoples, in Russia and Ukraine.”

Novikov’s church belongs to Ryakhovsky’s denomination.

But the Ukrainian complaint predates the current invasion. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and began backing separatist movements in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Since then, Baptist leaders have appeared with Putin at Russia’s national Unity Day and extended birthday greetings to the Russian president.

Others have spoken out clearly—and early.

When Putin announced his divorce in 2013, Victor Shlenkin, a Baptist pastor in St. Petersburg, called out his fellow believers.

“Some Protestant leaders compared Putin to the wise Solomon,” he said. “But have they forgotten how Solomon ended up?”

And since the war, others have invoked the Devil.

“So far, Satan has won twice,” said Evgeny Bakhmutsky, former vice president of the Baptist Union, on February 27. “He helped unleash a war on the territory of Ukraine with the participation of Russian troops, and he sowed discord and enmity even among Christians.”

Alexey Markevich agreed.

“We need to repent for the evil that our country is causing others,” said the Moscow Baptist pastor on March 18. “Which is closer to us: Our faithfulness to brotherhood in Christ, or our submission to godless authorities?”

And Yuri Sipko, after seeing images of the burned Bibles at the Mission Eurasia headquarters in Irpin, Ukraine, had choice words for his fellow countrymen.

“Russian Christians approve such activity,” said the former Baptist Union president. “[But] I saw Christ crying watching this barbarism. I am crying too.”

These are not outliers, said Ponomarev, a Russian Orthodox leader serving with the Faith2Share network of evangelical agencies who asked that his full name not be used for security reasons. But they, and hundreds of others like them who in March signed an open letter led by evangelical pastors opposing the war, are “courageous.”

Surprised by the national polls, he believes most Russian evangelicals agree with the protest letter—the issuance of which he called a “miracle.” The 2016 Yarovaya law, often targeting evangelicals, brought even more caution to a community accustomed to not speaking out.

As pacifists they tend to avoid politics, but they are against war.

As Russians, however, some are pulled along with the tide. Western sanctions have hardened attitudes, while many families—and churches—are divided.

But Ukrainian evangelicals are not helping their own cause, he said. Too much has been demanded of condemnation.

“There is almost a feeling of fatigue,” Ponomarev said of cross-border relations. “After eight years of being told that they are ‘agents of the Kremlin,’ there is not much patience left in the tank.”

Andrey Dirienko may be an example.

Offended when Russia is called an “evil empire,” the Pentecostal bishop from Yaroslavl, 170 miles northeast of Moscow, wished for understanding.

“Sometimes [leaders] have to choose the least of several evils,” he said February 27, calling for prayer that God would give wisdom to Russian politicians. “God has the answer … that peace would come.”

But to Ukrainians, he asked: Don’t try to look for enemies in people.

The Ukrainian seminary leaders’ open letter this month, however, titled “Voices from the Ruins,” takes no comfort in such generic statements. It accuses Russian church leaders of trading compassionate unity with the “crucified” body of Christ for proximity to the political elite.

Dirienko is an authorized representative of Ryakhovsky, who currently serves as one of two evangelical members on the Russian president’s rotating religious council.

“Many of those who say, even loudly, ‘No war,’ support Ukraine’s integration under Russian world influence,” said Taras Dyatlik, Overseas Council regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who signed the letter. “The Russian Christian worldview must be cleansed from religious imperialism.”

Over 280 Russian Orthodox priests and deacons agree, signing their own open letter.

Just do not overstate their influence.

“Their statement was a disgrace, a media-driven effort to criticize authority,” said Alexander Webster, an American archpriest and retired seminary dean in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. “Their number pales before the more than 40,000 bishops and other major clergy who are not involved in that small protest movement.”

There is a place for dissent, said Webster, who was offended principally by the letter’s hint of eternal damnation for Patriarch Kirill. During the Cold War, he criticized clerics who cooperated with the KGB. And this war, he said, is condemned as “morally unjustifiable.”

But the few Russian Orthodox figures who have broken with their leadership—some of them once prominent—are “airing our dirty laundry before the world.”

Webster hails instead Metropolitan Onufriy, primate of the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), who on the first day of the war expressed support for soldiers defending their land and called on Putin to stop the fratricide.

“He is a modern-day prophet, standing up to power,” said Webster. “He does it calmly, and at some risk.”

Which Onufriy faces also from his own government—having criticized former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the “left-leaning policies” of current President Volodymyr Zelensky. A bill currently before the Ukrainian parliament effectively calls for banning the UOC and nationalizing its properties, which Ryakhovsky, among others, has condemned as an offense against religious freedom.

Webster would have supported a limited military intervention in support of “persecuted ethnic Russians” in the Donbas.

No one has clean hands, he said, tracing Western interference in Ukraine back to the 2014 Maidan protests that drove a pro-Russian president from office and the 2018 campaign for autocephaly, culminating in recognition of the independence of a Kyiv-based Orthodox church by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople.

In September 2021, Webster continued, NATO and Ukraine held joint defense exercises. In January this year, NATO rejected Russia’s demand to withhold membership from Ukraine. And one week before the war, Zelensky questioned the diplomatic framework in which Ukraine traded its nuclear weapons for security guarantees, leading Moscow to accuse Kyiv of plans to develop an atomic bomb.

National security, given the threat of NATO expansion, is cited as the primary rationale for the war by 7 out of 10 Russians, while half see a goal of protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbas. Only 2 in 5 believe the primary goal is to change Ukrainian leadership, and only 1 in 10 the subjugation of the nation altogether.

Asked to estimate the various attitudes among Russian Orthodox, Webster questioned polling in Russia in general and criticized its use by Western media for warmongering.

“The whole approach is faulty,” he said, noting the inability to get reliable information. “We don’t believe in governing the church according to popular opinion. We believe that the Holy Spirit and holy tradition guide and inspire the church leaders and faithful believers.”

Roman Lunkin, head of the Center for Religious Studies at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Europe, did his best, however. Approximately half of the Russian people support the military operation, he said, while about 10 percent support Ukraine. He estimates Shirin’s “silent majority” at only 40 percent.

It is the same among rank-and-file evangelical believers.

“It is natural to defend your nation,” he said. “Protestant churches have become national communities, reflecting the mood of the general population.”

Last month, Lunkin, an Orthodox believer, published a chart to outline the positions expressed by major Russian religious figures, from direct support to condemnation. If anything, he said, there is more diversity among the clerics.

A sociologist, Lunkin conducted subsequent interviews among evangelical pastors, many of which were trained by Ukrainians. Support for Russian policy drops to 30 percent, he estimated, equal to the “pro-prayer” position. He puts support for Ukraine at 40 percent, half of which would say so publicly.

But most lack political experience, he said, and keep silent as hostages to public opinion.

This is not dissimilar to the Orthodox clergy.

“The major part stand for peace, and may be not happy with the special operation,” Lunkin said, though they recognize the reasons behind it. “But why would they divide their parishes?”

It is not just evangelicals who stay out of Russian politics.

Sources indicated that though the government continues to suppress opposition, Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. Stating a viewpoint, unless calling for protests, will not necessarily result in fines or jail.

So speak out, said the Ukrainian open letter.

“Seek the power of the Holy Spirit,” urged the seminary leaders, “to make practical steps that would impact public opinion in Russia—about the war against Ukraine, and the country’s top leadership.”

It is easier from the United States.

While Shirin could never imagine something “so horrific” could happen, he can also call freely for the “fratricidal conflict” to end.

“The stance of most Russian Protestants has been shaped by decades of being a persecuted minority,” he said. “Staying out of politics has been their survival strategy.”

[ This article is also available in español 简体中文 繁體中文 русский, and Українська. ]

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