Desperation: Russian Orthodox patriarch calls Russians to martyrdom in Ukraine to have sins "washed away"

Desperation: Russian Orthodox patriarch calls Russians to martyrdom in Ukraine to have sins "washed away"
(Alexander Nemenov/Pool Photo via AP, File)

You see, this is why I prefer Catholicism. All we need is confession.

Russia’s establishment has grown desperate enough in Ukraine to reach for the martyrdom argument. Patriarch Kirill, a Vladimir Putin crony, declared that Russian men who die for “Holy Russia” by participating in its genocide in Ukraine will have their sins “washed away”:


The head of the Russian Orthodox Church has said that Russian soldiers who die in the war against Ukraine will be cleansed of all their sins, days after President Vladimir Putin ordered the country’s first mobilisation since World War Two.

Patriarch Kirill is a key Putin ally and backer of the invasion. He has previously criticised those who oppose the war and called on Russians to rally round the Kremlin.

“Many are dying on the fields of internecine warfare,” Kirill, 75, said in his first Sunday address since the mobilisation order. “The Church prays that this battle will end as soon as possible, so that as few brothers as possible will kill each other in this fratricidal war.”

“But at the same time, the Church realises that if somebody, driven by a sense of duty and the need to fulfil their oath … goes to do what their duty calls of them, and if a person dies in the performance of this duty, then they have undoubtedly committed an act equivalent to sacrifice. They will have sacrificed themselves for others. And therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed.”

If that sounds positively medieval, it is, literally. It’s the same indulgence granted during the Crusades. This is the kind of martyrdom teaching one no longer finds in Christianity but still find in radical forms of Islam and extremist political ideologies. In those ideologies, however, the martyrdom redounds to the faith or ideology rather than a temporal power, at least ostensibly. Kirill has sold out entirely for Putin and his unholy vision of imperial Russia, especially with his call to martyrdom for the cause of stamping out another civilization in favor of Kirill’s own.


In any event, Kirill’s pitch isn’t working. Putin’s full mobilization has created a massive public backlash especially in the regions where Putin hopes to draw the most manpower. Even in Moscow, however, Putin’s order has perhaps pushed the heretofore complacent Muscovites into open dissent:

Scuffles broke out Sunday in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where screaming women struggled with police and tried to prevent them from dragging male protesters to police vans. It was a rare sign of dissent that underscored the dangers of regional unrest over the mobilization.

Earlier Sunday in Dagestan, an impoverished southern region that has borne a disproportionate share of military casualties in Ukraine, furious residents blocked a highway to protest the mobilization of 110 men from Endirey village, including some who had recently returned from the war, independent local media reported.

In eastern Siberia, meanwhile, several hundred women rallied Sunday in the city of Yakutsk, chanting “No to war” before police broke up the rally and arrested participants, according to local media outlets and activist groups.

And in Moscow, demonstrators also took to the streets Sunday to protest reports of the conscription of some who were elderly, sick, disabled or otherwise unfit or exempt from military service.

Even Putin’s allies may be turning on him over the forced draft and its incompetent rollout:

Prominent Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT and one of the loudest cheerleaders of the war, published an astonishing Twitter thread Saturday listing cases of people wrongly mobilized. They included a 63-year-old with diabetes and cerebral ischemia, a 35-year-old with a spinal fracture and artificial vertebrae, and sole caregivers to disabled people.


Putin may not have much choice but to opt for such draft candidates. ISW notes today that the Russian military system failed to make a transition to a Western-style voluntary military in 2008, a transition necessitated in part by their economic collapse. That left Russia with a strange blend of voluntary recruitment and legally constrained conscript use that left it entirely unprepared for any kind of extended military engagement. That means Russia may not have effective combat troops for a long, long time to march into Kirill’s martyrdom:

The Russian military ended up with a hybrid model blending conscript and professional soldiers. Professional militaries are expensive because the state must offer prospective voluntary recruits far higher salaries and benefits than it gives to conscripts, who have no choice but to serve. Serdyukov quickly found that the Russian defense budget could not afford to offer enticements sufficient to overcome the centuries-old Russian resistance to military service. The Russian military thus became a mix of volunteer professional soldiers, whom the Russians call kontraktniki, and one-year conscripts.

The reduction in the mandatory term of service for conscripts made Russia’s reserves less combat ready. Conscripts normally reach a bare minimum of military competence within a year—the lost second year is the period in which a cadre-and-reserve military would normally bring its conscripts to a meaningful level of combat capability. The shift to a one-year term of mandatory military service in 2008 means that the last classes of Russian men who served two-year terms are now in their early 30s. Younger men in the prime age brackets for being recalled to fight served only the abbreviated one-year period.

The prioritization of building a professional force and the de-prioritization of conscript service likely translated into an erosion of the bureaucratic structures required for mobilization. Mobilization is always a bureaucratically challenging undertaking. It requires local officials throughout the entire country to perform well a task they may never conduct and rehearse rarely, if at all. Maintaining the bureaucratic infrastructure required to conduct a large-scale reserve call-up requires considerable attention from senior leadership—attention it likely did not receive in Russia over the last 15 years or so.

Putin has already conducted at least four attempts at mobilization in the last year, likely draining the pool of available combat-ready (and willing) reservists ahead of the “partial mobilization.”


Russia isn’t the only country with these kinds of wider-mobilization issues, of course. Then again, perhaps that’s a good reason to refrain from wars of aggression for territorial gains, especially when the target of that aggression can defend themselves with a little help from their friends. You go to war with the army you have, the saying goes, and if this is the army the Russians had, they should never have gone to war at all.

Thus we have Kirill’s theological insanity yesterday, urging Russian men to die in Ukraine for their sins. In reality, Kirill wants them to die in Ukraine for Putin’s sins, and for Kirill’s as well. One has to wonder whether Kirill is an atheist at heart — and whether he now realizes that he’d better be one, given how thoroughly he’s sold his soul and his church for Putin.

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