“Putin is your God!”

The conflict between the Orthodox Church and patriotically-minded Ukrainians is becoming ever more pronounced, as priests preach ideology from the pulpit

Andriy Fert
23 January 2018


Photo: Facebook / Yuri Gudimenko. Some rights reserved.

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine has found itself in the centre of a scandal: after a child died in the south Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya before New Year, an Orthodox priest refused to conduct the last rites during the funeral. How could such a thing happen? The two year-old boy had been baptised according to the Orthodox canon, the case obviously did not involve suicide and his mother, according to witnesses, pleaded with the priest on her knees to complete the funeral rites.

When the media got hold of the story, the reaction was instant: people laid baby-sized dolls outside churches for days, and protested outside bishops’ residences. On 11 January, the Zaporizhzhya regional prosecutor ordered the security services to open an investigation into the priest for inciting interethnic and interconfessional hatred, which prompted mass unrest.

While the clergy and religious specialists argue about whether the priest acted correctly, it’s worth unpicking another element of the crisis — the conflict over the national identity of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine, a question which, thanks to this unfortunate incident, has been brought into clearer focus than ever before.

(No) patriots at prayer

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine has been divided for many years. The country has two major Orthodox denominations: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which is “united” with (or as everyone else puts it – “subordinate to”) the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Kyiv Patriarchate, founded in 1992 by then Kyiv’s Metropolitan Filaret after Moscow’s refusal to recognise the Kyiv Archdiocese’s independence. Both churches follow and teach the same theology, performing the same rites (they even look the same). Only their ideology divides them.

The Kyiv Patriarchate is a national church that its head, Patriarch Filaret, calls “genuinely Ukrainian” — the protector of the national heritage. Other Orthodox churches around the world refuse to recognise it, although, according to surveys, it enjoys considerable support from Ukrainian society. The dead child had been baptised into this church.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a completely different matter. Its leadership seems condemned to spend each day reconciling the irreconcilable. On the one hand, there’s its loyalty to the Moscow Patriarchate, and on the other its loyalty to the Ukrainian society, which has been dragged into an armed conflict known unofficially as the “Ukrainian-Russian war”. It was a priest of this church who refused to read the funeral service to the boy in Zaporizhzhya — just because the child had been baptised in a church belonging to the Kyiv Patriarchate.

Before 2014, thanks to the policies of the then UOC head Metropolitan Vladimir, this church was regarded as almost Ukrainian. Vladimir tried to mention Moscow as little as he could, stressing the Kyiv Archdiocese’s glorious past as far as possible. And it worked. No one except a few radicals and rivals from the Kyiv Patriarchate ever seriously accused the UOC of being subordinate to Moscow.


Patriarch Filaret of the Kyiv Patriarchate. (c) NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Recently, however, everything has changed. Now, just as in the time of Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk, it has become fashionable to say that an independent state needs an independent church. Only an independent church can help to consolidate the nation, see off Russian aggression, protect national culture and so on. And it goes without saying that an “independent” church means a patriotic church — one that knows Crimea is Ukrainian, that there’s a war with Russia going on in the Donbas; a church that supports the soldiers fighting in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) and condemns the terrorists of the so-called “Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics”.

The Kyiv Patriarchate is fully signed up to all of this, the UOP is not. Indeed, the UOC doesn’t give the right answers to the questions that help a polarised Ukrainian public decide who’s “us” and who’s “them”.

Moscow’s church in Ukraine

Since 2014 the UOC’s public face has been firmly associated with Russia and Russian politics — because that is how it’s presented to the public. For example, despite the fact that its official name is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Ukrainian media invariably refer to it as “the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine” or the “Russian Orthodox Church”. This strategy, whether by accident or design, neatly fits the image of an enemy. Ordinary Ukrainians who don’t go to church or care about religious minutiae will watch news about the war with Russia on TV and quite reasonably ask themselves what the Russian Orthodox Church is doing in their country.

The media also go to town on sideswipes at the Moscow Patriarchate’s dark past. A recent news story concerned the fact that the Ukrainian Security Service Archive had published documents revealing that in 1943-1945, Moscow Patriarchate bishops were recruited by the Soviet security services — a fact actually known for a long time, at least by professional historians. Ukrainian media covered the story under the headline, “The Moscow Patriarchate was created by the NKVD”. Someone even added this “news” to the article about the UOC in the Ukrainian-language of Wikipedia.

The UOC, in other words, is now seen as an enemy agent. As the Odesa branch of the nationalist “Right Sector” put it:

“A Moscow Patriarchate priest has refused to read the funeral rites over the body of a child, because he had been baptised into the Kyiv Patriarchate. That is how the UOC has once again demonstrated its anti-Ukrainian essence. The Moscow church has been known for its pro-Russian stance for a long time now. It spreads anti-Ukrainian propaganda among its parishioners, refuses to hold funeral services for Ukrainian troops, and its links to the FSB have been known for years. If we want to win our war, we cannot permit the presence of this fifth column in our country. The UOC must withdraw from Ukraine in favour of Ukrainian churches.”

These outbursts against the UOC have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with hatred of Russia. What slogans are carried by people picketing the UOC’s churches? Do they ask them to “pray for everyone”? No. Do they ask the church’s leadership to denounce the priest who refused to say last rites, and the local bishop who supported him? No. The protesters’ placards and speeches carry a very different message: “FSB Church, get out of Ukraine!”, “There’s nothing sacred about Moscow’s Church” and, finally, “Putin is Your God!”

These protests aren’t influenced by any deliberate policy to discredit the UOC — no such negative policy exists. It’s more of an “instinctive feeling” that pervades the public space and conditions how journalists, politicians and public figures talk about the church. Even those members of the Ukrainian parliament who in 2016 registered draft bill 4511, designed to protect national interests by “creating a special status” for the UOC, pointed out that Ukraine had no policies in relation to a church “whose headquarters are situated in an aggressor state”. The bill was rejected after criticism by human rights campaigners and major protests by church members.

The government meanwhile kept its distance from “church matters”, leaving the patriotic media and nationalist section of Ukrainian Facebook to dominate the conversation. For them, the UOC was simply an ally of the aggressor.

Carrying holy water for Russia?

The UOC itself, it must be said, seems to live in a parallel universe and doesn’t realise that it often provides an excuse for people to accuse it of a lack of patriotism. If Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, knew what UOC seminaries teach their students in history lessons, he’d probably be horrified.

The church history course for seminary students differs enormously from the history these same students will have learned at school. What is a student to think when he used to study “the Second World War” and “the Soviet Occupation of Ukraine”, but now he learns about “the Great Patriotic War” and “the liberation of Ukraine by the Soviet Army”. Meanwhile, “the re-unification of Ukraine and Russia” of the 17th century is preferred over “the military pact between the Hetman Khmelnytsky and the Muscovite Tsar Aleksey”.


Photo: Facebook / Serj Mazur. Some rights reserved.

In the “God’s Law” book produced by the UOC for its parishioners, Orthodox Ukrainians appear as always having been persecuted until they accepted Russian hegemony. Most of the history recounted takes place either in Moscow or St Petersburg, returning to Kyiv only when necessary to talk of the beastly Poles, Ukrainian nationalists or Greek Catholics (a church popular in western Ukraine, preserving elements of the Orthodox liturgy but subordinate to Rome).

In the documentary film “Anatomy of a Schism”, made under UOC auspices, the Greek Catholic Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky is transformed from a distinguished public figure into a fascist, and even Ukraine’s independence in 1991 is considered not liberation, but rather the start of new persecution of the UOC by president Kravchuk. In short, Ukrainians and Russians are apparently “fraternal peoples” that have by chance ended up with a border between them, and only the church preserves “spiritual unity” after the collapse of that “great country”, the USSR.

Therefore it’s not so surprising that the UOC doesn’t refer to the Donbas conflict as the “Ukrainian-Russian War” or the self-styled “People’s Republics” as terrorists. Such statements simply don’t fit into its worldview.

The UOC wants to be above national matters, which it sees as earthly and ephemeral. It claims to want to unite people on both sides of the frontline. “We are part of a supranational church”, its spokespeople declare from various platforms and TV screens. Their message usually boils down to the following: “if we are not tied by national restrictions, we can’t be turned into puppets of a state that can use us for patriotic mobilisation”.

Yet this attempt to override the national just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because the UOC is promoting as un-national, supra-national, something that is in fact only too national, or, to put it bluntly, Russian. Fraternal peoples, the “reunification of Ukraine and Russia” — these are all Soviet clichés that will sooner or later lead seminary students, or indeed ordinary believers, to ask the simple question: if we are brothers, if we profess a common faith, then why is there a border between us? In their most radical variations, these ideas relate to the concept of a “Russian World” or “Holy Rus”, as it was called a few years ago when Moscow Patriarch Kirill was actively promoting the idea. This is why the patriotically-minded part of the Ukrainian population sees UOC as an apostle of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

The church does include some anti-Ukrainian separatists among its members. Some prominent bishops are not afraid to call Russia’s annexation of Crimea a natural development — “Crimea was never part of Ukraine”, “the Revolution of Dignity was a coup d’état”, and so on. In the diverse and highly decentralised structure of the UOC there are openly pro-Russian armed “brotherhoods” who take an active part in politics.

The talking heads on television have already christened the “bring a doll” flash mob a sign of the demise of the UOC. There is no place in Ukraine for a hostile, anti-Ukrainian church — a fifth column created by the NKVD — especially during a war with Russia. Ukrainians want simple answers to simple questions: whose Crimea is it, who are we fighting in the Donbas, is Russia an aggressor? These are questions to which the UOC can’t provide any answers, because the cornerstone of its self-identification doesn’t allow it to do so.

The fact that UOC promotes Russian national identity under the banner of universal Christian values only makes this church even less acceptable for the public. If the UOC really wants to supercede national borders, it needs to supercede Russia. And until that happens, people will go on laying dolls at the doors of its churches.

Translated by Liz Barnes.

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