The End of Unity: How the Russian Orthodox Church Lost Ukraine
By Regina Elsner
Since the end of the Soviet Union, dozens of theologians and scholars of religion elaborated on the complicated relationships within the church community of the so-called Holy Rus’. The Moscow Patriarchate defines its territory of spiritual responsibility as encompassing the former Soviet Union – except for the old churches of Armenia and Georgia. The core of this spiritual community is Kyiv as the place of the baptism of Rus’ in 988 and Moscow as the residency of the head of the church, today Patriarch Kirill. Bitter as it is, the territory of the Soviet Union was always closer to the ecclesiastical understanding of this sacred territory than the Russian Federation and its independent neighbor states, and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) made comprehensive theological, historiographical, and political efforts to design the unity of the people in a new way.
As in other places of the world, national independence finally – in 2019 – caused the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine. However, Moscow as the mother-church did not release Ukrainian Orthodoxy in its independence, because that would have questioned the unity of the one tradition. For three decades, the Moscow Patriarchate succeeded in its concept of spiritual unity by underlining its respect for national sovereignty. This was a balancing act, but most of Ukrainian and global Orthodoxy committed to this concept and refused to acknowledge the self-proclaimed Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate in 1992.
The concept started to fail when the Moscow Patriarchate strengthened its ideology of a common Orthodox civilization united by a conservative set of values and, simultaneously, Ukrainian society engaged increasingly in European integration. During the first Maidan, or the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC) managed to handle the diverging claims from Russia and the West mainly due to the conservative agenda of the ruling elites in Ukraine. The second Maidan in 2014, the ‘Revolution of Dignity’, with its clear pro-European political stance, however, seriously challenged the attitude of unity, as did the annexation of Crimea and the War in Donbas, both violations of the national borders of Ukraine by Russia.
To maintain unity, the reaction of the Russian Orthodox Church was a slight yet effective shift in its ideology. Since 2014, the ideology of the ‘Russian World’ disappeared from official ecclesiastical statements as the church tried to avoid being equated with Russia’s imperial claims on sovereign nations. As a new frame, the defense of persecuted Christians evolved. With this, the Moscow Patriarchate not only legitimated Russia’s participation in the war in Syria and paramilitary activities in Africa. It also used the human rights framework to justify these actions by Russia and its involvement in the territory of other Orthodox churches. Since 2018, the Moscow Patriarchate systematically supplemented the concept of persecuted Christians in Ukraine with a massive campaign about violent attacks on property and believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Granted, the UOC faced massive social and media pressure due to its remaining ties with the church of the aggressor state, suffering violent attacks and misleading legal initiatives like the draft law on renaming the church. These are cases of undermining religious freedom. The church vanished from public discourse in Ukraine, trapped between its spiritual bonds with Moscow and its Ukrainian identity. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church refused to acknowledge both. While the Ukrainian Metropolitan Onufry became silent on almost all social and political issues in Ukraine to avoid new accusations, the Russian church leadership enforced its spiritual and socio-cultural claims on Ukraine. The discourse about the spiritual unity of Holy Rus’ – meaning Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine – increased to counter the engagement of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It reached the level of negating the Ukrainian identity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a whole. After years of trying to keep the balance, the ROC joined the state propaganda, claiming Ukraine as an inherent part of Russian identity and a space of influence.
When the escalation of the full-fledged war in Ukraine was inevitable, the religious world watched the Moscow Patriarchate turn its back on Ukraine. When analyzing the reaction of Patriarch Kirill, words said and not said should be considered carefully, because they will serve as a point of reference in future talks about the role of the church in this war. The Patriarch and other speakers for the church (Metropolitan Hilarion, chair of the external office, and Vladimir Legojda, head of the information department) demand peace, a dialogue between all conflicting sides, and a prayer for peace. In all statements on Ukraine, they also refer to the unity of the Christians in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia and to the special responsibility of the Moscow Patriarchate for these regions. Metropolitan Hilarion claimed several days before the invasion that “war is not a method of solving the accumulated political problems”.
This quote is now used as a sign of dissent within the ROC. In the two months since the start of the war, it was the only time a church hierarch used the word ‘war’. However, Hilarion’s main focus in this interview was accusing the West of sharpening the “accumulated political problems”, and his commitment against war remains in general terms. The Patriarch did not contradict the idea of persecuted Christians, which Putin used to justify his war against Ukraine on 21 February 2022. On the contrary, the Patriarch and other high ranking clerics underline the meaning of the Russian activities on ‘Ukrainian soil’ as a metaphysical battle against the evil coming from the West. In February and March, in the news on the website of the Moscow Patriarchate, there were more reports about the activities of the ROC in Africa than about the situation in Ukraine. Since then, reports about alleged Ukrainian violence against churches of the UOC and about refugees from the Ukrainian regime in Russia became the main headlines, legitimizing armed acts of ‘defense’. There are no reports about or pictures of the massive destruction of Ukrainian cities and cultural sites by the Russian army and, most notably, no links to critical statements by the hierarchy of the UOC.
We must also take into account the ROC’s open support for the Russian military one day before the outbreak of war, when Russian armed forces were already arranged at the border to Ukraine in Russia and Belarus. On 23 February, Patriarch Kirill congratulated the heads of the Russian government on the occasion of the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland, a Soviet tradition of glorifying veterans and male armed power. In his speech that day, he said:
We live in peaceful times, but we know that even in peacetime there are threats. Unfortunately, even at the moment, there are threats – everyone is familiar with what is happening on the borders of our Fatherland. Therefore, I think that our military personnel cannot have any doubts that they have chosen a very correct path in their lives. Because by following this path, you are protecting the people even without any military action. The strength of the Armed Forces, the might of the Russian army is already a weapon that protects our people. But in order for these weapons to be taken seriously by those who have bad intentions, the Armed Forces of our country must always be on alert.
In his sermon on 27 February, after ensuring his awareness of the “difficult circumstances encountered today by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate”, the Patriarch stated, “it must not be allowed to give the dark and hostile external forces an occasion to laugh at us; we should do everything to preserve peace between our peoples while protecting our common historical Motherland against every outside action that can destroy this unity”.
He said this, remarkably, on the fifth day of Russian arms heavily shelling peaceful – Orthodox – civilians in Ukraine. This position illustrates a scandalous ignorance of the situation of the people in Ukraine, which he claimed to defend, a deliberate reversal of perpetrator and victim, and it is in open support of the ideology of the murderous regime. Two months later, during the festivities of Orthodox Easter, neither the horrible situation of civilians in Ukraine nor the wording of the Patriarch’s statements changed. They prolong the narrative that the violence is provoked by the West and justified as a defense, they ignore the suffering of Ukrainians from Russian military aggression and inhuman violence, and they envision Ukraine (and Belarus) as integral parts of Russia. In his sermon on Easter Monday, 25 April, Patriarch Kirill said:
Today, our people are in particular need of internal unity. Things are not easy around our Fatherland, you know this as well as I do. And so, our people must unite around the historic centre of all Rus’ – around the city of Moscow, realising that our strength lies only in unity. And as long as we are united and strong and as long as we keep faith in our hearts and as long as we are inspired by the great example of our predecessors, then Russia will be invincible. Victory is not only a physical victory, not only a victory of arms with which a warrior meets his enemy, but always a victory of the spirit. […] But we must preserve our special vocation – to preserve the Orthodox faith, to preserve the unity of our people and not succumb to any temptations and promises.
The words of the Russian church’s representatives about the preservation of unity stand in harsh contrast to the reality within the church itself. First, we see a fundamental and irreversible split between the Russian and the Ukrainian Orthodox churches. Even if this split is not yet canonical, Ukrainian Orthodox bishops, priests, and believers refuse to continue to commemorate the Patriarch of Moscow, they publish appeals to global Orthodox leaders to intervene and condemn Patriarch Kirill for his support of the war, and they partly joined the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This split was not demanded or intended by Ukrainian Orthodoxy, whose bishops and priests appealed to Moscow for support, at least in naming reality. This split was performed by the Moscow Patriarchate itself through the refusal to take pastoral responsibility for its own flock. Such a situation is unique in the history of Orthodoxy and will provoke further theological and canonical debates within global Orthodoxy. With Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate loses about a third of its flock, and – according to surveys – the most religious part of it. For 30 years, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was able to comply with the idea of unity despite national independence and major pressure from Ukrainian society. However, support for the murderous war by its own church leadership will destroy this compliance.
Within the Russian Orthodox Church, a significant part of priests and believers voiced dissent from the position of the church leadership. Within Russia, these dissenters are persecuted by both state and church structures, making it difficult to assess the real scope of the group. But without doubt, the sentiments in relation to the war are far from harmonious among Russian Orthodox followers. Even more remarkable, parishes of the ROC outside of Russia face huge tensions within their multinational flock. They are challenged to keep a balance between supporting their leadership’s position regarding the war, on the one hand, and pastoral care for Ukrainian refugees and believers condemning the war, on the other. Some priests already left the ROC due to growing pressure from the hierarchy and joined other Orthodox jurisdictions. The eparchy of the Russian Orthodox tradition in Western Europe, based in Paris, joined the ROC just a few years ago. Now, its head Metropolitan, Ioann of Dubna, outspokenly criticized Patriarch Kirill for his warmongering position. These examples illustrate fragmentation within Russian Orthodoxy, whose idea of unity breaks over the reality of a ruthless war.
This is a reworked version of a text first published on 3 March 2022 by Talk About: Law and Religion, Blog of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
 “Metropolitan Hilarion: war is not a method for solving accumulated political problems”, The Russian Orthodox Church: Department of External Church Relations, 29 January 2022.
 “V Den’ zashchitnika Otechestva Svyateishii Patriarkh Kirill bozlozhil venok k mogile Neizvestnogo soldata u Kremlevskoi steny”, Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov’: Ofitsial’nyi sait Moskovskogo Patriarkhata, 23 February 2022.
 “His Holiness Patriarch Kirill calls on the faithful to pray for peace and unity of the Church”, The Russian Orthodox Church: Department of External Church Relations, 27 February 2022.
 “Slovo Svyateishego Patriarkha Kirilla v ponedel’nik Svetloi sedmitsy posle Liturgii v Patriarshem Uspenskom sobore”, Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov’: Ofitsial’nyi sait Moskovskogo Patriarkhata, 25 April 2022.
Regina Elsner is a theologian and researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin since September 2017. She investigates the dynamics of Orthodox social ethics in Post-Soviet countries with a special focus on peace and conflict ethics as well as gender discourses.
Citation: Regina Elsner, The End of Unity: How the Russian Orthodox Church Lost Ukraine, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.05.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/37870