28 November 2023Georgia

“Russian Soldiers Come Here with Warmth and Love”

Georgian “political Orthodoxy” and Russia

by Beka Mindiashvili, Gigi Ugulava
© Lia Ukleba

For many years, the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) has been an institution trusted by the majority of the Georgian population. At the same time, the GOC stands as the most active proponent of anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiments in the country, also promoting homophobia and xenophobia. The GOC has been and remains the prime citadel of Russian influence in Georgia. According to Beka Mindiashvili [∗] and Gigi Ugulava [∗∗], the GOC and the Russian Orthodox Church share a common ideological base, which they identify as “political Orthodoxy.” In contrast to traditional Orthodoxy, “political Orthodoxy” employs seemingly religious forms to create instruments of mass ideological influence. The authors provide an analysis of the three pillars supporting “political Orthodoxy” in Georgia: coreligionism, apocalyptic messianism, and religious nationalism.

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“The position of the church is as follows: <...> we prioritize Ossetians, Russians, people over churches and buildings, advocating for a sweet and affectionate attitude towards them. <...> As a Christian people, we believe that what was destroyed by enmity, has been rebuilt through love.” These words were spoken by Archpriest Andrey of the Georgian Orthodox Church during his visit to offer condolences at the funeral of Tamaz Ginturi. Ginturi was killed by the Russian military forces in the village of Kirbal, near the occupation line. His offense was reopening the Lomisi church, which had been previously closed by the Russian occupiers.

The limitless depth of affection for the occupiers, especially the transformation of the Russian soldier-killer into an object of love, might lead one to contemplate the ideal of Christian perfection, if not another circumstance.

Since the 1990s, the Georgian Orthodox Church has evolved under the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate. The role and position of the GOC, both domestically and internationally, can be described as an instrument of Russia's influence and soft power.

Some of the highest clergy within the GOC see it as essential to propagate a Russian political orientation as essential. Almost all pro-Russian organizations are affiliated with the Georgian Patriarchate. Recently, the Georgian authorities have actively positioned themselves as advocates of the Church’s interests. The increasing emphasis on unity between the authorities and the Church, demonstrated by both of them, is quite logical: indeed, as the authorities become more anti-Western and more accommodating towards Russia, they draw closer to the pro-Russian patriarchy.

What factors determine pro-Russian sentiments, positions, and decisions in the GOC? What functions can the GOC perform as Russia's soft power?

The Church and its influence have held a distinctive role within the strategy of Russian imperialism from the outset.  The Church was entrusted with the responsibility of closing the path to the West and legitimizing the imperial regime. The Patriarchate of the GOC continues to be employed precisely for these purposes.

The reception of Russian influence in Georgia and the pro-Russian orientation of the Church are primarily determined by three factors. The first is historical connections based on the idea of “coreligionism” (“common faith”). The second is a messianic-apocalyptic narrative in which Russia serves as the main eschatological partner, while Georgia is assigned a unique role at the Last Judgment. The third factor is Church pseudo-nationalism.

“Common Faith”

The idea of common faith, which first appeared in the 18th century, primarily implies a close connection with Russia as the “Third Rome,” that is the empire-bastion of Orthodoxy. Concurrently, relations based on the concept of “common faith” with Russia laid the foundation for a rupture with Europe from the outset.

In 1782, when Empress Catherine the Great issued the “Highest Instruction on the foundations for concluding the Russian-Georgian Treaty,” she directed to: “Reject all of their [the Georgian tsars – author’s note] acquaintance with the Roman Emperor and other Christian powers, imposing a condition that they refrain from interfering in any matters concerning our Asian neighbors, as well as from sending any letters to the (Roman) emperor.” [Quotation source: A. Tsagareli, Charters and other historical documents related to Georgia. Vol. II. Issue I. Georgian texts. From 1768 to 1801. Edited by A.A. Tsagareli. St. Petersburg, 1898; p. 30].

Ultimately, the reliance on the “Third Rome” proved to be a Trojan horse in the lead-up to Russia’s annexations of the Kartli-Kakheti and Imeretian kingdoms. The implementation of the “common faith” policy in Georgia evolved into the annexation of the country, the unlawful elimination of the Georgian kingdoms and principalities, and the erosion of the autocephaly of the Georgian Church. A century later, the Georgian clergy already harbored a distinct anti-Russian sentiment, actively participating in the national liberation movement and struggled for the restoration of autocephaly. Following its restoration in 1917, Russia did not recognize the ecclesiastical independence of Georgia and severed the Eucharistic connection with the GOC. Later on, in the USSR, in 1943, as part of Stalin’s shift of attitude towards religion, particularly Orthodoxy, the Moscow Patriarchate recognized the autocephaly of the GOC. Nevertheless, the improved relations between the Moscow and Georgian Patriarchates underwent a transformation into what is now known as Stalinist Orthodoxy. This involved the development of a “political theology” synchronized with Stalinist communism, which primarily served the purpose of legitimizing Stalinist communism abroad. It also entailed a “religiously” justified castigation of the USA, Turkey, the Vatican, NATO, capitalism, cosmopolitanism, and the “Jewish-Masonic conspiracy,” all viewed through the lens of Orthodoxy.

This function of the Church remained unchanged throughout the existence of the Soviet Union. The Stalinist transformation brought about a formal liberalization of policies towards the Orthodox churches, which included the reopening of churches, theological seminaries, and the publication of religious literature. Simultaneously, the Stalinist system, with the assistance of intelligence agencies, took root in the Church hierarchy and in the Church itself, whereas previously, Soviet totalitarianism had only undermined the Church from the outside.

If we are to trust Konstantin Kharchev, Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers of the USSR, “... not a single candidate for the position of bishop or other high-ranking position [in Church hierarchy], such as a member of the Holy Synod, received it [their position] without the approval of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the KGB.” [Source of quotation: Albats E. and Fitzpatric K. The State Within a State: The KGB and its Hold on Russia – Past, Present and Future.  – 1994.]

After the collapse of the USSR, the operational mechanism with the Church essentially remained unchanged, and lustration was not brought into effect in post-Soviet countries of the Orthodox tradition. The so-called red clergy retained their high-ranking positions, with their capabilities expanding enormously. In the immediate aftermath of the USSR's dissolution, in contrast to the “democratic” authorities of the time, it was primarily the Church hierarchy that perpetuated the Soviet tradition. With even greater zeal, it continued creating the image of the enemy from the West, although this was not so much for the external perspectives, but for domestic consumption, aiming at anti-Western mobilization. In the late 1990s in Russia, communism as a unifying ideology gave way to the ideology of the “Russian World,” grounded in the concepts of “Holy Rus” and the “Third Rome.”

Apocalyptic Messianism

There is a widespread belief within the GOC that the end of the world has already arrived. The clergy and assorted “prophets” are enthusiastically involved in deciphering the signs of “the end of the world” and occasionally proclaiming someone as an Antichrist. Different scenarios for “the end of the world” exist but all of them share common themes of the Antichrist and apostasy (renunciation of faith). Manifestations indicating universal apostasy from Christ include globalization, secularization, the Internet, economical and technological progress, pandemics, wars, total control over the population, and moral degradation.

The majority of GOC leaders perceive the church and the state as an isolated entity besieged by enemies. An “Orthodox” pro-Russian politician once claimed that a conspiracy against Georgia was masterminded by “the builders of the Antichrist’s throne”. But who are these conspirators? They encompass the Global West, Western and Eastern “sects,” liberalism, capitalism, various minorities, Freemasons, secret world government, non-governmental organizations, mass media, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, definitely Jews, and, especially, President Zelensky. Some Georgian priests promptly labeled President Zelensky the “clown of Christ,” or the Antichrist, as soon as the war erupted. The Patriarchy and its affiliated pro-Russian organizations consistently stage aggressive actions against these perceived enemies, advocating for state intervention to suppress and destroy them through legal measures and severe repression. “The ‘no violence’ slogan is out of the question. Exactly the opposite – you are obliged to use violence in the name of the homeland, use violence in the name of the country, use violence in the name of holiness!” as proclaimed a priest from the Patriarchate on July 5, 2021, during a homophobic rally that led to physical violence against fifty journalists. Against this hostile background, the Patriarchy considers Russia, the homeland of fellow believers, as the sole exception to its list of enemies. At best, the Georgian Orthodox clergy perceives Russia as merely a physical conqueror, whereas the West is seen as a more insidious spiritual occupier, which far surpasses the harm caused by physical occupation.

© Netgazeti

Russian neo-imperialism is apocalyptic in nature, particularly in its Eurasian manifestation as conceptualized by Aleksandr Dugin, whose geopolitical mysticism holds popularity among Georgian hierarchs and pro-Russian organizations. According to this apocalyptic mindset, the world is perceived as the stage for a “doomsday” war. The connection between Georgian and Russian apocalypticism lies in their shared belief that Russia is bestowed with the mission of averting the arrival of the Antichrist. In geopolitical terms, this mission is articulated as the containment of the West. Patriarch Kirill expounded on this perspective, stating, “In biblical terms, Russia becomes the “restraining” force against the total domination of evil, namely, the impending arrival of the Antichrist.” If Russia serves as the deterrent to the Antichrist's arrival, then Georgia is perceived as the final stronghold. By aligning itself with the Russian political orientation, Georgia is supposed to be preserved from complete destruction by the West and to safeguard untainted Orthodoxy, as expressed by Metropolitan John Gamrekeli in The Path of Georgia.

The GOC, alongside the Russian Orthodox Church, considers Russia's war against Ukraine as a central theater in the “war of the end of the world.”

In 2019, after prolonged efforts and justifiable demands, the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephalous status to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). This move dealt a significant blow to the Moscow Patriarchate, given Ukraine's pivotal role in the neo-imperialist concept of the “Russian world.” While it might have been expected for the GOC to be among the first to acknowledge the independence of the UOC, its latest statement on the UOC's autocephaly in 2019, following the GOC synod, sounded as follows: “We are reading the tomos.” The tomos, being a concise one-page document, didn't require extensive reading. The GOC’s statement, therefore, simply indicated the organization’s apparent alignment with the Russian Orthodox Church. Concurrently, the GOC acknowledged the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), previously recognized by the Moscow Patriarchate during the Soviet era, even though the final authority on autocephaly matters, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, does not recognize the independence of the OCA.

Following Russia's incursion into Ukraine, the Georgian Patriarchate adopted a more neutral stance. GOC repeatedly called for an end to the war and advocated for peace. In March 2023, however, when Ukrainian authorities transferred the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra to the UOC, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch, requesting intervention for the return of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra to the Russian Orthodox Church. It is noteworthy that Ilia II stood out as the sole leader among the autocephalous Orthodox churches: not only did he extend birthday wishes to Patriarch Kirill, who justifies Russia's actions in the war against Ukraine, but he also expressed hopes for the fulfillment of all the wishes of the head of Russian Orthodox Church.

It is true, though, that within the GOC, particularly following Russia's assault on Ukraine, a growing number of clergy openly accuse Russia of aggression against Ukraine. These voices view the West not as an enemy but as an ally. Despite these emerging perspectives, there hasn't been a noticeable shift in the overall sentiment of the Church.

According to the GOC perspective, the Antichrist is perceived as the religious and political leader of the globalized world, playing the role of a deceitful peacemaker. Simultaneously, as per the Church's apocalyptic narrative, this figure is inherently associated with the West. After Russia's attack on Ukraine, Ukrainian President Zelensky emerged as the primary contender for this role.

Political Orthodoxy and Church Nationalism

The third, and probably the most potent, foundation for pro-Russian influence is Church nationalism.

Despite being situated within the framework of Russian-Soviet neo-imperialism, the Georgian Patriarchate, paradoxically, places significant emphasis on the national language and symbols of Georgian nationalism. In the clergy’s rhetoric, concepts such as nation, motherland, patriotism, unity, language, and national identity (as well as “Georgianness” and its protection) carry distinct and sacred significance. The treasury of church collectivism has been replenished by a number of linguistic gems, including mythopoetic expressions such as “Enlightenment of Iveria,” “Resurrection of Georgia,” “Heavenly Iveria,” and “Georgians, together to the Lord.”  Despite all this, the Georgian clergy, with rare exceptions, diverges from the traditional anti-Russian nationalism observed a century ago during the struggle for the autocephaly of the Georgian Church. Instead, they have crafted an ideological simulation that opposes traditional nationalism, serving as its false counterpart. The national liberation movement of the 1980s and subsequent Georgian civil (non-religious) nationalism, like their predecessors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ultimately proceeded from a liberal, democratic political tradition. In contrast, present day political Orthodoxy in Georgia can be traced back to Soviet imperial ideology and the “theology of the Third Rome.” While civil nationalism seeks liberation from Russia and alignment with the West, its clerical alternative preaches the rejection of the West and advocates openness to the “common faith” neighbor.

Given that the aforementioned manifestations of both Georgian and Russian Orthodoxy mainly serve to achieve political and geopolitical objectives, we can identify them as political Orthodoxy. Political Orthodoxy understands religion as the basis of national, civilizational, political, and cultural identity. Consequently, the actual religious, theological, and ethical content undergoes a sort of emasculation, giving way to an ideological construct that the government or political entities can use as a political tool. This political equipment is no longer tethered to God and the eternal salvation of humanity. Instead, it is employed solely for collective mobilization and the manipulation of crises and conflicts. Political Orthodoxy adopts the forms, language, and symbols borrowed from religion, but infuses them with an alternative, foreign content. A striking manifestation of political Orthodoxy can be found in one of Russian Patriarch Kirill’s recent sermons, wherein he contends that Russia's preservation of freedom is attributed to nuclear weapons created “under the protection of St. Seraphim of Sarov.” In his perspective, this implies that the destiny of the Kremlin, the “Russian people,” the “Russian World,” the “Third Rome,” and “Holy Rus” is not determined by God but rather by the atomic bomb.

Political Orthodoxy, whether aligned with the past or eschatology, coupled with its religious character, fundamentally caters exclusively to Russian imperialism in both Russia and Georgia, as well as contributing to mass destruction in Ukraine.

It is not incidental that Levan Vasadze, a Georgian ally of Aleksandr Dugin and a prominent figure in Church nationalism, emerged onto the political stage first wearing the Georgian national costume, and then adorned with clubs and belts. Both his appearance and rhetoric manifest his willingness to employ force against freethinkers and dissidents. The ultimate objective of Georgian political Orthodoxy appears to be the placement of an effigy of Georgia dressed in national costume in the Russian imperial museum.

This entire complex of reasons and ideas, whether consciously or subconsciously, led the Georgian priest, who arrived at the Lomisi church a few days before the murder of Tamaz Ginturi by the Russian military, to declare: “Russian soldiers come here with warmth and love.”

Translated from Russian by Kun

[∗] Beka Mindiashvili is a theologian, associate professor at Ilia State University; head of the Tolerance Center under the Ombudsman of Georgia, founder of the NGO Tolerance and Diversity Institute.

[∗∗] Gigi Ugulava is a politician; he studied theology and philosophy in Tbilisi and Saarbrücken, worked as a journalist; former mayor of Tbilisi.

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