Ukraine's Orthodox Breakup
by Andrew Walsh
Journalists have been
struggling to parse the role of religion in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
For months, wherever they turned, they registered that nobody was doing
anything without deploying Orthodox clerics, symbols, or rituals to
accomplish the business at hand: rouse supporters, console the bereaved,
celebrate triumphs, defuse confrontations, or condemn opponents.
And yet, religion in Ukraine
is manifestly Balkanized—with three contending Orthodox churches and a
Catholic church that looks and acts Orthodox. More confusingly, most of the
many players mobilized Orthodox rituals and symbols to bolster their
conflicting positions in the complex Ukrainian struggle over whether and how
to move away from Russia.
Consider this range of
On May 13, as pro-Russian
activists announced the results of their controversial plebiscite that
claimed a 95 percent vote for autonomy in the Donetsk region of eastern
Ukraine, a Reuters photographer captured the image of an elderly man
standing triumphantly before the barricade outside Donetsk City Hall,
holding aloft an ornate crucifix in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
A few days earlier, a
National Public Radio report described a group of elderly women setting up a
table they covered with Orthodox icons brought from their homes to defend
another pro-Russian barricade in Eastern Ukraine.
But in Kiev, to the west, as
jubilant protesters surged into the Ukrainian parliament building on
February 24 to celebrate the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor
Yanukovych, they passed through a gauntlet of “Orthodox priests, dressed in
their robes, holding up crosses and splashing the citizen army of mostly
factory workers, farmers and sons with holy water,” Charles Miranda of the
London Telegraph reported.
Earlier, in the Kiev
protests that swirled on the Maidan, the city’s chief square, from December
to February, lines of priests and monks in black robes repeatedly interposed
themselves between protesters and riot police, holding icons in their hands.
At 4:30 a.m. on December 4,
one of the earliest spasms of violence took place. David Herszenhorn of the
New York Times described Yanukovych’s riot police storming into
Kiev’s Maidan, “spraying tear gas, throwing stun grenades and swinging
truncheons.” The bells of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery nearby began
to toll a warning and the doors of the Orthodox church were thrown open to
provide sanctuary for protesters.
Eastern Christians (a phrase
of art that includes Byzantine Catholics, major players in Ukrainian
identity politics, as well as Orthodox Christians) command a vast toolbox of
powerful symbols and rituals and there’s nothing new about Orthodox people
mobilizing them for public purposes. Historical accounts of Tsarist Russia’s
1905 revolution—which also played big in Ukraine—were replete with similar
reports. More recently, many recall that in Bosnia and Kosovo during the
1990s, Orthodox symbols and priests accompanied Serbian assertions with
But in Bosnia and Kosovo,
the Orthodox represented one “side,” and their symbolic actions were aimed
at and roused only those on that side. Not so in Ukraine, which created
puzzles both for journalists and for their audiences. In the examples listed
above, some deployed Orthodox symbols and rituals to convey essentially
pro-Russian messages and others to support the acceleration of Ukraine’s
movement away from Russia. On still other occasions, contending factions
collaborated to use Orthodox symbols and rituals to constrain violence.
On the Maidan last winter
there was even a tent where clergy of many traditions (including
Protestants) celebrated services attended by people of all faiths and none—a
strikingly exceptional event in a region where Orthodoxy predominates and
historical rivalries are keenly felt. As a result, even journalists who
thought they were equipped with a score card had trouble telling the sides
apart and, as a result, were hard pressed to assess the role of religion in
Ukraine’s complex breakdown.
To outsiders, almost
everything about Ukraine—geography, history, nationality, religion—seems
fractured and contested. “We’re used to thinking of Ukraine as a grey and
hazy place of disorder and uncertainty, a country befitting a name that
translates to ‘borderland,’ just off the edge of the map, between blocs we
still insist on describing as ‘East’ and ‘West,’” the Toronto Globe and
Mail columnist Doug Sanders wrote on July 25.
But the pervasive “Orthodox”
quality of religion in Ukraine is one feature that suggests that there is a
whole there somewhere, that Ukraine is not simply a hodgepodge of places and
peoples thrust together by history. The problem is that the whole is a
cultural commonality shared with other countries in the region, notably
Belarus and Russia, and to a lesser degree Slovakia and others.
One real challenge for
journalists—especially the majority who parachuted in to cover an unfamiliar
story—is the overabundance of germane historical context. Where to begin
with the problems of Ukraine?
In the 10th century, when
missionaries from the Byzantine Empire brought Orthodox Christianity to the
Eastern Slavs in what was then called Kievan Rus? In the 13th century, when
Kievan Rus was divided by Mongols and invaders from Poland and Lithuania,
tearing Ukraine into eastern and western zones that have had long-lasting
meaning? In the late 16th and 17th centuries, when Byzantine Rite
Catholicism was created and the power of the Tsars of Moscow swept
westwards? Or in the repeated redrawing of Ukraine’s borders during the 20th
century, culminating with the collapse of Soviet power in 1991?
Journalists wandered around
in this vast history, interviewing Ukrainians whose loyalties derived from
one moment or another of this conflicted past. They found Greek Catholics in
western Ukraine, whose historical experience was shaped by the
Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland, and who mostly espouse a maximalist
vision of an independent Ukraine and embrace a Western orientation. In the
Russian-speaking east, in the Don River basin—a region called New Russia
since the early 18th century—the journalists found Orthodox Ukrainians who
wanted a soft and permeable border with Russia, and even some who simply
viewed themselves as Russians.
On the ground, the religious
situation looks like this. The largest religious organization is the
Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which is largely
self-governing but linked to the Russian Orthodox Church. Next in size is an
upstart Orthodox jurisdiction, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv
Patriarchate), organized to counter the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1990s, in
the early days of Ukrainian independence.
Third comes the Byzantine
Catholic Church, dominant in the far west of the country, but anxious to
express its Ukrainian identity by doing things such as moving the seat of
its chief bishop from Lvov in Galicia to Kiev. And fourth is a small
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, strongest in western Ukraine and
closely tied to Ukrainian Orthodox émigré churches in Europe and North
America and to a brief period of Ukrainian Orthodox independence in the
early days of the Russian Revolution.
When the New York Times’
David Herszenhorn looked for help in explaining the religious dynamic on
December 5, he found experts advancing an explanation rooted in the
country’s religious diversity. “Ukraine has the most pluralistic religious
market in Eastern Europe,” Viktor Yelensky, president of the Ukrainian
Association for Religious Liberty told him. “Because none of the churches
unite more than a quarter of citizens, there is a balance of power.”
But that explanation ignores
a clearer and perhaps more illuminating generalization, one that takes
account of the shallow reality of Ukrainian religious pluralism: Since the
1980s, the rising tide of Ukrainian nationalism has dealt the Russian
Orthodox Church in Ukraine a series of ever graver setbacks. And the most
serious to date have been the revolt on the Maidan and the overthrow of
In the mid-1980s, only one
of the four Orthodox and Catholic groups listed above existed as a public
religious actor in Ukraine: the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1946, Stalin had
suppressed the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine and handed over its
churches and believers to the Moscow Patriarchate. Except for a small
cluster of Protestants, the Moscow Patriarchate was Christianity in
The patriarchate’s religious
monopoly began to erode during the Gorbachev years of the late 1980s, when,
under pressure from the Vatican, the Greek Catholic Church was permitted to
re-emerge and began to reclaim churches and believers and to recreate its
institutions. Within a decade, it had 3,000 parishes up and running, mostly
in the far western reaches of the country.
With the breakup of the
Soviet Union in 1991, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine itself cracked up.
Filaret Denyskeno, metropolitan of Kiev, who had been the Moscow
Patriarchate’s chief bishop in Ukraine since the early 1970s, led a movement
to carve out an independent (“autocephalous” in Orthodox parlance) national
church. He consorted briefly with the overseas Ukrainians who were in the
process of resurrecting the autocephalous Orthodox Church that had existed
briefly in the 1920s, then decided to strike out on his own and create the
autocephalous Kyiv Patriarchate.
The Moscow Patriarchate and
most of its Ukrainian bishops resisted the break. In 1992, they set up an
“autonomous” Ukrainian Orthodox Church (a church that elects its own leaders
but which reports, ultimately, to a “mother” church—in this case, Moscow).
The upshot was three
contending Orthodox churches in the newly independent Ukraine. Only one, the
Moscow Patriarchate, is recognized as legitimate by other Orthodox Churches
around the world. But on the ground in Ukraine, there has been flux.
In the early 1990s,
Filaret’s Kyiv Patriarchate aligned itself strongly with the president of
the newly independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk. The Moscow Patriarchate’s
Ukrainian “exarchate” did the same with Viktor Yanukovych when he was
elected president in 2010. Both churches wanted the power of the Ukrainian
state on their side.
According to a sequence of
studies performed by the Razumkov Center in Kiev, there has been very rapid
growth in religion in Ukraine in the post-Soviet period, including the
notable growth of Protestant and Pentecostal churches. A long series of
Razumkov polls shows that the clergy are now among the most respected of
Ukraine’s professionals. The social prestige of religion is high and
Ukrainian sociologists think of the years since 1990 as a period of
The number of religious
organizations in Ukraine (mostly congregations) grew from 6,263 in 1985 to
35,184 in 2010. During the same period, the number of monasteries (Orthodox
and Catholic) surged from nine to 590 and the number of monastics from 439
to 6,742. Despite Protestant growth, Razumkov estimates that two thirds of
the Ukrainian population claim to be Orthodox.
In most of the statistical
categories organized by Razumkov, the Moscow Patriarchate held a significant
lead throughout the period—controlling the most parishes, monasteries and
clergy, as well as more institutions like seminaries, Sunday Schools and
publishing houses. But except for the number of monastics, where it remains
far in the lead, the Moscow Patriarchate’s market share has been shrinking
since 1985. And the Kyiv Patriarchate’s has been growing.
A 2006 survey by Razumkov
found that almost 40 percent of Ukrainians identified with the Kyiv
Patriarchate and only about 30 percent with the Moscow Patriarchate. The
Greek Catholic population was about 15 percent and the Ukrainian
Autocephalous Church about three percent.
So what’s happening in
Ukraine is a swing towards preference for a fully independent, national
Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a process that accelerated during the winter
protests on the Maidan. With growing plausibility, the Kyiv Patriarchate
presents itself as this national Orthodox Church.
The Moscow Patriarchate,
which is just as historically rooted in Kievan Rus as the Ukrainian one, is
resisting mightily—not least because nowhere in the post-Soviet world is
Orthodoxy thriving more than in Ukraine. But it is having a hard time
figuring out how to sway Ukrainian public opinion.
It’s worth noting that a
similar process of ecclesiastical decolonization took place in the Orthodox
Balkans during the 19th century, when now autocephalous Orthodox Churches in
Greece, Serbia, Romanian, Bulgaria and Albania broke away from a deeply
resistant Patriarchate of Constantinople. It took the Patriarchate of
Constantinople decades to reconcile itself to that.
Examined from this
perspective, the current crisis in Ukraine has had two distinct phases—the
Maidan (or “Euromaidan,” as many European journalists called it) and the
pro-Russian rebellion that followed in eastern Ukraine. In both phases, the
Kyiv Patriarchate took a clear, pro-Ukrainian line, and the Moscow
Patriarchate was unable to develop a clear position.
In January, as the protests
on the Maidan developed into a rebellion against Yanukovych’s pro-Russian
stance, the Kyiv Patriarchate was unequivocal. “The clergy of the Kyiv
Patriarchate blessed the anti-government protesters and rolled up their
cassock sleeves to help build barricades themselves,” Voice of America radio
reporter Jamie Dettmer broadcast March 25.
On April 20, many
journalistic outlets carried excerpts of Filaret’s Easter sermon condemning
Russian aggression and predicting that Moscow’s “evil” would be defeated.
Indeed, Filaret had started
on message in the late autumn and stayed there for the entire struggle
against Yanukovych. In a December 5 interview with the New York Times,
he said, “My opinion, personal, about how we should exit from this
situation: First, Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. Second:
resignation of the government. If those conditions are met, people will be
happy with that.”
The leadership of the
Russian Orthodox Church, in Ukraine and in Russia itself, could not find a
compelling response. In the first phase, on the Maidan, they called for
peace and dialogue. Many of the Orthodox clergy and monks who stood between
protesters and police belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate, and they ardently
A report on the Russian
website Pravoslavie.ru on January 24 caught the ambivalence of the Moscow
Patriarchate’s clergy: “Monks from the Kiev-Caves Lavra, Fr. Gabriel, Fr.
Melchisedek, and Fr. Ephraim stood on Grushevsky Street in Kiev with a cross
and icons, between the demonstrators and the Ukrainian special police force
‘Berkut,’ and stopped the conflict. They entered the arena as peace-makers,
and not in support of one side or the other.
“Although they were invited
to join the ‘people,’ the fathers only prayed and sang the Paschal
troparion: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’”
The hierarchs of the Russian
Church had even more trouble articulating their views. On April 20, Radio
Free Europe contrasted the Easter statement of Filaret with that of the
Russian Patriarch, Kyrill, who called on God “to put an end to the designs
of those who want to destroy Holy Russia.” While Ukraine was “politically
separate,” it remains “spiritually and historically” one with Russia, Kyrill
On March 25, a Ukrainian
spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate sought to explain his church’s
position: “The church is with the people of Ukraine and its focus has been
on bringing Ukrainian people together and avoiding the conflicts of the past
that gave rise to the foundation of the Kyiv Patriarchate.”
A further challenge was an
untimely leadership crisis within the Ukrainian Church Moscow Patriarchate.
Its senior bishop, Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kiev, who had been elected in
1992 to replace the ousted Filaret, was very elderly and in poor health when
the Maidan protests erupted. The church’s Ukrainian synod met on February 26
and elected the more vigorous Metropolitan Onufry of Chernivtsi and
Bukovyna, in the southwest of the country, to stand in for Volodymyr, who
died later in the spring.
Erasmus, the London
Economist’s religion and public policy columnist, wrote the same day
that Onufry “certainly looked like a man who will remain in step with
Moscow.” Erasmus speculated, however, that the Moscow Patriarchate might be
feeling pressed to reconcile with the Kyiv Patriarchate.
“If the new order in the
Ukraine prevails, and the Ukrainian state is consolidated, pressure for the
creation of a single national church may become almost unstoppable,” he
wrote. “A new Ukrainian government may shift its powers of patronage in
favor of the Kiev Patriarchate. If moves toward a national church are
happening, the Moscow aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church would certainly not
want to be frozen out of the process.”
By and large, journalists
have not exerted themselves in this crisis to discover the Russian church’s
point of view. Almost every significant story that mentioned its stance
included a paragraph like this one by Neil MacFarquhar in the August 4
New York Times:
“The Russian Orthodox Church
was resurrected after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, ending 70 years
of often brutal Communist repression. The church seems only too happy to
hitch its halting rebirth to Mr. Putin’s fortunes, hoping to attract more
adherents. Although 80 percent of the 140 million Russians identify
themselves as Russian Orthodox culturally, the number who actually attend
church is tiny. The church says it is nearly 10 percent, but experts say it
has long hovered around 3 percent.”
The collapse of the Soviet
Union presented the Moscow Patriarchate with a situation it hated and
feared: the possible loss of a third or more of their churches—in Ukraine
most of all, but also in Belarus, Molodova, the Baltic States, and
Kazakhstan. The patriarch responded by embracing autonomy for Orthodox
Churches outside Russia proper and began to envision the Russian Orthodox
Church as a transnational and even global church.
In Ukraine itself, the
clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate are no less Ukrainian than those of the
Kyiv Patriarchate or the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
Metropolitans Volodymyr and Onufry, for example, are both from western
Ukraine, while Patriarch Filaret comes from the Russian speaking region
A handful of
journalists—and, most consistently, the staff of the Christian Science
Monitor—did pay close attention to the Moscow Patriarchate’s views and
discerned some daylight between them and Vladimir Putin’s. A May 4
Monitor editorial noted, for example, the Patriarch Kyrill had called on
the churches and clergy in Ukraine to “safeguard” the church’s “peace-making
capacity” and asserted that “our Church is not succumbing to any political
temptations and refuses to serve political positions.”
In the zones of eastern
Ukraine that were seized by pro-Russian activists during the spring,
journalists encountered lay Russian Orthodox enthusiasm for Russia and
considerable evidence of individual priests acting to support pro-Russian
militias. But there was little evidence that the church’s hierarchy was
actively moving to support the rebellion.
On May 4, in the single best
story on the religious divisions of Ukraine, the Monitor’s Fred Weir
interviewed Patriarch Filaret, who made his views crystal clear:
“We suggest uniting the two
Ukrainian churches and separating from Moscow altogether. They [Moscow]
propose that we unite and subordinate the whole church to the Moscow
“The Ukrainian state will
continue, and this state will have only one Orthodox Church. Our Ukrainian
church supports the state, it supports the people and the Army. We pray for
Ukraine as an independent state.”
Weir followed up with
Nikolai Danilyevich, secretary of external affairs for the Moscow-linked
Ukrainian church, who rejected Filaret’s formulation and called him a
“In our church we straddle the divide,” Danilyevich said. “In our church
there are two tendencies, pro-Russia and anti-Russia, and we try to maintain
a balance. What has happened in Ukraine is because the balance was
disrupted, and now that split is shaking the religious sphere.”
It seems increasingly
implausible that any church can, lastingly, restore that balance.