The Russian Orthodox Church under pressure

More than 400 Ukrainian Orthodox priests under the Moscow Patriarchate have called for an international tribunal on Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and official condemnation of his adherence to Russian nationalism, or the so-called “Russki Mir.” In an extended interview with a Ukrainian newspaper, the Orthodox priest Protoierei Andrey Pinchuk stated that the war in Ukraine is a direct result of the widespread doctrine of “Russki Mir” in the Russian Orthodox Church. He called it a “type of church fascism.”[2]

Protoierei  Antrey Pinchuk

Protoierei  Antrey Pinchuk

“Russki Mir” means “the Russian world.” A term with deep historical roots, it is used today to describe Russians as an ethnic entity and a global community, not limited to Russian territory or even to the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).[3]

Historically, the term described “the Russian state and empire as a distinctive civilizational space.”[4] It was used by medieval sources and, more recently, by Pan-Slavic authors since the 1870s to envision the uniting of Slavic tribes in Orthodox faith, culture, and mentality.[5] The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been associated with this vision for centuries.

The idea of Russianness defining identity re-emerged soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left all the newly formed independent states searching for their own national identity. Naturally, the ethnic majority in every new country proposed an identity consistent with its ethnicity. Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian became the state languages in the Baltic states, along with Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Georgian and others in the new Asian countries. Ethnic Russians and Russian speakers outside the borders of the Russian Federation were now in the minority.[6] Even in the Russian Federation, a search for a new national idea occurred.[7]

Amidst these threats to Russian identity, the idea of “the Russian world” as “a spiritual, cultural and social frame of reference for a civilized society” was soon rediscovered.[8] The head of the ROC, Patriarch Kirill, became the main promoter of the idea. He defines Russki Mir as a “special civilization … which needs to be preserved.[9] For Kirill, Russki Mir is a political, spiritual, and cultural concept that runs counter to all cultural melting pots and also opposes Euro-American ways of life.[10] To follow Russki Mir, according to the Patriarch, is “to obey God Himself.” Therefore, he and the ROC are the ones who “determine what is good and what is bad by following the values of the Russki Mir.”[11]

The patriarch proposes a kind of commonwealth of nations rooted in the Kievan Rus and Orthodoxy, including especially Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. In his view, Moscow and Kiev need to become centers of a spiritual and cultural world united by the same values and able to protect the Russian world against various dangers coming from the outside.[12] He does not speak explicitly of a politically united world, but his constant referral to the byzantine symphony of the ecclesial and state authorities could not be fulfilled in any other way.

Putin and Kirill, protectors of Russians globally

No wonder Vladimir Putin, who constantly laments the dismantling of the Soviet Union and Russia’s loss of imperial power, has found Kirill’s “Russki Mir” dreams enormously attractive. His war against Ukraine is consistent with, if not consciously motivated by, Kirill’s vision. Since Putin became president of the Russian Federation, he has repeatedly stressed the importance of supporting Russians wherever they may live in the world. He often uses the term “Russki Mir” to describe Russians living both in and outside of Russia.[13]

In this context, the logical connection that the Ukrainian Orthodox priests within the ROC draw between Kirill’s idea of a Russian world commonwealth and the war in Ukraine certainly makes sense.

Patriarch Kirill

Patriarch Kirill

Vladimir Putin is a vivid supporter of Russki Mir. During the last 10 years. he and his administration have invested enormous energy into creating structures to enable the “Russian commonwealth.”

His first step was the building of different institutions in Russia related to the issue of Russian compatriots living outside the country.[14] At the first congress of Russian compatriots in 2001, Putin emphasized his desire to support the Russian diaspora in any way possible against the injustice done to them. He invited them to help in recovering the power of Russia, calling such a recovery a “question of self-determination” and even more a “spiritual self-determination.”[15] Putin defined Russians in 2014 in this way: “When I speak of Russians and Russian-speaking citizens, I am referring to those people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community; they may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people.”[16] It is the Russian-speaking diaspora, the Russian world, that he has in mind. Putin states, “What matters is not where you live geographically; what matters is your mentality, your aspirations and, as I said, the person’s self-identification.”[17] Putin embraces all people who “share a common concern for Russia’s future and its people, a commitment to be useful to your historical homeland, to promote its socio-economic development and strengthen its international authority and prestige.”[18]

In 2007, Putin signed a decree establishing the Russian World Foundation (RWF), with a clearly declared mission to promote the Russian language, culture and spirituality within Russia and abroad and to encourage interest in Russian history and culture. Today the RWF works in more than 80 countries. Through the RWF, Russki Mir became an institutional expression and at the same time an instrument of Putin´s foreign policy. Political scientist Michael Wawrzonek explained, “The neo-imperialist goals of Russian policy toward Ukraine in recent years have received a doctrinal foundation—the concept of the Orthodox civilizational community—the Russkiy mir.”[19] Further, he claimed that “Russkiy mir … should be considered a pretext for Russian political, economic, or ‘security’ policies toward Ukraine.”[20]

The war in Ukraine is, in Putin´s Russian world, a step toward the realization of a much higher idea, a strong Orthodox reality. When asked what the Russian people mean to him, Putin gave this answer:

As for our people, our country, like a magnet, has attracted representatives of different ethnic groups, nations, and nationalities. Incidentally, this has become the backbone not only for our common cultural code but also a very powerful genetic code, because genes have been exchanged during all these centuries and even millennia as a result of mixed marriages. And this genetic code of ours is probably, and in fact almost certainly, one of our main competitive advantages in today’s world. This code is very flexible and enduring. We don’t even feel it, but it is certainly there.

So what are our particular features? We do have them, of course, and I think they rely on values. It seems to me that the Russian person or, on a broader scale, a person of the Russian world primarily thinks about his or her highest moral designation, some highest moral truths. Therefore, the Russian person, or a person of the Russian world, does not concentrate on his or her own precious personality. … Western values are different and are focused on one’s inner self. Personal success is the yardstick of success in life and this is acknowledged by society. The more successful a man is, the better he is. This is not enough for us in this country. …

Death is horrible, isn’t it? But no, it appears it may be beautiful if it serves the people: death for one’s friends, one’s people, or for the homeland, to use a modern word. These are the deep roots of our patriotism. They explain mass heroism during armed conflicts and wars and even sacrifice in peacetime. Hence there is a feeling of fellowship and family values. Of course, we are less pragmatic, less calculating than representatives of other peoples, and we have bigger hearts. Maybe this is a reflection of the grandeur of our country and its boundless expanses. Our people have a more generous spirit.”[21]

In Putin´s world, Russians constitute a “super-ethnos” with clear markers opposed to Western individualism.[22] This super-ethnos is what he wants to re-establish as a single political entity, believing in a kind of spiritual destiny and divine calling. It is very similar to what Patriarch Kirill has proposed.

The real ethnic situation in Russia

But what is the real ethnic situation, even inside the Russian Federation? Russia has never been a country of ethnic Russians only. Citizens of Russia (Rossiane in Russian) are not automatically Russians or Russkie. In fact, almost 200 ethnic groups exist in the Federation, according to the 2010 census.[23] The vast majority of the population (80.9%) claims to be ethnically Russian,[24] but a closer look often reveals mixed ethnic identities.

Moreover, adopting the official Russian nationality, regardless of one’s actual ethnicity, has often been a prudent strategic move under the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. I vividly remember how often, when I was living there, Soviet officials suggested that I, an ethnic German, change my nationality to Russian. “You are limiting your chances,” they argued, “by not being Russian.”

The ethnically Russian percentage of the Russian Federation’s population is undoubtedly much less than the 2010 census suggested. And the massive immigration from Central Asia, the Caucusus, China, and elsewhere is pushing the percentage down further each year.[25] Russia is second after the USA in the number of citizens not born in Russia, and Moscow ranks third among European cities in the number of migrants.[26]

Many ethnic Russians are concerned that this massive immigration might forever change the identity of their country. The vast majority of ethnic migrants do not belong to Putin´s “super-ethnos,” and they are seldom Orthodox in faith; most belonged to the Muslim majority in southern Russia or Central Asia. They are not part of Putin’s Russki Mir. Indeed, a survey conducted in the former Soviet republics found very low levels of acceptance of Russki Mir.[27] As a basic philosophy on which to rebuild the Russian Empire, Russki Mir seems bound to fail.

In fact, exactly the opposite is happening. People of hybrid ethnicity are leaving their Russianness behind and returning to their original ethnicity. The process, according to some historians, may end in a dissolution of what is left of the once-glorious Russian Empire. Putin´s push for a Russian exclusive ethnos may prove to be the biggest political mistake of the Russian administration.

What does this mean for the near future of Russia? Will Putin and Kirill be successful in recreating the Russian empire? Will Russki Mir become a reality? I strongly doubt it. Kirill and Putin are old men, and Putin has no clear successor. This puts Russia in troublesome times. Will the Rossiane in Russia forget the Russianness of this president? Will they submit to his super-ethnos? Certainly not. Neither will they follow the spiritual leadership of the ROC patriarch, trapped in the byzantine thinking of yesterday. Already, a vast majority of citizens in the Russian Federation are unconnected to the ROC, and a growing number of Orthodox clergy have expressed their open opposition to the patriarchal administration.

What does this mean for Evangelical Christians in the country? Like many others in Russia, they have bought into the idea of a Russian language-driven spiritual life and worship. Often Russiness of the congregation is a non-debatable factor. This is clearly a stubling block in evangelizing the non-Russians in Russia. How can they be prepared for things to come after Putin?

The answer is that they must become multilingual by definition. An Evangelical church in Tatarstan, for instance, must reach out to the Tatars in their own language. A church in Jakutsk must speak Jakut. Russian as the predominant language of evangelism and worship has had its day. A monolingual approach is no longer spiritually or politically viable. Thankfully, Bible translations in most languages of Russia have been completed by now. Evangelicals are not relying on Russian as the only language of spiritual communication. There are already various examples of churches that have chosen to reach out to other ethnic groups within Russia in their own language and culture. Following their example will open new opportunities for evangelism and church growth after Putin and Kirill’s empire has faded.

Dr. Johannes Reimer is the director of the Department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).


[2] Evgeny Rudenko: Sviaschenik UPC MP, trebuiuschii tribunala naf patriarchom Kirillom: Russki mir svoeobrazny fascism. In: Ukrainskaia Pravda, 14. 03.2022, (14.03.2022).

[3] S.M. Aleinikova: Russkii mir: belorusski vzgliad. (Minsk: RIVS 2017), 5.

[4] O´Loughlin: Who identifies with the Russian world, 747.

[5] See for instance: David MacKenzie: “Panslavism in Practice: Cherniaev in Serbia (1876).” In: The Journal of Modern History 36/1964,  279–297.

[6] See for instance: Jeff Chinn and Robert Kaiser: 1996. Russians as the New Minority: Ethnicity and Nationalism in the Soviet Successor States. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press 1996); Valeri A. Tishkov: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in and after the Soviet Union: The Mind Aflame. (London: Sage 1997).

[7] Wayne Allensworth: The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-communist Russia. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield 1998).

[8] Sviateishii Patriarch Kirill: Russki Mir – Civilizacia, kotoruih neobchodimo zberech. In: (14.04.2022).

[9] Ibd.

[10] Ibd.

[11] (14.03.2022).

[12] Ibd.

[13] J. O’Loughlin, G. Toal, V. Kolosov: Who identifies with the «Russian World»? Geopolitical attitudes in southeastern Ukraine, Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. In: Eurasian Geography

Digital: (23.03.2022), 745.

[14] See an overview in O´Loughlin: Who identifies with the Russian world, 750.

[15] Vladimir V. Putin: Vystuplenie Presidenta Rossiiskoi Federatsii V. V. Putina na Kongresse sootechestvennikov.” [Speech of the Russian President V.V. Putin at the Congress of Compatriots.] October 11. 2001. (23.03.2022).

[16] Vladimir V.  Putin: “Address to Conference of Russian Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives,” July 1. 2014. In: (23.03.2022).

[17] Putin: Vystuplenie.

[18] Vladimir V. Putin: “Vladimir Putin’s Address to the Participants of the Fourth World Conference of Compatriots,” October 26, 2012. In:

[19] Michael Wawrzonek: “Ukraine in the ‘Gray Zone’: Between the ‘Russkiy mir’ and Europe.” East European Politics & Societies 28/2014, 760.

[20] Ibd., 776.

[21] Putin, Vladimir V. 2014c. “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” April 17/ 2014. In: president/news/20796 (23.03.2022).

[22] O´Loughlin: Who identifies with the Russian world, 753.

[23] Yekaterinia Sinelshikova: How many ETHNIC groups live in Russia. In: Russia Beyond Nov. 16, 2021. In:  (24.03.2022).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ben Judah: Immigrant Russia – A Crisis of demography or ethnicity? European Council of Foreign Relations, 26. 10, 2010. In: (24.03.2022).

[26] Olga Vendina: Die Etniisierung der Migrationsprozesse in Russland. In: Russland Analysen Nr. 236, 23.03. 2012, 9. Digital: (24.03.2022).

[27] O´Loughlin: Who identifies with the Russian world, 776.