by Vincenzo Pacillo*
1686 and 2018: keep in mind these dates if you want to fully understand why “the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is firmly linked to religious reasons” – as Lucian N. Leustean had it.
As to1686: in this year the synodal letter of the patriarch Dionysius IV of Constantinople gave the Moscow Patriarchate the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev. Although Kiev is historically known as ‘the cradle of Eastern Christianity’, it lost its centrality following the division of Russia into districts and the Mongol invasion . Back to 1325, the metropolitan office was then moved to Moscow, while the Orthodox center of Moscow obtained autocephaly in 1448, thus gaining independence from Constantinople. Since these events happened just before the fall of Byzantium, Moscow consequently began to claim the right to be called “The Third Rome”. As stated in patriarch Dionysius’s synodal letter, the rebuilt metropolis of Kiev finally accepted Moscow supremacy in 1686. This notwithstanding, Moscow should theoretically have obeyed Constantinople and therefore practiced its religious rites according to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Be that as it may, Moscow gave its own interpretation of the synodal letter – an official Orthodox document addressing questions of doctrine, administration or application – so as to gain more and more independence from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As a result of this, Moscow finally carved ‘a right to supremacy over Kiev’ out of the synodal letter.
Against this background, in 2017 Ukraine had three active Orthodox churches on its territory.The first was the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.The second was the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. Founded in 1992, the latter was declared “schismatic” by the Moscow Patriarchate and thus not recognized by the other Orthodox churches. Finally, worth mentioning is the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, founded in 1917 by Ukrainians in exile. Having returned to Ukraine territory after independence, unsurprisingly the latter is the smallest of the three churches mentioned so far and its parishes are still scattered throughout western Ukraine.
Fast forward to 2018: the year in which the then Ukrainian president, Poroshenko, appealed to the patriarch of Constantinople to grant autocephaly to Ukrainian Orthodoxy. On the whole, such an attempt to obtain ecclesiastical independence within Orthodoxy is, at its core, an internal affair of the church. However, as was the case with previous calls for independence by other National Orthodox Churches, this request soon became a strictly political issue. This is all the more true if one considers the geopolitical situation of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia.
In January 2019, Ukrainian Orthodoxy received the so-called tomos from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, meaning that the latter granted autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. This decision triggered a deep crisis in Orthodoxy and a conflict between Constantinople and Moscow arose immediately afterwards. As such, by condemning the actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church accused the Patriarchate of Constantinople of invading its “canonical field”. Here is why from that moment on the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, severed his ties with Patriarchate of Constantinople and began to support the Russian separatists forces in Donbas.
During the Battle of Ilovaisk, the bloodiest fight of the war, Kirill admonished the Ukrainian “Uniates and Schismatics” for fighting “their Orthodox brothers” in the ranks of the separatists and their support forces.
Stated as simply as possible, this should be taken to mean that Patriarch Kirill, and by extension, the Russian Orthodox Church, have supported Russian state narratives about the need to unite the Russian and Ukrainian people under the Russian flag. From this vantage point, the war against Ukraine can therefore also be seen as a war about a kind of “schismatic” power.
A “schismatic power” that, as Kirill pointed out in his sermon of 6 March, however has not prevented certain ‘ungodly’ and ‘sinful’ events, such as gay pride parades, from spreading across the country. With these words, Kirill de facto gave a theologically-oriented reading to resist the decadence and moral relativism shown in places like Kyiv, as well as to justify a military intervention to restore the ‘real’ values on which Orthodoxy rests.
In conclusion, and borrowing from Lucian N. Leustean, this is how “the Moscow Patriarchate projects the Kremlin’s world geopolitics” both in Ukraine and in other territories.
A sinistre projection that seems to be taking the form of a ‘caesaropapist’ turn towards a new culture war.
*Full Professor in Law and Religion at University of Modena and Reggio Emilia
- – Lucian N. Leustean, Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: The First Religious War in the 21st Century, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2022/03/russias-invasion-of-ukraine-the-first-religious-war-in-the-21st-century/
- – Lucian N. Leustean and Vsevolod Samokhvalov, ‘The Ukrainian National Church, Religious Diplomacy, and the Conflict in Donbas’, Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies, 2019, 2 (2), pp. 199-224.
- – Andrew A. Kramer, Also at Stake in Ukraine: the Future of Two Orthodox Churches, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/02/world/europe/russia-ukraine-orthodox-church.html
- – Nicholas E. Denysenko, The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation, NIU Press, DeKalb, 2018.