First a Political Coup, and Now a Religious Takeover in Ukraine

Is this yet another way in which the West wants to isolate and weaken the major feature of Russian culture—its historic church—in order ultimately to destroy Russia itself?  

All the kings horses and all the kings men                                                                         
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.                                                                                                                                                                        
--English nursery rhyme, 18th century

With the schism between the Ecumenical Patriarchate-Constantinople and Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (ROC-MP) virtually a fait accompli, commentators have focused on the Russian Orthodox Church’s loss of properties and influence in Ukraine.  However, the Russian Orthodox Church first and foremost is deeply concerned about the spiritual fate of its Ukrainian brethren

After all, the parishes in Ukraine loyal to Moscow (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate) are being persecuted by their country’s government: Churches are being closed with their properties transferred to the state, and clergy and parishioners are being denied access to these churches.[i] Violence has been carried out against parishioners attempting to protect their churches and practice their faith; one instance characteristic of many occurred in Bogorodchany in the Ivano-Frankovsk region.[ii]

Russia has every right to be concerned about this persecution by the Ukrainian government and radical groups supporting it of churches canonically under the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction, not to mention the safety of the parishioners who are denied the right to worship. 

European human rights organizations have expressed alarm about attacks on the religious freedom of the Orthodox (MP) in Ukraine—but the issue for the worldwide Orthodox community is even larger, going far beyond that of religious freedom (however critical that may be for any healthy society).[iii]

The schism in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church traverses geographical lines: After World War II Western Ukraine was made a part of the Soviet Union, which, because of the cultural differences between this part of Ukraine and the Donbass area, resulted in differences in religious affiliation as well. 

These differences, too complex to address here, date back to a rift in 1921 between the Russian and Ukrainian ecclesial hierarchy concerning the question of autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodox churches.  Perhaps a more amicable and proper settlement of the issue could have evolved if the laws of the Soviet Union had allowed religious freedom and respected religion in general.  But the matter gained traction only with the disintegration of the Soviet Union between 1985-1991.

Concerning the intertwined history of the Russian and Ukrainian churches, the article “It’s Time for an Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church” by Evagelos Sotiropoulos relies on unfounded accusations against the Moscow Patriarchate and Russia in general.[iv]  Its author blames the Russian Orthodox Church for actions taken in 1951 and 1970, when the Church was being mercilessly persecuted by the Soviet state. 

He also notes, “since 1991, the Moscow Patriarchate has been unable or unwilling to settle the schism in Ukraine that has left millions of Orthodox faithful there outside of the canonical Church.”[v]  Such a conclusion is curious, for Ukraine contains many hundreds of canonical Orthodox churches on its territory.[vi]  Moreover, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) is already self-governing and does not make any financial contributions to Moscow.

No historical context for the year 1991 is provided in Sotiropoulos’s article: Not only were the newly-emergent countries of Russia and Ukraine in great turmoil, but the decade of the 1990s saw the intense meddling by President Bill Clinton in the government of President Boris Yeltsin and the destructive privatization by oligarchs of Russia’s most important national assets. 

In the apocalyptic climate of Russia’s rapid transformation from an industrialized nation to one in which the social safety net disappeared, hyperinflation was rampant, and the population was literally starving, it should be no surprise that the Russian Orthodox Church could not take on major ecclesial issues.

Sotiropoulos repeatedly employs inflammatory phrases in passing as fact, such as “Russia invaded eastern Ukraine,” “annexed Crimea,” “Russian aggression,” “the truth is not on its [Moscow’s] side,” etc.  Accusations such as these conveniently ignore the illegal coup of the legitimately-elected government of Ukraine orchestrated by the U.S., EU, and other international forces. 

This coup has been well-documented; President Barack Obama admitted the U.S.’s funding of it on national television.  The ensuing genocide of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine, referendum of citizens of Crimea, and rescue operation by Russia that honored the will of the Crimeans and protected them from the annihilation of the Ukrainians that is still taking place in the east provide essential frameworks for the current persecution of the canonical Orthodox in this country.

For those familiar with the history and canon laws of Orthodoxy, as well as with the tragic events in Ukraine since 2014, it is abundantly clear that the schism is politically motivated and yet another way in which the actors supporting it are attempting to destroy the cultural fabric of Russia. 

The real goal of the quest for autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a de facto coup: a political coup already took place in 2014, poisoning the relations between western Ukraine and Russia, and thus another type of coup—a religious one—similarly seeks to undermine the canonical relationship between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) and Moscow.  The schismatic group does not have its own church properties, and consequently, with the help of the Ukrainian nationalist government, is seizing the canonical churches for its own use.

The Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate will survive this most recent attack on its Ukrainian faithful.  Even though a tragic separation is evolving, it pales in significance with the wholesale persecution (the largest since that of the ancient Christians by Roman Emperor Nero in the first century C.E.) of Russian Orthodox clergy, monastics, and institutions in the twentieth century.

Millions were killed or imprisoned by the militantly atheistic Soviet regime, with thousands of churches and priceless sacred ecclesial items, such as icons, being destroyed.  The Russian writer V.A. Soloukhin, with whom I worked for over ten years, told me personally that in Moscow alone over five hundred churches were dynamited.

Far from being in “desperate” straits, the Orthodox Church in Russia has gradually recovered from seventy years of profound abuse and has been flourishing since the 1990s.  Monasteries and convents have been restored, bell-ringing courses have been developed, seminaries accredited, and churches built at a steady rate. 

Relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists have never been better, being nurtured by Moscow Patriarch Kirill in respectful and cordial terms. Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church is occupied with vital ministries, carrying out humanitarian work for the Coptic Orthodox in Syria and ministering to the Orthodox faithful across Russia’s eleven time zones.[vii]

The newly-minted anticanonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church shows all the earmarks of coming into being and seeking to usurp the rightful position of the historic church that is a part of the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction. Most of its support comes from western Ukraine, the U.S., and Canada (to which many Ukrainians from the region of Galicia emigrated).  The fact that one bishop from the U.S. and one from Canada have been designated as ‘exarchs’ of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to lead the ecclesial project in Ukraine establishes the non-Ukrainian stewardship of the new church. To further legitimize the foreign bishops’ position, a tour has been arranged for them in the U.S.

The question arises: Why was it not possible to appoint native Ukrainian bishops to this new church?  Could it be that bishops professing loyalty to this undertaking could not be found in Ukraine?  This outcome suggests a heavy-handed paternalistic attitude of the U.S. and Canada towards a purportedly sovereign nation with Orthodox Christian bishops of its own. 

The way in which the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been granted its Tomos of Autocephaly is in question as well.  The request for autocephaly was accompanied by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s “gift” to the Ecumenical Patriarch of twenty-five million dollars; however, when only ten million dollars reached the Patriarch on 9 April 2018, His Holiness delayed the granting of the autocephaly until the remaining fifteen million were transferred to the Phanar—the residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople—in Istanbul.[viii]  

This decision was made mainly for political reasons that do not represent the historical protocol of Orthodox Sacred Tradition.  Instead of being a manifestation of the West’s “concern” about the Ukrainian Orthodox, could this decision be yet another way in which the West wants to isolate and weaken the major feature of Russian culture—its historic church—in order ultimately to destroy Russia itself?  Such a project, if it exists, will not succeed, for Russia and its multi-confessional society led in a symphonic way by its Orthodox majority is far stronger and more resilient than it was in the early twentieth century.

The Ukrainian government and its allies may well impose this new Orthodox church on the Ukrainian people.  It may take root in the western parts of the country, but it is doubtful that it will flourish in the Donbass, which maintains warm and close ties with the ROC-MP. 

Indeed, throughout Ukraine the majority of the Orthodox consider themselves loyal to His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine.  The establishment of the new illegitimate church may serve as the final nail in the coffin of the political separation between western and eastern Ukraine.  The new church may be brought into existence by the Ecumenical Patriarch.  But it will not be canonical. 

The effect of this schism on the status of His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew I remains to be seen.  The Moscow Patriarchate has suggested a pan-Orthodox assembly for the consideration of this extraordinary matter, since the matter is most deserving of discussion at the assembly level. 

Similarly, the status of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow could be affected by these disturbances in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s canonical structures.  Because most of the Orthodox communities in the world thus far support Moscow’s ecclesial position, it is possible that Moscow’s authority will be increased.  But once the rift has been finalized, unless the schismatics repent and return to the canonical body of the Orthodox Church, it will likely be irreparable.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men                                                                                          

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.                                                                                                 

Valeria Z. Nollan is professor emerita of Russian Studies at Rhodes College and a past president of the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture.  She is a regular contributor to Russia Insider.



[v] Ibid.

[vi] On the question of canonicity see

[viii] For details of this financial transaction in Russian see  

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