Prayer and politics: Russia's pincer movement in Ukraine

Patriarch Kirill was received with acclaim in Ukraine, but there was more to his visit than Orthodox fervour. Alexa Chopivsky sees another step in the reinforcing of Russo-Ukrainian ties, both political and religious, and the desire of both countries to capitalize on the failure of the Orange Revolution.

As Washington and Moscow navigated the wake of a spy scandal, Kyiv was according Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, travelling through Ukraine on an official "pastoral visit," a high-profile welcome more suitable for a rock star than the head of a millenium-old church, himself of pensionable age.  For the Kremlin, the visit was more about extending Russia’s political sphere of influence than spiritual piety.

Billboards dotting the city bore life-sized photos of Kirill, a glittering golden icon clenched in his hands high above his bearded face. Ukraine's President, Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament made time for private meetings with His Holiness.  On his way to Kyiv, Kirill preached to the faithful in the Russia-friendly southern and eastern enclaves of Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk.  In the run-up to his arrival the Kyiv municipal authorities advised drivers to stay away from the city centre for the duration of his four-day stay and - in a move reflecting the failure of the Orange Revolution - banned protests for the duration of his visit. According to the Internal Ministry, 7,500 Kyiv law enforcers were dispatched to keep the peace.

Poster Kiril Ukraine

Billboards dotting the city bore life-sized photos of Kirill

The Patriarch's eight-day blitz through Ukraine was aimed at ushering in a new stage in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Just five months into office, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has reversed his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko's anti-Russian platform:  he has renewed Russia's Black Sea Fleet lease in Sevastopol for at least another 32 years, elevated the status of the Russian language, and improved the investment climate for Russian businesses.

No one is more delighted than Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who, at a recent biker rally in Ukraine’s Crimea, was gushing in his praise of the favourable atmosphere Yanukovych is creating between the "brotherly peoples" of Russia and Ukraine.

Since Yanukovych's election, Russia has been using religion to reassert its worldview over its former subject - a volte face after the Orange Revolution, when Viktor Yushchenko constantly taunted Moscow with scorn.

Now Russia is regaining ground with the help of a combustive tandem of prayer and politics, a primary tool employed by pre-Bolshevik Russian rulers to maintain empire. If successful, greater influence in Ukraine could help Moscow build a Russia-centric bloc of Eastern states. In March, for example, the Russian Church delved deeply into secular affairs by asking the Russian government to allow Ukrainian chemical companies to buy gas directly from Gazprom and other Russian companies. And while Kirill's predecessor Alexii II visited Ukraine only twice during his 18-year reign, Kirill has already made three visits - including one to bless Yanukovych's inauguration - in the past year alone. He recently announced renewed and consistent engagement with Russia's Western neighbour.

When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church splintered from the Moscow Patriarchate and formed an independent branch under a new Kyiv Patriarch. This was seen by its adherents as a move to reinforce Ukraine's status of independent and sovereign state. Today, the 9-million-strong Moscow Patriarchate - which has never recognized the Kyiv Patriarchate  - is competing for its 14 million members.

Traditionally in the days of Russian empire, where the State went, the Church followed -- and vice versa. This synergy came to controversial light recently when the Kremlin declared the anniversary of Christianity's arrival in Kyivan Rus in 988 AD an official Russian national holiday.  “An affront!” cried some, given Russia's secular constitution. As Kirill opined on Russian television, however, "Abandoning the historical significance of the baptism of Rus means discarding the supporting pillar of our entire civilization".

Kirill's worldview is unambiguous. In a TV interview ahead of his visit to Ukraine, he said the spiritual values defined by Orthodoxy are cherished in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. "These are the values that outline the parameters of a very important cultural and civilizational notion which I would describe as the Russian World."

This homage to Pan-Slavism or, to call a spade a spade, neo-Russian imperialism is seeking to diminish Ukraine and Ukrainians' separateness and to legitimise a wider Russian sphere of influence.

Commenting on Kirill's visit, Patriarch Filaret, who heads the Kyiv Patriarchate, said, "almost all Patriarch Kirill’s addresses on the subject of Ukraine are of a political nature. He has now advanced the idea of the 'Russian World', which was passed at the Russian People's Council. It is a political project with an attractive name, but in reality it is about the revival of the Russian Empire. Patriarch Kirill is coming [to Ukraine] exactly to establish this idea."

In a similar vein, opposition leader and respected former foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk has flatly rejected Kirill's "attempts to subvert the foundations of Ukrainian statehood under the cover of the church and the introduction of the imperial idea, the so-called Russian World."

Kirill’s visit included three of Ukraine’s five largest cities, which enabled the Moscow Church to proselytize extensively. It also highlighted the lengths to which Ukraine is now prepared to go to support and promote the Moscow line. This represents a sea change from the situation just five months ago.

During Kirill's visit, there were alarming reports of the violation of democratic rights. In the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk  a local ban on protests was challenged by 30 activists who were subsequently arrested. In the capital, buses carrying Kyiv Patriarchate believers from across the country to celebrate the Anniversary of Christianity in Kyivan Rus - an event Kirill refused to celebrate jointly with the Kyiv Patriarchate - were turned away by police officers at the city limits, including five that were told there was "no parking" in the city. "Mass gatherings" of Muslim Tatars, who have been trying to draw attention to land problems in Crimea, were prohibited because of the need, explained the Kyiv City Council, to "prevent religion-based conflicts during the visit of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to Ukraine."

Official Kyiv's Kirill-mania not only facilitated the Patriarch's trip, but gave it the trappings of a state visit. Ukraine's First National Television Channel replaced its normal Wednesday live transmission of the meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers with a broadcast of Kirill's 3-hour live liturgy. Two weeks in a row.

At the same time, Kirill shunned any contact with the Kyiv Patriarchate.  A spokesman for Kirill commented, "any collaborative effort with such an unrecognized entity is not possible."

While the Russian Church is helping to drive a revival of Russian influence in Ukraine, Ukraine's Commander-in-Chief is, in turn, enjoying Ukraine's newfound status with its neighbour.

Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, whose entry ban into Ukraine Yanukovych revoked and who on previous visits to heavily ethnic Crimea contemptuously called for Sevastopol's ownership to be transferred to Russia, recently signed a memorandum of cooperation with Crimea and gifted the city of Sevastopol $3 million.

Kiril with Yanukovich

The Patriarch's eight-day blitz through Ukraine was aimed at ushering in a new stage in Russian-Ukrainian relations.

When Kirill popped into Crimea for an official visit, President Yanukovych happily interrupted his 45-day "summer vacation" to meet him.  Some days before he had refused to meet the media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which has warned of disturbing recent trends in censorship, political pressure and physical attacks on journalists in Ukraine.

Yanukovych accepted birthday greetings from the Patriarch and, a first for a Ukrainian President, the Order of Prince Vladimir 1st degree, the highest award given by the Russian Orthodox Church. The two recently learned they share the same literary tastes - the Russian short-story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov.  Yanukovych famously called him  "a great Ukrainian poet" during his election campaign (in later years Chekhov lived and wrote in Crimea).

Just a day later, Yanukovych was off to greet Putin at a biker rally, ahead of the Black Sea Fleet's annual parade in Sevastopol.  This was a perfectly set-up photo-op highlighting solidarity between the two nations, reflected by the twin Ukrainian and Russian flags on the back of the Prime Minister's Harley Davidson.

At a service in Dnipropetrovsk, Kirill preached "Let us pray for the prosperity of Ukraine and the entirety of historical Russia, that the Lord should keep the brotherly peoples united in mind, make them cooperate like brothers, keep them aware of their community and keep them in spiritual unity."

At the next day's Black Sea Fleet parade, Russia announced it was beefing up its naval fleet in Sevastopol.

It looks as though the Kremlin's pincer strike - prayer and politics - is chipping away at Ukraine's sovereignty.

About the author

Alexa Chopivsky is a journalist.  She previously worked for NBC news and is now living in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Read On

Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU is a project of the Institute of Religion and Society of the Ukrainian Catholic University)

Finding Faith: Covering Religion in Ukraine and Russia today. Columbia University School of Journalism Project

Russia Orthodox Church. Official web site of the Department for External Church Relations.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Kyiv Patriarchate. Official web site.

Russia's Patriarch Increasingly Becoming Major Force In Politics. By Brian Whitmore, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, 06.09.2009