Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine have forced the issue of religious loyalties to the fore while at the same time undermining the position of the Russian Orthodox Church among Ukrainian congregations. The Russian Church’s perceived support for Putin’s war and the refusal of priests to bless or bury Ukrainian soldiers have left many of the Ukrainian faithful distressed and disillusioned, leading to the defection of entire parishes from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Kyiv Patriarchate. This religious element of the broader geopolitical split between Ukraine and Russia is now entering a new phase as Kyiv aims to gain international recognition for an independent Orthodox Church of its own.
Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, the rival Kyiv and Moscow Patriarchates have competed for the loyalties of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, with the Russian Orthodox Church enjoying the considerable advantage of official international recognition. As the undeclared war between Ukraine and Russia enters its fifth year with no end in sight, Kyiv is now seeking to reduce Russia’s ability to interfere in the country by securing recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from Moscow. In April, President Poroshenko sent an official appeal to the Archbishop of Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew, who is recognized as the worldwide head of the Orthodox Church. The appeal came days after Poroshenko had met with the Patriarch personally during an official visit to Istanbul.
President Poroshenko has portrayed this bid for religious independence or “autocephaly” as part of the campaign to free Ukraine from Russian influence. He has received parliamentary backing for his appeal, but political opponents have accused the Ukrainian leader of seeking to exploit religious tensions as part of his re-election campaign ahead of Ukraine’s March 2019 presidential vote. Meanwhile, Russia has responded to Poroshenko’s initiative by accusing Kyiv of attempting to “split” the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, which Moscow continues to regard as indivisible. Business Ukraine magazine spoke to veteran Ukraine watcher Taras Kuzio about this escalating religious confrontation and asked him whether Ukraine was genuinely on the brink of an historic breakthrough.
This is not the first time post-Soviet Ukraine has sought official international recognition for a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Why might this effort succeed while previous attempts failed?
There have been numerous attempts ever since the early 1990s, beginning with President Leonid Kravchuk. These efforts then went into recess under President Leonid Kuchma, who supported the idea of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in rhetoric but did nothing to back it up. Kuchma was very even-handed in his treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine - officially registered as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) - and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarch (UOC-KP). For example, he transferred the Pecherska Lavra to the former and the rebuilt St. Michaels Cathedral to the latter.
President Viktor Yushchenko’s approach to the issue of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church was similar to his position on other sensitive national themes such as the Ukrainian language and NATO membership. He was loud on rhetoric but did little to back it up with action. His image was also arguably too nationalistic because of his over-focus on memory politics.
Yushchenko’s successor President Viktor Yanukovych displayed an open bias towards the Russian Orthodox Church. He championed a vision of Ukraine as belonging to the “Russkii Mir” (“Russian World”) civilisation, with Russian Orthodoxy playing a central role in uniting the three core branches of this Russian World in modern Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
Few would describe current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as an extreme Ukrainian nationalist. He has done businesse in Russia and has generally escaped accusations of Russophobia. In this sense at least, he is very much a political centrist.
President Poroshenko has also approached the issue differently to previous Ukrainian presidents. Instead of demanding autocephaly for the Kyiv Patriarchate, he is seeking autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodoxy as a whole. This would potentially unite all or part of its three wings: the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kyiv Patriarchate along with the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
From the perspective of the international Orthodox Church, it is reasonable to assume that the Constantinople Patriarch would like to see Ukrainians as allies to help balance against the perceived arrogance and overbearing demeanour of the Russian Orthodox Church, which often behaves as a first among equals.
Russia has long made recognition of a separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church one of its biggest red lines. How far will the Moscow Patriarchate go to prevent the loss of Ukraine?
In light of the policies undertaken by Putin over the last five years, we can safely say that anything is possible. If he is willing to use Novichok nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury in rural England, why should we assume he has any barriers? It is also important to appreciate how critical this issue is for Russia’s role in the post-Soviet region. Unlike other national churches, the Russian Orthodox Church lays claim to congregations throughout the former USSR, with Ukraine as by far the biggest prize. The Serbian Orthodox Church, for example, did not lay claim to jurisdiction over all of the former Yugoslavia.
For Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is just as much a part of the Russian World as Ukraine itself. Putin still views Ukraine as fundamentally “Russian” and regards the medieval Kyiv Rus as the “first Russian state”. We see evidence of this in his frequent assertions that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, and in the unveiling of a monument to Grand Prince Volodymyr in November 2016 in central Moscow - a city that did not exist when Volodymyr reigned in Kyiv. Putin even sought to bolster Russia’s historic claims to Crimea by saying the Ukrainian peninsula was the site of Volodymyr’s baptism in 988.
In practical terms, Ukrainian autocephaly would mean the dramatic downgrading of the Russian Orthodox Church within the world of Orthodox Christianity. The Moscow Church would lose approximately half of its parishes if it loses Ukraine. While Russia is far larger than Ukraine, the two countries both have around 14,000 Orthodox parishes each.
The Russian Orthodox Church is often described as Moscow’s last bastion of influence in Ukraine. How important a role has the Moscow Patriarchate played in Ukrainian society since the Soviet collapse?
It has played a significant role but that role is now diminishing in line with the general trend towards declining Russian influence in Ukraine. In recent years, Russian soft power in Ukraine has both collapsed of its own accord and been legislatively restricted. There are bans in place on Russian books, social media, TV channels and pop stars. Only 2% of young Ukrainians watch Russian TV. Putin’s biggest export - corruption - used to be hugely influential in Ukrainian politics but even this has declined because the energy sector has undergone a thorough clean up under President Poroshenko. Politically, the pro-Russian Party of Regions used to monopolise eastern and southern Ukraine but it no longer exists, while electoral support has splintered since 2014 among a series of unofficial successor parties.
This leaves the Russian Orthodox Church as one of the last levers of Russian influence and as a means of keeping Ukraine psychologically within the Russian World. However, the Moscow Church must contend with dramatic shifts in attitudes towards Ukrainian identity that are taking place throughout the heartlands of Russian-speaking Ukraine in the south and east of the country. There has been a collapse in allegiance to traditional Russian and Soviet identities in these regions since 2014 as more people self-identify as Ukrainians. There has also been massive growth in the number of Ukrainians who no longer see Russians as “fraternal brothers” (a myth introduced in the Stalin era). Three-quarters of Ukrainians currently have negative views of the current Russian leadership. They see Russia as an aggressor state and believe its goal is to destroy Ukrainian independence. In other words, the timing is opportune for Ukraine’s autocephaly bid.
Many Ukrainians accuse the Russian Orthodox Church of supporting Russian military aggression against Ukraine. How credible are these accusations?
Reports supporting these claims have appeared in numerous reputable media outlets such as the New York Times, while there is extensive open source evidence of Russian Orthodox priests blessing Russian nationalists and other combatants traveling to fight in eastern Ukraine. In the Donbas itself, one of the Russia nationalist groups actually calls itself the Russian Orthodox Army.
How damaging for the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine are perceptions of its closeness to the Kremlin?
The Russian Orthodox Church finds itself in a conundrum. As the official Russian state church, it is obliged to support Putin’s policies. However, within Ukraine it tries to sidestep the current conflict because three-quarters of Ukrainians believe that normalisation of Russian-Ukrainian relations can only happen if Russia withdraws from Crimea, halts its military aggression in eastern Ukraine, and ends interference in Ukrainian internal affairs. This has led to the defection of Ukrainian Orthodox believers and fuelled growing support for the Kyiv Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Church is losing ground because it cannot answer the straightforward questions: “Do you support the annexation of Crimea?” and “Do you condemn Russian military aggression in Ukraine?” It cannot answer because it can neither condemn Russia nor openly support Russia.
The Russian Orthodox Church is also losing public sympathy because it often refuses to bury Ukrainian soldiers. This is proving particularly damaging for the Moscow Patriarchate’s position in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian military casualties come from Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine, with by far the highest number coming from Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, where pro-Kremlin political parties generally held sway up until 2014. The Russian Orthodox Church is therefore losing public sympathy in parts of the country where support for closer ties with Russia had traditionally been strongest. These are the same regions where Russian aggression is leading to the most striking changes in attitudes towards Ukrainian national identity.
With Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections on the horizon, could religious tensions end up mobilizing the pro-Russian electorate?
This is unlikely because, as I mentioned earlier, the pro-Russian world has collapsed in Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine and cannot revive as long as Russia continues to occupy Crimea and conduct military aggression in the Donbas.
Nor are supporters of the Russian Orthodox Church concentrated in any one part of the country. One of the biggest stereotypes about Ukraine in the international media is the idea of a nation split between “Orthodox East” and “Catholic West”. This is wrong in many ways, not least because four of the seven western Ukrainian oblasts annexed by the USSR in World War II already had Orthodox majorities. In fact, the majority of Russian Orthodox parishes are located in western and central Ukraine, with southern Ukraine in third place. In the Donbas up to 2014, Protestant churches actually had as many parishes as the Russian Orthodox Church. Therefore, the granting of autocephaly cannot lead to an east-west religious confrontation because Russian Orthodox believers are not actually concentrated in the east of the country.
Although pro-Russian politicians Yuriy Boyko and Vadym Rabinovych are both relatively popular in the polls today, they have no chance of winning the 2019 presidential elections (I personally doubt Boyko will stand). Instead, the second round will see Poroshenko face Yulia Tymoshenko and he will win a second term.
What would a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church free from Russian control mean for Ukraine’s nation-building project?
It would be an additional and important element in Ukraine becoming independent of Russia. This is already happening in many other areas and through the implementation of de-communisation laws. Psychologically, Russian aggression has broken the bonds between the two countries.
Ukrainian autocephaly would correct three historical wrongs. Firstly, it would correct the illegal transfer of the Kyiv Metropolis to the Moscow Patriarch in 1686. Ukraine would henceforth have its own Orthodox Patriarch.
Secondly, Ukrainian autocephaly, together with the process of Ukraine more broadly breaking away from the Russian World, would force Russians to debate who they really are as a nation and where they come from historically. Continuing to claim that they are Russians from Kyiv Rus would become ridiculous. Ukrainian historians have long pointed to Russians having their origins in Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdal and Muscovy, not Kyiv Rus.
Thirdly, Russians would eventually have to accept that they are the younger brothers in relation to Ukraine. This might prove particularly difficult, as Russians routinely face accusations of engaging in “elder brother” chauvinism towards Ukraine. Kyiv, founded in 482, celebrated its 1,500th anniversary in 1982 and is therefore far older than Moscow, which dates from 1147. According to my calculations, being 665 years older means that Ukrainians are the “elder brother” among the eastern Slavs.
About the author: Taras Kuzio is a Professor at the Department of Political Science at the “Kyiv Mohyla Academy” National University and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University - SAIS.