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6 August, 2013  ▪  Andriy Skumin

Mission: Impossible

The celebration of 1025 years of the christening of Kyiv Rus sums up the failure of Russia’s religious expansion in Ukraine headed by Patriarch Kirill

On January 27, 2009, the Russian Orthodox Church Council elected Kirill as the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus. He was much younger and more ambitious than his predecessor, Alexy II. During his first months as Patriarch, Kirill disclosed the concepts of the church’s Russian World that was planned as an effective tool to consolidate a slew of post-Soviet states, given their sluggish political integration into the Kremlin’s neo-imperial projects. Over the four years since then, however, this “spiritual” expansion with a clear political background has fueled the opposite reaction in the countries Kirill had targeted.

Force equals counter force

The establishment of metropolitan districts and appointment of a new top Church hierarchy in Central Asia that was initiated by Kirill, has led to a conflict with the leaders of a number of Central Asian states. As a result, the governments of Uzbekistan and Kirgizia, who had been very loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, did not allow Kirill to visit their states in 2011 when celebrating the 140th anniversary of the Tashkent Eparchy. The fact that the Patriarch ignored their governments when appointing church hierarchs was clearly one of the reasons. Kirill’s attempts to remove Volodymyr, the Metropolitan of the Chișinău and all Moldova Church, called forth a negative reaction from the Moldovan government. In 2011, it limited the term and scope of his visit to Moldova, not allowing him to visit the major parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill’s ambitions and intolerance have fueled conflicts with the leaders of other Orthodox patriarchates. Notably, no one from the Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Greek, Alban and American Churches attended the celebration of his 65th birthday. 

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His biggest failure is Ukraine, where, according to expert estimates, most followers of the Moscow Patriarchate live. If all Ukrainian churches united into one, it could become the biggest Orthodox Church in the world. Kirill had ambitions to accomplish the goal in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin failed to reach in politics, i.e. to drag it into the Russian World, starting with the Church. He even pledged to move to Kyiv and get Ukrainian citizenship. His visits revealed more and more political motivation, aiming to prove the traditional imperial myth that two nations that “emerged from one baptismal font” must share a common civilization future.

Not by than bread alone…

Given that the Eurasian vector of Ukraine’s economic integration cannot compete with the European one, the ideological, religious and civilization argument became one of the key warnings against Ukraine’s integration with the “mentally alien” Europe. However, there has been no signal of the efficiency of Kirill’s proposal over the past four years. The number of Russian Orthodox Church followers in Ukraine remains unchanged; no civil initiative to support the Russian World has emerged voluntarily, without the ambition to feed on financial assistance from Russia; and all surveys show growing approval for Ukraine’s European integration rather than one with the Russian World. Moreover, internal conflicts now torment the Ukrainian part of the Russian World. For instance, Odesa met the 1025th anniversary of the christening of Kyiv Rus with a conflict between the groups of Ihor Markov and Serhiy Kivalov over the construction of a church-based school. One of the key promoters of the Russian World in Ukraine, the Metropolitan of Odesa and Isamail, Agafangel, supported Kivalov and said that Ihor Markov have been possesses by “devils”. 

READ ALSO: The 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Kyivan Rus demonstrated Putin’s and Patriarch’s Kirill I nostalgia for common space of Russian-Orthodox civilisation

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate considers itself to be an autonomous Church. The Russian Church failed to override this when Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kyiv and All Ukraine was sick. Once recovered, he gradually revived his status in the Church, and once again drew Archbishop Oleksandr (Drabynko) who is believed to the Volodymyr’s right hand and one of the leaders of the moderate pro-Ukrainian wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, back to his side. Before Kirill visited Ukraine on July 26, Filaret, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, and Metropolitan Volodymyr embraced and spoke briefly in public at the Grand and Great Art Exhibition at Art Arsenal. “We believe and are convinced that the Kyiv and Moscow Patriarchates will unite into one local Orthodox Church,” Filaret commented on this meeting. Since any public moves of the top hierarchy of the Church are highly formalized, this was hardly an incidental or a spontaneous meeting. Notably, Patriarch Filaret has lately spoken positively of Metropolitan Volodymyr and the “pro-Ukrainian” wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Yanukovych is also distancing himself from giving the maximum support to Kirill that he provided in the first year of his presidency. At first sight, the Ukrainian government demonstrated loyalty during the Patriarch’s latest visit by preventing Femen’s naked protest and massive security measures when Kirill’s train arrived at the Kyiv railway station. However, Yanukovych made an ambiguous statement in his speech at the celebration that could be interpreted as a hint at the fact that Moscow should not use the Church for political purposes. “All churches and religious organizations are equal for the state. We respect the choice of our citizens and guarantee everyone’s Constitutional right to freedom of religion. We will not allow the use of churches and religious organizations by some political forces for their narrow interests. This also refers to foreign centres through which religious organizations sometimes seek to affect the internal political situation in Ukraine. This is a matter of the state’s national security,” he said. Meanwhile, the leaders of just one neighbouring state seek to use religious organizations and hand out awards for good performance to its hierarchs in Ukraine. For example, Vladumur Putin once again presented state awards to the hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Six metropolitans received the Order of Friendship.

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However, Kirill’s biggest defeat is the fact that Ukrainian society does not accept him. Photos from his previous meetings with people were photoshopped. This time, few people actually took note of his visit, despite the fact that streets were closed and an extensive promotion campaign preceded it. In contrast, nearly 3 million Catholics came to hear Pope Francis’ sermon on the World Youth Day in Brazil. It was in Ukraine that the holiness of Patriarch Kirill and the top hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, was first compromised by facts. During his 2009 visit to Kyiv, Ukrainian journalists took pictures of Kirill wearing a USD 30,000 Breguet watch, although he had taken monastic vows, turning his back on the consumer society on April 3, 1969. In 2012, another scandal surfaced after Lidia Leonova sued Russia’s ex-Minister of Health Care, a priest from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Yuriy Leonov. It then emerged that Kirill owned a luxury apartment in Moscow which is a direct violation of the Council of Constantinople’s rules regarding the property that monks can own.  Kirill’s insistence on the jailing of several Pussy Riot members who had young children also hit his reputation hard. Eventually, the women got long terms in prison. This and a slew of other scandals resulted in an unprecedented level of distrust in Patriarch Kirill in Russia, with the level of trust in him personally plummeting far below that of the Church he heads. According to a survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, 64% of Russians trusted the Russian Orthodox Church and only 56% trusted Kirill.

Kirill’s attempt to use political Orthodoxy for Russian expansion in Ukraine has failed, further discrediting and undermining the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate in society. As generations of Moscow Patriarchate believers in Ukraine shift, the younger wave of parishioners is increasingly sees the Russian Orthodox Church as being alien to them. This mental process will reinforce the stance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and restrict opportunities to use the Church as a tool of Russia’s influence in Ukraine. The experience of Kirill’s failed geopolitical mission has proved that using the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine for Moscow’s neo-imperial purposes is wasted money, just like all other Russian “compatriot campaigns” that have failed to deliver the result sought by the Kremlin or drag Ukraine into its initiatives. Ultimately, this proves once again that Ukraine is not Russia even with the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych and Party of Regions in power.

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