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The Tragedy of Russia and Ukraine

From the perspective of the one God who created us all, nothing divides us — neither our race, nationality nor religion. As the spiritual tells us, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north; but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”

But from the perspective of humanity, every distinction divides us. While studies in the evolution of humanity demonstrate the intimate connections among all human beings, societies accentuate what divides us, ranging not only from the usual groupings of race, nationality, ethnicity and religions, but also by values, lifestyle, politics, class, economics and education. Sadly, these distinctions, many of which make each of us a unique child of God to be celebrated as such, can be weaponized to divide one from the other. These weaponized differences prevent solidarity, inhibit our ability to forgive, reconcile and make peace, whether between family members or among nations. The tragedy of Russia and Ukraine is a lesson in the dangers of weaponizing distinctions. A look at the development of the church in the region provides some historical context.

Modern Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russians and Ukrainians share the same origins, all regarding one medieval realm as their own. In the ninth century, the Varangians — a Scandinavian tribe known for their ferocity and piracy — swept into Eastern Europe, settling among and intermarrying with the Eastern Slavs who lived there. Collectively called Rusyns, they founded fortified towns along three rivers, asserted control over the trade routes from the Baltic to the Black seas and established commercial relations with New Rome — Constantinople, the great capital of Byzantium.

Worn painting of Mother Mary with baby Jesus.
Created in Constantinople in the 12th century, this revered icon of the Virgin was venerated first near ancient Kiev, then was transferred to a rival Rusyn principality, Vladimir, where it was enshrined for centuries. Later transferred to Moscow to protect the city from invaders, the icon has assumed the status of a national standard or palladium. (photo: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

One Rusyn urban center gradually assumed a dominant role. From this city of Kiev (Kyiv in modern Ukrainian) developed a civilization known to historians in English as Kievan Rus (transliterated from the Ukrainian as Kyivska Rus and the Russian as Kievskaya Rus). Its leader took on the title of grand prince and exacted fealty and taxes from weaker princes, many of whom were members of his extended family. According to Rusyn chronicles of the 12th century, one of these grand princes (Volodymyr in modern Ukrainian, Vladimir in modern Russian) sent out emissaries to learn more about the faiths of his neighbors, including the Latin Christianity of the Franks and the Eastern Christianity of the Byzantines.

The grand prince’s interest in strengthening his commercial and military alliance with Constantinople may have led to his selection of Christianity in its Byzantine form when baptized in the Dnipro (or Dnieper, from the modern Russian) River in the year 988. The rapid development of Byzantine Christianity among the Rusyns — which the prince pursued with vigor — coincided with the rise of the 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.

One, Vladimir’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 church of Kiev, whose subordinate episcopal seats were located in various regional centers governed by the family of the grand prince. This Rusyn metropolitan church, however, remained under the authority of the Byzantine ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople.

The ascendancy of Kievan Rus was short-lived. Rival Rusyn cities resented its control of trade and sought increased autonomy. To the far northeast, the cities of Novgorod and Pskov declared independence and set up a republic in 1136. To the north and east, Vladimir and Suzdal grew in economic and political independence, sheltering isolated outposts, such as one known as Moscow. To the west of Kiev, Vladimir’s descendants forged an independent realm in Halych and Volhynia.

The weakening of the Rusyn confederation opened it to invasion from nearby rivals — Teutonic knights, Magyars, Poles and Lithuanians — all of whom relished the wealth of its cities. The most devastating invasion, however, came from the east. The Mongols, a nomadic people from Central Asia, swept through Rus in the 13th century, burning and sacking its cities, including Kiev in 1240. They ravaged the land, killed much of the population and enslaved those who survived. Kiev and the lands under its immediate control never recovered fully.

The destruction of Kievan Rus led to the unraveling of its metropolitan church. Survivors sought refuge, migrating to its more remote principalities. The de facto leader of the Rusyns, Maxim, metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus, left a depopulated Kiev and traveled east, settling in Vladimir in 1299. His successor, Peter, moved the historic see of the Rusyn church from Vladimir to Moscow some 26 years later. Born in Halych-Volhynia, Metropolitan 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 constitutes modern Russia.

The Ukrainians’ fierce defense of kith and kin has united a nation once thought to be broken permanently.

For more than a century, Metropolitan Peter’s successors claimed Kiev within its jurisdiction. However, in 1448, the Rusyn bishops separated formally into two distinct metropolitan provinces, Kiev and Moscow. While in full communion with one another and technically under the care of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, the bifurcation of the Rusyn church into two provinces marked the beginning of the fracturing of a unified Rusyn culture into distinct camps: one centered west of Kiev and open to the powers of Central Europe; the other largely isolated from and hostile to Europe — especially Lithuania and Poland — and centered in Moscow.

The Church of Moscow, reflecting the emerging power of its princes, challenged Constantinople regularly and achieved complete independence in 1589, when the ecumenical patriarch reluctantly enthroned the metropolitan of Moscow as patriarch of Moscow and all Rus.

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

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

In 1253, a representative of the pope crowned Rusyn Grand Prince Danilo king, despite the Rusyn church’s allegiance to the 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 Lviv and Kiev. Although long past its prime, the allure of Kievan Rus remained. This “mother of all Rusyn cities” continued as the spiritual center of Rusyn Christianity even as Rusyn society splintered.

Film photograph of the chapel interior.
The late Baroque interior of St. George Cathedral in Lviv, western Ukraine, which became the mother church of Greek Catholics of historic Halych in the 1800s. (photo: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ironically, the definitive schism between Rusyn Christianity and the Church of Rome did not occur until the year 1441, just two years after the rift between the churches of Constantinople and Rome ended at a council held in Florence. When Isidore, a Byzantine Greek appointed by the ecumenical patriarch as metropolitan of Moscow and all Rus, pronounced the restoration of full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox communion of churches at a liturgy in the Cathedral Church of the Dormition in Moscow’s Kremlin, he was sacked and imprisoned almost immediately for his “apostasy of Orthodoxy.” He eventually fled Moscow and found refuge in Rome. His native Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in May 1453.

As the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian state consolidated its gains in ancient Rus, its nobility bound Orthodox Rusyn peasants to the land. Many fled to the southeast, finding refuge in “Ukraine,” an old Slavic term for borderlands. Eventually, these refugees formed autonomous communities of nomadic horsemen, known as Cossacks, who defied the law of their overlords.

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

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

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 Ruthenian 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). The Polish-Lithuanian Roman Catholic nobility promoted the union among their Ruthenian subjects to hold in check the growing power of neighboring Moscow, which remained staunchly Orthodox.

Many Ruthenians accepted the union, but rebellion fomented in Kiev and in the Cossack-dominated areas of 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 establishment of a rival Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev in 1620.

Front shot of the cathedral at daytime.
The exterior of St. George Cathedral in Lviv, western Ukraine. After the Soviets suppressed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1946, the cathedral served as an Orthodox cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate. A symbol of Ukrainian identity, particularly for Ukrainians in the diaspora, the cathedral was returned to the Greek Catholic community as the Soviet Union unraveled. (photo: Olexandr/Adobe Stock Photos)

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, the Cossacks sought aid from Moscow’s grand prince, who had assumed the title of tsar and worked to unite 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 Dnipro River. To wipe out any potential influence by Moscow among the Ruthenian populace, the Poles suppressed the Orthodox Church in areas of its control 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, tsarist Russia absorbed territories east of the Dnipro, including Kiev.

To advance the unification of ancient Rus with Russia, the tsar annexed the metropolitan province of Kiev to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1686, 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 Ukrainian lands with Russia ignited a sense of Ukrainian nationalism that burned fiercely among the people living in those areas west of the Dnipro River, where the Greek Catholic Church had prospered. This nationalism also fueled a desire among self- identified Ukrainian Orthodox leaders for ecclesiastical independence from Moscow.

The tragedy of Russia and Ukraine is a lesson in the dangers of weaponizing distinctions.

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

When the Nazis occupied Ukraine in the early days of World War II, nationalists reestablished the church, which was suppressed again when the Red Army asserted Soviet control in 1945. A year later, Stalin liquidated the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — which had survived in parts of Galicia under control of the Austro-Hungarians and their successors, Czechoslovaks and Poles — and integrated its parishes and priests into the Russian Orthodox Church, led by the patriarch of Moscow.

The breakup of a united Orthodox Church in Ukraine began even as the Soviet government sanctioned plans for the public celebration of the millennial anniversary of Christianity among the Rus with the Baptism of Vladimir.

In 1987, priests and laity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church began to emerge from the underground, petitioning for the restoration of their church. Soon after, a considerable number of priests of the Moscow Patriarchate in western Ukraine revealed their loyalties to the suppressed church.

A black and white photo of a priest celebrating mass.
A priest of the underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church celebrates a Lenten liturgy in a forest in 1987. (photo: Institute of Church History)

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, too.

The unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991 exacerbated the situation. When more than 90 percent of Soviet Ukrainians voted for independence in 1991, Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret Denysenko of Kyiv 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.

Attempts to correct these schisms and unify the fractured Orthodox churches of Kyiv have largely failed in the past three decades. A unification council, which included varying degrees of support and participation among the feuding churches, declared a unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine in December 2018, electing a metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine. In January 2019, newly elected Metropolitan Epiphanius traveled to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in historic Constantinople (modern Istanbul), where in the patriarchal Church of St. George he received from the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew, the directive recognizing his election and the independence of the newly erected Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

The Moscow Patriarchate rebuked the actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and is now separated from it. The Russian government then pledged to defend the interests of all Orthodox Christians in Ukraine against what it believed were the illegal activities of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, encouraged, it said, by pressure from the United States.

Which all brings us to the present. By February, a massive buildup of Russian arms, munitions and soldiers — a force the likes of which Europe had not seen since World War II — surrounded Ukraine on three sides. Russia denied any intention of invading Ukraine, claiming instead that it was under siege by a hostile West and needed to protect its interests, namely Ukraine. Then, in the wee hours of the morning on 24 February, the Russian military invasion of Ukraine began just as the intelligence community in the West said it would, with missiles targeting key military and communications posts near Ukraine’s principal cities: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, even as far west as Lviv.

Regardless of the military outcome, how Russians really feel about this military folly — once thought to be unknown — is emerging: Tens of thousands of Russians have taken to the streets in protest, despite the risk of arrest. As the ruble and Russian economy collapse, and the invasion deteriorates into bloody and protracted street fighting, those protests could grow, undermining the government’s grip.

For decades the feelings of Russians toward their Ukrainian neighbors, who are often described as their “little brothers,” ranged from patronizing fondness, as one would have for a child or a relative who knows no better, to pompous arrogance. How Ukrainians felt about their neighbor to the east was complex and almost wholly personal, depending on family, geography, language and religion. But the tide has been turning since 2014, as the Ukrainians’ fear of Russian aggression and dismemberment of their country has become a reality. Their fierce defense of kith and kin has united a polity once thought to be broken permanently — perhaps forging a nation determined more than ever to follow its own course.

A priest speaking in front of a memorial site.
An Orthodox priest leads a memorial service in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, on 22 February 2022, for those killed seven years earlier by a landmine that had been planted on the route of a procession marking the anniversary of the Maidan revolution. About two days later, Kharkiv was shelled. (photo: Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

And what of Russia and Ukraine’s shared history, patrimony and culture? All is relative when approaching these subjects from varying perspectives and points of view, conditioned by history and experience, and rooted either in a sense of security or insecurity. For centuries, Russians and Ukrainians alike have asked: Is the West friend or foe? Should we turn to Asia? What of modernity, democracy and diversity? Can our culture and ethos survive the onslaught of the free market?

The intolerance demonstrated for the approaches to these questions and the subsequent weaponization of these differences lie at the heart of the tragedy of Russia and Ukraine, whose peoples rightly claim Kievan Rus as their own.

Michael J.L. La Civita is CNEWA’s communications director.

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