The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest….Instead of enquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted for so long.
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon
By the grace of God, all our international parishes, with their Romanian and Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian, English and European parishioners, live safely within the second largest Local Church, the Patriarchate of Romania. Thus, we are shielded from Russian and Greek schisms and the tragic and divisive consequences of the bitter conflict in the Ukraine. Nevertheless, we cannot help observing the immense temptations that now beset the largest Local Orthodox Church, the Russian, and be concerned about its direction and the future after the Ukrainian conflict is over, which may be quite soon.
In order to understand why there is a bloody conflict in the Ukraine today, strangely enough we first have to understand why the Russian Empire fell in 1917. Over a century on, the reason for that is quite clear. The multinational Russian Empire fell because most of its people had lost their Orthodox Faith, the underpinning foundation which had cemented everything together. For when you stop believing in the foundation, you end up in suicidal self-destruction and cynicism.
We can see this today with the Imperial failure of Western Empires, British, French, American etc, also fallen because most have stopped believing in their underpinning ideologies. The Russian crisis in 1917 had been created by a nominal, superficial attitude to the Orthodox Faith, which underpinned all. Most had signed up to the Faith on paper, but did not live by it. They had rejected the consequences and ramifications of the Faith and so lived in hypocritical contradictions, Orthodox but not Christian.
In 2007 the émigré Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) was finally reconciled to the Patriarchal Church inside Russia. We personally considered that this was seven years late, but we had patiently waited for the inevitability, rather than leave for the Patriarchate as some did – better late than never. Having played an active part in the events of the 2006 ROCOR Council and reconciliation and attended the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in Moscow, I have been asked if I regret it. The answer is crystal clear: Absolutely not. 2007 saved the Church, which kept a huge potential. The fact that it failed to exploit that potential has nothing to do with 2007.
Before 2007 ROCOR was on the verge of becoming a sect, which is why some had already left it. Certain individual ROCOR bishops had even allied themselves to schismatic old calendarist groups in Greece, Romania and Bulgaria! By allying ROCOR with the Patriarchal Church in Moscow, we delayed the possibility of schismatic sectarianism for a vital 14 years. We had gained a breathing space. Some object that ROCOR should not have reconciled with the Patriarchal Church, because it is ‘corrupt’. Of course, there were and still are problems in the Patriarchal Church, but only as there are today in the new ROCOR that has appeared in the last five years.
In both parts of the Russian Church the causes of corruption are very similar: the lack of repentance, the lack of the spiritual. Specifically, there is superstitious ritualism, the vain belief that the sacraments are like magic and require no personal effort to work, only precise ritual observation. This vain belief is essentially materialistic and therefore superficial, for we are not saved by superstitious ritualism, but by the Holy Spirit. Then there is money-oriented careerism, the concept that the Church is a money-making business. This is the very active and very visible temptation of graspingness and love of bling in both parts of the Church. Then there is centralising bureaucracy which puts protocols and forms above the Word of God and Love for our fellow-men. Then there are nationalist political ideologies, the temptation to obey the State, whether the American or the Russian, in other words, you abandon your conscience, integrity and principles because you prefer to swim with the tide for personal advantage, against Christ. This was not the path of the New Martyrs and New Confessors, whom we follow.
This last temptation is especially great for ROCOR, since the political pressures of the declining American Empire could now force all of ROCOR, and not just part of it, into full schism; there the situation is far worse than before 2007, for the unhealthy direction that the New York-based ROCOR has taken since 2018 is the opposite to the healthy one taken before 2007. The danger in all this is that the majority in both parts of the Russian Church, in Moscow and New York, will return to the vices that prevailed before the Revolution – superstitious ritualism, money-oriented careerism, centralising bureaucracy and nationalist political ideologies, all those faults that were present then, as they are now. All of them can cut off from communion with other parts of the Church, destroying the Catholicity of the Church, resulting in isolation. We hope that our Introduction now makes sense, for we are precisely facing another crisis in the Russian Church, as in 1917, the conflict in the Ukraine.
The Conflict in the Ukraine
The manmade catastrophe in the Ukraine has come about because of the lack of Faith, nominalism, on both sides. Do real Christians kill each other? Since this war broke out in 2014, between 160,000 and 250,000 Kiev troops (several thousand of them foreign mercenaries, notably Poles) and 15,000 – 20,000 Russian-Ukrainians and Russians have been killed, together with nearly 14,000 Russian-Ukrainian civilians and nearly 7,000 Ukrainian civilians. In other words, between 200,000 and 290,000 are dead because Kiev was suicidally forced to refuse, to make peace last spring, again last summer and now, when all could have been ended with compromise.
Since 2014 16 million Ukrainians have been displaced – 10 million to various countries in Europe, the majority to Russia and 6 million internally. It is not clear what proportion of those 10 million will ever return to the Ukraine, whose population is now only 18-22 million, given that 4 million have preferred to live under Russian administration in the south-east, an area the size of England and Wales. Kiev has also had about 50 percent of its energy infrastructure destroyed. It requires at least $3 billion a month in outside borrowings just to keep its economy afloat. This debt will never be repaid. Meanwhile a surrounding army of nearly 700,000 Russian soldiers, with, if necessary, their 15,000 tanks, waits to occupy and rebuild the Ukraine. All that NATO could muster against them is 100,000 and 59 tanks though, in any case, it is too frightened to deploy a single one of them, as it knows that it would lose them.
In other words, the conflict in the Ukraine is a call to return to the Faith – to avoid this suicide. That is the choice. It is a Divine warning, as at Siloam: ‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ (Lk. 13, 5). It is no coincidence that this conflict began in February 2022, the centenary of the founding of the Soviet Union in 1922. For the origins of this conflict are precisely in the unatoned sins of the Soviet apostasy that created February 1917 and the greatest atheist State and persecution of Christianity in world history. After all, to create another Revolution, all you have to do is to repeat the same sins, the sins of those who sinned against the New Martyrs and Confessors.
And it is no coincidence either that the path to reconciliation is in the life of the great twentieth-century Ukrainian saint, the New Confessor, St John the Wonderworker, also known as St John of Shanghai and Western Europe, the Saint of the old, pre-sectarian, pre-schismatic, faithful Russian Emigration. It was he who was persecuted and put on trial by the sectarians and schismatics who claimed to be his own. It was he put the Faith above all their concerns, above their superstitious ritualism, their money-oriented careerism, their centralising bureaucracy and their nationalist political ideologies, which so trouble all parts of the Russian Church again today. Only when Russians and Ukrainians do as he did and put the Kingdom of God and His righteousness first, will there be peace in the Ukraine.