Though Poles and Russians stem from the same Slavic roots, the two peoples developed radically different — and at times polar opposite — orientations. Not unlike the saga of the Polish nation, the chronicles of the Orthodox Church in Poland reveal the struggles of a faith community squeezed between the Latin West and the Russian East.
World War I changed the map of Europe. The Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires collapsed, and from the carnage emerged nation states whose peoples longed for self-determination: Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Poland was created by the victorious Allies as a bulwark to a Russia embroiled in revolution and civil war. Its leaders attempted to emulate the ethnically diverse Polish-Lithuanian state that had once dominated Central Europe until its dismemberment by Austria, Prussia and Russia in the late 18th century.
Resurrected Poland absorbed huge tracts of land and included millions of ethnic Belarussians, Czechs, Germans, Jews, Roma, Russians, Rusyns, Slovaks and Ukrainians — a third of the new nation’s 30 million people. Up to five million of these new Polish citizens professed Orthodox Christianity, a faith long identified with Poland’s neighbor and foe, Russia.
By 1938, and not without its share of controversy, the Orthodox patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow had the independence of a newly organized Orthodox Church of Poland. The state, too, recognized the church.
Wary of the rise of Hitler and the growing power of Stalin, Poland’s government grew increasingly insecure and nationalistic, suspecting the loyalties of Poland’s Orthodox citizens. Despite the protestations of respected church leaders such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Lviv, Archbishop Andrei Sheptytsky, local governments shuttered Orthodox and Greek Catholic sanctuaries, turned some over to Latin Catholic authorities and razed others.
Hitler’s pact with Stalin in the autumn of 1939, which again erased Poland from the map, suspended these acts of hostility, as large numbers of Orthodox Christians were reintegrated with the Moscow Patriarchate.
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