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“Holy Russia” Wholly Misunderstood

“Holy Russia” Wholly Misunderstood

George Lapshynov reviews Katherine Kelaidis’ latest book Holy Russia? Holy War? which sets out to examine why the Russian Orthodox Church’s understanding of its past matters today. 02/01/2024

What does the West really know about the history of Eastern Christianity? About the history of the Russian Orthodox Church? About its Patriarch, Kirill of Moscow and all Rus’? If the answer to any or all of these questions is “nothing”, how then can we hope to understand in any meaningful way what is happening in Russia today?

These are the important and urgent questions that Katherine Kelaidis, Greek–American historian and expert on the Greek diaspora, has set out to answer.

The book’s greatest strength is that it argues – in my opinion, successfully – that a greater awareness and understanding of Eastern Christianity is essential to any Western country that hopes to interact meaningfully and constructively with majority Eastern Christian countries, or indeed to understand what Russia is, where it hails from and where it is headed. And Kelaidis’ post–colonialist lens proves to be an original and very valuable approach to understanding Orthodoxy’s relationship to the West.

In her collection of articles, Kelaidis contends that Eastern Christian civilisation, its history, and its self–perception diverge as starkly from the Christian West as Islamic or Confucian civilisation, and this despite obvious shared creeds. To erase these major differences by placing both into one communal “European” or “Christendom” basket as the West often does, she writes, obscures the East’s complex perceptions of, and relationships with, the West. It “renders flat a complex and multidimensional picture ” (p.157). And I agree: this conflation has acutely political repercussions.

To take just one example from the book, the Christian West – and the Catholic Church in particular – often fails to remember that, for more than half a millennium, it played the role of “aggressor or opportunist” (p.161) against Eastern Orthodoxy. The single most influential event that shaped the self–perception of Eastern Christians as Eastern Christians was not the Great Schism of 1054 (as often emphasised in Western narratives) but the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade – an act of Western Christian aggression that still scars Orthodoxy and Eastern Christian countries today.

Thus, to remain ignorant of this history and of the Eastern view of the West is to condemn us to further misunderstanding not only Russia and the war in Ukraine, but the history of most Eastern and South European peoples.

Unfortunately, the book’s stated (and indeed much–needed) educational purpose is defeated. In her “evangelical zeal” (p.177), as she herself writes, to defend Orthodoxy and distance it from figures like Vladimir Putin who cast long shadows over its beauty and peacefulness, Kelaidis has allowed egregious factual errors and unacknowledged bias to creep into her analysis.

There is a palpable sense throughout that she is desperate for a “modern” Orthodox Church, one in which her American western liberal upbringing and worldview does not clash with the (it seems, to her, unfortunately) conservative and anti–liberal millenary tradition of her forbears, to which she is also very clearly attached. While I have sympathy for her situation (which is all too familiar) she fails to notice the rift that exists between what she portrays Orthodoxy to be – her idea of what Eastern Christianity ought to be – and what it really is. The result is a misleading picture.

Not only does the book hastily deal with complex issues of Orthodox ecclesiology and oversimplify centuries–old intra–Orthodox conflicts, but it focuses extensively on petty issues of Orthodox infighting and blows them out of proportion. It turns the entirety of the internal Eastern Christian debate into a pro–Russia/pro–West binary, thereby committing the very same error which she denounces earlier: that of rendering flat an infinitely nuanced picture.

Kelaidis indiscriminately lumps together conservative Orthodox believers with those cynical figures who exploit Orthodoxy for political or personal gain, or as a medium for political messaging and propaganda. Traditionally minded believers, whether Russian, Cypriot, or otherwise, are cast into the irrevocable role of the villains. They are singled out as the root cause of the perversion of the Western values of freedom, democracy, tolerance and human rights.

Her failure to recognise that the majority of Orthodox Christians are not liberal, Democrat–voting American Greeks, but rather conservative Eastern Europeans, is especially problematic. If you are an Eastern Christian woman who chooses to wear a head covering in church, Kelaidis warns, you are not really being pious – you are “putting on shows of piety” and participating in an “egregious display of self–aggrandizement” (p.189).

Finally, the book unforgivably sacrifices factual accuracy to sensationalism.

Desperate to save Orthodoxy from the bad name it has acquired through its association with the Kremlin, Kelaidis decides to throw the baby out with the bathwater and resorts to the wholesale condemnation of Russian Orthodoxy without any regard for its actual structure and actors. Of all the book’s astonishing claims, one particular issue, to which two articles are devoted, deserves special attention.

The Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe is an administratively autonomous Paris–headquartered diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, headed by the French–born Metropolitan John (Renneteau), and famous for its St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. The book discusses its transfer in 2018–19 from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the senior and first–among–equals mother Church of Eastern Christianity, to the Russian Church.

With no regard for the autonomous status of the Archdiocese, the origins and inclinations of its hierarchy, its unique democratic procedures or its history, Kelaidis turns the change of jurisdiction into a tale of political manoeuvring, espionage and world domination. The dissolution of the Archdiocese by the Ecumenical Patriarch, the year of intense parish meetings and diocesan assemblies that preceded the move to Moscow, and the fact that any parish that did not want the transfer was free to leave – and many did – are completely ignored. Metropolitan John, who vocally opposed the war in Ukraine, criticised Kirill, and allowed his clergy not to commemorate the Patriarch, is branded Kirill’s “mouthpiece”. And the Archdiocese’s Saint Sergius Orthodox theological institute, previously the most prestigious in Europe, is being called a propaganda machine for the Kremlin – even though it operates independently from the archdiocese and its dean is a liberal Greek.

The book promises to show its readers how Russia’s understanding of its past continues to shape and direct the way it sees its future. Kelaidis however fails to see how her own strong feelings for the cause have shaped and directed the book away from the factual, and towards the ideological. In her quest to reconcile Eastern Christianity with modern liberalism, Kelaidis’ book has become a manifesto for a certain brand of Orthodoxy.

Instead of introducing an undereducated Western audience to the complexities of Eastern Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church, it dangerously navigates through sensationalist waters. And most of it appears to be a sequence of baseless shots aimed at Orthodox believers with conservative views, whom she deceptively depicts as the periphery of Eastern Christianity.

Holy Russia? Holy War?: Why the Russian Church is Backing Putin Against Ukraine is published by SPCK.


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Image: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

George Lapshynov

George Lapshynov

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is interested in the place of wisdom in contemporary politics and has published articles on the history of religious music.

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Posted 2 January 2024

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