It was February 27, the fourth day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the Sunday of the Last Judgment in the Orthodox calendar. Epiphanius, Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine, published an open letter to Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. In it, Epiphanius scorns Kirill for political opportunism and cold-hearted abandonment of those Ukrainian citizens who belong to the Moscow Patriarchate: “Unfortunately, it has become clear from your previous public statements that maintaining the goodwill of Putin and the Russian Federation is much more important to you than caring for the people of Ukraine, some of whom considered you their shepherd before the war. Therefore it hardly makes sense to ask you to do something effective to stop Russia’s aggression against Ukraine immediately.” He went on to say, “If you cannot raise your voice against aggression, at least take the bodies of Russian soldiers whose lives have become the price for the ideas of the ‘Russian world,’ yours and your president’s.”
Was the reference to the unburied Russian soldiers merely a taunt? Apparently not. At that time, Ukraine was reporting that more than five thousand Russians had died in the first days of combat. The Ukrainians worked with the International Red Cross to repatriate the bodies, but the Russians were not cooperating. Ukraine even set up a website through which families could locate their dead, but it was immediately blocked in Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s political interests are served by keeping the body count a secret and suppressing evidence of Russian losses. A stream of corpses returning to the villages and towns of the Russian Federation would falsify his preferred narrative of a swift and successful “special military operation.” As the number of casualties continues to mount, so does the pressure to conceal them. Statistics on this question are impossible to verify, but on March 24 NATO estimated that between seven thousand and fifteen thousand Russian soldiers had died in Ukraine, whereas Russia’s defense ministry has admitted to only 1,351 deaths.
What could possibly override this politically motivated silence? Nothing so far has succeeded in doing so, yet it is worth noting that Epiphanius’s challenge to Kirill (“at least take the bodies”) draws force from a religio-cultural context that transcends the present regime. Respect for the dead is deeply ingrained in Eastern Orthodoxy. Cremation is forbidden and even embalming is frowned upon. An Orthodox funeral is an elaborate affair, involving home customs as well as church and graveside ceremonies. Other religious groups in the region (such as Muslims, Jews, and Western Christians) are likewise deeply concerned about giving the dead proper burial. Photographs of Orthodox funerals in Ukraine attest to the immense care taken in laying a body to rest—the abundance of flowers, even in wartime; the candles and vestments; the loaves of bread set atop the coffins; the processions and weeping—all underscore the importance of this transitus. Even nonbelievers in Russia hold secular “farewell ceremonies.” To abandon the dead is unthinkable. “Look, even when a cat or a dog dies, you don’t do that,” Ukrainian President Zelensky said in an interview with Russian journalists. “This is war. But it’s not cattle!”