Ukraine Church
A child listens to mass, delivered by the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Rivne, April 2019

This article is a preview from the Summer 2019 edition of New Humanist

Since 2013, Ukraine has been locked in a complex fight for national sovereignty. It began with a trade dispute: as the Ukrainian government prepared to sign a landmark deal with the European Union, the president suspended talks due to opposition from Russia. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets. In March 2014 Russia sent troops to annex Crimea, and stoked an ongoing conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced over one million. But Russia failed to anticipate that its conflict with Ukraine would go beyond politics, to cost it one of its most powerful channels of influence over its neighbour: the Orthodox Church.

One of the world’s largest independent Eastern Orthodox churches, the Russian branch has over 150 million followers across the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, where nearly 80 per cent of adults identify as Orthodox. Last October, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople – the global head of Orthodox Christianity, which is divided into self-governing regional Churches – recognised the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as independent from the Russian one. The two had been united for more than three centuries. Ukraine’s president at the time, Petro Poroshenko, described it as “a victory of good over evil” and the “collapse of Moscow’s centuries-old claims for global domination”. He said it was “absolutely necessary to cut off all the tentacles with which the aggressor country operates” inside Ukraine. Infuriated by the potential loss of some 12,000 parishes and 30 million followers, the Russian Church cut ties from Constantinople, in the largest schism in Christianity in over a century.

The Kyiv-Moscow split has been a long time coming. Tensions within the Russian Orthodox Church mounted after Ukraine became independent in 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine strove to gain religious independence and a breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (the “Kyiv Church”) was created. After the outbreak of war, the push for religious independence intensified. Since 2014, more than 60 parishes in Ukraine decided to join the Kyiv Patriarchate, incensed at how the Russian Church’s Patriarch Kirill failed to condemn the bloodshed in Donbas. Many Ukrainians increasingly saw the Church as a tool for Russian propaganda.

The shift in allegiance goes beyond religious belief. “I’m an atheist of the Kyiv Church,” Nick, a 25-year-old photographer from Kyiv, told me. “Even people who are not religious say they belong to the Kyiv Church to show they are against Russia. When a foreign country invades another country, kills thousands of people and uses its church to influence and dominate the minds of people, it’s only logical to want religious independence.”

Matthew Kupfer, an editor at Ukraine’s English-language newspaper, the Kyiv Post, told me that prior to the split a “significant number of people and congregations” were switching to the Kyiv Patriarchate. “A lot of Ukrainians don’t think it matters what church you attend and a lot of people – both secular and religious – support the new Ukrainian church on patriotic, nationalist and security grounds,” he said.

These motivations can be conflicted. For some Ukrainians, opposition to Russia involves an embrace of the liberal values they associate with the EU, while others may see those values as threatening. As Tymothy Brik, an assistant professor at the Kyiv School of Economics, told me, “Ukrainian religious actors cherish ‘traditional’ values and often oppose liberal notions.” In 2018, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church spokesperson described an LGBT Pride march in Kyiv as propaganda for “sinful perversion”.

But some are willing to overlook this. Olena, 53, a university teacher and LGBT rights activist from Kyiv, told me that the Kyiv Church “represents independence from Russia’s authoritarian power – its outdated, destructive tendencies.”

A sense of betrayal by the Moscow Patriarchate was acutely felt in some of Ukraine’s rural communities, where churches are a bridge to the outside world. When families wanted to mourn relatives lost in Donbas, they needed another source of spiritual support. Vitaliy Eismont, 43, joined the Kyiv Church in 2015 after serving as a priest for over 20 years in a small rural parish in the Zhytomyr region. Father Eismont said he felt “deceived” by his Russian Orthodox Church branch, as it has “denied Russia’s involvement” in Donbas.

In one case in 2015, Russian Orthodox supporters attempted to seize a Kyiv church in the south-western region of Transcarpathia. The young men waved the “Donetsk People’s Republic” flag, representing the pro-Russian separatist authorities controlling part of Donbas, as they demanded the church come under Moscow’s control. Like many countries, Ukraine is a mix of different linguistic, religious and cultural traditions. A significant minority of the country’s population speaks Russian as a first language, particularly in the country’s east, while Ukrainian nationalist sentiment tends to be stronger in the west – although there is no simple geographical divide, and language in Ukraine is not necessarily an indicator of one’s ethnic identity or political affiliation.

Brik told me that Moscow parishes are scattered throughout the country, and that competition between the two Churches will determine whether parishes change allegiance. “If Moscow holds a monopoly in a region, it’s likely to stay under the Russian Orthodox Church’s control. If there’s competition then the switch will probably happen.”

According to Pete Duncan, associate professor of Russian politics and society at University College London, losing Ukraine’s church is a “huge blow” to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, as it “subverts” his notion of Russky Mir (“Russian World”), which unites several former Soviet countries by Orthodoxy and the Russian language. The split undermines the authority of the Moscow Church, and worse yet, it could set a precedent in other post-Soviet countries where anti-Russian sentiments are present. The Kyiv Patriarchate now stands to win back parishes not just in Ukraine but also in Belarus and Lithuania, which it controlled before the Russian empire expanded. Putin ominously warned that the redistribution of church property could lead to a “bloody dispute”.

Within Russia and beyond, the Russian Orthodox Church is seen as a political tool, used to promote a pro-Russian foreign policy through a spiritual and cultural framework. “The Church seeks to advance the regime’s interests, and in return the Church expects Putin’s regime to advance its own interests,” Duncan told me.

In the early years of the officially secular Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church was considered a vestige of bourgeois oppression and was brutally persecuted, with many of its clergy and followers sent to forced-labour camps in Siberia. During the Second World War, the authorities used the Church for propaganda to help galvanise support and resources. The former Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky told Reuters that there were KGB informers on all levels of the religious hierarchy: “They had to be friendly with the KGB.”

After Communism collapsed, 25,000 places of worship were restored. The Russian Church has been a strong bulwark for the rise of conservative nationalism since Putin became president in 2000, and particularly after mass anti-government protests that followed Putin’s third inauguration in 2012. Other elements of this resurgent nationalism include what critics call a whitewashing of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and an increase in anti-Western rhetoric.

The popularity of the Russian Church has soared, with 70 per cent of Russians identifying as Orthodox in 2017, up from around 30 per cent in 1991, according to a 2017 Pew study. Approval ratings for Kirill have been consistently high.

While the Patriarch denies any involvement in politics, he called Putin’s long-standing rule a “miracle of God” and criticised his opponents in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. In April 2013, the Church branded feminism “a very dangerous” phenomenon and said that feminist organisations proclaim a “pseudo-freedom”.

A few years later came a law decriminalising domestic violence, scrapping prison sentences for first-time abusers whose beatings cause “minor harm”. And within months of the Russian government passing the 2013 law banning the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors, Kirill declared same-sex marriage a sign of the “impending apocalypse” and urged people to combat the rise of gay rights.

Often appearing in public together, Putin and Kirill cast Russia as a defender of traditional values in the face of Western decadence. The Church famously questioned whether “Western standards of human happiness are applicable to all countries and cultures.” No, was Kirill’s answer. In his view, Russia should develop its own version of human rights and promote it internationally to oppose the West’s “dictatorial stance” that all other traditions “must be silenced and subdued.” This idea mirrors Russia’s political doctrine of “sovereign democracy” – a term first used in 2006 by Vladimir Surkov, widely regarded as Putin’s chief ideologist. Sovereign democracy offers an alternative to western liberal democracy. It is determined by Russia only, and should not be questioned by outsiders.

Beyond Russia’s borders, in Central and Eastern Europe (excluding Georgia), identification with the Russian Orthodox Church is often synonymous with backing Russia’s role in the world as a “counterweight” to the West. In Belarus and Moldova, 76 per cent of citizens agreed with the statement that a “strong Russia was needed to counterbalance the West”, according to a 2017 Pew research study. Experts from the EU-STAT research centre write that prominent figures from the Orthodox Church in Belarus and Moldova have spread anti-EU rhetoric.

The Kremlin’s promotion of nationalism and social conservatism has found appeal beyond the Russian Orthodox community. Right-wing populists in Europe claim that Western nations are in decay because they have departed from their religious and cultural heritage. As a result, some politicians, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, or France’s Marine Le Pen, view Russia’s approach as an admirable solution to the perceived failure of liberal democracy. Antonis Klapsis, the author of An Unholy Alliance: The European Far Right and Putin’s Russia, wrote, “[Far-right parties] see a close relationship with Russia as a necessary foothold in order to achieve the gradual disassociation of their countries from Euro-Atlantic Institutions.” In other words, Russia might present an alternative not only to liberal democracy, but also to the EU and NATO. Religious and cultural values are employed for geopolitical ends.

Yet Ukraine shows how Russia’s attempts to keep former Soviet states within its sphere of influence can backfire. For many Ukrainians, the Kyiv Church is an important aspect of their country’s evolving national identity. “It’s a chance for Ukraine to get rid of the heavy chains that have stopped us becoming a true democracy and create a better life for ourselves,” said Olena, the Kyiv-based teacher. But the Kyiv Church is a religous institution in its own right – and its socially conservative attitudes also risk alienating its more liberal followers. For the moment, however, many Ukrainians will find the conflict with Russia – and the support they receive from Western powers in their struggle for self-determination – a more pressing issue.
Yet there may also be common ground across the political divide. Opinion polling suggests that a significant minority of people in both Russia and Ukraine wish religious leaders had less influence in political matters altogether.