Independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would have had really bad consequences for Moscow

In an interview with Polish journalist and Orthodoxy expert Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat for webzine !Argument, we talk about the consequences of the war in Ukraine for Orthodoxy and the “Russian world” concept as well as about the role of the Orthodox Church in the Russian political system.

How did the Russian invasion affect the relations between the two churches under one roof – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church? How does it affect the concept of the so-called Russian world? Where do we find the most vocal forms of dissent against the official positions of the Russian Orthodox Church?

!Argument: Recently, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church announced its “independence” and “autonomy”. This is the Church in Ukraine which continued to be an autonomous part of the Moscow Patriarchy. It seems pretty clear that this was a reaction to the war in Ukraine, particularly Patriarch Kirill’s attitudes towards it. Is this the next Orthodox schisma after events in 2019 (autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine) or, as Moscow claims, “just” another proclamation of “autonomy” of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Moscow?

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: On 27 May, the bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared that they were going to introduce amendments to the Church statute so that it would indicate a full ”autonomy and independence” of the Church. The term “autocephaly” has not been pronounced. Given that, it is not really clear what kind of amendments we could expect.

In fact, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had already been granted the widest possible margin of internal independence within the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992. The patriarch kept the spiritual authority over the Church, but all the decisions concerning its inner life, including bishop nominations, were taken by the Ukrainian Synod without authorisation from Moscow. In fact, before the war, the bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church claimed their Church worked precisely like an autocephalous one – just without formal autocephaly. However, while this “little difference” did not matter much to the flock before the Russian invasion, it has gained importance in the new situation, as the Orthodox Ukrainians watch with shock and disbelief how Russian troops behave in Ukraine, how the Russian bishops endorse the war and how the Orthodox churches are, too, being destroyed in the course of the war (the Sviatohirsk Lavra in the East, one of the holiest shrines for Orthodox Ukrainians and also Russians,  has been shelled and bombed a couple of times) led by forces which supposedly ‘protect Orthodoxy’.  

On Sunday, 29 May, there came another symbolic gesture of the metropolitan Onuphrius of Kyiv. Celebrating a Holy Liturgy in Kyiv, he did not pray for patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Rus as his spiritual superior. Instead, he recited the diptych (read the names of all the autocephalous churches’ heads), which is a privilege of the leaders of autocephalous Orthodox churches. To be exact, he recited the “Moscow” version of the diptych (without the patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria and the archbishop of Greece, with whom Moscow broke the communion due to their approval to the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine). However, the gesture was not strengthened by further steps suggesting that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was going its own way. No autocephalous Orthodox Church has been requested to recognise UOC as a new autocephalous entity. Moreover, metropolitan Onuphrius reiterated his willingness to stay in communion (that is, in spiritual connection) with Moscow despite the condemnation of patriarch Kirill’s stance on war. It is quite different behaviour than we saw in the past when a local Church tried to (re)gain autocephaly against the will of its “Mother-Church”. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that Moscow does not consider these steps a final break. In fact, what the UOC did looks much more like a gesture to calm down the flock than a full-fledged act of stepping out of Moscow jurisdiction. Reiterating that the UOC is an autonomous entity does not actually change the Church’s canonical status. On the other hand, some of the influential Church figures hinted on the media that OUC could repeat the way of the Orthodox Church of America – that was granted autocephaly in 1970, still has not been recognised by all Churches, but whose existence is somehow ‘accepted’ in the Orthodox world. But even if we listen to these voices, the atmosphere around the supposed Ukrainian independence is totally different, compared to latest autocephaly proclamations.

!A.: This was probably true until June 7, when the synod of ROC started to use the word “schism” or “danger of a new schism”  in regards to the UOC steps and warned they conflicted with the canonical law. Furthermore, the Crimean eparchies (until now under the UOC) were put under the authority of Patriarch Kirill, which is also somewhat unconventional. The same is expected for eparchies in Donbas and Kherson.  Some commentators speak about the open conflict between both churches in the context of the war in Ukraine. Still, they also admit that UOC has no instruments to reach autocephaly at the given moment. Why this sudden change of attitudes in Moscow with talking about the “danger of schism”?  

M.K.-F.: Definitely, the newest statements of the Synod in Moscow are a warning to the UOC clergy – in case Metropolitan Onuphrius and other bishops took further steps on the way to autocephaly. It seems that the ROC leaders expected complete submission from the UOC and are now very unpleasantly surprised by their pro-Ukrainian stance (going as far as to bless Ukrainian soldiers). Yet they need to be cautious not to push the UOC in the direction of self-proclaimed autocephaly.

Theoretically, the UOC cannot proclaim it without losing the status of a canonical Church. On the other hand, the history of Orthodox Christianity is full of such self-proclamations that were ultimately recognised by other Churches. For instance, the Bulgarian Church unilaterally declared its autocephaly restored in 1870, despite the protests of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which held jurisdiction over all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. This decision was recognised, gradually, by one Church after another. And there are bishops in the UOC who are already tempted to repeat this way because the Ukrainian state is not likely to tolerate a Moscow-led religious organisation on its territory, no matter how limited Moscow’s interference is. Self-proclaimed autocephaly might be the only way to preserve the Church as one structure and not see it liquidated with a property transfer to the autocephalous OCU.

Of course, these sentiments are not shared by all the bishops of the UOC, as the Donbas-based clergy definitely does not want to cut ties to Russia, but they, as of June, seem to be in the minority. 

For Moscow, losing the UOC would have really bad consequences: the Ukrainian flock, especially in Kyiv and the central part of the country, tends to be more engaged in Church life than highly secularised Russia and the Donbas (which in the Soviet era had just a couple of parishes for the whole region).

Out of five ROC lavras, or monasteries of particular significance, three (Kyiv-Pechersk, Pochaiv and Svyatohirsk) are located in Ukraine.

Finally, should the Ukrainian parishes not be counted in the general number of ROC local structures, it would turn out that the Church with the highest number of parishes is no longer Moscow but Romanian Patriarchate. For these reasons, Moscow will do all it can to keep the UOC autonomous, with a high degree of internal independence – but not autocephalous. Another thing is that it cannot actually do much more than issuing statements. 

!A.: Orthodoxy has a long tradition of caesaropapism, which enables the state or any secular power could exercise its authority in the ecclesiastical affairs of the Church. In the past, caesaropapism allowed combining political power with religious power. How it is in today’s Russia, which is a secular state on the paper? What role has Orthodox Church in the current political system? 

M.K.-F.: It is enough to see Vladimir Putin and other state leaders attending the principal Orthodox feasts or the state officially supporting the “pilgrimages of holy relics”  to understand that Russia has already ceased to be a secular state. 

cvilVladimir Putin celebrating Christmas in a village church of Turginovo, Tver region. Source.

At first glance, the Russian Orthodox Church has a very privileged position. References to Russian Christian culture and tradition are often heard in politicians’ speeches and official assignments. The anti-religious policy of the Bolsheviks is almost unequivocally condemned in Russian political discourse, and even the deputies of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation now stand for peaceful and productive relations with the Church. The Orthodox chaplains (but also imams or Buddhist monks) are back in the army, and churches are being opened at the universities, hospitals, airports etc. Museum exhibitions on Russian history are being modified to include the Church’s presence in different times, a reversal of the Soviet-era tendency.

Furthermore, the Church has been quite successful in reclaiming buildings confiscated in the Soviet era. There are exceptions to this tendency, and the ROC is unlikely to get all its former properties back, but the movement towards a strengthened presence of the Church in the public sphere is clear. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Church is actively trying to regain the scope of symbolic presence it had in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Like before 1917, the local ROC leaders cooperate with local governments to build new, monumental church buildings in prestigious city spots.

And on 7 June, the ROC proclaimed the restoration of the post of “Protopresbyter of the Army and the Fleet”, a pre-revolutionary position and honorary title given to the first among the priests serving as army chaplains.

However, in all these advances, the ROC is entirely dependent on the state apparatus, and the Church leaders know that very well. While most Russians tend to identify now with the Orthodox church, the actual engagement in Church services and social activities remains low or even very low. Saying “I am Orthodox Christian” is a sign of a sociocultural identity and not of readiness to be an active member of the Church. And the younger generation, especially in the large cities, does not even need this religious dimension of identity to feel Russian.

So, the revival of the ROC presence in the public sphere is more a result of including Orthodoxy (and, to a lesser extent, other faiths) in the neoconservative ideological project of Putin and his circle than a genuine grassroots social process with its dynamics. And I must add here that the Church cannot be even sure that its vital role in state ideology will be preserved in a longer perspective. Russian elites are aware of the multicultural and multinational character of the country. They know that non-Orthodox people have always lived in Russia and will always be there. Over the last years, their crucial mass communication (propaganda, if you want)  theme was the Victory of 1945 and the opposition between assertive traditional Russia and the rainbow, decadent West. While Orthodox themes were present in both powerful narratives, they were not essential for them. So, if religion is no longer a factor that can rally people around the government, it can be omitted one day. And this is a perspective that would be catastrophic to the ROC. 

The Russian Church leaders seem not to have a vision of their Church as an entity independent from the state, working with the people and supported only by its members.

This also reminds me of late Tsarist Russia and the Church’s reactions to the 1905 Nicholas II manifesto on religious freedom. The right to convert from Orthodoxy to another Christian confession or even another faith was vehemently opposed by most of the bishops who believed that the state should have encouraged (and, at points, even forced) the people to attend Orthodox churches instead of leaving things to their choice. More than a hundred years later, this thinking is still closer to the ROC officials than an idea of a Church that preaches spiritual, moral and social commandments but does not get involved in caesaropapist alliances with the state. 

!A.: The pro-war attitudes of Patriarch Kirill are pretty straightforward and known. He endorsed the war repeatedly as a head of the Church, even in his sermons on the soil of churches. Are there some dissenting voices in the Russian Orthodox Church which would disapprove of the war? 

M.K.-F.: Among the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia (I am not speaking now of the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which stands firmly against the war and demands an immediate ceasefire), there was no single voice of dissent expressed publicly over the three months of the war. The dissenting voices come from below – the parish priests, deacons and monks. 

On 1 March, a group of 26 priests and monks published an open letter in which they called for an immediate ceasefire. They called Ukrainians brothers and sisters and declared they did not deserve in any way the heavy moment of the trial (ispytaniye) that fell upon them. They also wrote that every man and woman will answer to God for his actions – and that “the blood of Christ, shed to save the world, will bring not salvation, but an eternal torment to those who give the orders to kill people”. They also declare to respect any choice made by the Ukrainian people, independently and without pressure from neither East nor West. As of the beginning of June, the open letter has been signed so far by 273 men. 

Another anti-war declaration was made at the beginning of the invasion by priest Yoann Burdin, serving at that time in Karabanovo parish, Kostroma oblast’. In his sermon, he stated, referring to the invasion, that killing people was unacceptable under any conditions. He also expressed a disagreement with the patriarch’s position. Soon after the sermon, the priest was heavily criticised by his diocesan bishop, Therapont of Kostroma. He was fined for “offending the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” and ultimately chose to leave the parish. 

The only bishops of the ROC who spoke against the war were those who serve outside the Russian Federation. Heads of autonomous Churches in Estonia and Latvia were quick to join ecumenical bodies in their respective states in their anti-war statements. Metropolitan Eugene of Tallinn and all of Estonia called to stop “the fratricidal war” at the beginning of March and signed an appeal from different churches in Estonia, which condemned attacks against civilian infrastructure. On the other hand, he refused to condemn Russia as the aggressor, claiming that he could not verify Russian claims about Ukraine’s plan to invade Russia. He preferred a more broad anti-war formula criticising everyone who had contributed to the final escalation.

Metropolitan Alexander of Riga and all Latvia also condemned the war. In Lithuania, where the number of Orthodox believers is smaller, and so there is only a diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate and not an autonomous Church, the metropolitan Innocent of Vilnius and Lithuania first condemned the Russian aggression in strong words and also stated that he disagreed with patriarch Kirill’s “political statements on war”. Later, however, he accused a group of Lithuanian Orthodox priests, who also stood publicly against the war, of provoking a raskol (schism) inside the Church. These seven priests were removed from the posts they held in Church administration.   

!A.: The Russian Orthodox Church was an essential part of Russian “soft power” and not an unimportant building bloc of the “russkiy mir” concept until recently. How did the Russian invasion influence this concept and the position of the Church beyond the political borders of Russia?

M.K.-F.: The concept of “russkiy mir” and the related Orthodox concept of “Holy Rus” remain unchanged. The ROC leaders still claim that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and other parts of the former Soviet Union with a significant Russian Orthodox population form a canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, united by shared history and spiritual values. While they do not say there can never be canonical autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, they suggest that any proposals of forming independent Churches within the borders of Belarus or Ukraine are Western, inimical attempts to “undermine the spiritual unity”. 

Before the war, many – perhaps even most – of the members of UOC and the Belorussian Exarchate were eager to believe this.

One must consider that the spiritual unity preached by the Russian clergy was not fiction. In Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the same language is used in liturgy, the most popular saints are basically the same, and church buildings resemble one another (more or less).

Of course, one can trace back the roots of this uniformization to 19th-century Tsarist Russification policies, which thwarted diversity inside the Church. Still, the fact remains the fact – an Orthodox believer travelling from Kyiv to Moscow will feel like he is in his home parish when attending a service.

Those who wished to have a more national-flavoured religion (or just services in a modern Ukrainian language) had already migrated to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate and then to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine built upon it. The greater is the shock of those who had consciously chosen to remain in the UOC. They heard for years that the West presents a danger to their faith – and now they see Russian forces invading their country, calling all the Ukrainians “fascists” and destroying churches, too, on their way.

The public opinion polls in Ukraine – as imprecise as they must be under war conditions – show that a significant part of the Orthodox faith now wants to distance itself from Russia and the ROC. The autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine claims to have gained more than 400 parishes – communities too disappointed with patriarch Kirill to stay in one Church structure with him. This claim is, however, hard to verify. Moreover, the pro-autocephaly sentiment is far from universal: many Orthodox believers are satisfied with metropolitan Onuphrius of Kyiv’s anti-war solid position. They do not seek further legal changes to the Church’s status. Finally, there are clergymen and faithful in the Donbas who feel closer to Moscow than to Kyiv (in terms of identity) and who definitely do not want any changes. 

This war created even greater divisions among the Russian Orthodox people in the Baltic States. The ROC structures in these states were in quite a delicate position from the very beginning of the nineties, constantly forced to prove loyalty to Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian authorities and their pro-American course and working with Russian-speaking populations feeling a nostalgia for the Soviet Union and often more attached to the own Russian identity than to the state. In fact, the structures of the ROC in these countries had a considerably heterogeneous character: it largely depended on a local priest whether his parish would be a local “russkiy mir” centre or a place preaching faith to people of all nationalities and origins.

The Donbas war of 2014 also contributed to a certain distancing tendency: Russians of Latvia and Estonia were quite sure that they did not want any war in their place of living, no separatist tendencies, and so the Church also stressed that the local Russian Orthodoxy had its individual specific and did not follow orders from Moscow. During the present war, the Church leaders were also quick to distance themselves from any willingness to serve as Moscow’s “spokespeople” in the Baltics: Metropolitan Alexander of Riga joined other religious leaders in condemning the war during a special meeting with president Egils Levits, and an idea of applying for a status of autonomous Church is being discussed in Lithuania.

So, the ROC officials are aware that any connection with “russkiy mir” could prove fatal to their churches. Even if many believers consider Moscow their spiritual fatherland, this can only happen on the level of parish life.

In other words: while the churches will not remove the very popular icons of Saint Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the Church leaders will keep stressing their loyalty to the state, attending national holidays etc. 

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