Pontiff says Russia should be proud of historical figures but comments condemned as ‘deeply regrettable’ by Ukraine
ByNick Squires IN ROME 29 August 2023 •
The Kremlin has praised what it called “very gratifying” remarks made by Pope Francis, who told an audience of young Russians that they should be proud of their imperial history and past historical figures such as Peter and Catherine the Great.
The Pope’s comments infuriated Ukraine, which called them “deeply regrettable”.
Peter the Great and Catherine the Great’s efforts to expand Russian territory in the 17th and 18th centuries included conquering parts of Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin has invoked both monarchs in justifying his full-scale invasion of the country.
“The pontiff knows Russian history and this is very good,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said on Tuesday. “It has deep roots, and our heritage is not limited to Peter [the Great] or Catherine, it is much more ancient.
“What the [Russian] state, activist groups, school and university teachers are doing now is carrying this heritage to our youth, reminding them of it. And the fact that the pontiff sounds in unison with these efforts is very, very gratifying,” said Mr Peskov.
‘Be proud of your past’
Pope Francis made the remarks during a video conference with Russian Catholic youths gathered in St Petersburg last week.
Straying from his prepared script, he said they should be proud of their past.
“Never forget your inheritance. You are the heirs of the great Russia. The great Russia of the saints, of the kings, of the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, that great imperial Russia, cultivated, with so much culture and humanity. Thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian.”
His remarks prompted outrage from Kyiv and other countries formerly conquered by Russia.
“It is precisely with such imperialist propaganda, the ‘spiritual ties’ and the ‘need’ to save ‘great Mother Russia’ that the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and villages,” Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian foreign ministry, wrote on Facebook.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former president of Estonia, whose country was conquered by Russia under Peter I, called the Pope’s remarks “truly revolting”, in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Eastern Rite Catholic Church in Ukraine, said that the Pope’s remarks had caused “great pain and worry”.
“We fear that those words are understood by some as an encouragement of precisely this nationalism and imperialism, which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine,” he said. “War that every day brings death and destruction to our people.”
Vatican: Glorification not intended
On Tuesday, the Vatican scrambled to put out a clarification of the Pope’s remarks, saying that he had not intended to glorify Russian imperialism.
His comments were intended to “encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage”.
The Pope “certainly didn’t want to exalt imperialistic logic or government personalities, who were cited to indicate certain historic periods of reference”, Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, said in a statement.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis has been accused of expressing a morally ambivalent attitude towards Russian aggression.
In March, he described Vladimir Putin as a “cultured man” and said the conflict had been driven by the interests of competing “empires” and “the great powers”.
In June last year, he suggested that Nato may have provoked Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine by “barking at the gates of Russia”.
Austen Ivereigh, a Vatican expert who has written a biography of Pope Francis, said the observations might be hard to comprehend in the West.
“I think it’s hard for Westerners to grasp when he says things like this,” he told The Telegraph earlier this year.
“He’s coming at this not from a Western perspective but the perspective of the developing world, the global south. This is not about moral equivalence. He knows Russia is the aggressor.
“But he is deeply sceptical about the way in which the war has developed and thinks no one is really trying to secure peace.
“He thinks there is so much money invested in the arms industry that it creates a logic to use those weapons,” said Mr Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer – Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.