While Pope Francis addressed young Russian Catholics, he told them they were the inheritors of a great Russia and its rulers, an empire that was “enlightened.” He told them never to give up the heritage of “Mother Russia” and to continue it.
His words caused outrage in Ukraine. This is because Peter the Great systematically crushed all signs of Ukrainian independence with repression and impoverishment. He not only fought them militarily but also enslaved them into forced labor. He also discriminated in favor of the Russians at every available opportunity.
Catherine the Great was no better. She liquidated the very last signs of Ukrainian statehood. She dissolved the Cossack army, forcing its men into Russian service or turning them into serfs. All signs of Ukrainian autonomy were erased and taxes and serfdom enforced.
Some will say Pope Francis’ unfortunate words were simply uttered at an inappropriate time, but they are unacceptable even if we put aside the Ukrainian context. This is because Peter the Great was a ruler who made the Russian Church totally instrumental to the state. He effectively nationalized the Church in Russia. He forced Orthodox priests to break their vows of silence if someone in a confessional admitted to a crime against the Russian state. Privately, the ruler mocked the Church at every opportunity.
Catherine II conducted a policy of territorial expansion through aggression. She partitioned Poland and oppressed the Catholic Church on annexed lands. Her troops massacred civilians. She herself was a libertine with loose morals.
Both of them serve as role models for Vladimir Putin’s imperial policies. If Pope Francis wanted to inspire Russians, he could have selected individuals such as Russian saints or the great human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov rather than tyrants and colonizers.
The pope also used the term “empire” in a positive context. In this way, he endorsed imperial heritage. Since he was speaking spontaneously, he may have revealed his personal views. He also used the term “great” to describe Russia six times during his remarks.
Poles and Ukrainians are united in wishing that young Russians should not attempt to follow the path of either Peter the Great or Catherine the Great. The pope’s remarks are unacceptable to both our nations.