Pope’s praise for ‘great’ Russian Empire sparks fury among Ukrainians

The Vatican defended Pope Francis after he sparked fury in Ukraine by praising Russia's imperial rulers, who President Vladimir Putin invoked to justify his war.

The Vatican tried to defend Pope Francis after the pontiff caused fury in Ukraine when he praised Russia’s Imperial rulers — an history President Vladimir Putin invoked to justify his war.

The Kremlin took pleasure in the controversy that arose from Francis’ comments to a young Russian group, where he encouraged them to think of themselves as the “heirs” of a great empire.

“Don’t forget your heritage. “You are descendants of the great Russia, the great Russia that was ruled by saints and rulers. The great Russia which Peter I, Catherine, that empire, were all great Russias. You have great culture, great humanity, and you’re educated.” He said to young Russian Catholics via live video in St. Petersburg on Friday.

Never give up this heritage. Step forward, you are the descendants of Mother Russia. “Thank you for being Russian, thank you for being you.”

The online transcript of the speech does not include these comments. A video was shared widely on the internet over the weekend. The transcript of the speech excludes these comments. A video of them was widely shared online at the weekend.

Aug. 7, 202301:48

Ukrainian leaders criticized the pope for repeating Russian nationalist talking-points that are used by the Kremlin to justify its war. Russian President Vladimir Putin compared himself with the expansionist Peter the Great, and spoke of Ukraine as part of an historic greater Russia.

Oleg Nikolenko said that “the Kremlin justified the killing of thousands Ukrainians, and the destruction and destruction of Ukrainian villages and cities, with imperialist propaganda about’spiritual links’ and ‘needs’ to save the great Mother Russia.'”

The head of Ukraine’s Eastern Rite Catholic Church Archbishop Sviatoslav Sviatoslav said in a press release that the pope’s words caused “great worry and pain” and feared that they could “inspire neocolonial ambitions by the aggressor nation.”

The Vatican, under increasing pressure, said that the context of the pontiff’s remarks made it “clear” that the comments were not meant to praise Russian imperialism.

The Pope’s intention was to encourage youth to preserve and promote the positive aspects of Russia’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage and not to extol imperialistic governmental figures and logic, which were cited in order to refer to historical periods.

The pope has repeatedly criticised Russia’s actions against Ukraine. He calls the country invaded “martyred”, and has called for peace during the entire war.

Francis’s latest intervention has been warmly welcomed in the Kremlin.

In his daily briefing to the press, Dmitry Peskov said, “It’s admirable that he knows Russian history.”

The legacy of Peter I is not the only one that is old. This is a legacy that the entire society, including schools, works hard to pass on to future generations. “We are very happy that the pontiff is supporting this initiative,” Peskov said.

In speeches and essays, Putin has often referred to Russia’s imperial past as a way of justifying his current foreign policy.

Tsar Peter I, (1672-1725) also known as Peter the Great.

Heritage Images / Getty file

In June of last year, Putin likened himself with the 18th century Tsar Peter the Great who established Russia as a major European Empire by securing Swedish land and several Baltic States.

Putin drew a comparison between his war in Ukraine and the fact that Peter didn’t take territory from Sweden or other countries, but rather “returned” those territories to their rightful place within the Russian empire.

Catherine II (also known as Catherine the Great) annexed Crimea, in 1783.

Putin said that Kyiv was the mother city of Russian cities, a few days before his forces annexed the peninsula in Ukraine in 2014. He argued that Russia and Ukraine are historically inseparable.

In a long article written before his invasion, he returned to the theme, stating that “Russians and Ukrainians are all descended from Ancient Rus which was Europe’s largest state.”

This reading of history has been rejected by many Ukrainians as well as Western analysts.

Olivia Durand is an expert on Russian colonial histories and a visiting scholar at Freie Universitat Berlin. She told NBC News that it was “regrettable,” that the pope repeated the language of Russian chauvinism. This was a religious ideologie with strong imperialist undertones, which saw Moscow, after the fall the previous centers for Christianity, as the protector of “true” Orthodox belief.

She said: “This speech will upset people in Ukraine, and even beyond. It is tone-deaf, and it doesn’t know the history of religious politization… through the ages of Muscovy and the Russian Empire to the USSR, and now the Russian Federation.”

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