What role did the Russian Orthodox Church play in the aborted Wagner revolt? Two extreme theories advanced by some Russian and international interpreters appear to be equally false: that Patriarch Kirill and the Orthodox Bishops “saved Putin,” and that they were totally irrelevant.
The most reliable statistics of church attendance in Russia even at the most solemn liturgical feasts show depressing numbers: 2% at Christmas and 3% at Easter. These statistics, however, need to be interpreted. Church attendance is not the only indicator of how secularized a country is, and this is even truer if we consider that, unlike Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Church does not regard attending Mass every Sunday as mandatory.
Particularly under Vladimir Putin, the Moscow Patriarchate has renewed its old pact with the powers that be. They protect the Orthodox Church from competition (including by “liquidating” the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups that proselytize among Orthodox believers), and the Patriarchate organizes the consensus for Putin and collects and reports information about the nation’s deepest feelings and moods. The Orthodox Church still commands a certain cultural power in Russia, although the waning statistics shows that it is not undisputed and is being progressively eroded.
There is no doubt that Patriarch Kirill mobilized the Church to side with Putin during the Wagner incident. On June 24, Kirill appeared on national TV and in a short statement said in unequivocal terms that he “support[ed] the efforts of the Head of the Russian State [Putin] aimed at preventing unrest in our country.”
“Military confrontation, he said, is a test in which we, even more than at other times, are called upon to carefully preserve national unity, pray to God, and support the soldiers and each other with all our might. Today, when our brothers fight and die on the fronts, selflessly fulfilling their duty, when the enemies are making every effort to destroy Russia, any attempt to sow discord within the country is the greatest crime that has no justification. Lifting up prayers for a peaceful resolution of the current situation, as the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, I urge those who, having taken up arms in their hands, are ready to direct them against their brethren, to think again. In the face of a common threat, one must maintain unity of mind, overcome grievances and personal ambitions. No matter how difficult it may sometimes be.”
Some pointed out that the words of an authoritative bishop, Metropolitan Tikhon of Pskov and Porkhov, although presented in Russian media as supportive of Putin, were somewhat more ambiguous. He said that Russians should always “keep unity with those whom God’s Providence has put to rule Russia. No matter how this person is called in history: Grand Duke, Tsar, Emperor, or Chairman of the State Defense Committee and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the USSR … Today President Vladimir Putin bears this burden, cross and responsibility”—but perhaps not tomorrow.
However, less commented in the West, but more important, were the words of Metropolitan Mercury of Rostov and Novocherkassk. Not only is Mercury a close associate of Kirill and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s important Department of Religious Education. He spoke in Rostov when Prigozhin and the Wagner were controlling the city. His words were immediately published on the web site of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Mercury appealed directly to Wagner. “Today, from this high church pulpit, I would like to address the fighters of the PMC Wagner: our brothers, who are close to us by blood, by citizenship, by origin; who, most likely, perform their feats of arms on the battlefield for the sake of the salvation and greatness of our Fatherland. I would like to tell you that the people know how you honestly and fearlessly fought. But now I have to tell you something else: do not give in to temptation; do not cover the glory of your weapons with the shame of internecine strife; do not raise your weapons against peaceful people; do not create a hotbed of tension within our country.”
“Because, Mercury explained, any strife, the most insignificant, will be perceived as an enemy victory: the victory of those against whom you fought, shedding your own blood; those against whom you stood at the cost of your own life. I am addressing you with the voice of the Church because this Church every day, while you were at the front, prayed and continues to pray for you, for all by name, asking that the Lord, through the intercession of the Most Pure Mother of God, preserve you all. I appeal to you: do not commit the folly of internecine strife, for the sake of your mothers, wives, sisters, children, all those whom you are called to protect! Do not commit madness against those people who trusted and believed in you! I appeal to you and hope that my voice will be heard by you!”
Mercury framed his appeal by claiming that Russia is “fighting alone against all the countries of the West,” which hate “our national identity, culture, natural reserves and territory,” and try to destroy the country through their “liberal messages.” Appealing both to Wagner and to the population of Rostov, which was largely supporting Prigozhin, Mercury concluded: “I ask you: do not succumb to temptations, do not believe popular rumors, be faithful to your civic duty, be Christianly submissive to the authorities, remain calm, be prudent!”
Did these Orthodox Church leaders save Putin? This would be too much to claim. What is true is that they saw in Putin salvation for themselves. And whatever authority they can still pretend to was spent for Putin.