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Vatican defends pope's praise of 'great' Russian Empire after fury in Ukraine

"Don’t forget your heritage," Pope Francis urged an audience of young Russian Catholics on Friday, in comments that sparked anger in Kyiv and delight from the Kremlin.
Pope Francis at The Vatican, on Jan. 24, 2023.
Pope Francis at the Vatican on Jan. 24.Domenico Stinellis / AP file

The Vatican sought to defend Pope Francis on Tuesday after he sparked fury in Ukraine by praising Russia's imperial rulers — a history President Vladimir Putin has invoked to justify his ongoing war.

The Kremlin delighted in the controversy, which stemmed from comments the pontiff made to a group of young Russian Catholics urging them to see themselves as the heirs of a "great" empire.

"Don’t forget your heritage. You are the descendants of great Russia: the great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire — educated, great culture and great humanity," he told them in St. Petersburg by live video Friday.

"Never give up on this heritage. You are descendants of the great Mother Russia, step forward with it. And thank you — thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian."

The pope gave a prepared speech to the event in his native Spanish before switching to Italian for this unscripted aside. The online transcript of the speech does not include these comments, video of which was shared widely online over the weekend.

The pope was strongly criticized by Ukrainian leaders, who said he was repeating Russian nationalist talking points that are used to justify the Kremlin's war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has compared himself to the expansionist Peter the Great and spoken of Ukraine being part of a historic, greater 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, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said on Facebook.

The head of Ukraine's Eastern Rite Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said in a statement that the pope's words had caused "great pain and worry" and feared they could "inspire the neo-colonial ambitions of the aggressor country."

Amid growing pressure, the Vatican said Tuesday that it was “clear” from the context of the pontiff’s comments that they were not designed to praise Russian imperialism.

“The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to extol imperialistic logics and governmental personalities, cited to point to certain historical periods of reference,” spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.

The pope has repeatedly criticized Russia's actions in Ukraine, describing the invaded country as "martyred" while calling for peace throughout the war.

But Francis' latest intervention was warmly received in the Kremlin.

"It is admirable that the pontiff knows Russian history," Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in his daily press briefing Tuesday.

"It is deep and the legacy is very old, not restricted to Peter I. The entire society and schools work hard to hand over this to young people. The pontiff going along with this effort is really good and makes us glad," he said.

Putin has frequently mentioned Russia's long imperial past in speeches and essays, often in an attempt to justify his contemporary foreign policy goals.

Portrait Of Emperor Peter I The Great (1672-1725)
Tsar Peter I (1672-1725), also known as Peter the Great.Heritage Images / Getty file

In June last year, Putin compared himself to the 18th-century tsar, Peter the Great, who expanded his nation's borders by seizing Swedish land and several Baltic states, establishing Russia as a major European empire.

Drawing a parallel to his war in Ukraine, Putin said Peter did not take territories from Sweden and others but "returned" them to their natural place in the wider Russian Empire.

Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great, annexed Crimea in 1783.

Days before his forces annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Putin told an audience that "Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities," arguing that Russia and Ukraine were historically inseparable.

He returned to this theme in a lengthy article prior to his full-scale invasion in 2021, declaring that "Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe."

Ukrainians and many Western analysts have rejected this reading of history.

Olivia Durand, an expert in Russian colonial history and a visiting fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin, told NBC News it was "regrettable" that the pope was repeating the language of great Russian chauvinism, a religious ideology with strong imperialist overtones which saw Moscow as the protector of the "true" Orthodox faith after the fall of the previous centers of Christianity.

"This speech is understandably an upsetting one for people in Ukraine and beyond — it feels tone deaf and unaware of the deeper history of religious politicization ... during the successive ages of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the USSR and today’s Russian Federation," she said.