The granting of a tomos of autocephaly (a decree of canonical independence) by Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine on 6 January might well signify the greatest cleft in Orthodox Christianity since the Muscovite church declared its independence from Constantinople and proclaimed its own Patriarchal status in 1589.
Whether or not this proves to be the case, success in Ukraine’s long campaign to secure autocephaly has created the greatest upheaval in its relations with Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 The temporal consequences of the tomos are likely to be sharper and more far-reaching than the ecclesiastical ones.
The proposition that Russian civilisation transcends the borders of the Russian Federation is not only an article of faith in Putin’s Russia, it is central to Putin’s conception of the state. Alongside language and history (which Kremlin ideologists have reified into a gospel of its own), Orthodoxy is deemed a pillar of Russia’s culture, its identity and its broader inheritance. No effort has been spared in associating the Church with the state, its foreign policy and even its wars. It is scarcely exceptional that in April 2014, Vereya (Yevgeniy), current Metropolitan of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, was one of a group of clerics dispatched to St Vladimir’s Cathedral in Sevastopol with the aim of developing deeper relations with the Russian armed forces and law-enforcement personnel.
Yet in confessional matters, as in other domains, Ukraine has a significance of its own. Almost two centuries before Alexander II promulgated the doctrine of the ‘tripartite’ [triediniy] Russian people, the Russian Orthodox Church was assigned a key role in the ‘gathering of the lands of Rus’ under Peter the Great and, subsequently, Catherine II. At the time Peter launched his campaign of conquest, the head of the Kyiv metropolitanate was still entitled Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus. In 1686, threatened by war, Constantinople revoked this status and transferred to the Russian church the authority it had arrogated to itself almost a century earlier. It is pointedly symbolic that the Istanbul Synaxis (bishop’s assembly) of October 2018 that approved the tomos used the occasion to condemn the loss of independence by the Ukrainian Church 330 years before. The establishment of a unified, independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church has not only crippled the Russian World project, it has all but demolished the claim that Ukrainians and Russians are ‘a common people’.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any of this would have happened had the Russian Orthodox Church not flagrantly overplayed its hand. At the start of 2014 there were three main Orthodox churches in Ukraine: the Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), with some 12,000 parishes, the Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP, branded ‘schismatic’ by Moscow) with some 4,500 parishes and the separately established Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) with 1,200 parishes. Although owing to greater church attendance, the Kyiv Patriarchate had a larger following than these figures suggest, the Moscow Patriarchate affiliated a clear majority of the 68 percent of Ukrainians who describe themselves as Orthodox.
This no longer is this the case. The UOC-MP was the only orthodox church to oppose the Euromaidan. Even before the appointment of the new hard-line Metropolitan, Onufriy, in August 2014, it put itself in the vanguard of pro-Russian demonstrations, a number of priests calling on their parishioners to join the fighting and some joining it themselves. In October this year, Igor Girkin (Strelkov), former Moscow-appointed Defence Minister of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ boasted that one unit of the Slavyanskiy Brigade was commanded by a novice of Svyatogorskaya Lavra and that his own security detail was ‘exclusively composed of sons of father confessors, monks and celibate priests’. The result is that parishioners left in droves. According to an August 2018 poll by three respected Ukrainian centres, 45.2 per cent of Orthodox Christians affiliate themselves with the Kyiv Patriarchate and only 16.9 percent with the Moscow Patriarchate. (The second largest group, 33.9 percent, are those who declare themselves ‘simply Orthodox’).
The impact of the spirit of the Third Rome on the forbearance of Patriarch Bartholomew has not been entirely dissimilar to the impact of the Great Russian mentality on the affections of Ukrainians. But until Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was received by Bartholomew at Phanar on 31 August, he was none the wiser. In February 2016, the Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill ceded everything the latter could have wished for on the Ukrainian question, and he seems not to have suspected that where the Pope was compliant, the antiquarian primacy of an ‘Ecumenical Patriarchate’ might stand in the way of a Russian Church that was paymaster of much of the Orthodox world. Russians are good at creating surprises, but rather poor in responding to them. At Phanar, Kirill was surprised, and he was indignant too. What followed was not only the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to proceed with the tomos, but on 15 October the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church to break communion with Constantinople.
More salient to the Ukrainian Orthodox and those outside the Orthodox world is Russia’s political reaction. On 12 October Putin convened a special session of the Russian Federation Security Council. Immediately afterwards, two long-standing political toxins were sounded. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov reaffirmed Russia’s defence of ‘Russians and Russian speakers, and as Putin has said more than once, of the Russian Orthodox’. No less ominously, Foreign Minister Lavrov characterised the tomos as a ‘provocation with the direct public support of Washington’. Any student of Russian policy will know that these formulae are flags of warning.
For the Kremlin, the significance of the tomos bears comparison to Ukraine’s admission into NATO – not as an attack on Russia’s security but its essence. Beyond the war Moscow is presently waging, the economic blockade it is imposing, and the provocations already witnessed in the Sea of Azov, it is unlikely that it yet has decided how to respond. That it will do so in this year of Ukrainian elections is a certainty. That Ukraine and its partners will be up to the challenge is less certain.