Could Patriarch Kirill’s ‘Evil Forces’ Against Russia and the Russian Church Refer to Jews?

Patriarch Kirill holds a Christmas service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, January 6, 2011. Image: Sergey Pyatakov (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

If it wasn’t already blatantly apparent that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is not “calling for peace,” he’s now described Russia’s opponentsin its unprovoked, illegal invasion of the Ukraineas “evil forces,” telling the faithful

“God forbid that the current political situation in brotherly Ukraine should be aimed at ensuring that the evil forces that have always fought against the unity of Russia and the Russian Church prevail.”

While it seems obvious to many that the “evil forces” to whom the head of the Russian Orthodox Church is referencing must be clearly and exclusively the West—or perhaps modernity writ large—a quick survey of Russian history suggests that the “evil forces” to which Kirill is referring are principally none other than the Jewish people, a strange assertion indeed about a war that is ostensibly about “de-Nazifying” a country. 

Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill share a vision of history in which Ukraine does not exist as a distinct nation or an independent state. To their way of thinking, the 10th-century conversion of the Kievan Rus forever unites Russians and Ukrainians as a single people, rightly ruled (since the 16th century apparently) from Moscow. It’s a vision that Kirill stresses in the very sentence in which he invokes “evil forces”: “brotherly Ukraine” is followed by “the unity of Russia.”

The idea that Jews are working to undermine Christian unity, or rather unity between Christian people, has a long history, particularly in Orthodoxy and especially in Russia. Centuries of attempts to eradicate or assimilate the Jewish population of the Russian Empire were grounded in the idea that Jewish people not only threatened national homogeneity by their mere existence, but were also actively working to undermine unity, since, the thinking went, a truly successful Christian empire would jeopardize Jewish control of the world. 

While Patriarch Kirill talks about “evil forces” undermining Russia’s brotherly unity with Ukraine, a Jewish Ukrainian president just happens to lead the resistance to the Russian invasion. Putin knows exactly what he’s doing: he’s recalling ancient prejudice. He’s stirring up the anxiety of conspiracy theories much older than QAnon. 

To be clear, Patriarch Kirill has no great love for liberal democracy or secular pluralism—this is, after all, a man who argued that human rights are a heresy. But he also doesn’t hold a worldview in which a Christian civilization—a brotherly unity—merely collapses on its own. In his mind, there is always a source of that collapse and he comes from a cultural tradition in which Jewish people have long been accused of being that source. Now his country is fighting with a Jewish leader for territory Kirill believes politically and spiritually is rightfully united with Russia. Clearly, he believes he knows who the problem is. He knows the “evil forces” at work.

The biggest mistake that those in the West could make about the current conflict is to believe that this conflict can be seen through contemporary Western eyes alone. The Orthodox world has a distinct history and therefore distinct motifs and archetypes that it recalls. This is one such instance. So again, no, Patriarch Kirill is not calling for peace. In fact, he’s activating old anti-semitic hatreds that could make the conflict a whole lot worse.