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23 August, 2011  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

The Illusion of the Third Rome

Cyril’s imperial policy is leading the Russian Orthodox Church to isolation

Patriarch Cyril of Moscow again was in Ukraine on July 26-28. Nearly all mass media that reported his visit emphasized the word “again.” The reason is because the patriarch’s visits have become so frequent that he appears to be using any suitable opportunity to travel to Ukraine. This is already his third trip in 2011. Moreover, on July 26 he met in Kyiv with Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia, who has a strained relationship with the Georgian government and supports Cyril’s initiatives in the region. The current visit and the meeting of the two patriarchs appear to be not so much a bid to reinforce Moscow’s positions in “canonical territories” as a desperate attempt to save the “Russian World” with its “original Orthodoxy” from becoming marginalized and insignificant.

Cyril’s overreaching ambition to establish Russian hegemony in the Orthodox world appears to be making the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) increasingly isolated. On the one hand, this is corroborated by the more active efforts of the Constantinople patriarchate to consolidate the Orthodox churches in Europe and the Mediterranean and its ostentatious disregard for Cyril’s aspirations to play a special role in the process. On the other hand, the failure of Cyril’s “Ukrainian blitzkrieg” is becoming increasingly obvious. Not only did it fail to draw all Ukrainian Orthodox churches that are not part of the Moscow patriarchate closer together but also stirred discontent over Moscow’s brutal interference among the autonomous-minded members of the UOC (MP).


The Russian Orthodox Church, which so actively promotes precedence of canonical traditions over present-day realities in the post-Soviet territory, has suddenly suffered a devastating blow from the Orthodox hierarchs in the Mediterranean. The leaders of small churches, which, however, are distinguished by having been established by the first apostles, reasserted their canonical rights to play the leading role in the Orthodox world. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I announced that representatives of four of the five most ancient Christian patriarchies (excepting Rome) will get together in September 2011. After the fourth Ecumenical Council in 451 they formed a pentarchy – a governing body of the Orthodox Church, which was still united at the time.

The Russian Orthodox Church received a slap in the face when it became clear that, in addition to the patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyrpus, rather than Patriarch Cyril of Moscow, was invited to fill the place of the patriarch of Rome. (The Pope does not attend such gatherings for obvious reasons.) Finding itself in its own trap and aware of the weakness of its positions from the viewpoint of Orthodox canons, the Moscow patriarchate has been energetically appealing to the “inadequacy” of the traditional pentarchy for the “current realities.” In particular, Metropolitan Ilarion, who directs external relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, said: “We find it impossible to agree that some group of churches or other is perceived as the ‘core’ of worldwide Orthodoxy based on the fact that their autocephaly is more ancient than that of the other churches.”

However, Moscow is not going to be consulted in this matter, it appears. Attempts to revise the issues of superiority and primacy of honor, which are being promoted by the ROC, run into active resistance of other Orthodox churches. Finally, Russia is justly accused of inconsistency: as long as it fights against the independence of, above all, the Ukrainian church citing “Orthodox canons,” it hardly has the right to advocate a “revision” of the dogmas it finds inconvenient.


The frequency of Cyril’s visits to Ukraine has increased compared to 2010. On 26 April, the Moscow patriarch launched memorial events to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster. On May 6-8, he came to Ukraine using as a pretext the anniversaries of metropolitans Nicodemus of Kharkiv and Bohodukhiv and Ilarion of Donetsk and Mariupol. However, considering the results of the visit, Cyril’s “blitzkrieg” is an obvious failure. If the Kyiv–Moscow relations continue to deteriorate, he will have an increasingly smaller chance of solving the problem of divisions Bulgarian style, i.e., by force, as the hawks in the ROC suggested last year.

Other, non-Russian orthodox churches in Ukraine are not too concerned. Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) has noted that Cyril’s visits “help the believers of the Moscow Patriarchate understand that they belong to the Russian church, rather than a Ukrainian one, while they still want to part of the latter.” Evidently, Moscow’s attempts to do “ministry work” directly in Ukraine do not sit well with Ukrainian hierarchs in the UOC (MP). On Cyril’s first visit to Kyiv in 2009 the media published a number of negative reactions from the Ukrainian clergy who were put off by the disrespectful attitude of Cyril’s inner circle and were afraid that Moscow would try to again run Ukrainian eparchies – which are incidentally more numerous than in Russia. Moreover, the ROC continues to come up with new initiatives to lay an ideological foundation in order to bring Kyiv back under its direct control. Cyril even said he is prepared to make the Ukrainian capital his seat.

His most recent visit follows the same course. The commentary offered by Vladimir Legoyda, chief of the ROC Information Department, suggests that by arranging to meet with Ilia II in Kyiv, Cyril is trying to start a tradition of pilgrimages to a “Russian” Kyiv, a ritual of sorts through which Orthodox hierarchs would express their loyalty to the “Russian World”: “The visit of the Georgian Catholicos to the Ukrainian capital will enable both patriarchs to celebrate Baptism of Rus' Day together […] in the place where the original baptism was carried out.” The arrangement can also be viewed as a Russian response to the Mediterranean pentarchy.

Naturally, Russian activities are not limited to visits alone. Moscow would like to see a supporter of Cyril’s conception of the “Russian World” as the metropolitan in Kyiv. Metropolitan Volodymyr does not fill the bill. He is known for having said at the 2008 Assembly of ROC Hierarchs that “the UOC is a church that unites people of both the East European Orthodox and Western (European) civilizations” and thus cannot be united with the rest of the ROC. In early May, the mass media debated whether Ilarion, Cyril’s right-hand man, could be appointed to a top position in Kyiv. However, the tendency inside the UOC (MP) itself is to increasingly favor independence. Thus, its National Council, which took place in Kyiv on July 8, enacted the 2007 statute to significantly expand its self-governance and did so without seeking Cyril’s consent and despite protests from pro-Moscow hawks and the opposition and démarches on the part of some delegates who favor rapprochement with Moscow.


Cyril’s plans were further frustrated in the area of external relations. After a long period of pressuring the Kyiv Patriarchate, Moscow tried to absorb the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church this past spring by proposing that it “return” to the ROC with autonomy rights. However, the latter refused to oblige. Some of its hierarchs went even further and levelled severe criticism against Moscow’s position and Cyril’s personal attitude to Ukrainians. Bishop Volodymyr of Vyshhorod and Podillia said on April 28: “The ROC is not our mother church. Our mother church is the Constantinople Church, while we are the ‘mother’ to the ROC.” He also criticized Moscow for its unwillingness to engage in dialog and constant humiliation of Ukrainians: “True, it is a large and rich church, but no one gave it the right to oppress other denominations the way Patriarch Cyril does. He declares: ‘You know, Ukrainianness is the perennial disease of the Russian Soul.’ Statements like these require no comment. Rifts in Ukraine are, after all, the sin of the Moscow Church.”

The open support the current Ukrainian government threw behind the ROC’s expansion in Ukraine rallied alternative Ukrainian Orthodox churches. “Many people think that the union is inevitable and that it will take place under the aegis of the Moscow Patriarchate, but we say that it is not to be. Churches will merge into one national orthodox church,” said Patriarch Filaret of Kyiv on April 25. Indeed, this is the only platform for consolidating Ukrainian Orthodoxy that both the autocephalous church and Greek Catholics are willing to support this way or another. Filaret has made increasingly frequent statements that this possible union may also involve Greek Catholics. It is crucial that their leader have the same opinion. On June 3, he said: “A united national church is a reality, above all, because it existed in this form but later for certain reasons was split into several denominations. There is a common foundation, and thus there is a chance that this unity will be restored.” In order for the parties to solve the thorny problem of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s subordination to the Pope, they are negotiating “Eucharistic intercommunion,” which means having spiritual unity, particularly in sacraments.


“Union without Moscow” but involving Greek Catholics is further facilitated by the trend in European Orthodoxy to seek reconciliation with the Catholic Church. Observers have noted that the Spiritual Byzantium project around which the Orthodox churches of EU actual and potential members may rally is a healthy alternative to the imperial doctrine of the “Russian World” which is being promoted by Cyril primarily to justify his sphere of influence. The platform proposed by Constantinople is in better harmony with the principle of a voluntary union of nations which lies at the heart of the EU. A key factor for its superior attractiveness is the Ecumenical Patriarch’s independence of any individual Orthodox church with its geopolitical interests, such as the Moscow Patriarchate.

In contrast, the very idea of the “Russian World,” which is opposed to the external, particularly Orthodox, world, tends to put the ROC in isolation. Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek or Romanian Orthodox churches have virtually no chances left to combine their Christian European identity with the “Russian” identity of the ROC. Even such formerly pro-Russian nations as the Serbs or Bulgarians have chosen Europe over integration with Russia. Thus, the Moscow Patriarchate is losing its influence on the Orthodox churches in these countries. For example, Patriarch Irenaeus of Serbia supports the idea of the Pope’s visit to the country scheduled for 2013 and first advanced by President Boris Tadić. This puts him in sharp contrast with the ROC which openly protests the plan. Furthermore, Irenaeus speaks in favor of “restoring friendly relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.”

In this context, the pursuit of Cyril’s expansionist goals will put the ROC in increasing self-isolation which was characteristic of the era in Russian history before the Pereiaslav Treaty when it was guided by xenophobic, messianic attitudes completely removed from modernization processes in European, particularly Ukrainian, Orthodoxy in the 15th through the 17th century. In the condition toward which Russian Orthodoxy is heading for it will be able to offer to its followers nothing more than obscurantism in the struggle against dissenters and justification of backwardness with myths about apparent “spiritual superiority.” There is no need to ask whether this kind of “Third Rome” may be attractive to the neighboring countries.


Throw out disabled children

In Dnipropetrovsk, 200 children with special needs found themselves essentially on the street when the Economic Court of Appeals ruled in November 2010 that the buildings of a boarding school constructed before the October Revolution had to be handed over to the Saint Tikhvin Convent.

Seize church buildings

On February 15, 2011, in keeping with a court ruling, the church building in Kamianka, Donesk region, was taken away from the UOC (KP) despite the fact that its parishioners restored the building from ruins at their own expense in 1996.

The confrontation between the UOC (MP) and the UOC (KP) over the building on Smorodynovy Uzviz in Kyiv led to fights on several occasions. In June 2011, employees of a privately-owned security firm tried to seize this church building.

Destroy parks

In February 2011, parishioners skirmished with neighborhood residents over the construction of a UOC (MP) church in Yunist Park in Kyiv’s Borshchahivka district. Tear gas was used against the local residents. While the case was heard in courts, the construction works were completed. Similar incidents erupted over churches located in Pavlivsky Park, Zoia Kosmodemianska Park and one near the Darnytsia Metro Station.

Silence the organ

The Dnipropetrovsk Organ and Chamber Music House with its unique organ became property of the UOC (MP) in March 2011. Now the organ is going to be moved to the building of the regional philharmonic society where it is certain to lose its special sound.

Call the Holodomor a visitation

“We know what happened to our society after the 1917 revolution and what human rebellion against God it was. Churches were ruined; icons were destroyed; national sacred placed were desecrated. Now God does not strike with a stick. God brings man to reason in other ways,” said UOC (MP) Metropolitan Onufrii of Chernivtsi and Bukovyna in November 2008.

Close down museums

Ukraine’s only Museum of Clothes was shut down in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytsky in summer 2010 as its building was handed over to the Saint Michael Church of the UOC (MP).

Oust a hospital

The administration of the Hromashevsky Institute of Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases, a unique institution that treats AIDS patients, has been searching for a new building since July 2010 after a Cabinet of Ministers’ decision forced it to abandon its premises in the territory of the Kyivan Cave Monastery following a claim by the UOC (MP).

Ruin an architectural monument

In February 2011, the Patronage of the Mother of God Church in Sosnytsia, Chernihiv region, was destroyed under the guidance of a UOC (MP) monk, Fr. John (Kuzovych). It was one of the last surviving completely wooden churches built in the style of the Cossack Baroque.

Oust a kindergarten

In July 2011, a building of a kindergarten in Luhansk region was rented free of charge to the UOC (MP). The priest who took charge of the premises agitated for the current mayor of Alchevsk before the local election.


Chornobyl disaster

Patriarch Cyril of Moscow:“A horrible mistake caused the Chornobyl disaster. The Lord could have stopped the hand of the operator who made it as he ran the reactor. The Lord let it happen. Through their deaths a number of people may have made a joint contribution to the atonement of sins.”

Fire in the Lame Horse club in Perm, Russia

Bishop Irenarchus of Perm and Solikamsk:“Everyday we pray in services to be granted ‘Christian death, peaceful and not shameful,’ and ask the Lord to let man live until old age and see the ‘sons of his sons,’ i.e., grandchildren and great grandchildren. The saddest thing is that the people who died in the Lame Horse nightclub were deprived of this gift of God, and God let them die with the death that one would not wish even for an enemy of one’s fatherland.”

Economic crisis

Patriarch Cyril of Moscow:“The Greek word krisis means ‘judgment’. Any crisis in life is God’s judgment, which separates the truth from lies and exposes the untruth. If the world is going through an economic crisis, it means that this judgment exposes some global human untruth.”

The earthquake in Japan

Priest Alexander Shumsky:“Everyone has a clear memory of how after the Russian president visited the Kuril Islands, people in Japan trampled down his portraits, burned and torn apart Russian flags, etc. So now the Lord has given them their just reward.”

Priest-Monk Nektary (Golovkin):“We have seen that when Orthodox people cannot defend themselves, the Lord comes to their defence. The catastrophe in Japan will for a while diminish its hatred for Russia.”

Opposition to the construction of a church in Yekaterinburg

Archbishop Vincent of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye:“All people who fought against the church were marked by the Lord: no one who resisted God died a natural death. We say that it is extremely dangerous for the person himself to resist God. The Lord will grant understanding and send punishment on him sooner or later. This punishment from God continues for seven generations.”

The Russian Church is against folk Russian fairytales

2001. The Vologda eparchy announced Father Frost a pagan deity. Bishop Maximilian of Vologda and Veliky Ustyug declared that the church would participate in the New Year festivities in Veliky Ustyug (place of Father Frost’s origin) only if the official biography of this fairytale character includes a statement that he adopted Christianity.

Ongoing war between the ROC and residents of Kukoboy and Poshekhonye. The former village was announced to be the place of origin of Baba Yaga (a witch in Russian fairytales) and her hut was built there. The latter city claimed the original right to the nix (vodyanoi). The ROC Yaroslavl eparchy said in a statement: “Neo-heathen temples are being built and pseudo-religious ceremonies begin to take place there. […] If the nix and Baba Yaga are dearer to the government than Jesus Christ, Saint Mary and other saints, this government and the people who have elected it deserve sympathy.”

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