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Ukraine war: Meet Father Grigory, Russia's most prominent anti-war priest

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By Aleksandar Brezar
Russian Orthodox priest Father Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko
Russian Orthodox priest Father Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko   -   Copyright  Personal archive   -  

When the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and calling the conflict "war" can land you in jail, it takes courage to speak out.

But that is what Father Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko has been doing ever since the Kremlin first set its sights on its western neighbour.

Father Grigory, who was once a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, has set out to prove that not everyone in the country stands behind President Vladimir Putin's act of aggression. Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the church, is among the war's most vocal supporters.

Helping the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who found themselves stuck across Russia since February is Grigory's number one priority.

His religious organisation, the Russian Apostolic Church, has assisted some 7,000 refugees over the past eight months.

“By the time April came around, our religious organisation and the St Petersburg parish, we opened a centre for helping [Ukrainian] refugees because many of them need different types of help," Father Grigory told Euronews.

It’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s like the weather. Sometimes the day starts off sunny, but by the afternoon it might rain.
Father Grigory

"Some need tickets (to leave Russia), some need clothes or different kinds of medicine.

“So we do what we can do, all we can do to help, we try to do that. 

"If we talk about medicine, there are a lot of documents for every person. And this is just the last couple of weeks,” he said, waving hefty stacks of pale blue papers bearing official Russian government inscriptions.

'It is necessary to stop the war'

When the war started, Grigory reached out to his Ukrainian peers and, together with other international clergies, wrote a letter demanding the invasion be stopped.

Calling the aggression against Ukraine a “war” has been criminalised in Russia ever since the very beginning. Yet Grigory is defiant. “We are united in these ideas. It’s necessary to stop the war.”

“I understand that political negotiations might be difficult. But it’s necessary to go back to the borders that were established and internationally recognised in 1991 by the whole world,” he says, referring to Ukraine’s borders established when it broke from the Soviet Union and declared independence.

The problem of religious organisations in Russia is that, in fact, all of them are fake
Father Grigory

These borders include the Crimean peninsula and eastern and southern Ukrainian regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — which were recently declared annexed by the Russian president.

“We can talk about the economy and pipelines and language and citizenship and all these things. But we all know what the borders are. So why do we need to discuss this again and again — especially with the help of weapons?”

These opinions have already landed many people in jail across Russia. 

So, is Father Grigory worried about this?

“It’s nothing to be afraid of,“ Grigory said. “It’s like the weather. Sometimes the day starts off sunny, but by the afternoon it might rain.”

Son of dissidents who discovered his true calling

Born in Moscow as the son of a painter famous for her work in theatre and film and an even more well-known poet and playwright — both dissidents — Father Grigory discovered Christianity while serving in the Soviet army in the 1980s.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Grigory, a trained film director, became disillusioned with work in television which was being increasingly co-opted by Kremlin elites as the key vessel for outright propaganda being served to the public.

He sought answers elsewhere, becoming a priest soon after leaving TV.

Personal archive
Father Grigory in his Staraya Russa parishPersonal archive

“In the beginning of the 2000s, I understood I achieved all I wanted to do in television, and television began being something very strange for me,” Grigory said.

“I didn’t expect things to get as bad as they are now, but it was enough for me, I can say.”

Russian TV channels are a crucial source of anti-Ukrainian and pro-government propaganda and serve as incubators for conspiracy theories about Russia’s perceived enemies while glorifying the government’s decisions and especially those made by Putin.

“With the help of my friends who also were and are priests, I decided to become a priest and so for seven years I was a priest in Staraya Russa. It’s a small town in the Novgorod district, well-known as the town of (Fyodor) Dostoevsky.”

Tax-free cigarettes and blaming invasion on 'gay parades'

Orthodox Christians in both Russia and Ukraine trace their faith back to the 988 AD conversion of Volodymyr I, the Grand Prince of Kyiv.

Known as Vladimir by Russians and Volodymyr by Ukrainians, the pagan grand prince was baptised by missionaries from Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the centre of Eastern Orthodoxy. Kyiv became the most important religious centre for eastern Slavs at that time.

Destroyed in 1240 by the Mongols, Kyiv fell into decline as its northern neighbour, Moscow, became increasingly powerful.

By 1686, Russia had conquered eastern Ukraine and Kyiv. In that year, the patriarch of Constantinople formally transferred his spiritual authority over Ukraine to the patriarch of Moscow.

Ukrainians decry the decision as having opened up their ancestors to religious blackmail by Russia, while the official perception of the Russian church — and Putin — is that there is an unbroken continuity from the baptism of Kyiv until today.

In modern Ukraine, Orthodox Christianity is the largest religious denomination and is divided between churches that fall under the Moscow Patriarchate and those under a separate ecclesiastical body.

Historically, Ukraine was home to two-thirds of all Orthodox Christian parishes in the Soviet Union, earning the moniker of being the “USSR’s Bible Belt” by the likes of historian Serhiy Plokhy.

In late May, the leaders of Ukraine’s Orthodox church affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate adopted measures declaring the church’s full independence from Moscow and Kirill.

Yana Lapikova/AP
Vladimir Putin speaks with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in 2012Yana Lapikova/AP

Patriarch Kirill’s vocal support for Putin’s war has drawn criticism from the likes of Pope Francis and was dubbed a “heresy” by other religious authorities.

Dubbed the Tobacco Metropolitan for his alleged profiteering off of duty-free cigarettes in the 1990s, Patriarch Kirill fiercely maintains his pro-war stance, blaming the invasion on "gay parades" and making unproven claims that Ukrainians have been "exterminating" Russian civilians in the Donbas.

It is estimated that the wealth Kirill began to accrue even before coming to power in 2009 is worth between €4-8 million.

Kirill was infamously photographed wearing a €30,000 gold-plated watch in 2009, which church officials airbrushed out while leaving its reflection on a glossy table. 

Although at first Kirill claimed the image was doctored to defame him, he later admitted to owning the watch after all.

In early May, attempts by Brussels to add Kirill to the list of Russians sanctioned by the EU led to tensions amongst European leaders after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban blocked the move.

'Russian society is not religious at all'

The Russian church and its leader’s outright support for Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and involvement in the violent separatism in the Donbas was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Grigory.

He left the Russian Orthodox Church and eventually joined the Russian Apostolic Church — a recognised religious organisation founded by other dissident priests, such as Father Gleb Yakunin.

After working for years with the most downtrodden members of Russian society, such as inmates in its prison system, he made it his mission in life to have people live according to the true virtues of the faith.

“The problem of religious organisations in Russia is that, in fact, all of them are fake,” Father Grigory said. “The Russian society is not religious at all.”

“If we look at how many people go to church anywhere in Europe — in Belarus, in Ukraine, the Czech Republic, etc. — we see that a minimum of 10-15% of people are religious. That’s the lowest. But in Russia, on the main Christian holidays, such as Christmas or Easter, we see no more than 3% of people present in churches.”

“The picture we see in television or any media show is that the church plays a big, important part of the Russian society. Unfortunately, it’s fake,” Father Grigory explained.

“So our role is not to take people out of the Russian Orthodox Church. We work with the vast majority who don’t know what Christianity is, who think it’s just going around with the long beard and strange clothes and saying these strange words.”

“We want to show that a true Christian must be present at the epicentre of any problems. And that a Christian must help.”

AP/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, right, place burning candles at a church in 2000AP/AP

One segment of disappointment with the Russian Orthodox Church and its leadership stems from the fact that it has long been considered compromised by the Kremlin.

The Soviet Union initially fully eliminated organised religion, confiscated church property and persecuted priests and the faithful in the 1920s. The Orthodox Church, however, was partially revived in World War II by Joseph Stalin.

Stalin, a hardline communist, felt he needed the support of the local population for his wide-reaching goals of both reforming society and fighting external enemies.

Documents released in the post-Soviet years claimed to prove that NKVD — the KGB’s violent predecessor — was heavily involved in church matters and that the baton was passed on, using the clergy as both domestic informants and agents of influence abroad.

Father Gleb Yakunin — a pro-democracy activist and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group — was the vice chairman of a Russian parliamentary commission investigating the KGB’s involvement in the church, famously releasing Politburo documents said to prove the existence of an extensive link between the two.

The commission implicated Patriarch Alexy II as a collaborator, but it was a KGB archive recovered in Estonia in 1999 showing that his involvement with the Soviet intelligence agency went even beyond what was initially assumed.

According to the files, the patriarch was a full-fledged KGB agent. He had a codename, Drozdov, and was at some point even decorated by the Soviet intelligence agency.

The church claimed the documents were forged but did not go beyond that, rejecting to show proof to the contrary and exculpate its leader.

None of this was ever reported in Russian state-owned and mainstream outlets.

Yet Putin’s critics, like the late Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, long maintained that the Russian president and his closest allies, such as Dmitry Medvedev, have shown time and again that their purported religiousness is superficial, if altogether non-existent.

Their involvement in displays of religious fervour and closeness to the church were instead meant to mobilise the support of those Russians who felt a traditional belonging to — or consolation in — the church in post-Soviet times.

As Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in 2006, pointed out, the Kremlin has often committed faux pas when attending masses and other church processions, while Patriarch Alexy II addressing Putin as “Your Most High Excellency” showed that the highest religious authority in the country bows to the authority of the president.

It has long been alleged that Patriarch Kirill’s appointment in 2009 after Alexey II’s death was also done with the involvement of the intelligence agencies and Putin himself. 

In turn, Kirill has showered Putin with unwavering praise, most recently saying that "God put (Putin) in power so that (he) could perform a service of special importance and of great responsibility for the fate of the country" on the occasion of his 70th birthday on 7 October.

Russian dreams of empire and ultimate down fall

“The official religious organisation is not a religious organisation at all. It’s a part of the empire-building project,” Grigory said.

In other conflicts, religious authorities were critical of wars, even in the most autocratic regimes, he explained.

“Elsewhere, the church was at least a little bit independent. If the authorities did any sort of mistakes, the church would say it was a mistake and that things should be done differently. But in Russia, a church official all the time says, ‘You’re a genius, you’re doing everything so well, it’s so important,’ and that’s all.“

“The church now works like the commissars did in the Soviet Union. And people of course see it. People don’t like it. Especially after February, a lot of people have left the church, both priests and people who were there for years.“

“They simply can’t stay in a church which says that war is a good thing,” Grigory said.

Personal archive
Father Grigory in front of a "Peace to the world" grafittiPersonal archive

As the war nears its ninth month, Grigory is even more adamant that any form of support for a war of aggression goes against the tenets of true faith.

“I can see a Christian saying that under very difficult circumstances, people need to defend their nation or their country. ‘It’s such a pity, but there is no other way.’”

“But when the church starts to say that it’s a good thing, that we need to go and kill them all, what are we talking about? You must say you are not Christians, or any sort of other religious person.”

To Grigory, Russian society has found itself on the wrong side of history after neglecting to address the social changes brought on by the new reality of living in a transitional society.

“Russia still lives inside the idea of the empire. The main problem is that this idea kills you.”

“So we finally got what we had coming for us,” he explained. “Russia as a state is really against the whole world. And there is of course no chance to win this war.”

Although he does not dismiss the possibility that Russia will recover from becoming the world’s pariah state, Father Grigory is adamant the path will be long and arduous.

“After we lose, it will be necessary to do the hard labour, and not just in the economy. It has to be with our minds and hearts. And many people will have to come to terms with what happened and how we came into such a terrible situation.”

“It’s very difficult and arduous work. It might take a century and it will be necessary to do so. But I am sure that it’s possible.”