Russia’s seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine was met with economic sanctions by the West and armed resistance by Ukrainian troops. But the fight for Ukraine’s freedom is a spiritual battle as well, and this is well understood by leaders in Moscow and Kyiv.
Almost 70 percent of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians. The largest Orthodox church in Ukraine is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Moscow; next is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyivan Patriarchate), which is not recognized by canonical Eastern Orthodox churches and was subordinate to Moscow from 1686 until it broke away in 1992; and last is the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which was founded locally in the 1920s and is also not recognized by canonical Eastern Orthodox churches.
The Russian invasion in 2014 sharpened differences between the faithful of the Moscow and Kyivan patriarchates, each of which supported its respective government’s stance over the seizure of Crimea and the armed incursion into Eastern Ukraine. In 2016, the Kyivan Patriarchate appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, to be recognized as an autocephalous (independent) church.
This isn’t just a current-day tussle over parishioners and their donations. Ukrainians understand firsthand how the Soviet Union used religion to further its political goals, and also that those tools are still used by the KGB alumni who inhabit the upper reaches of today’s Russian Federation.
The Soviet Union initially hewed to a doctrine of state atheism, with a goal of suppressing and eventually eliminating religious beliefs. The effort fluctuated over the years and ended with the Nazi invasion in June 1941. Joseph Stalin realized he had to appeal to patriotism and tradition, which was only possible with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church which, in turn, urged its members to support the war effort.
During the Cold War, the Russian Orthodox Church supported the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, particularly its infiltration of the “peace” movement in the West, and was able to expand the privileges granted to it by Stalin. While the bishops in Moscow were pandering to the Communist Party, Ukrainians held fast to their faith and maintained two-thirds of the Orthodox churches in the Soviet Union.
In Ukraine there are 12,660 religious organizations under the Moscow Patriarchate, 5,074 under the Kyivan Patriarchate, 1,231 under the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and 245 other Orthodox organizations. But the number of faithful tells the fuller story. Of Christian Orthodox Ukrainians, 26.5 percent identify with the Kyiv Patriarchate and 12 percent with the Moscow Patriarchate; 24.3 percent identify as “just an Orthodox believer;” while 3.5 percent identify with the Russian Orthodox Church (as distinct from the Moscow patriarchate) and other Orthodox groups; 1.1 percent with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church; and 0.8 percent are undecided.
Russia’s meddling has, predictably, driven the faithful -- both individuals and entire parishes -- away from the ROC/Moscow Patriarchate to the ranks of Kyiv Patriarchate. After the Russian invasion, the Moscow Patriarchate called for both sides to lay down their arms, which was rejected by Ukrainian nationalists, especially as many Moscow Patriarchate priests refused funeral ceremonies for Ukrainian soldiers. The Kyiv Patriarchate, on the other hand, went all-in with the nationalists.
Over half of Ukrainians feel a unified local Orthodox church will help the cause of national consolidation, so that the one-quarter of Ukrainians who identify as “just an Orthodox believer” may be ready to affiliate with a local independent church if it acts responsibly and magnanimously toward Ukrainians who stay with the Moscow Patriarchate.
Should the Orthodox churches in Ukraine unite and be freed of Moscow’s jurisdiction, the united Ukrainian Orthodox church will be the largest after Russia’s and will cause the center of gravity of Orthodoxy to shift west, endangering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to "consolidate the Russian world."
In April, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, himself a member of a Moscow-oriented parish, stepped up Kyiv’s effort to obtain autocephalous status for the Kyivan Patriarchate with a visit to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Ukrainians are hoping for a positive decision by 28 July, the 1,030th anniversary of the day when newly-converted Prince Vladimir arrived in Kyiv and ordered its residents baptized in the waters of the Dnieper River.
A positive decision by Patriarch Bartholomew will represent the true start of Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. It will offer an opportunity for national consolidation and for blunting Russia’s drive to turn the country into a permanently unsettled area from which to launch incursions into Europe overland and via the Black Sea.
The impact may go beyond Ukraine. A church that is patriotic, but not a tool of the “party of power,” may encourage Russians to question the ROC’s role as an exclusive soft power arm of the Kremlin. Ironic it would be if a modern-day “Orthodox Reformation” that gives the Russian people the church they deserve starts in Ukraine, ancient Kievan Rus', the birthplace of the Russian Empire in the 9th Century. Though overwhelmingly Orthodox, Ukraine is also home to thriving faith communities that are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, pagan, and none of the above. It is deeply religious but tolerant, with a more nuanced view of faith’s place in the public square than much of the Europe it aspires to join.
James Durso (@James_Durso) served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance, retiring with the rank of Commander. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is presently managing director of Corsair LLC, a consulting firm specializing in project management and marketing support in the Middle East and Central Asia. The views expressed are the author's own.