The creation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) 20 years ago was as resolute a step as proclaiming the independence of the Ukrainian state
Strange as it may seem, a country’s independence is directly linked to the religious freedom of its citizens. A loss of one leads to the decline of the other. As soon as Muscovy started incorporating Ukrainian lands after the Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654, it immediately wanted to unify the spiritual life of its subjects as well. Formed under the influence of Asian factors, Muscovy’s despotic political culture ruled out having two spiritual centres within one state. In 1685, Metropolitan of Kyiv Hryhoriy Sviatopolk-Chetvertynsky accepted ordination in Moscow, for the next 300 years, Ukrainian Orthodoxy was under the Moscow Patriarchate which stripped it of its autonomous rights and ancient traditions and imposed its own mode of existence. Kyiv's religious dependence was a kind of guarantee for Moscow that it would continue to have control over the spiritual life of the subjugated Ukrainian population. It also contributed to Russification and assimilation through dispersion in Russian Orthodox universalism.
ONE STEP BACK, TWO STEPS FORWARDS
Ukrainian Orthodoxy has on many occasions tried to break the restraining shackles of Moscow’s spiritual dominion. Whenever there was a chance to gain state independence, Ukrainians sought religious freedom also. Certain steps in this direction were taken during the Liberation Struggle of 1917-21, resulting in the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). Destroyed by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s, it revived through the efforts of Ukrainian émigrés in the occupied lands of our historical Fatherland during the Second World War. However, Nazi repression and Soviet persecution forced its supporters to move their structures abroad, and it became known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.
Fundamentally different opportunities to revive an independent Ukrainian church emerged in the late 1980s during Soviet perestroika which was a harbinger of a liberalised spiritual life. Symbolically, the revival of Ukrainian Orthodoxy began in Kyiv where an initiative committee started working to revive the UAOC on 15 February 1989. It set the goal of registering its parishes across the territory of the Ukrainian SSR. After Archpriest Volodymyr (Yarema), father superior of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Lviv, withdrew with his parish from the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) on 19 August 1989 , the church independence movement began to rapidly gain momentum, and many in Ukraine left the ROC.
The revived UAOC was then headed by Ivan (Bodnarchuk), a bishop of the Moscow Patriarchate who was soon thereafter banned from church services. Nearly 200 former parishes of the ROC joined the UAOC by early 1990.
On 5-6 June 1990, Kyiv hosted the All-Ukrainian Orthodox council involving some 700 delegates from all across Ukraine, including seven bishops and over 200 priests, which legitimised the revived UAOC, adopted its statute and elected Mstyslav (Skrypnyk), leader of the UOC of the USA, as patriarch in absentia. Locum tenens in Kyiv was Metropolitan Ivan (Bodnarchuk). The church was officially legalised on 2 October 1990 when the Soviet authorities registered it.
Democratisation made it possible for Metropolitan Mstyslav to come to Ukraine in autumn 1990, and he was enthroned as the Patriarch of Kyiv and all of Ukraine.
In response, the ROC took swift and resolution action to counteract the separation movement. The Kremlin saw that a loss of Ukraine had never been more real in the previous 70 years, and now the religious factor gained weight. It was no longer about strengthening the position of the Russian church in Ukraine. The ROC needed to salvage the whatever was still under its control. A promptly convened ROC council renamed the Ukrainian exarchate of the ROC as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and granted it the status of an “independent and self-governing church”. It also decided that the head of the UOC would have the title Metropolitan of Kyiv and all of Ukraine. Such steps that would normally be unpopular among supporters of the centralised (imperial) church model were aimed, according to the initiators, at cooling a new “hot spot” (an ecclesiastical one this time around) at least for a while. The head of the UOC was its former exarch, Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko), who had held the office since 1966. Thus, even prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, two orthodox churches emerged in Ukraine: the UAOC headed by Patriarch Mstyslav and the UOC headed by Metropolitan Filaret.
WHICH ONE IS STRONGER?
In the early 1990s, the party nomenklatura in the Ukrainian SSR considered possible future scenarios and tried to make up its mind about “church preferences”. The UOC, the biggest Ukrainian church at the time, was still under Russian influence, while the UAOC had parishes mostly in western Ukraine and was much smaller and less influential than the ROC, even though it had an independent-like position. Thus, in the eyes of the Ukrainian establishment the UAOC could not be an exponent of Ukraine’s national interests. Moreover, it was a new church little known to the Communist Party leadership, which had, in view of the circumstances, to convert to Christianity and leave atheism in the past. The mere fact that Patriarch Mstyslav was a senior figure for special assignments in subordination to the chief otaman of the UNR’s army during the struggle against the Bolsheviks alienated former Communist Party members, and they refused to cooperate with his church. Therefore, the government decided to rely on the large UOC and press for its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate.
Ironically, Moscow itself gave the UOC a tool for legitimate separation for fear of losing parishioners to the increasingly stronger UAOC. This tool was a UOC local council, which, according to Moscow’s design, had to serve as a “carrot” with which to lure Ukrainians. After Ukraine’s independence was proclaimed, Filaret convened a local UOC council in the Kyivan Cave Monastery which passed the following decision: “Appeal to the Holy Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and all of Russia and to the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church with a request to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church full canonical independence, i.e., autocephaly.” In his appeal to the Verkhovna Rada Metropolitan Filaret wrote that the independence of the UOC in an independent Ukraine was canonically justified and historically inevitable. Delegates of all UOC dioceses, seminaries and monasteries without exception signed the decision of the local council. The decision was thus canonically legitimate.
The Moscow Patriarchate did not try to reinvent the wheel and used a well-worn tactic by announcing: “We are besieged – there are enemies all around.” Filaret was accused of an attempt to “split the church” and emissaries from Moscow were immediately sent to the Ukrainian dioceses. They started rallying “the discontent and offended” who could be relied upon during a church coup that would restore the positions of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.
In May 1992, a group of rebels supported by the Kremlin initiated a non-canonical “Kharkiv council” which deposed Filaret and elected the Moscow-backed Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan). In circumstances when the ROC leadership organised and supported a rift in the UOC, the independent-minded part of the Orthodox clergy lost even any formal reason to remain in subjection to Moscow. In order to unite the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches, a joint council was held in Kyiv on 25-26 June 1992, and the UAOC and part of the UOC united in one structure which received the name Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate). Mstyslav was elected Patriarch of Kyiv and all of Ukraine, while Filaret became his deputy. The new church was registered by the authorities, while the registration of the UAOC was revoked and it ceased to exist as a legal entity.
TWO CHURCHES, ONE HEAD
Some of the UAOC bishops did not recognise the unification council, because it took place without Patriarch Mstyslav. He came to Ukraine a short time later and expressed his dissatisfaction with the council and the foundation of the UOC (KP). The bishops of the new church were split between two centres. On 12 December 1992, Mstyslav came to Ukraine for the last time. He met with the parishioners and the clergy who did not accept the union with part of the UOC headed by Filaret. As a result, Mstyslav appealed to the Ukrainian government, insisting that the participation of bishops and parishioners in the unification council on 25-26 June 1992 was illegitimate and that the statute of the UAOC was violated.
To understand his reasoning, we need to look at the history of Ukrainian political emigration. As a veteran of the UNR’s army, he thought cooperation with Metropolitan Filaret, a man who had emerged from the communist system, was impossible. Crucially, he did not believe Filaret was able to change his views. Mstyslav did not come to Ukraine after the Second World War, so he had a very vague notion of the state of affairs here. It can be surmised that he hoped to mechanically transplant the structures of the UAOC in exile to Ukraine.
However, Mstyslav died (in Grimsby, Canada) at the height of the 1993 church crisis. Two churches – the UOC (KP) and the de-registered UAOC – considered him to be their head. Both churches elected new leaders: Patriarch Dymytriy in the UAOC and Volodymyr in the UOC (KP). The latter candidacy raised no doubts, because Volodymyr (Vasyl Romaniuk) had been for many years a political prisoner in Soviet camps both under Stalin and Brezhnev, a member of the dissident movement (member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group) and a fervent champion of autocephaly and an independent UOC. While in the patriarch’s office, he looked for ways to re-unite Orthodox churches in Ukraine. However, his mysterious death on 14 July 1995 put an end to his initiatives.
In 1995, Filaret came to head the UOC (KP). Dissatisfied with his candidacy, four bishops and 400 religious congregations switched over to the UAOC. Filaret quickly rebutted the criticism of his opponents who claimed he was on a mission “to destroy the Kyiv Patriarchate”. Under him, a network of education institutions to train the clergy was built; a whole cohort of bishops and priests were ordained; new dioceses and parishes were formed. Most importantly, the church asserted itself in eastern and southern Ukraine. In the 20 years of its existence, the UOC (KP) turned from a small marginalised entity into a power which not only Moscow but the entire Orthodox world would have to take into account. A key contribution to expanding its structure was made by Filaret himself. Even his opponents admitted that he is a goal-driven person who is extremely persistent in defending Ukrainian spiritual interests regardless of the changes in government policy.
THE ACTIVITIES OF THE UOC (KP)
The UOC (KP) also made a significant contribution to modernising the Ukrainian nation politically. Even though complete deconstruction of Soviet cultural and political practices has never been achieved in Ukraine, our society did make progress towards leaving communist heritage behind. Clearly, a lot of credit should be given here to the UOC (KP) headed by Filaret. Many a rock was put into the foundation of new Ukrainian identity by both the Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church. However, the UOC (KP) has done the most to promote Ukrainian values in Left-Bank Ukraine. The national idea which the ossified nomenklatura rejected in eastern and southern Ukraine has been cherished precisely by this church. The adoption of Ukrainian as the language of church services and sermons, the rejection of imperial memorial practices, veneration of fighters for Ukraine’s independence as heroes and martyrs and wide-ranging spiritual and education work among citizens have all brought their fruits. The authority the church has won among Ukrainians and its powerful structure built in the course of two decades have enabled the UOC (KP) to set a barrier to the spiritual, cultural and political expansion of Moscow today. It is a barrier that should have been secured by the state, not by a church.
Under Filaret, a model of a secularised church free from Russian fundamentalist influences has been established, and today it is an ally of Ukraine’s modernisation. In this sense, the revitalised Ukrainian Orthodoxy stands a better chance of becoming the foundation for an alternative social development than the conservative Russian, Serbian or even Greek churches.
The problems of Ukrainian ecclesiastic legitimisation in 1917-1921
With the fall of the tsarist regime and proclamation of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR), the liberation movement also affected church life. Dioceses held congresses of parishioners and the clergy, and spontaneous church Ukrainianisation erupted which could not be controlled from the centre. But the idea of an independent Ukrainian church was in need of serious canonical, historical and legal justification. This mission was undertaken by Archbishop Olexy (Dorodnitsyn). As a historian of religion, he was well aware that the brutal and non-canonical subjugation of the Ukrainian Church by Moscow in the 17th century could be challenged and that Ukrainians had every right to have their own church. But the military aggression of the Bolsheviks and the White Guard was not conducive to the steady growth of spiritual life in Ukraine. There was also another problem: the powerful Ukrainisation movement of parishioners and the clergy did not have the support of bishops most of whom were Russians with a clearly chauvinistic stance. After the creation of the Ukrainian State, Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky helped in every way to establish an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. However, the efforts of the All-Ukrainian Church Council and his government again met with resistance from the Russian bishops. Instead of independence, the bishops agreed to a limited autonomy with the Moscow Patriarchate. On 1 January 1919, after the anti-hetman coup and the establishment of the UNR’s Directory, the Law “On the Supreme Administration of the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Synodic Church” was passed. However, it was not possible to solve the problem of religious life through legislation only. Finally, in 1920, an all-Ukrainian Orthodox Church council proclaimed independence, and the First All-Ukrainian Church Council confirmed the decision in 1921. This brought the UAOC into being. At the time, three main cornerstones were proclaimed: autocephaly, rule by the council and Ukrainisation. At that point in history, the UAOC was unable to find a conclusive solution to the ordination of bishops – they were ordained through the laying on of hands by priests who were council members, which cast doubt on the canonicity of the entire hierarchy.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration