Independence for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church is a Nightmare for Putin, and for a Good Reason.

How the possibility of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a political earthquake for Vladimir Putin as he vies to secure his stronghold on Ukraine.

by Malika Navruzova

News concerning Russia-Ukraine relations has been largely overlooked by Western media in the past year, and this time, a story that has the potential to bring down Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine has been gravely underreported. On October 11, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide triggered a process to grant ecclesiastical independence - also known as autocephaly - to a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, freeing it from the control of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. If the process is to be completed, making the Ukrainian Church free of any subservience to Moscow, then the dynamics in the region will shift tremendously, creating one of the most serious schisms in Christianity in centuries. The move comes after years of increased tensions since the collapse of the Soviet Union over the role of church in Ukraine. The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russian forces, however, has led to an exhilaration of disagreements for people who view national identity and church identity as intertwined and interdependent. 

Church relations in the past 

Kyiv was once a capital of a blooming empire, the Kievan Rus’ which ruled East Slavic people in 10th century AD. Russian historiography adamantly diminishes and excludes Ukraine’s claim as the true successor of Kievan Rus’ and uses the adoption of Orthodoxy in 988 to claim Kievan Rus’ as the “first Russian state”. Nevertheless, Russian churchgoers still perceive Kyiv to be the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox tradition. Thus, an important and indisputably symbolic part for Russians and the Russian Orthodox Church remains to be the Ukrainian Church and its potential autocephaly would create a tectonic shift in church relations making the current crisis over the Ukrainian Church the most significant in almost 1,000 years. 

The Orthodox church as it is known today was formed after the East-West schism of 1054 which was the break of communion between what are now the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches. Orthodoxy, unlike Catholicism, does not have a centralized hierarchy with a papal figure at the top. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, however, holds the status of “first among equals” and has limited powers over the 14 autonomous Orthodox churches, with the larger Church of Constantinople being able to grant independence to other Orthodox churches. 

Understanding the Conflict  

At present, Ukraine is split into two churches with one having canonical status in the world of global Eastern Orthodoxy. On the one hand there is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) reporting to the Moscow Patriarchate, and on the other, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-K), which was established by the Metropolitan Filaret who broke with the Russian Orthodox Church but was never recognized by Constantinople. Authorities in Kyiv have been striving to set up a national Orthodox Church disconnected from Moscow Patriarchate since the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic declared itself independent from the USSR in 1991. The 1990 drive for independence urged the Russian Orthodox Church to bring back the self-governance of its exarchate in Ukraine, renaming it the UOC, which consequently solidified the existence of two competing churches. The UOC is a representation of Moscow allegiance while the UOC-KP is an emblem of an independent Ukraine.

For Ukrainians, the possibility of independence of their church represents a separation from larger political influences, namely, the draconian grip of Vladimir Putin on the region. The Russian government has stuck to the 2007 idea of Russkiy Mir (Russian World) which seeks to unite the three branches of the “Russian” people, the Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians under the Russian Orthodox Church. Ukrainians, in turn, would be regarded as “Little Russians” and would merge with the Russians as “one people” with Ukraine being regarded as an artificial state, as Putin pointed out in his 2008 NATO-Russian Council Speech. 

The demand for a separate church, unsurprisingly, was triggered by the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, which explicitly violated Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. In the years after the invasion, the UOC has been openly and unapologetically partisan. Russian nationalist groups storming into Donbas have had the blessings of the Russian Orthodox Church clergy while there have been cases of senior UOC clergy refusing to serve at funerals of slain Ukrainian soldiers. 

Putin’s encroachment 

With Putin’s own legitimacy on the line, the Kremlin has been swift in issuing threats to Ukrainian autocephaly, with the Russian church cutting all ties with Constantinople until the process is halted. It prohibited its followers from taking part in any religious rituals such as marriage and baptism at any church under Constantinople’s control. This brash response demonstrated that the seeming theological conflict is one that entirely centers on power, which speaks volumes about the Russian church. One of the pillars of Putin’s stronghold in the region has been rooted in his alliance with the Orthodox Church, which, almost in a medieval fashion, grants him legitimacy and supports his policies. The church indeed remains a government institution, serving Russian imperialist tendencies. The church has long been in close contact with the FSB (former KGB) because of vital financial connections between them and the Russian oligarchs.   

If the UOC-K is granted autocephaly, then it would effectively act as a check to Putin’s initiative of Russkiy Mir, which he hopes will become the “third Rome”. This is a doctrine prized by Putin where Russia is the heir to Rome and Constantinople and is the centre of Orthodoxy in the world, becoming a united Christian empire. One of the ways Putin has inched closer to his vision is the mandate for officials to read thinkers who support a united Christian empire such as Nikolai Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin. Not to mention, he has staged a photo-op where he sits on a traditional throne of Byzantine emperors in Mount Athos, Greece.

Under those circumstances, Ukraine’s triumph in obtaining autocephaly is a pivotal step towards not only political, but religious and cultural freedom. A stunning defeat to Putin is exemplified in Ukraine’s formation of an authentic national culture based on the interests of their citizens and not the arcane imperial narratives perpetrated by Moscow. Vladimir Putin will, inevitably, go down as a ruler who has lost more of the imperial land and suffered an ignominious defeat due to his imperial appetite and hysteria. An independent church will emphasize the much-needed divorce from Russian infringement into Ukrainian sovereignty and is ultimately an answer to Putin’s frontal assault on Ukraine.  

AnalysisThe General Assembly