Filaret: A Statehood-oriented Patriarch

8 November 2012, 17:24

In the 20 years of Ukraine’s independence, a series of presidents have passed before our eyes: Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. The leaders of the main Ukrainian Orthodox churches have not changed. The church is a social institution that is much more conservative than the state. Even though it is oriented towards higher things, the heavens, it stands on earth and cannot abstract itself from earthly affairs, above all politics. Even the Catholics with their universalism and maximum centralisation from parish priests all the way up to the Pope have never been able to do so. Catholicism appears to be one — universal and indivisible — but even here we see that some national church entities are important factors in ethnic-political consolidation and solving local, national problems without denying religious globalism. This especially comes to the fore when such branches of worldwide Catholicism as the Catholic Church of Poland, Croatia or Ireland are involved.

The above is even more true of the Orthodox world with its system of equal autocephalous churches, and the Ecumenical Patriarch is merely “the first among equals”. But if local Catholic churches have enjoyed certain legal and actual extraterritoriality with regard to their respective states, Orthodox churches have experienced fairly strong incorporation in the state. That is why an Orthodox church whose centre was in one country and which identified itself this way or another with a certain ethnos (in its own perception or in the eyes of the population) often finds its extremely hard to act as a spiritual guide for another country and another people. These problems have emerged in the past but have never been regulated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate with regard to the population of Bulgaria, Albania and some other countries. This is what generated perceptible ambiguity in the way the Moscow Patriarchate operates in Ukraine. It upholds Russian political and historical values and promotes special mental traits, which makes it a poor fit in Ukraine. (A more or less educated Ukrainian will find it hard to treat Tsar Nicholas II as a holy person.)

In almost all parts of the Orthodox world, when a sovereign national state was formed, an independent local church emerged almost in sync with it. In this sense Ukraine is no exception: church independence came on the heels of state independence. This act was made possible largely thanks to the personal position of Metropolitan Filaret of Kyiv. This seemingly ecclesiastical step plunged him into the centre of a political tornado. Unlike many poorly educated Ukrainian politicians – above all former party organisation leaders and Komsomol secretaries, “red directors” and collective farm heads – Moscow knew perfectly well what this meant. There was almost no hesitation in Moscow’s political establishment and church hierarchs. They defined their position along the following line: no recognition of an independent Ukrainian church, because doing so would require full acceptance of an independent Ukraine. Now this is something that the Kremlin has not put up with even until now. Unlike the Russian government which was limited by certain political and diplomatic formalities, the Moscow Patriarchate could afford  legal and actual obstruction of Ukraine’s sovereignty in the form of persecuting its independent church. Some Russian politicians pointed to Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow’s position as an example to be followed by the Russian president: “Yeltsin has dissolved his empire, while Alexy has preserved his.”

Right after his move, Filaret began to experience strong opposition. Incidentally, Ukraine could get its own church in a fairly painless fashion as was the case when the Kyiv, Subcarpathian and Odesa military districts of the Soviet Army turned into the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, Moscow resolutely, as in the case of the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea, confronted Ukraine, trying keep its most important church province. The key role was played here not so much by the Russian patriarch as by the Russian state as such. It organised a separatist church council in Kharkiv, which was reminiscent of the alternative Bolshevik government proclaimed there in December 1917. This was the beginning of the rift in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. It could have been averted, but it turned out to be beyond Filaret’s power. Resolute action by the Ukrainian government was required. However, President Kravchuk, a former chief of the ideology department in the Central Committee of Ukraine’s Communist Party, preferred to watch this special Russian political operation in Ukraine from the sidelines. His cowardice and passiveness left its imprint on Ukraine for a long time, just like in the case with his position on Crimea.

A veritable informational and psychological war of destruction was launched against Filaret. It is hard to name a misdeed he was not accused of by the Moscow-controlled and pro-Russian media. They pointed out that he headed the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church in the communist Soviet Union. They reported that he, a monk, had a family and children. They alleged he was involved in dubious financial transactions. The imagination of imperialists ran wild. They especially insisted that he had cooperated with the KGB. This argument was supposed to be convincing to people who did not know much about the place of the church in the ideocratic country that was the Soviet Union.

The Bolshevik policy on the church was little different from that of Roman emperors on early Christians. It was Soviet ecclesiocide, or church destruction, and its aim was to erase the church as such in the historical perspective. At best, the communists perceived it as a temporary harmful factor which had to be tolerated for the time being. The anti-clerical ideal of the Bolsheviks was realised in communist Albania where all mosques and churches were either blown up or closed under the dictatorship Enver Hoxha and Mehment Shehu, and the country was proclaimed a territory  of “total atheism”. There were many supporters of this solution to the religious problem in the USSR in the 1920s and the 1930s. The church was practically destroyed in the first two decades that the Reds ruled the USSR. When in 1943, guided by geopolitical considerations, Stalin decided to revive the Rus’ Orthodox Church (he insisted on naming it Rus’ rather than Russian, as it was called under the tsar), he was able to find a mere three bishops outside prison camps. Even the “liberal” Nikita Khrushchev launched a frenzied atheistic propaganda campaign in the USSR which led to the closure of the few surviving churches, monasteries and seminaries. He promised Soviet people that he would show them “the last priest” in a museum. There was no place for religion and church in his society. Whatever still survived had to be under the complete control of the Communist Party and law enforcement agencies. The top agency in this domain was the Council for Religious Matters attached to the Soviet Council of Ministers (and its local branches in the Soviet republics), and it was always headed by MGB and later KGB officers. At the time, no clergyman could be ordained without the consent of the KGB. There were no exceptions to this rule.

So all clergymen who were ordained in Soviet times could be blamed for this kind of forced cooperation with the KGB. This pertains to Sergey (Stragorodsky), the first Patriarch of Moscow after 1943, Alexy I (Simansky),  Pimen (Izvekov),  Alexy II (Ridiger) and Kirill (Gundyayev), the current Patriarch of Moscow. This was the condition of the church under the atheist Bolshevik government which sought out potential dissenters, nationalists and proponents of an independent church among the clergy. But the communists failed to see what lay deep in human souls. This explains the choice made by Filaret in 1991. Like millions of Ukrainians who were to cast their ballots on 1 December that year, he felt for the first time in decades that he was able to vote following his heart and that he would not be punished for doing so. This produced a 90 per cent approval of Ukraine’s independence.

The choice of Filaret and the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians was not accidental. But it turned out to be much more difficult for him, because he had something to lose. As the Metropolitan of Kyiv and Galicia and the Exarch of Ukraine, Filaret was nominally the second most influential figure in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) after the Patriarch of Moscow. By taking this resolute step, he burned the bridges behind him. He unequivocally adopted a position to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and seek independence for a local Ukrainian church.

Initially, Kravchuk supported Filaret, at least rhetorically, but later he realised the magnitude of the task of gaining independence for Ukrainian Orthodoxy and quietly stepped aside. Kuchma clearly supported the Moscow Patriarchate, even though he did not reject the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) to be on the safe side. He even promoted, in backstage conversations, the idea of gaining international recognition of the independent Ukrainian church. Yushchenko limited himself to a number of loud PR campaigns which produced no tangible results. Under the current government, the attitude to the UOC (KP) is almost the same as to the political opposition.

However, despite the disregard and even hostility on the part of the current political elite, the UOC (KP) has grown into a fairly powerful organisation and become an important factor in Ukraine’s spiritual life. The gates of “regional hell” will never swallow it. In two decades, it has turned into a bulwark of Ukrainian national spirit and has resisted politicisation, something the Moscow Patriarchate suffers so much from. It has also avoided the heresy of phyletism, i.e., the confusion between the Church and nation. Apostle Paul wrote: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free…” A case in point may be the refusal of the UOC (KP) to carry out a propaganda campaign against the ROC, which is the right step not only in the Christian but also the political dimension, because it keeps the church from turning into a political party, a transformation that would destroy it as a spiritual institution.

The strength of the Kyiv Patriarchate is attributable in many aspects to the personal traits of its leader. Unlike many spineless Ukrainian politicians, Filaret is a wise, resolute and steadfast man. He is actually reproached for being strict and authoritative. But it is precisely these qualities that help him resist political pressure, even though he does have a measure of flexibility. Filaret’s character was not the least factor in keeping the UOC (KP) free from rifts, fragmentation and dispersion despite the fact that he has many enemies. It is unfortunate that we have not had any president of his calibre in the 20 years of our independence.


•           Born on 23 January 1929 in village Blahodatne, Donetsk Region, to a working family

•          Took monastic vows on 1 January 1950 under the name of Filaret and was promoted to hieromonk a year later

•          Received the degree of Candidate of Theological Studies from the Moscow Ecclesiastic Academy in 1952; began teaching a short time later and was promoted to the position of dozent  (Associate Professor) in 1954

•          Returned to Kyiv in 1957 and took the position of the rector of the Kyiv Seminary in 1957 in the rank of archimandrite

•          Held several top offices in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1960-1990, including Exarch of Central Europe, Bishop of Vienna and Austria, Rector of the Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy and Seminary, Exarch of Ukraine,   Metropolitan of Kyiv and Galicia (since 1968)

•          In 1990, after the death of Patriarch Pimen, was elected through secret ballot by the ROC Holy Synod, as locus tenens of the Moscow Patriarch’s office; chairman of the ROC Local Council in June 1990

•          Convinced the ROC synod on 25-27 October 1990 to grant the UOC special autonomy rights

•          After Ukraine proclaimed independence in August 1991, Filaret was among those who proposed to an UOC council of hierarchs on 6-7 September 1991 and a UOC council on 1-3 November 1991 to discuss the issue of granting the UOC the right to full canonical independence, i.e., autocephaly. The ROC council of hierarchs held on 31 March – 4 April 1992 turned down the request

•          In April 1992, the ROC’s highest body tried to move Filaret from the metropolitan’s office to a provincial one over his independent views. Filaret rejected the decisions of the Moscow Synod and sent out an appeal to the heads of local Orthodox churches in his defence

•          On 6-7 May 1992, the ROC Synod condemned Filaret’s activities and removed him from the ranks of the higher clergy, threatening to ban him from ministry

•          On 25-26 June 1992, the All-Ukrainian Orthodox Council united the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church into the UOC (RP); Patriarch Mstyslav was elected primate, and Metropolitan Filaret his deputy

•          In 1993, following the death of Mstyslav, Metropolitan Volodymyr (Romaniuk) of Chernihiv and Sumy was elected to his office, and Filaret was re-elected as deputy

•          In 1995, after Volodymyr died, the Holy Synod of the UOC (KP) appointed Filaret locus tenens

•          On 20-21 October 1995, Filaret was elected Patriarch of Kyiv and all of Rus’-Ukraine at the All-Ukrainian Local Church Council. He took up his seat on 22 October.


Yuriy Shcherbak, writer, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Ukraine:

In terms of scale and significance to the religious life in Ukraine, Patriarch Filaret is comparable to Metropolitan Petro Mohyla and Ilarion Ohienko. Filaret will definitely go down in history as a person who challenged the imperial, KGB-controlled Moscow church which has been frenziedly fighting any attempts to establish an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church, an important spiritual part of our independent country. His rebellion against Moscow secured for the Ukrainian people an Orthodox church of their own, a church in which the clerical hierarchy has undeniable apostolic succession. Because the idea of the Kyiv Patriarchate was supported by Metropolitan Filaret and Bishop Yakiv, the UOC (KP) did not have to go the way of Vasyl Lypkivsky’s UAOC and it cannot be accused of “self-ordainment”.

Losiev Ihor

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