The Myth of the “Crusader Putin”

Conservative Catholics tempted to see Putin's Russia as a Christian alternative to an atheistic West need to look more deeply at the reality underneath.

In recent years, American Catholics have found our country violently at odds with many of our firmly-held beliefs—from traditional marriage to defense of the family to defense of the unborn. In response, many of us have looked to the outside world for a Christian country that would emit a glimmer of hope. 

Some conservative Catholics have found Russia as a potential ally. However, given the Russian invasion of Ukraine, perhaps we need to look a bit more closely.

It is true that President Putin’s Russia defends the family and traditional marriage, but so does President Zelensky’s Ukraine. Both countries are about the same on “gay rights,” and both vehemently oppose same-sex “marriage.” On this issue, both countries are quite conservative.

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When it comes to abortion, President Putin and President Zelensky oversee countries very open to legalized abortion. Russia has the world’s highest per-capita abortion rate, while President Zelensky wishes to make abortion more accessible in Ukraine. President Zelensky also wants prostitution and other immoral practices legalized. While prostitution is also illegal in Russia, it is only punishable by a minimal fine. Thus, prostitution is very popular and even lauded by President Putin himself. 

Russia and Ukraine, while both Christian on some issues, are pretty much like any other nation when it comes to their laws—cafeteria Christian and non-Christian on the preeminent issues. 

Yet, even with all of these facts, you will hear that Russia is a Christian country, as if Ukraine is less of one. You will hear justification of Russia’s aggression as a type of a Christian crusade against Western atheism. But such an outlook fails to line up with the facts. 

When looking at the demographics, Russia is actually less Christian than Ukraine. Furthermore, and more importantly, Russia is also less Catholic than Ukraine. Ukraine not only has a higher percentage of Catholics (~7.8% to ~0.5%) but also has more total Catholics (~3,354,000 to ~717,101). 

In addition, Ukraine is home to the largest Eastern Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Its former mother church is in Lviv, where the United States and many Western allies have been placing their embassies. Lviv is a majority Ukrainian Greek Catholic city and oblast. Two other oblasts (provinces) in Western Ukraine are mostly Catholic as well. Lviv has been and still is home to the Roman Catholic Church (Latin Rite) and Armenian Catholic Church (another Eastern Catholic Church) in this region of Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is not only the largest Eastern Catholic Church, but it also provides a direct connection back to the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ as one of the successor churches to the conversion of St. Grand Prince Vladimir I of Kiev to Christianity in 988. Therefore, the Catholic roots for Ukrainians run deep.

In addition to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukraine also has the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, with its mother church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. This church is for Ruthenians/Rusyns, another East Slavic group who make up a sizable minority in Ukraine, in addition to other areas of the Carpathian Mountains where they live. This area is called Carpatho-Ruthenia and includes Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania, and is actually in the same region where the White Croats originate from, one of the tribes that founded the strong Catholic nation of Croatia. 

In Ukraine, the Ruthenians inhabit the Zakarpatska Oblast in Western Ukraine where the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church is the main Catholic jurisdiction there. The Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church can trace its origins to Saint Cyril and Methodius converting the Slavs of Great Moravia to Christianity in 863.

It is true that a Russian Greek Catholic Church exists too, but it has never garnered as much membership or sense of national identity as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has garnered.

Due to the changing borders of Ukraine, Ukrainians at one time lived under Habsburg Rule in places like Lviv and thus have more deeply Catholic roots. Many of the Ukrainian diaspora, especially in the United States, are part of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The same cannot be said for Russia, where there are not any significant cities, regions, or history where the Russian Greek Catholic Church plays a major role.

As one can see, there is a deep affinity between Ukrainians and the Catholic Church that is not present in Russia. And these Catholics are usually the most fiercely patriotic to Ukraine. There is a reason for that. Ukrainians have often looked West, as they did under the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia when they looked for protection from the Mongols in the 1200s. This kingdom and the Galician region were centered on Lviv as their capital. 

Lviv and the other Catholic Ukrainian regions of the West were also key in the struggle for Ukrainian independence in the “Rukh” Movement that saw Ukraine achieve independence from the brutal Russian-led USSR in 1991—with 92.5 percent of the vote, and a sizable majority in all oblasts except the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and a city with special status, Sevastopol, where there was still a majority but with extremely low turnout. 

Ukrainian Catholics and their countrymen sought independence from the abuses Russian-led empires had committed on the Ukrainian people over the years. Just take Catholic clergy in the Soviet Union for example. There were many martyrs and confessors, such as 128 bishops and nuns of the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church who were sent to gulags and 36 Ruthenian Greek Catholic priests who were murdered. 

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, meanwhile, was outlawed by the Soviet Union from 1946-1989. In 2014, in Crimea, many Catholic clergy were forced to leave after the Russian takeover. Some may think these abuses were merely because of communism. But in fact, as seen in this Crimean example, it appears to be a Russian Federation problem too. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine will come with much Catholic heartache. As loyal Catholics, we must remember that the quest of other large Slavic experiments has not boasted proudly for our Church or most others in the recent past. Russia often has revanchist goals, and while it may seem like Russia will stop at Ukraine, there are always worries its invasion could spread to other parts of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.

Catholic countries like Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary could be next in line for Russian onslaught. Beyond that, other Catholic countries like Croatia and Slovenia are just a stone’s throw away. Already, Catholic Lviv is in the crossfire. For Catholics, the threat of Russia is very real, not just inside Russia. 

Catholics should not only hesitate to support a Putin invasion because unnecessary wars are against our Faith, but we should also be against a Putin invasion of Ukraine because our Faith is strong in Ukraine. If conservative Catholics desire a more Catholic world, then we should do all we can to support Ukraine, one of the few countries with a truly Catholic heritage.

[Photo Credit: SERGEI GUNEYEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images]


  • Cole Kinder

    Cole Kinder is a recent graduate from UCLA in political science earning summa cum laude honors. He has written one book thus far, Foreign Policy in 4 Hours, Afghanistan 2021, as well as many articles for various publications. He specializes in international relations, domestic politics, sports, religion (especially Catholicism), Slavic studies, and other subject matters like geography.

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