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The Orthodox Church of Ukraine

Confusion characterizes Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine. Not one but three groups claim legitimacy as the national church of the predominantly Eastern Christian country.

Led by Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate” is an autonomous jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of Russia. Canonically, it is the only ecclesial body recognized by the rest of the Orthodox world and it maintains the largest number of parishes in Ukraine (perhaps some 6,000). It prevails, however, in the country’s Russian-speaking areas in the south and east, where religious identity is weakest. Typically, Church Slavonic is used in the celebration of the sacraments.

The “Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kiev Patriarchate” is led by Patriarch Filaret. Once a rising star of the Moscow patriarchate, he was excommunicated for advocating an independent Orthodox church in Ukraine. According to the 2006 findings of the Razumkov Centre — a Ukrainian think tank — about half of the Ukrainians who claim a religious affiliation belong to this community, which uses both Church Slavonic and modern Ukrainian in the celebration of the sacraments.

The “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church” is the smallest of the three Orthodox bodies. It is led by Metropolitan Mefodiy Kudriakov, a native of western Ukraine, which is the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism and where the church of three million is strongest. This community also uses Church Slavonic and modern Ukrainian.

In its well-regarded survey on religious affiliation in Ukraine, the Razumkov Centre found more than 62 percent of the country’s 44 million people did not declare any membership. The authors report that, while many who did not self-identify with any group were Orthodox Christian, most were unaware either of the issues or of the divisions embroiling Ukrainian Orthodoxy.

Why then this schism among Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians? In short, the polarization of the Ukrainian church reflects questions of Ukrainian identity and of Ukraine’s relationship to its domineering neighbor to the east, Russia.

Origins. Ukrainians share common origins with Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns and Russians. All regard the medieval realm of Kievan Rus’ as their own. In the ninth century, the Varangians — a Scandinavian tribe known for their ferocity and piracy — swept into Central Europe, settling among and intermarrying with the Eastern Slavs who lived there. Collectively called Rusyns, they established fortified towns along the Dnieper, Dniester and Don rivers, asserted control over the trade routes from the Baltic to the Black seas and developed uneasy commercial relations with Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.

Strategically located on the Dnieper, the city of Kiev gradually assumed a dominant role. Its leader took on the title of velikiy kniaz, or grand prince, and he exacted fealty from weaker princes. According to the 12th-century Rus’ Chronicles, one of these grand princes (called Volodymyr in modern Ukrainian and Vladimir in modern Russian) sent out emissaries to learn more about the faiths of his neighbors: Byzantine and Latin Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Christianity as practiced in Byzantium, however, had the edge. Volodymyr’s grandmother, Olga, had embraced Christianity while in Constantinople and later brought it back to her realm. Another likely source for Volodymyr’s interest was the work of two missionary brothers from Byzantium, Cyril and Methodius, who worked among the Slavs of Moravia (862), created a Slavonic alphabet, translated scripture into Slavonic and introduced a Slavonic liturgy based on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

The disciples of Sts. Cyril and Methodius were later banished from Moravia, but they established Byzantine Christianity among the Southern Slavs and Bulgars of the Bulgarian kingdom. There, they helped the Bulgarian tsar forge a powerful empire that rivaled Byzantium and Kiev.

Ultimately, however, Volodymyr’s interest in a commercial and military alliance with Byzantium may have led to his baptism as an Eastern Christian in 988.

Golden Age. The rapid development of Byzantine Christianity in Rus’ — which Volodymyr pursued with vigor — coincided with the rise of the Kievan state. Its grand princes consolidated their power, promulgated the first code of law of the Eastern Slavs, constructed churches, sponsored monasteries and supported learning and the arts.

Volodymyr’s son and successor, Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054), achieved some ecclesial independence from Constantinople by overseeing the installation of a metropolitan archbishop of Kiev and all Rus’ in 1037. Eventually, Rusyn natives dominated the ecclesiastical province, whose eparchial seats were located in various regional centers governed by the family of the grand prince. This Rusyn metropolitan church, however, remained under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople.

The ascendancy of Kievan Rus’ was short lived. Rival cities resented Kiev’s control of trade and sought increased autonomy. To the far north of Kiev, Novgorod and Pskov declared independence in 1136. To the northeast, Rostov, Suzdal and Vladimir grew in economic and political independence. The northern cities of Polotsk and Smolensk asserted their autonomy as did Halych in the southwest, where Volodymyr’s descendants created an independent principality.

The weakening of Kievan Rus’ opened it to invasion from nearby rivals — Teutonic knights, Hungarians, Lithuanians and Poles — all of whom relished its wealth. The most devastating invasion, however, came from the east. The Mongols, a nomadic people from Central Asia, swept through the dominion of the Rus’ in the 13th century, burning and sacking its cities, including Kiev in 1240. They ravaged the realm, killed much of the population and enslaved those who survived. Kiev never recovered. For more than 200 years, Rusyn princes were mere vassals to the Mongol warlords.

Moscow. The destruction of Kievan Rus’ led to the unraveling of its metropolitan church. Survivors sought refuge in the northeast, migrating to it principalities. The de facto leader of the Rusyns, Maxim, Metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus’, left a depopulated Kiev and settled in Vladimir in 1299.

His successor, Peter, moved the historic see of the Rusyn church to Moscow some 26 years later. Born in Halych-Volhynia, Peter strengthened the relationship of the Rusyn church with the grand princes of Moscow, forging an alliance that would lead to the development of a powerful Muscovite church and state, the nucleus of what is today defined as Russia.

For more than a century, Peter’s successors claimed Kiev as a part of its jurisdiction, or metropolia. However, in 1448, Rusyn bishops separated formally into two distinct metropolitan provinces, Kiev and Moscow, which remained in full communion but mark the formal beginning of distinct Ukrainian and Russian churches.

While the church of Kiev remained under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople, the church of Moscow declared its autonomy and its special role as the pillar of Orthodox Christianity: “Two Romes have fallen, and a third stands,” declared an influential monk. “A fourth there shall not be.”

Moscow achieved complete independence in 1589, when the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople reluctantly enthroned the metropolitan of Moscow as patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’.

Galicia. Moscow was not the only claimant to the legacy of Kiev. The Rusyn princes of Halych and Volhynia, whose dominions bordered Roman Catholic Hungary and Poland to the west and northwest, forged a united state in the 13th century. For more than a century, Halych-Volhynia (known today as Galicia) rivaled Kievan Rus’ in size and wealth, even as its leaders paid homage to their Mongol overlords.

One such prince, Danilo I (died 1264), opened Halych-Volhynia to Armenian, German, Hungarian, Jewish and Lithuanian merchants, who formed self-contained communities throughout the realm. He strengthened alliances with neighboring Catholic powers and even enlisted the aid of the papacy to ward off the Mongols. Though the churches of Constantinople and Rome were in schism for nearly two centuries, Rusyn Christians in Halych-Volhynia maintained communion with both.

In 1253, Grand Prince Danilo was crowned king by a representative of the pope, despite the Rusyn church’s allegiance to the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople. Three years later, King Danilo founded the city of Lviv, naming it for his son and successor, Lev, who in 1272 made Lviv the capital. In recognition of the kingdom’s capital, the ecumenical patriarch erected a metropolitan see in Lviv in 1303, filling the void created by Metropolitan Maxim’s departure of Kiev for Vladimir just four years earlier.

Halych-Volhynia’s dominance also proved short lived. By the middle of the 14th century, the kingdom’s Lithuanian and Polish neighbors carved it up, seizing Kiev. Though long past its prime, the allure of the city remained. This “mother of all Rusyn cities” continued as the spiritual center of Rusyn Christianity and, after 1375, as the home of the metropolitan archbishop of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’.

Catholics and Orthodox. The dynastic union of Lithuania and Poland in the late 14th century, and the adoption of Roman Catholicism as the state religion, did not adversely impact the spiritual lives of the commonwealth’s Rusyns. This changed, however, with the definitive schism between the Roman and Rusyn churches in 1441. That year, Metropolitan Isidore of Moscow, Kiev and all the Rus’ pronounced the restoration of full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches at a liturgy in Moscow. Isidore was subsequently deposed and imprisoned for his “apostasy of Orthodoxy.”

As Catholic Poland expanded, its nobility bound Orthodox Rusyn peasants to the land. Many fled to the southeast, finding refuge in the hinterlands, or “Ukraine.” These refugees formed autonomous communities of nomadic horsemen, known as Cossacks, who often defied Polish law and eventually became staunch supporters of Moscow and its tsar.

Those Rusyns (or Ruthenians, from the medieval Latin for Rusyn inhabitants of Poland) who remained in the commonwealth were harassed and subjected to ethnic assimilation campaigns of the Polish government, which also heavily taxed the Orthodox clergy and laity and denied bishops permission to build churches.

Union and division. The Protestant Reformation, and the wars associated with it, altered the confessional dynamics of Central Europe, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Constant clashes ravaged the countryside. Disease and war devastated the population. Meanwhile, Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian congregations grew, particularly among the Ruthenians’ Polish landlords.

The Jesuits, vanguards of the Catholic Reformation, worked among Central Europe’s Orthodox leaders to combat the spread of Protestantism. They promised the Orthodox they would retain their Byzantine liturgical rites, customs and privileges (including a married clergy and the method of electing bishops) in exchange for their loyalty to the papacy. In addition, Orthodox clergy would be granted the same civil rights and privileges extended to Roman Catholic clergy.

In 1596, the Orthodox Metropolitan Mikhail Rohoza of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’ severed ties with the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople and the Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow and, in the city of Brest, accepted the primacy and authority of the Roman pontiff, thus establishing the Greek Catholic Church (“Greek” referred to the Byzantine heritage of the Ruthenians). This move brought the Kievan metropolia closer to its contemporary Polish-Lithuanian rulers, who actively supported the union with Rome among their Ruthenian subjects. This was done to minimize the growing power of neighboring Moscow, whose subjects remained staunchly Orthodox.

Many Ruthenians accepted the union, but rebellion fomented in Kiev and in the Cossack-dominated areas of the Ukraine. Hostilities forced Metropolitan Mikhail and his successors to settle in friendlier, pro-Catholic territory, thus creating a void in church leadership filled by the election of a rival Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev in 1620.

The crises posed by foreign domination, discrimination, economic hardship and the Union of Brest fueled the Khmelnitsky Uprising (1648-54). Led by the Jesuit-educated Cossack nobleman, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the uprising sought to unify the Ruthenian peoples in an independent Ukraine. But this independent Ukraine soon began to collapse even as Khmelnitsky entered Kiev in triumph. Reluctantly, he sought aid from Moscow’s tsar, who hoped to reunite the lands of historic Rus’ under his authority.

In 1654, Khmelnitsky and representatives of the tsar signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav. The treaty marked the end of the rebellion and the beginning of Ukraine’s divide. Poland retained Ukrainian lands west of the Dnieper River. To wipe out any potential Russian influence among the Ruthenian populace, the Poles suppressed the Orthodox Church and advanced the interests of the Greek Catholic Church. By the 18th century, two-thirds of the Ruthenian population in western Ukraine, especially Galicia, had become Greek Catholic. Meanwhile, the Russian tsar absorbed territories east of the Dnieper, including Kiev.

Ukrainian identity. To advance the “reunification” of ancient Rus’ with Russia, the tsar in 1686 annexed the metropolitan province of Kiev to the Moscow patriarchate, despite the protests of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. Initially, Greek Catholics living in areas absorbed by Russia were tolerated. This ended, however, after Greek Catholics supported an uprising following the partition of Poland by Austria, Prussia and Russia in the late 18th century. By 1839, the tsar abolished the Greek Catholic Church in areas under his rule and reintegrated its eparchies with the Orthodox Church. One lone eparchy remained Greek Catholic, but the Russian Orthodox Church eventually absorbed it in 1875.

Ironically, the tsars’ attempts to integrate the Ukraine with Russia brought about the birth of Ukrainian nationalism, which burned fiercely in those areas west of the Dnieper River where the Greek Catholic Church had once prospered. Ukrainian nationalism also provoked the quest for ecclesiastical independence from Moscow even among the Ukrainian Orthodox majority.

After the collapse of the tsar in 1917 and the political and social chaos that ensued, political and religious independence movements in the Ukraine gathered steam. In 1921, a group of Ukrainian Orthodox priests created the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Soon after though, Stalin annihilated this expression of Ukrainian nationalism during the purges of the 1930’s.

When the Nazis occupied the Ukraine, nationalists re-established the church, which was suppressed again when the Red Army reasserted Soviet control in 1945. A year later, Stalin liquidated the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which had survived in parts of Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Chaos. Ironically, the breakup of a united Orthodox Church in the Ukraine began even as the Soviet government sanctioned plans for the public celebration of the millennial anniversary of the Baptism of the Rus’.

In 1987, a number of priests from the underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church emerged, petitioning for the restoration of their church. Soon after, a significant number of “Russian” Orthodox priests in western Ukraine revealed their loyalties to the suppressed church.

The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church resurfaced in western Ukraine again, with significant numbers of “Russian” Orthodox clergy and parishes switching their allegiances to the revived church.

The unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991 exasperated the situation. When more than 90 percent of Soviet Ukrainians voted for independence in 1991, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret Denysenko of Kiev petitioned the Moscow patriarchate for greater autonomy, fearing the collapse of a unified Orthodox church in an independent Ukraine. The synod of the Orthodox Church of Russia rejected his petition and Patriarch Alexei II denounced him, replacing him with Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan.

Attempts to correct these schisms and unify the Orthodox Church of Ukraine have largely failed in the last two decades. Relationships among those churches with a strong commitment to a Ukrainian national identity — the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kiev Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — have strengthened, particularly since the political turmoil of 2004. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow patriarchate plows forward alone, advocating closer ties to Moscow and its powerful patriarchate.

CNEWA’s vice president for communications, Michael La Civita has written extensively on the Eastern churches.

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