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A house divided. Orthodoxy in post-Maidan Ukraine

Religious institutions in Ukraine are presently embroiled in an internecine battle between Orthodox factions that stand alongside a gaping ideological divide. The central fault line in this conflict is based on geopolitical and civilisational identities, with Moscow’s promotion of pan-Slavism comprising one side, and Kyiv’s pro-EU orientation the other.

The symbolic dimensions of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine are impossible to miss. And, as often as not, that symbolism is connected to religion. It could hardly be otherwise when separatists and Russian officials routinely cast the episodic fighting that continues in the east as a civilisational struggle between an enervated, hedonistic West that backs a “fascist junta” in Kyiv and the traditional Christian values of the so-called “Russian world” – the latter occasionally more palatably presented to Ukrainian audiences as “Holy Rus’.”

April 26, 2018 - George Soroka - AnalysisIssue 3-4 2018Magazine

Euromaidan activist kisses the hand of Filaret, the Patriarch of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate. Photo: Bektour (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

But divisions in Ukrainian society over religion, far from just being confined to rhetoric emanating from rebel-held areas in the Donbas, permeate the entire country. In a context where (depending on whose survey results you believe) some seven to eight out of every ten Ukrainians identify as Orthodox, which specific jurisdiction one is associated with has taken on distinctly political overtones. In this highly polarised setting disputes between competing ecclesial organisations and their followers often assume an uncompromising character, with extensive media coverage interjecting them into the court of public opinion.

Enmity and mistrust

Consider what happened this past New Year’s Eve in Zaporizhia, a city in south-eastern Ukraine. A toddler out with his father in the courtyard of their apartment complex was struck and killed by a drunk who jumped out of an eighth-storey window. What transformed this event from a horrifying tragedy into a lightning rod for religious contention was the reaction of the Orthodox priest slated to preside at the boy’s funeral. Upon learning at the last minute that the boy had been baptised in a rival “nationalist” jurisdiction whose canonicity his Church did not recognise, the priest refused to conduct the service, explaining to the distraught parents that the baptism had been illicit and that the child could therefore not be accorded an Orthodox burial. His actions triggered widespread outrage across Ukraine, stirring up a social media campaign to shame the Church he belongs to by having people leave dolls and toys in front of its parishes.

Enmity and mistrust, however, are present on all sides. The day after Orthodox Christmas (January 7th), radical Ukrainian nationalists associated with the paramilitary group C14 (“Sich”) attempted to disrupt services at the Kyiv Caves Monastery by setting off fireworks and harassing worshippers as they entered the complex. Its members were there because the monastery, which is one the preeminent monastic centres in the Orthodox world, is controlled by a Church they regard as a Russian fifth column. This was not the first time the monks and parishioners had been subjected to intimidation. And, as a Church statement was quick to point out, similar attacks had recently occurred throughout the country.

When it comes to the war zone in eastern Ukraine, the situation is even more pronounced. Ample documentation exists of atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated by both separatist militias (among them the self-styled “Russian Orthodox Army”) and pro-Kyiv forces against clerics and believers who had the misfortune of belonging to the “wrong” Church. Meanwhile, it is not difficult to find priests on either side of the political fence who actively aid and support the combatants, including by not only blessing soldiers but also the ordnance (guns, rockets, tanks) that may eventually kill fellow Orthodox Christians.

Religious divides

There are four main religious bodies in Ukraine, three of them Orthodox: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP); the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP); and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). The fourth is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which is also liturgically and theologically rooted in Byzantium but has been in communion with the Pope since the Union of Brest in 1596. Discussion of the UGCC is included as it has been influential in shaping religious discourse in contemporary Ukraine, despite being geographically concentrated in the western provinces that formerly belonged to Austria-Hungary. 


Active religious communities



Media outlets

Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate





Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate





Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church





Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church





Data (as of January 1, 2017) from the Department of Religious Affairs and Nationalities of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine.

The UOC-MP possesses the largest number of parishes and monasteries, but this does not mean that it boasts the greatest number of adherents. According to a March 2017 survey by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center (which excluded Crimea and separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk), among self-identified Orthodox reporting an affiliation, 38.8 per cent belonged to the UOC-KP (up from 22.1 per cent in 2010), 17.4 per cent belonged to the UOC-MP (down from 34.5 per cent in 2010) and 1.5 per cent belonged to the UAOC (essentially unchanged from 2010). The UGCC, meanwhile, claimed 7.8 per cent of the population. 

For most of the Soviet period, the only recognised Orthodox body in the USSR was the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) headed by the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), of which the Ukrainian SSR constituted an exarchate. Consequently, Ukraine’s current religious divides may be traced back to the late 1980s, when the implementation of glasnost finally permitted competing communities to re-emerge or form. The nexus of this activity centred about the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Kyivan Rus’ in 1988. 

Understanding the crux of the resultant divisions requires realising that both Russians and Ukrainians have traditionally seen their nation-states as originating in Rus’, leading them to view their ethnic identities as closely tied to the adoption of Byzantine Christianity by its ruler, Grand Prince Volodymyr (or Vladimir). Disagreements over who can legitimately claim this cultural and spiritual mantle are further amplified due to divergent perspectives being tied to such notable figures in the respective national pantheons of Russia and Ukraine as Vasily Klyuchevsky and Metropolitan Macarius (Bulgakov), who held that Moscow was its direct inheritor, and Mykhailo Hrushevskiy, who instead asserted that it had passed to Halych-Volhynia. (The option that it may reside with both is too moderate a position to attract much sympathy among nationalists of either stripe).


The UOC-MP in its present configuration dates from 1990, when the ROC granted its religious communities in Ukraine self-governing status. This means that the UOC-MP is formally independent in financial and administrative matters, but that the “mother Church” retains certain prerogatives, with the Patriarch of Moscow (whose official title is Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’) confirming the head of the UOC-MP (who holds the title Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine) and the ROC serving as the conduit for the UOC-MP’s relations with other Orthodox churches. Importantly, of the three major Orthodox jurisdictions present in Ukraine, only the UOC-MP is regarded as canonical, meaning it is the only one that is recognised by world Orthodoxy.

However, this arrangement did not suit everyone. Ukraine gained independence in 1991, but even before then many were calling for the establishment of an autocephalous (“self-headed”) national church. Among the proponents of this idea was the Metropolitan of Kyiv, Filaret (Denysenko), who broke away from the UOC-MP to help establish the UOC-KP in 1992, of which he was elected Patriarch in 1995. The ROC responded by defrocking Filaret, eventually excommunicating him in 1997.

Like the UOC-KP, the UAOC does not accept the ROC’s involvement in Ukraine’s religious affairs. Unlike the former, however, the UAOC was founded in 1920, emerging mired in controversy over the unusual way in which it consecrated its first bishop. Soon thereafter the Bolsheviks effectively ended its existence in Ukraine. However, it survived among the diaspora, which helped re-establish it on Ukrainian soil in the late 1980s.

The UGCC was also revived during this era, having been forced underground in 1946, when Stalin brought about its fictitious “reunification” with the ROC. While the UGCC has again operated openly in Ukraine since late 1989, the Soviet-imposed seizure of its properties and buildings by the ROC, and subsequent difficulties it has experienced in having them returned, has produced significant animosity towards the UOC-MP and ROC.

Maidan support

The Maidan reified the political dimensions of these religious divides. While the UOC-MP’s faithful could be found on both sides of the barricades in Kyiv, it officially espoused a neutral position that many interpreted as clandestinely pro-Moscow. In contrast, the UOC-KP, UAOC and UGCC openly supported the Maidan protesters, with the UOC-KP and the UGCC conspicuously reviving the ancient church tradition of granting sanctuary by permitting St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery (UOC-KP) and the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ (UGCC) to be used as shelters.

Certainly there were more than a few high-ranking members of the UOC-MP who opposed the Maidan agenda. These included the abbot of the Kyiv Caves Monastery, Metropolitan Pavel (Lebid) of Vyshhorod and Chornobyl, who, in a January 2014 sermon, likened Viktor Yanukovych’s travails to the suffering of Christ on his way to Golgotha. However, it would be extremely unfair to paint the entirety of the UOC-MP’s hierarchy as complacent or reactionary. Belying this, on December 12th 2013 Cyril Hovorun, a theology professor who has held prominent roles in the UOC-MP (and ROC), published a widely read essay praising the Maidan protesters and denouncing the Church’s complicity in countenancing Yanukovych’s corrupt and “unchristian” government. One day later, Archpriest Andriy Dudchenko (editor of the online Kievskaia Rus’) addressed the assembled crowd on the Maidan, sharing a statement signed by 17 UOC-MP priests supportive of Ukraine seeking closer ties to Europe.

Then on March 2nd 2014 (Forgiveness Sunday) Metropolitan Oleksandr (Drabynko) of Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky and Vishnevsky publicly and severely criticised those who sought to justify the by-now-overthrown government’s criminal actions. That same month, the UOC-MP’s Chief Chaplain to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Metropolitan Avhustyn (Markevych) of Bila Tserkva and Bohuslav, proclaimed that soldiers have a duty to defend their country and that he has a duty to minister to them. These stances did not emanate from low-level clerics and laypeople, but from key figures in the UOC-MP.

Likewise, immediately before the Crimean referendum was held, Metropolitan Onufry (Berezovsky) of Chernivtsi and Bukovyna (then still serving as locum tenens for the UOC-MP’s ailing head,  Metropolitan Volodymyr [Sabodan], he became Metropolitan of Kyiv in August 2014) declared his “fervent hope” that Russia would do everything possible to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However, unlike his predecessor, who was widely regarded as pro-Ukrainian and sympathetic to the idea of an autocephalous national Church, Onufry’s stance soon evolved in a more pro-Moscow direction. Indicative of this, by June 2014 he was claiming Europe’s permissive values were incompatible with Divine Law. Later that same year, he reportedly compelled two senior bishops to withdraw their signatures from the Rivne Memorandum, which advocated for the establishment of an independent Ukrainian Church. And in an act that generated a media firestorm, on May 8th 2015 Onufry and the UOC-MP delegation refused to stand when President Petro Poroshenko read out the names of 21 soldiers awarded the title “Hero of Ukraine” (10 of them posthumously) for their role in military operations in the Donbas during a special session of the Verkhovna Rada marking the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazism in Europe.

Orthodox-on-Orthodox conflict

In marked distinction to the UOC-MP’s ill-defined stance, the UOC-KP, UAOC and UGCC unambiguously present themselves as patriotic institutions supportive of the current Kyiv government and its rapprochement with the West. Indeed, the UGCC has taken to labelling itself, the UOC-KP and the UAOC as “churches of the Kyivan tradition”. Meanwhile, in present-day Ukraine the UOC-MP is increasingly referred to as the “foreign” church. Archbishop Evstratiy Zorya of the UOC-KP encapsulates this anti-Russian position when he states “having a church that is dependent on Russia is … a threat to our national security and a threat to our existence as Ukrainians”.    

As a result, Ukraine is presently embroiled in an internecine battle between Orthodox factions that stand alongside a gaping ideological divide, the central fault line being where one’s geopolitical affinities and civilisational predilections lie. Greek Catholics and other religious minorities also factor into this equation, but their relatively small numbers ensure that, to the extent believers are involved in determining the future of Ukraine and its religious landscape, this is an Orthodox-on-Orthodox conflict. And the tide appears to be shifting in favour of those who advocate breaking away from the embrace of the “Russian world” and the ROC.

Government officials and public figures, including Poroshenko, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and Rada Chairman Andriy Parubiy, have recently been actively campaigning for the See of Constantinople to proclaim an autocephalous, canonical Ukrainian Church. (The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has traditionally been accorded a special place of honour in Orthodoxy, with the holder of this office regarded as primus inter pares, or “first among equals”. Constantinople thus views any declaration of autocephaly as requiring its consent). Ukrainian legislators have also joined this effort, passing a resolution in June 2016 asking the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, to not only consider a decree of autocephaly, but to also declare the 1686 subordination of the Metropolitanate of Kyiv to the Moscow Patriarchate uncanonical.

Roughly around the same time, two particularly controversial bills were introduced in Ukraine’s parliament. If ratified, the first would assign special status to religious organisations headquartered in an “aggressor state”, allowing Ukrainian authorities to, among other things, oversee the appointment of ecclesial leaders. The second, meanwhile, would permit the transfer of religious communities between jurisdictions on the basis of a simple majority vote. Unsurprisingly, both proposals are strenuously opposed by the UOC-MP and ROC, with Patriarch Kirill appealing to Pope Francis and other religious and political leaders in 2017 for their support in opposing the legislation. Specifically, Kirill noted that its passage would further legitimate the expropriation of UOC-MP parishes, more than 40 of which had been forcibly seized by what he characterized as “right-wing radicals” between 2014 and 2016 alone.

Reconciliation and unification?

The current outlook on the prospects for reconciliation among the three jurisdictions is not terribly encouraging. There was a glimmer of hope in November 2017, when Filaret sent a curious letter to Patriarch Kirill and the Episcopate of the ROC in which he broached the topic of restoring communion and requested that all sanctions and anathemas be rescinded. However, while this resulted in the ROC establishing a commission for dialogue with the UOC-KP, the media spun the story to imply that Filaret was asking to be received back into the ROC – a claim that he vehemently denied in a subsequent press conference, insisting he was only interested in the recognition of an independent Ukrainian Church.

In reality, there is virtually no chance that the Moscow Patriarchate would support the autocephaly of the UOC-MP (although late last year the Bishops’ Council of the ROC did re-affirm and formalise its autonomous status at Metropolitan Onufry’s request). This is because keeping the UOC-MP nominally dependent ensures the ROC will retain its unquestioned status as the largest Orthodox body, whereas if the UOC-MP, UOC-KP and UAOC united they would straight away become the world’s second-largest Orthodox Church, possibly someday even rivalling it in size. At a time when the MP seems increasingly keen on challenging Constantinople’s prerogatives, this is especially salient.

As regards the potential unification of the UOC-KP and UAOC, prospects looked bright right after Metropolitan Makary (Maletich) was elected as head of the UAOC in 2015. An announcement was even made that a merger was imminent, but since then repeated attempts to finalise the agreement have fallen through.

Nonetheless, with the annexation of Crimea having removed the most pro-Russian part of Ukraine’s society from participation in domestic politics (interestingly, Crimea’s three dioceses remain part of the UOC-MP) and the unresolved conflict in the east producing a rally-round-the-flag effect, the Ukrainian state is now more ideologically consolidated than it has ever been. The same may be said of its truncated population, with survey data suggesting societal views are gradually converging on a number of historically contentious issues. If these trends continue, the emergence of a canonical Ukrainian Church with its Patriarchal seat in Kyiv will not be a question of if, but rather only of when.

George Soroka is a lecturer in the Department of Government at Harvard University, where he is also affiliated with the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and the Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

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