Published March 1, 2022
Ukrainian intelligence reports suggest that Russian forces may deliberately target and attempt to destroy Saint Sophia, the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom, in downtown Kyiv. If such an attack took place, it would be an attack of cultural barbarism even worse than the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan in 2001, which was cultural vandalism more-or-less detached from politics. The destruction of Saint Sophia would embody in a uniquely vicious way Vladimir Putin’s attempt to rewrite the history of eastern Slavic Christianity in support of his campaign of post-Cold War Russian imperialism, which would be cultural vandalism in aid of political tyranny .
Built in the early 11th century, Saint Sophia is Ukraine’s national sanctuary and the country’s most cherished monument to the baptism of the eastern Slavs in 988. Magnificently restored in recent decades, after the depredations of the Soviet period when it was turned into a museum, its golden domes and extraordinary mosaics are of such historical, aesthetic, and cultural value that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Perhaps more to the immediate point, Saint Sophia symbolizes the vibrant Ukrainian national identity, and the linkage of that identity to the baptism of Rus’ in 988, that Vladimir Putin seems hell-bent on destroying.
Earlier today, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church issued the following appeal to the world from a bomb shelter:
We have received information that the Russian army plans an air strike on the most venerable holy site of the Ukrainian people since the time of Kyivan Rus – the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kyiv. His Beatitude Sviatoslav, Head and Father of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, calls upon all Christians to pray for the protection of this holy site of all Slavic peoples and calls upon the aggressor to refrain from this most horrific act of vandalism.
Those prayers should arise from every Christian heart as Christians throughout the world count down the hours to the beginning of Lent.
More can and should be done, however. On the assumption that the intelligence that led to the Major-Archbishop’s appeal has been shared with Western governments by the Zelensky government in Ukraine, Western leaders should waste no time in informing the Kremlin that the destruction of the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Kyiv by Russian forces will lead to an immediate and even more draconian imposition of economic sanctions, including the cut-off of all Russian exports, oil and gas included; the acceleration of efforts by the International Criminal Court to bring war-crimes indictments against Russian officials; and the seizure of Russian assets held in non-Russian financial institutions.
For decades now, Vladimir Putin, whom some deluded souls imagine to be some sort of Christian figure, has deployed a warped misrepresentation of the history of eastern Slavic Christianity to buttress his attempts to reverse the verdict of the Cold War and reassemble something resembling the old Soviet Union. Three days before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Putin gave an hour-long address in which he claimed, in effect, that Ukraine had no past of its own, and therefore should have no future of its own.
In this assault on historical truth, Putin has been aided and abetted by the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, which endorses his preposterous claim that the sole legitimate heir of the baptism of the eastern Slavs in 988 is Russia. Thus religious authorities throughout the world should contact Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and demand that he exert whatever influence he has to forestall a blasphemous act of destruction in Kyiv. Vatican officials who imagine they can play some sort of mediating role in the war on Ukraine should be the first on the phone to the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church, demanding protection for an artifact of Christian history that antedates the split of 1054 between Christian East and Christian West. Saint Sophia is uniquely of Kyiv, but it belongs spiritually to all Christians, and Patriarch Kirill should be forcefully reminded of that.
It was entirely predictable that Russian anti-personnel attacks on civilians would intensify as the Russian military’s bumbling performance in Ukraine failed to deliver the blitzkrieg victory that Mr. Putin evidently anticipated, self-deluded as he was about the unreality of Ukrainian nationhood. In response to Ukraine’s heroic resistance, the defense ministry in Moscow has publicly announced that Kyiv will be subject to bombing and missile attack. It is Afghanistan and Syria and Chechnya all over again – barbaric assaults on the innocent that have no connection to military reason, or military honor. That, it seems, is the Russian way of war, whether under communism or under those whose consciences seem to have been terminally warped by communism, like ex-KGB agent Putin.
The world must let Vladimir Putin, those who surround and enable him, and the Russian military leadership know that they will be international pariahs if this barbarity continues, and if Saint Sophia is one of its victims.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).