In 2023, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, an important historic site for Orthodox Christianity, is under siege by the Ukrainian government. Its Metropolitan Pavel has been charged with “inciting religious hatred” and placed under house arrest. Yet the state’s persecution of the canonical Orthodox Church is the culmination of the brewing clash involving politics and identity since the establishment of independent Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its causes are far more complex and go back centuries when the Ukrainian territory was part of multiple states (Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire).
Indeed, when the new Ukrainian state emerged in 1991, it was based on two conflicting identities of the western minority and the eastern and southern majority, respectively. These identities were part of different geopolitical entities for centuries, in which culture, language, and religion played a key role. This is not to say that new states cannot be successfully formed, or that different identities within them cannot coexist. But the latter requires state mechanisms to facilitate such coexistence such as federalization and recognizing more than one state language.
However, this is not the path that post-Soviet Ukraine chose. What we have seen over the past three decades since 1991 is the gradual imposition of the minority identity from that country’s western regions such as Galicia onto the majority that shares historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious roots with Russia. And, since the violent 2014 West-backed regime change in Ukraine, these changes both escalated and radicalized in the form of exclusionary language laws, book bans, and historical rewriting in an attempt to erase all ties to Russia. In some cases, this culture war took on a particularly warped form with the whitewashing of the likes of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the 1st Galician Division of the SS during World War II.
Religious Identity in 21st-Century Ukraine
In this general framework, religion is not only part of identity, but it remains a crucial aspect of spiritual and cultural life in the territory of Ukraine. For example, surveys—conducted before the 2022 escalation of the war that began in 2014—reveal that the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church was one of the most trusted institutions in that country. Orthodoxy was also the most popular religion in Ukraine with 82% of that country’s citizens identifying themselves as Orthodox. This religion is even dominant in western Ukraine (56%) with the Greek Catholics lagging behind the Orthodox. In 2018, the canonical Orthodox Church featured 12,092 parishes and 258 monasteries, 12,405 clergy, and 4,500 monastics. A Razumkov Center survey1 from that same year demonstrates that 57% of Ukraine’s citizens trusted the canonical Orthodox Church in comparison to 13.7% trust in the President, 9.5.% trust in the government, and 5.3% trust in the Rada (parliament). Metropolitan Onufriy, the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, specifically, was trusted by 32% of that country’s citizens. Such well-establish religious identities may thus be subject to strong manipulation from within and without to trigger a crisis.
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Early Christianity in Ancient Rus
To understand the religious identities of Ukraine, we must briefly travel back in history. In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir the Great accepted Orthodox Christianity as the state religion of ancient Rus. Ancient Rus was a political entity that gave birth to modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Vladimir had serious motivations for doing so, including geopolitics and fostering closer ties with Constantinople, the center of the East Roman Empire and Orthodoxy at that time. Indeed, one of the reasons Kiev replaced Novgorod as the most important city in ancient Rus was its geographic proximity to Constantinople as well.
Starting in 1237, the Mongol invasion of this area began. It resulted in the weakening and splintering of ancient Rus into separate principalities on top of the political in-fighting that occasionally took place. However, for the next three centuries, the Slavs that resided in present-day west Ukraine and those in the east, including Muscovy, continued to share religion and values, despite the developing linguistic and cultural differences.
The First Schism
That is, until 1596.
At that time, western Ukrainian territory was ruled by a powerful entity in the region, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was so powerful, in fact, that it engaged in court intrigue and installed its own rulers on the throne of Moscow, and even invaded Russia in 1612. It was in 1596 that the Orthodox Church in the region signed the Union of Brest. The treaty transferred the control of the Orthodox churches from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to the Pope submitting to his authority. At the same time, the former Orthodox were able to keep their own Byzantine rites. This major change was not without dissent. The autonomous Cossacks, for instance, opposed the Uniates and continued their staunch support for Orthodoxy eventually pledging allegiance to the Russian Tsar. Today, some consider the formation of the Greek Catholic Church a logical transformation considering that the area was under Polish Catholic rule. Others argue that this mass-scale transfer met Polish political goals of not only exerting greater control over the region but also dividing a single Slavic people who previously shared language and religion.
In 2015, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church addressed the Greek Catholics in the context of their support for the war on Donbass:
«But we know what a colossal danger hangs over Ukraine—the historical core of Holy Rus. And again, what is being used as an instrument for the destruction of people’s lives? The division of the Church. One of these schisms is over 400 years old and has always been aimed at dividing people. And when today they say that someone from the outside has destroyed the unity of the Ukrainian people, we answer: ‘Be quiet! For 400 years you have been working to divide our people in Ukraine!’ And this is worse than any invasion because it is aggression from within. It is this aggression that the unfortunate, misguided people, misled by nationalism, joined and caused a schism.»
Even though the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth grew weaker and dissolved, and Poland itself was eventually partitioned for a time, the Greek Catholic Church remained. By the 21st century, it became a formidable force with more than four million adherents and over 3,000 parishes. The Uniates are also a political force. They perceive themselves as the national Church of Ukraine even though they are primarily located in the west of that country. Some Uniates have also long associated themselves with the radical nationalist agenda.
The Greek Catholic Church in the 20th-Century Interwar Period and World War II
For example, in the West, the Greek Catholic Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky is typically praised for helping shelter the Jews during the Holocaust. In 2015, Pope Francis even issued a decree to call Sheptytsky “Venerable,” which is considered a step toward canonization. The latter occurred after the start of the Donbass war and was likely a political act as well. What is dutifully omitted from the Western narrative, however, is Sheptytsky’s decades-long history supporting nationalist extremists.
He was the spiritual guide for radical youth organizations, such as an affiliate of Plast, a group that Stepan Bandera joined as a child. This affiliate was called Forest Devils, which is a strange name for Christian clergy to bless. The Metropolitan is also believed to have supported the OUN (the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) because of his close relationship with one of the OUN leaders, Andriy Melnyk. The OUN-UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) was responsible for butchering tens of thousands of civilians during World War II.
Soon after Nazi Germany occupied Ukraine, Sheptytsky stated in a sermon in July 1941:
«By the will of the Almighty and All-Merciful God, a new era begins in the life of our Motherland. We greet the victorious German army, which has already occupied almost the entire region, with joy and gratitude for the liberation from the enemy.»
Then Sheptytsky wrote to Adolf Hitler personally:
«As the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, I am sending to your Excellency my heartfelt congratulations on the capture of the capital of Ukraine, the golden-domed city on the Dnieper—Kiev! … We see in you an invincible commander of the incomparable and glorious German Army … The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church recognizes the true significance of the powerful movement of the German people under your leadership … I will pray to God for the blessing of your victory which will guarantee a lasting peace for your Excellence, the German Army, and the German People.»
He also signed a group letter of Ukrainian nationalist leaders in January 1942:
«We assure you, Your Excellency, that the leading circles in Ukraine are striving for the closest cooperation with Germany for the combined forces of the German and Ukrainian people … to implement the new order in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe.»
It is worth noting that the slogans about Ukraine fighting for and saving Europe—that we routinely hear today from the likes of Ursula von der Leyen and other Western bureaucrats—seem to have first emerged in the Second World War in the context of Reichskommissariat Ukraine.
Spheptytsky even blessed the establishment of the 1st Galician (14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS) in 1943 comprised of western Ukrainians. Thus, in the most generous interpretation, his legacy is mixed.2
The reason why we are examining the 1930s and 1940s in more detail is the fact that it is Sheptytsky that is considered a prominent figure in the history of modern Ukraine and in the history of the Greek Catholic Church. It is also unsurprising that extremists in Ukraine view such religious leaders with reverence today specifically for their involvement with the nationalist movements and their support for the 1st Galician within the Third Reich army. Starting with the war in Donbass, some Greek Catholics became chaplains for the extremist Azov and other related military and paramilitary units and organizations. They also consecrated the memorial crosses for OUN-Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldiers.
The Second Schism
Since Ukraine’s establishment as an independent state, there have been numerous documented examples of the Greek Catholic Church using force to expel the Orthodox and take over their churches. As early as 1995, 2,000 law enforcement and special forces officers were involved in these acts that year alone. These are the same methods being used to expel the canonical Orthodox Church from its properties in 2023 with state support at the highest levels of power. The SBU (state security services) have been searching churches and interrogating clergy since President Zelensky’s decree to ban the “Moscow-affiliated” canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The canonical Orthodox Church compares these acts by the Zelensky government to its 20th-century persecution in the first two decades after the establishment of the Soviet Union—a turbulent period of radical political, social, and cultural restructuring. At that time, the early Soviet state perceived the Church as a challenge to its authority and its Modernist vision of society and thus targeted the clergy. In the view of the canonical Orthodox Church, the 21st-century Ukrainian state also considers the clergy’s social and spiritual authority a challenge to its radical agenda, hence the present-day repression.
Yet the situation with religious identity in Ukraine is even more acute.
In a highly politicized move, the schismatic Orthodox “Church” of Ukraine was established in 2018. The two names, the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine, are deliberately confusing. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople recognized its legitimacy and granted it autocephaly. He thus violated a plethora of rules and encroached on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ukraine’s new rival “Church” is also recognized by a handful of others such as Cyprus but not by the majority of the Orthodox world. As a result of Bartholomew’s move, the Russian Orthodox Church severed its relationship with Constantinople.
Why does the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople support this schism within Orthodoxy? Does Bartholomew I really seek to weaken the Russian Orthodox Church? Some consider it simply a case of rivalry and gaining power over someone else’s territory. Others point to a long history of strong ties between Washington and the Church in Constantinople. For example, Archbishop Athenagoras served in the United States as the Archbishop of America starting in 1931. When he was elected Ecumenical Patriarch in 1948, he flew to Constantinople on Air Force One. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I seems to align with this tradition of maintaining a close relationship with Washington and often meeting with key American statesmen and diplomats.
In January 2022, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted that Washington is “directly involved in the ongoing crisis in Orthodoxy” going as far as to say that Washington “financed Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople so he could pursue a policy of divide, including in Ukraine.”
In May of 2022, the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, formally affiliated with the Moscow patriarchate, unilaterally announced its autonomy. Its media addresses since then have been made in the Ukrainian language, and it has been continually emphasizing its patriotism for Ukraine. Of course, many members of the canonical Church in that country are either Russians or Russophones whose identities are being curtailed. It is clear that this move was a survival tactic in the radicalized political environment in Ukraine. However, as President Zelensky’s ban of the Church only six months later indicated, these attempts were futile.
There are no easy answers to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine that has now brought the question of religious identity to the forefront following those of culture, language, and ethnicity. The crisis is the logical consequence of the path which the state of Ukraine chose in the 1990s.
In lieu of an epilogue, I will leave you with the words of Andrey Tkachev, a Russian Orthodox archpriest and popular media personality. Tkachev was born in Lvov and graduated from the Kiev Theological Academy and Seminary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The institution is an heir of the Kiev Theological Academy, which my great-great-grandfather attended. After the 2014 regime change, Tkachev relocated to Russia.
«If [in 2014] Yanukovich, as a legitimate President, led the resistance of the southeast, then this very southeast would be the real Ukraine with a legally elected government. And it would have been Kiev and Galicia that were the rebelling regions that opted for bloodshed and a coup on the orders of the West. The great truth—even in the form of political alignment—would have been obvious to everyone on the side of Novorossiia.
Poroshenko would not have been elected, and the provisional administration of Speaker Turchinov would not have existed. Insurrection and fratricide in its purest form. They, however, were able to create an appearance of legality having even used the army in an internal conflict and breaking the taboo of shedding blood. And we succumbed to this deception on a universal scale and recognized the bandits as legitimate power. But Yanukovich is who he is, and it would be foolish to imagine him as King Arthur or Salvador Allende.
And Mother Russia—personified by politicians and the thinking layman—has always been fantastically frivolous about Ukraine. To not know its problems and to not recognize the dangers point-blank.
So everything that has happened since—from the House of Trade Unions massacre to the capture of the [Kiev-Pechersk] Lavra, and the Special Military Operation in between—is the price for not being serious. […] This is a silent cry about misunderstanding what Uniate power + wild steppe under the leadership of the United States is.
On the one hand, it’s too late to talk about this. On the other hand, it’s not too late at all. Unraveling the ball of yarn and untying the knots are never too late and never useless. We must call black “black” and white “white.”
First, we need to master the main characteristics in the history of Uniates and “independence.” Otherwise, the Soviet Union in the heads of key Russian figures does not allow them to grasp the problem in all its depth and historical continuity.»
1 The highlights from the 2018 Razumkov Center religion survey are found here in English. However, it is incomplete as compared to the details on news media websites citing it. The survey excludes Donbass and Crimea.
2 Following the Red Army’s successes in the liberation of Ukrainian territory from Nazi Germany, Sheptytsky wrote a similarly exaggerated letter to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. However, Sheptytsky died in late 1944, so we will never know how that chapter would have ended. Indeed, his decades-long support of the nationalists appears to be authentic.
3 Elder Zosima’s 1998 statement was published in 2005 in Schiarchimandrite Zosima (Sokur) Slovo o sviatoi Rusi [A Word about the Holy Rus] by the Sretensky Monastery. Some believe that his words were more specific to his immediate context in late 1990s Ukraine. Others consider them a prophecy about the 2014 war in Donbass and its escalation. Zosima passed away in 2002.
One thought on “The War on Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine”
Thank you for such a clear and efficient summary of Orthodox politics in the Ukraine, and showing that the U.S. is the “man behind the curtain.” My hope is that more Americans will become wise to what our hideous regime is doing. The ability of the Orthodox seers to look into the future, like Elder Zosima, never fails to amaze me, and is another “tell” about the Truth of Holy Orthodoxy.