Religion has had a huge impact on shaping the national consciousness of Ukraine, and faith continues to be a driving force in Ukrainian politics. Today’s power struggles among the various churches give a good sense of the direction in which Ukrainian society is headed.

 

On Dec. 1, President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree with the intent of hampering Russia’s ability to wield influence through church organizations controlled from Moscow.

 

Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council gave the cabinet of ministers two months to table a bill in the parliament “making it impossible for religious organizations affiliated with Russian centers of influence to operate in Ukraine, in accordance with the norms of international law in the area of freedom of conscience and Ukraine's obligations in connection with its accession to the Council of Europe.”

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This decree comes on the heels of the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) raid of Kyiv’s Pechersk-Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, one of the holiest sites for the Orthodox faithful in both Ukraine and Russia.

 

The search was initiated on the suspicion that the monastery, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), was abetting agents of the Russian Federation.

 

In a related move, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU-KP), whose patriarchate is in Kyiv, has officially registered the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra as a monastery within the OCU-KP.

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Confused? You are not alone. Ukraine’s byzantine religious politics have been perplexing outside observers on and off for centuries – especially since independence in 1991.

 

The baptism of Kyivan-Rus

 

Legend has it that in the late 10th century Prince Volodymyr of Kyivan-Rus was shopping for religions to impose on his realm. He met with Muslim dignitaries and realized than any religion which bans pork and alcohol was a no-go for his Slavic subjects. Volodymyr met with Jews and quickly dismissed any religion whose people had been cast out of their homeland. Then, when he met with emissaries from Constantinople and his envoys described to him the splendor of Hagia Sophia, he was convinced that Christianity, in its Byzantine expression, was the right religion for Kyivan-Rus.

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In 988, a mass baptism took place in Kyiv, in the Dnipro River, and the rest, as they say, was history.

 

The reality, however, was probably more complex and pragmatic. Unifying the overwhelmingly pagan population under the umbrella of a religion that had already spread over most of Europe was, in Volodymyr’s eyes, an astute political move.

 

Caught between Catholics and Khans

 

By the time the Mongols razed Kyiv to the ground in 1240, Rus had been in decline for well over a century. Internecine conflicts had plagued the kingdom and, even before Mongols came, Kyiv was sacked in 1169 by a coalition assembled by Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality – within whose borders Moscow was still a backwater village.

 

With Kyiv nearly destroyed, both political and ecclesial power had to look for support from more powerful neighbors. The Kyivan patriarchate fell under the sway of Lithuania, the great power in the 15th century.

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Attempts were even made at the end of the 15th century, through the Council of Florence, to unify the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, which had excommunicated each other in the Schism of 1054.

 

With the rise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church progressively established a foothold in the Ukrainian territories it controlled. The 1596 Union of Brest led to the creation of the Uniate Church – today known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC).

 

The Union of Brest basically let Ukrainians keep the trappings of their Orthodox faith – the Byzantine liturgy in Old Slavonic and a married priesthood, for example – as long as they recognized the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome, a.k.a., the Pope.

 

But not all Ukrainians were happy with this arrangement. In fact, most of the Cossacks, who had long been chafing under the dominion of the Polish crown, considered it a betrayal and form of collaboration with Poland.

 

In 1654, after six years of war with Poland, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky signed the Pereyaslav Treaty, a loose alliance with the Russian Tsar, which quickly turned into a yoke that would lead to centuries of domination.

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In 1686 the Orthodox Church in Kyiv was also absorbed by Russia and jurisdiction over it was transferred to Moscow.

 

For at least two centuries Ukrainian Christians were divided primarily between the Orthodox, the vast majority who lived in lands controlled by the Russian Empire, and the Uniate Catholics, who were subjects of Poland and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

 

Soviet oppression and post-Soviet disarray

 

When the Bolsheviks took power after World War I, all forms of organized religion were suppressed. Temples were plundered and clergy sent to the Gulag, a system of forced labor camps. Eventually the Orthodox Church was co-opted and closely surveilled. Many church hierarchs were forced to collaborate with the Soviet regime.

 

After World War II, when the Soviet Union gained control of predominantly Catholic western Ukraine, the UGCC was officially absorbed into the Orthodox Church and its faithful went underground; priests were ordained clandestinely.

 

So in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained independence, the religious landscape was wide open.

 

The UGCC had been declared legal several years earlier, during the Perestroika years, and was trying to take back churches that had been expropriated by the communists.

 

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was split among those loyal to the Moscow patriarchate and two separate Churches that were re-establishing a patriarchate in Kyiv.

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Eventually the two Kyivan churches merged, and Constantinople granted canonical status to the OCU-KP in 2019, much to the chagrin of the Patriarch of Moscow.

 

What patriarchate politics means for Ukraine today

 

According to a 2021 study by the Razumkov Centre, an independent Ukrainian think tank, 67 percent of adult Ukrainians consider themselves to be believers, the vast majority of them Christians. Among the Christians, 60 percent are Orthodox (of which 45 percent consider themselves loyal to the Kyiv patriarchate and 20 percent to Moscow patriarchate), 9 percent belong to the UGCC, and 8.5 percent identify as “simply Christian.” The Muslim population is 1.64 percent and the Jewish population is 0.1 percent.

 

Essentially, the split in the Orthodox Church is yet another expression of Ukrainians wishing to break away from Moscow’s influence and seek out a more independent approach to politics and culture more closely aligned with the West.

 

Cyril Hovorun, an Orthodox Ukrainian theologian and archimandrite at Sankt Ignatios College in Stockholm, says that “Ukrainians are ready to decisively and unequivocally reject the doctrine of Russkiy Mir [Russian World], which is the foundation and basis of this war.”

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The theologian likens the situation to a grenade: “The Russian army is the explosive substance, but the fuse is composed of ideas in that Russkiy Mir ideology, which is unfortunately being propagated by the Russian Orthodox Church.”

 

Most of the players in this chess match for the souls of Ukraine’s faithful recognize the complexity of the current dynamics. After the full-scale invasion in February, even the UOC-MP ostensibly broke away from Moscow – although to what degree is arguable because their leaders seem to be maintaining a strategy of ambiguity and “willful silence,” as Hovorun puts it.

 

Since independence, Ukraine, with its multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population, is proving to be impervious to any monolithic religious structure. Nevertheless, the vectors of influence are continually vying for power, and today they seem to be converging on Kyiv’s historical Pechersk Lavra.

 

In response to Kyiv Post’s question about the contested religious site and the OCU-KP’s registration of the monastery, Hovorun says, “It’s about sharing the spaces of the Lavra - which belong to the state - by two churches. This can be potentially good, as they can come closer to each other. Or could increase the hostility between the two churches. We shall see…”

 

Throughout its history, Ukraine’s religious configurations have consistently indicated the direction of its future. Today, it seems all the paths lead away from Moscow.

 

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