By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis did not intend to glorify Russian imperialism when he extolled tsars that expanded the Russian empire, the Vatican said on Tuesday, after remarks last week that were criticised by Ukraine while welcomed by the Kremlin.
Francis had told Russian youths in the unscripted remarks on Friday to remember that they are the heirs of past tsars such as Peter I and Catherine II.
The two monarchs, both referred to as "the great" by historians, expanded Russia into a huge empire in the 17th and 18th centuries, including conquering parts of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin invokes their legacies in justifying his invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory last year.
"The pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities, (which he) mentioned to indicate some historical periods of reference," Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
Francis had said: "You are heirs of the great Russia - the great Russia of the saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, the great Russian empire, cultured, so much culture, so much humanity. You are the heirs of the great mother Russia. Go forward."
Kyiv called the remarks "deeply regrettable".
"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.
Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, 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 loyal to the pope, said in a statement that his the pontiff's words had caused "great pain and worry".
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised the remarks: "The pontiff knows Russian history and this is very good," he said.
"What the (Russian) state, activist groups, school and university teachers are doing now is carrying this heritage to our youth, reminding them of it," Peskov said. "And the fact that the pontiff sounds in unison with these efforts is very, very gratifying."
The Vatican embassy in Kyiv said in a statement that the pope was a "staunch opponent and critic of any form of imperialism or colonialism" and rejected what it described as media "interpretations" of the pope's comments.
Pope Francis has been an outspoken critic of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but has occasionally angered Kyiv for unscripted remarks perceived as supporting Moscow's narrative.
Kyiv summoned the Vatican ambassador last year after the pope described Darya Dugina, a Russian ultra-nationalist killed in a car bomb near Moscow, as an innocent victim of the war.
Putin has long sought to deny that Ukraine has a tradition of statehood and says Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Ukrainian and Western scholars call this a false account aimed at erasing Ukraine's thousand-year history.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella and Alvise Armellini, additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Peter Graff)