A man dives in icy water during Epiphany celebrations near a monastery in Rostov Veliky, Russia, 2009. 
Thomas Peter/REUTERS

For a community where the passage of time is measured in centuries rather than weeks, recent events in the Orthodox Church have been unfolding at breakneck speed. On October 11, Bartholomew I, patriarch of Constantinople and one of highest-ranking leaders in the Orthodox world, announced that he would grant Ukraine’s Orthodox Church full independence—“autocephaly” in church-speak—ending several centuries of control by the Russian Orthodox Church over much of what is today Ukraine. Bartholomew also reaffirmed the priestly legitimacy of the heads of Ukraine’s two dissident Orthodox bodies, which had not recognized Moscow’s authority.  

Ukrainian leaders had been lobbying for this decision for many months. Recognition of a fully independent, national church carries enormous weight in a country where some seven out of ten people identify as Orthodox Christians. But beyond matters of religious affiliation, the decision is likely to shape Ukraine’s sense of cultural and national identity as the country negotiates its place in modern Europe and its ties to Russia.

Although the decision is expected to come into effect only in late November, its promise immediately prompted a stinging rebuke from the Moscow Patriarchate, which accused Bartholomew of jurisdictional overreach. As a result, on October 15 the Russian Orthodox Church announced that it was severing ties with Constantinople. Given the large size of Russia’s Orthodox community, this move could become the most significant rift in Eastern Christendom since it broke away from the Western church in 1054.

What may at first look like arcane ecclesiastical wrangling matters a great deal even to the more worldly minded. For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose approval ratings have been plummeting and who is up for reelection next year, the announcement scores a major victory, as it will likely result in the establishment of a reconstituted Ukrainian Orthodox Church that backs his pro-European agenda. By contrast, Constantinople’s decision deals a black eye to Poroshenko’s Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as it threatens to push Ukrainian society further outside Moscow’s orbit.

For Russia, the stakes are as political as they are religious: the day after Bartholomew’s decision, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned both Constantinople’s “provocations” and Washington’s “direct and open support” of them. That same day, the Russian Security Council discussed the matter. Given the charged atmosphere surrounding this issue, many fear it will provide a pretext for renewed fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region or even precipitate the widening of a conflict that has been fueled in no small part by competing interpretations of history and civilizational belonging.

HEAVENLY POLITICS

Global Orthodoxy is divided into 14 independent Orthodox Churches, ranging territorially from Alexandria and Jerusalem to Georgia and Romania. Among them, the Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest. A unified Ukrainian church would almost certainly rank second, but since the 1990s, Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians have been divided into three separate communities: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kiev Patriarchate, and the much smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Of the three, only the UOC-MP was previously recognized as a valid member of the wider Orthodox world. The UOC-MP, however, maintains close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate.

Although the Moscow Patriarchate is not a state entity, its hierarchs are closely aligned with the Kremlin on many issues, and the Russian Orthodox Church has been central to postcommunist Russia’s attempts to project soft power abroad. Putin, meanwhile, strives to depict himself as a defender of traditional morality and Christian values, and his government routinely looks to the church for legitimation, such as when the Moscow Patriarchate countenanced Russian military intervention in Syria by citing the dire plight of Orthodox Christians in that war-torn land.  

Ukrainian autocephaly, if it comes to pass, will come at a steep cost for Moscow and for the Russian Orthodox Church. In practical terms, the church will lose control over more than 12,000 parishes on Ukrainian soil—around one-third of the total number it possesses. It will also lose access to some of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest places, including the eleventh-century Kiev Monastery of the Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is hard to overstate what a blow Bartholomew’s announcement dealt to Russia’s state and church.

The divorce’s symbolic weight is even greater. Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians alike trace their cultural roots to the East Slavic proto-state of Kievan Rus. Indeed, many consider their respective nations to have been born when the ruler of Rus, Grand Prince Vladimir, adopted Byzantine-rite Christianity in 988. The Russian Orthodox Church’s centuries-long authority over Kiev allowed it to claim the spiritual inheritance of this tradition. The legacy of Kievan Rus and the union of sacred and secular power it represents have also proved useful for the Kremlin, offering a rhetorical basis for Putin to undermine the notion of a fully independent Ukrainian state. It is, in other words, hard to overstate what a blow Bartholomew’s announcement dealt to Russia’s state and church.

No wonder that Russian officials have pilloried the decision to grant Ukraine autocephaly, viewing it as an attack on their country’s prestige and standing. The presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov went so far as to declare that Russia would “defend the interests of the Orthodox” if they were threatened in Ukraine. Peskov clarified that he was talking only about diplomatic and political means, but not everyone was reassured.  

Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kiev Patriarchate, at a service in Kiev, October 2018. 
Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

ONE NATION UNDER GOD?

In abrogating the Moscow Patriarchate’s claims over Ukraine, Bartholomew’s decision makes official a trend that has already been under way for some time. According to official statistics, the UOC-MP still boasts the largest number of religious parishes, monasteries, and clergy in Ukraine. A 2018 survey, however, found that just 19.1 percent of Orthodox Ukrainians belong to the UOC-MP, against 42.6 percent who are members of the more independent-minded Kiev Patriarchate (0.4 percent belong to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Patriarchate, and 34.8 percent do not have any formal affiliation). Less than a decade ago, the inverse was true: a 2010 survey found that 34.5 percent of believers belonged to the UOC-MP and just 22.1 percent to the Kiev Patriarchate.

In large measure, this dramatic shift in denominational loyalties is a consequence of the 2013–14 Maidan protests and the ouster of Ukraine’s then President Viktor Yanukovych, who had favored ties with Russia over the European Union. The Kiev Patriarchate openly supported the Maidan protesters, even throwing open the doors of Kiev’s Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery to offer them shelter. By contrast, many perceived the UOC-MP’s position as somewhere between neutral and pro-Russian, although some within the church spoke out in favor of the protesters. These days, the mere fact of the UOC-MP’s affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church, which routinely offers prayers for Russia’s leadership and military, has sparked doubts over whether it truly supports a sovereign Ukraine.

According to Poroshenko, Russia has just lost “one of the last levers of influence on its former colony.” But not all Ukrainians share his enthusiasm.

It’s no revelation, then, that autocephaly would be a boon for Ukraine’s staunchly anti-Kremlin president Petro Poroshenko, who has extolled the benefits an independent church would confer on Ukraine’s national security and sovereignty, noting that Russia would lose “one of the last levers of influence on its former colony.” Poroshenko has even equated the geopolitical significance of this event with joining the EU or NATO.

Not all Ukrainians share their president’s enthusiasm. Although thousands gathered in Kiev on October 14 for a service celebrating Constantinople’s proclamation, a survey found that only a slight majority of Ukrainians—54 percent—supports a unified autocephalous church. This means the UOC-MP is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Likewise, Ukraine’s Opposition Bloc, the political party that houses the remnants of Yanukovych’s Russia-oriented coalition, refused to support an April 2018 legislative resolution calling for autocephaly. The bloc’s leader, Yuriy Boyko, stressed that as a secular entity, the state had “no right to interfere in religious matters.” Although Poroshenko has pledged that those who remain in the UOC-MP will not be persecuted, his grandiloquent praise of autocephaly as “a great victory of the God-loving Ukrainian people over the Moscow demons, the victory of Good over Evil, the victory of Light over Darkness,” is sure to raise some eyebrows.

Three bills introduced in Ukraine’s parliament in recent years are also disconcerting. The first would enable religious communities to change their affiliation by a simple majority vote of its members, which has raised fears that nationalist spoilers would join UOC-MP parishes only to take them over. The second and third would require religious bodies headquartered in an “aggressor state” (read: Russia) to signal this affiliation in their names and would enable Kiev to control some of their ecclesiastical appointments. So far, these bills have languished in the legislature, but in the current climate of religious tension, they may attract renewed attention. If passed, the bills could open legal pathways to discriminate against members of the UOC-MP, raising troubling questions over the level of state interference in Ukrainian religious life.  

THE MAN WHO LOST UKRAINE

Details as to how exactly Ukraine’s rival churches will be united remain to be worked out. Nor is it clear who will head the new entity. The leader of the Kiev Patriarchate, Filaret, is a divisive figure whom many will not accept; at 89 years of age, he would at any rate be little more than a placeholder appointment. Metropolitan Makariy, head of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, is somewhat younger but lacks widespread popularity. As for Metropolitan Onufriy, the leader of the UOC-MP, his candidacy is a political nonstarter even if he were interested in the position.

Prognosticating how these intrachurch disputes will play out is a tricky business. What’s becoming increasingly probable, however, is that Putin will be remembered as the Russian leader who inadvertently accomplished what he most dreaded: losing Ukraine for good. At the very least, he bears a great deal of responsibility for setting into motion the political shifts in Ukraine that led to Patriarch Bartholomew’s declaration.

But make no mistake: there are no saints in this debate. Even the See of Constantinople assuredly had political motives for determining that Moscow’s control over Kiev, a status quo that Constantinople had accepted for 332 years, was in fact objectionable on canonical grounds. Poroshenko, meanwhile, will champion the issue of autocephaly to burnish his nationalist credentials and consolidate his power in the run-up to the March 2019 presidential election. Whether he, along with his religious counterparts, will ultimately use this unprecedented opportunity to unite rather than divide Ukrainians remains to be seen.

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  • GEORGE SOROKA is Lecturer on Government at Harvard University, where he is affiliated with the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming volume Ukraine After Maidan: Revisiting Domestic and Regional Security (ibidem Press, 2018).
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