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Ukraine’s dangerous schism

The golden towers of St Michael's monastery in central Kiev, Ukraine (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The golden towers of St Michael's monastery in central Kiev, Ukraine (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

January 20, 2019   5 mins

It was a fitting setting for an ecclesiastical earthquake. The gold cupolas of the ancient St Sophia cathedral in Kiev flashed in the winter sunlight, while cowelled hierarchs jostled under the frescoes of long dead saints holding aloft the “tomos”, a parchment sanctioning the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russia, to which it had been attached since 1686.

This ending of Russian religious control in Ukraine was the biggest event to rock the Eastern Church for centuries. It has even been compared with the schism which divided Catholicism and Orthodoxy in 1054.

It had been a while coming. In October last year, Patriarch Bartholomew, the primus inter pares of the Ecumenical Council in Constantinople1 and the highest body in the Orthodox Church, signalled his approval for Ukraine’s full independence.

The Kremlin, though, was quick to react. Moscow’s religious writ has long dominated Kiev without any desire for change. On hearing the news, Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s highest official, broke off relations with Constantinople, plunging Russia into further diplomatic hibernation.

The Kremlin does not have a record of letting such slights pass. When Ukraine reoriented towards Europe after its 2014 revolution, Vladimir Putin retaliated with the annexation of Crimea and a proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Will Russia permit the repositioning of Ukraine’s spiritual space too, especially given that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been staunchly pro-European? It remains to be seen whether the UOC’s new head, the young, wispy-bearded Metropolitan Epiphanius, will have what it takes to withstand such animosity from Russia.

When Christianity came to Kiev in 988, neither Russia nor Ukraine existed. There was only “Rus”, a sophisticated Slavic empire, swept away by the Mongol horde in the 1200s, which both modern Ukraine and Russia claim as their cultural forbear. It was only later, with the southern expansion of Muscovy in the 17thcentury that modern Russia came to dominate what is now Ukraine, both territorially and spiritually. Its authority over Ukraine was uncontested during the Soviet era, even as Bolsheviks executed church leaders and bulldozed churches. St Sophia’s cathedral itself narrowly escaped destruction when somebody suggested turning it into a museum.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the thundering Ukrainian priest, Patriarch Filaret, broke away from the established Russian-dominated entity – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, or UOC-MP – and founded his own unofficial Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP). Despite UOC-KP’s uncanonical status, the church had a patriotic strong flavour and gained much popularity in Ukraine.

Its success did not go unnoticed in Constantinople. For some years, sympathy had been growing within the wider orthodox community for the beleaguered UOC-KP, and also for the small Autocephalous Orthodox Church, another unofficial breakaway church in Ukraine.

Whether Constantinople would have given its benediction to the split were it not for the events of 2014, is hard to know, but Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine in that year catalysed matters. Putin’s actions had unintended consequences for Ukraine’s religious life.

Tension between the patriarchates erupted during the revolution. President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU co-operation Agreement in 2013 was to light a powder keg of discontent. The pro-Russian leader, unable to shift demonstrators from Independence Square, ordered his riot police to fire on the crowd, killing more than a hundred and injuring many more. Protesters ran for cover in local churches. They found some doors – namely those of the Moscow Patriarchate – shut, while those of the Kiev Patriarchate provided refuge and food. Even today, long after Yanukovych’s ousting, priests from the Moscow Patriarchate refuse to bless the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers sent back from the front.

Russia’s disappointment at Constantinople’s decision is understandable. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has watched as country after country within its sphere of influence has either joined the EU or NATO, or at least expressed a wish to veer from its orbit. There has been an inexorable decline in Russian soft power.

But as Ukraine celebrates the longed-for recognition of its unified church, the road ahead may not be an easy one. Yosyf Zissoels, a former Ukrainian dissident and human rights activist warns: “This has been a huge blow to Russian. This is only the beginning. There is much that they can and will do.”

Russia’s ‘hybrid’ scare tactics typically range from the most traditional – such as the casting of the “anathema”, against the UOC-KP at its inception in 1991 (the most extreme sanction an orthodox church can inflict) – to the technical (a cyberattack attempted to steal the emails of Patriarch Bartholomew’s aides in August), to the financial: Russia is a major supporter of the Orthodox church, and Moscow may use their means to persuade or bully other pro-Russian churches, to turn against Constantinople.

Another, darker, possibility is an armed provocation within Ukraine itself. Before Russia’s incursions in 2014, Putin declared his intent to “protect Russian speakers” in eastern Ukraine. The phrase echoed again in his October vow to “defend Russian church believers” Nobody yet knows what that means.

To date the only incident has been a Molotov cocktail attack at Kiev’s St Andrew’s church on 15 November, thankfully causing no lasting damage. However, one law enforcement officer in Kiev told me in December that several attacks had “already been foiled”, though he refused to provide further details.

Many Ukrainians wonder whether the recent naval spat in the Kerch Strait, close to Crimea, was entirely unconnected with the church schism. On 25 November, three Ukrainian navy vessels boats and four sailors were fired on by the Russian navy as they attempted to reach the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Twenty-four Ukrainian sailors were taken into Russian custody. Seeing the potential for a Russian land invasion, the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, imposed martial law. This was a watershed moment: the first time that Russia stopped hiding behind plausible deniability – blaming local rebels and unofficial volunteers – and owned up to the attack. There are now growing fears that Russia is strengthening its grip across the entire Black Sea, not only in Crimea.

Ukraine’s new church will therefore have to be careful how it treats the clergymen who remain unconvinced by the validity of a separate Orthodox church and still cleave to the Moscow Patriarchate. For now, at least, UOC-MP counts on 13,000 parishes, versus about 7,000 belonging to the UOC-KP. There are plenty of areas for conflict, notably over ownership of land, monasteries and other historic properties. Any of these could be easily inflamed.

One seminarist studying at the Monastery of the Caves complex in Kiev, which in part belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, told me: “We are all free to choose which patriarchate we want to belong to, but to be honest, none of us know what will happen to us if we make the wrong decision.”

Despite the cries from Moscow that “blood will be spilled”, the danger of conflict would not be sparked by the parishioners. Russian wounded pride is a far greater danger. What is to many Ukrainians a spiritual liberation from a colonial power, for Moscow is a provocation.

  1. The fact that the Holy See is still in “Constantinople”, rather than Istanbul, is an indication of the glacial nature of orthodox reform.

Daniel’s first book, Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia was shortlisted for the Banff Mountain Book Award 2009 and the Dolman Travel Award 2010. His recent travels in Portuguese-speaking Africa and across the African continent have given rise to Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey into Angola

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