Pope Francis’s video speech to the All-Russian Meeting of Catholic Youth in St. Petersburg, urging them to “not forget their heritage” has caused quite a stir. What struck a bitter chord internationally — and especially in Ukraine — about the remarks he delivered on August 25 was not so much its religious contents, but its tone-deaf praise of the heritage of “Mother Russia,” which he urged his listeners to never give up.
You are the descendants of great Russia: the great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire – educated, great culture and great humanity
The positive invocation of Russia’s imperial legacies has been regularly used as a historical justification for the military invasion of Ukraine. So it now feels particularly insensitive — and somewhat unaware of the politicization of religion in Russia’s imperial and present-day discourses.
The Pope’s speech also worryingly echoes the Kremlin’s official discourse since 2014 which has claimed Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities” on the back of shared religious heritage. Putin has also used the history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union to assert, on the eve of invasion, that Ukraine was “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”
The national ideology deployed by the Russian Federation over the past decade is one that glorifies the imperial past, a glorification closely intertwined with Russia’s self-proclaimed role as a religious authority.
Battle for Souls
But what is the role of religion, and particularly of Christianity, in Russia’s official discourse and how is this discourse related to imperial claims over Ukraine? Orthodox Christianity was introduced to Ukraine during the time of Kyivan Rus’ when Prince Volodymir of Kyiv chose Orthodoxy in 988-989 over the competing regional influences of Khazar Judaism, Volga Islam, and Germanic Catholicism.
Some versions of the myth about the baptism of Prince Volodymyr indicate that the ceremony took place in modern-day Crimea. This has bolstered Russia’s claim over the peninsula — something spearheaded by the conquest and annexation of Crimea by Catherine II (“the Great”) in 1783 and renewed by Vladimir Putin in 2014.
The late Middle Ages (1400-1500s) and early modern period (1600-1700s) saw a religious division and distinction emerge between Muscovy (a kingdom centered on the city of Moscow) and the lands that were to become Ukraine. From 1458, the inhabitants of Western Rus’ (Ruthenia) who were then under the rule of Poland-Lithuania selected their own “Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Rus.”
This represented a move away from the authority of the Moscow-based Orthodox patriarchs and initiated a religious and cultural divergence that was made official by the Union of Brest (1595). This placed the Ruthenian Orthodox Church’s (today’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) under the authority of the pope of Rome, with an aim to reconcile Orthodox structures with the Catholic papacy.
Russia’s adverse reaction to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was not just a matter of quenching nationalist ideas — nor was it only linked to the assertion of the primacy of Moscow’s patriarch. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the vision of Moscow as a “Third Rome” — after Rome and Constantinople — was particularly dominant as an imperial ideology of endless expansion.
This view embraced the idea of Moscow’s duty to protect the “true” Orthodox faith after the fall of the previous centers of Christianity, a religious ideology with strong imperialist overtones.
Orthodox Nationalism as Imperial Tool
Claiming Christian Orthodoxy, and with it Kyivan origins, was essential to the rise of Muscovy as the territorial and political base for the later Russian Empire. It was particularly important in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion (1237-40), as a convenient method to negate the Tatar (and therefore Muslim) element in Muscovy’s early development and instead create an Orthodox past.
The significance of religion increased after Peter I transformed the tsardom into an imperial state in 1721. He presented the Russian empire as the patron and defender of eastern Christianity — within and beyond its own borders. This declared mission sustained expansion wars under the guise of defending endangered Orthodox Christians. It notably opposed Russia to the neighboring Ottoman Empire, a conflict that culminated in the 1853-1856 Crimean War that claimed half a million lives, including British.
These military conflicts also led to the Russian Empire’s capture of eastern Ukraine and the northern Black Sea — regions renamed “New Russia” in an ideological transformation that erased the culture, languages, and religion of their pre-colonial past.
As Russia grew into an empire — with autocratic figures such as Peter I, Catherine II, or Nicholas I — the role of the emperor as a divinely appointed despot made religion a tool of political control and conquest. Although the Russian empire was multi-faith in practice (in 1897, 30 percent of its subjects belonged to “foreign confession”), its rule was Orthodox. The dominance of Christian orthodoxy as an imperial state ideology meant that other religious groups — from Catholics in Warsaw to Muslims in Samarkand — while tolerated at times, could be demonized and repressed as non-Russian minorities.
When the Pope praised the legacies of “great Russia” in its imperial form, his speech seems to be buttressing decades of ideological radicalization to mobilize Russian society behind the mission of the Holy Russian Empire.
Legacies of empire — among them territorial conquests, cultural subjugation, and religious dogma — have been reappropriated by the Kremlin to provide the cornerstones for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So the Pope’s decision to call on the heritage of the Russian empire is unfortunate to say the least. It neglects how the histories of both the Orthodox church and the Russian Empire have been weaponized in Russia to justify its invasion of Ukraine.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.