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Russia's Meddling Might Backfire With an Empowered, Unified Ukrainian Church

Viktor Drachev/Getty Images

In central Kiev, on opposite sides of Volodymyrsky Passage, the towering golden domes of the St. Michael’s and St. Sophia cathedrals stand in perfect alignment, much the same way the Capitol and the White House regard each other from either side of Pennsylvania Avenue. The relationship between the two churches also mirrors that between Congress and the president: Though they are both adherents of Russian Orthodoxy and share the same beliefs and religious practices, St. Michael’s and St. Sophia represent opposite poles of Ukraine’s fractious political landscape. The former declared autonomy from Moscow’s religious leadership when Ukraine gained independence in 1991, establishing the Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The latter, home to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, remains under the control of “Putin’s God Squad,” which has been playing an increasingly active role in the Kremlin’s rule. Now that the battle between separatists and Ukrainian forces in the east threatens to undermine the new government and tear apart Ukraine, both factions of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are doing everything they can to shape the country’s future.  

You don’t have to look too hard to detect the Church’s influence in the crisis. There’s a very good reason why some of the separatists fighting in Donetsk have dubbed themselves the “Russian Orthodox Army,” for instance, and why priests have been hailed for their role on the front lines of the conflict since it first broke out almost half a year ago. It has little to do with theology, and everything to do with the historical and political ties that brought Russia and Ukraine into the current crisis in the first place. “It becomes a question of identity, it's not a question of faith,” Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russian and Eurasian expert at the U.S. Naval College, told me. It’s the reason why a separatist commander can portray the battle for the east as a sort of religious crusade destined to reach all the way to Lviv; why the Russian Orthodox Church can seriously offer to mediate between warring factions; and why reports of deaths and kidnappings of priests of both Moscow and Kiev patriarchates have been stoking the propaganda war on both sides. “I don't think it's an over-simplification to say this is a classic issue of a religious community divided among its former imperial occupiers,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute.

Kiev is the historical capital of Kievan Rus, where Russian Orthodoxy was founded in 988 (it’s a point of pride for Ukrainians that this occurred 150 years before Moscow was even a settlement). Today, 70 percent of Ukrainians are of Orthodox faith, and the Orthodox church is the only institution in Ukraine regarded positively by the public. A recent poll found that 66 percent of Ukrainians trust the Church, and 65 percent said that religion has a role in public life. Some 15 million people belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, headquartered at St. Michael’s, and about 10 million belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, headquartered at St. Sophia, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Many more affiliate with Orthodoxy in general, but no particular church. 

Much ink has been spilled over the Kremlin’s attempts to make Moscow a “Third Rome,” to reunite the people of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus under the rule of “Holy Russia.” “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality,” goes the old Tsarist motto. And the increasingly snug relationship between the Russian church and state provides a convenient religious justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the press service of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate put it earlier this year, “The Russian people are a divided nation on their historic territory that have the right to reunite in one state body… Let us hope that the mission of the Russian warriors defending freedom and identity of those people and their very life will not meet staunch resistance leading to large-scale clashes.”

It’s a given that one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary motivations for destabilizing Ukraine is to undermine the newly elected government in Kiev, to send a strong message back home that no popular revolution has any chance of succeeding in the former Soviet Union. The very thought of that, of course, has long been Putin’s worst nightmare. But by attempting to cripple the Ukrainian state, the Kremlin might be inadvertently empowering the Ukrainian church. “One of the reasons that we see this huge transformation going on in Ukraine, and we don’t see it in Russia, is because Ukraine has never had national institutions of its own, since the fall of Kievan Rus. The two main national indigenous institutions in the country were the church, and the village. So Ukrainians have a deep-seated loathing of government in general,” Daniel Bilak, a lawyer who deals with inter-church affairs, told me. 

So by emphasizing the imperative of defending “Holy Russia” south of its border, Russia may have begun to clear the way for Ukraine’s sizeable Orthodox community—it was not called the “bible belt” of the Soviet Union for nothing—to accomplish what many priests have long pursued: severing ties with Russia and forming and single independent, united Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In a country as religious as Ukraine, such a move could not go unnoticed. 

It’s important to note that belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate rather than the Kievan one does not automatically translate into supporting Russia over Ukraine; many follow the Moscow Patriarchate simply because it’s the only canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine, for instance. The Moscow Patriarchate has also spoken out in support of Ukrainian unity, and counts fierce proponents of Ukrainian independence, including President Petro Poroshenko, among its denizens. That said, the Moscow-affiliated church did act “like a buttress for the pro-Russian factions in Crimea,” says Idil Izmili, visiting scholar at George Mason University. Unlike its neighbor down Volodymyrsky Passage, St. Sophia did not throw open its doors to provide care to injured protesters. “Some UoC [Ukrainian Orthodox Church] priests in the East openly support pro-Russian radical movements, [and] cooperate with separatists, although terrorism committed by them is certainly an evil,” states a recent report on the church’s role in the conflict. And under the rule of former President Viktor Yanukovych, belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate rather than the Kievan one was something of a prerequisite to a political career: “Once Yanukovych came in, regional governors put more pressure on the Kiev patriarchate—there were registration and zoning problems,” says Gvosdev. “The climate shifted enough where people had a sense that, maybe if you're ambitious, maybe that's not the church you wanted to be seen going to on Easter.” 

There has long been talk of forming a united Ukrainian church in Kiev, but only now is it beginning seem like a real possibility, what with the conflict fueling antagonism between the Moscow and Kiev churches. This year, for the first time in recent memory, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus will not visit Kiev to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of Kievan Rus. Nor did he attend the funeral of Metropolitan Volodymyr, the former head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. “We suggest uniting the two Ukrainian churches and separating from Moscow altogether,” the Patriarch Filaret of Kiev, said earlier this year. “They [Moscow] propose that we unite and subordinate the whole church to the Moscow patriarchate. Hence, the Ukrainian church of the Moscow patriarchate is standing in the way of unity of the whole Ukrainian church...The Ukrainian state will continue, and this state will have only one Orthodox Church." There’s an ongoing dialogue among church leaders to work toward that end. 

“We have one problem that we haven’t been able to overcome, and that’s the division of the Orthodox Church between an independent Kiev Patriarchate and a dependent Moscow Patriarchate,” Bishop Evstratii Zoria, of the Kievan Patriarchate, told me last month. “We’ve seen in the events of the last few weeks, why having a church that is dependent—and 80 percent of Ukrainians consider themselves to be Orthodox—why having a church that is dependent on Russia is, in fact, a threat to our national security and a threat to our existence as Ukrainians.”