Ukraine’s Orthodox church “conflict” takes to historic Kyiv

The stand-off between Ukraine’s “Moscow church” and patriotic citizens receives a new breath of life in the country’s capital. RU

Tetiana Kozak
27 February 2018

The rally near the Kyiv’s Appeal Court building, February 5, 2018. Photo courtesy of the author.In late January, Kyiv’s police service received an distressing call – there had been arson attack at the Church of Tithes, located near the city’s landmark Andriyivsky descent. Two local architects, Oleksandr Gorban and Oleksiy Shemotyuk, were apprehended at the scene. They claimed that it wasn’t arson, but a protest aimed at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which owns the church.

Gorban and Shemotyuk’s action was not the first of its type: the Moscow Patriarchate’s decision to build the monastery in the very heart of Kyiv – on the grounds of the National History Museum – has created conflict between the Church and city residents for more than a decade.

A convenient miracle

The Church of the Tithes (Desyatynna tservka) is one of Ukraine’s most important historical and architectural monuments. Built in stone in 996 by Prince Vladimir the Great, who introduced Christianity to Kievan Rus’, it was burned down in the 13th century during the Mongol Invasion. Only the foundations survived, and it was here that the Orthodox Church attempted to establish a foothold in 2006. First, without any authorisation, they erected a tent surmounted by a cross in the museum grounds. The idea was for the priests to celebrate Easter there, but they somewhat overstayed their welcome.

“At first, the plan was to celebrate a single Mass there,” the church’s website reads, “but such was our parishioners’ joy and wish that they asked for permission to hold services throughout Holy Week. They would probably have had to take the tent down at the end of the week, but… the Lord blessed them all with a miracle – a vision of his Holy Mother Mary, the Queen of Heaven.”

The church’s clergy say this was the first miracle to take place there on the Feast Day of the icon known as the “Life-giving spring”, before which the Virgin herself had prayed. The icon was brought from the USA, where it was painted by the artist Alexander Kharon, whose brother Gedeon is the monastery’s abbot. The church’s website claims that there are still witnesses of the miracle among its parishioners today.

After the miracle, more and more people began visiting the church, and its clergy decided to replace the tent with a wooden building, which was consecrated in 2007. Since then, the building has been encased in cement and faced with stone and marble.

All this time the Moscow Patriarchate, under the protection of the Party of Regions, has been putting forward plans to rebuild the church

All this time the Moscow Patriarchate, under the protection of the Party of Regions, has been putting forward plans to rebuild the church, despite official government disapproval: both the Ministry of Culture and the Cabinet of Ministers believe the foundations should be conserved and the church ruins “museified”. Archaeologists and architects also deplore the Moscow Patriarchate’s position, and are supported by UNESCO, under whose protection the monastery site lies.

In 2012, the Moscow Patriarchate’s occupation of part of the National History Museum site was partially legalised. Its official head was to be Mikhail Goitman, a former advisor to Serhiy Arbuzov, the head of Ukraine’s National Bank during Viktor Yanukovych’s time as president.

It was then that the conflict came to a head: the first arson attack on the monastery took place in 2012 and the perpetrators were never found. Shemotyuk and Gorban’s action was the first newsworthy protest aimed at the monastery in post-Maidan Ukraine. But the demands that the illegal structure be removed have also acquired a political angle – the complete removal from Ukraine of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is systematically accused of defending the interests of the Russian government in general and Vladimir Putin in particular.

What are the priests complaining about?

Civil activists and the media have compared the arson attack with the stunts of Pyotr Pavlensky. The action’s echoes of the Russian performance artist’s own stunts – the most famous of which include setting fire to the doors of the FSB’s headquarters in Moscow – are quite clear:

“My actions were intended to draw public attention to, in the first place, this illegal structure and, in the second, to the presence of FSB officers in cassocks in Ukraine,” Shemonyuk said at his trial.


For many Ukrainians, the Moscow Patriarchate is a synonym for the FSB. Protesters near the Monastery of the Tithes, February 3, 2018. Photo courtesy of the author.However, if Pavlensky got away with a fine in Russia, judge Tetyana Levytska was made of stronger stuff and sentenced the two architects to pre-trial detention for two months, with bail of 2.2 million hryvnya (£53,000). Levytska based her decision on the fact that the church contained icons, that people could have been inside, and that “the burning building might melted the foundations of the ancient church.”

Given that people accused of serious offences at the time of Maidan have recently emerged from high-profile trials with suspended sentences and house arrest, the punishment imposed on Shemotyuk and Gorban seemed absurd. Indeed, it sparked outrage among the Ukrainian public and a viral response on social media, where their supporters have set up the hashtag #Свободу_архітекторам (#Freedom to the Architects).

There is also a Facebook group aiming to coordinate efforts to free the two architects and fight the possible rebuilding of the Church of the Tithes: it amassed more than 3,000 members in a few days, and has been used to plan a peaceful protest.

“We’ve got laws in Ukraine! What are those priests yelling about?”

On 3 February, around 300 people gathered at the monastery: not to pray but to demand the release of Shemotyuk and Gorban. The space around the entrance is crowded: the priests have asked their parishioners to come and “defend”, as they phrase it, “the alma mater of Kievan Rus churches” from an attempt to take it by force by radicals.

“People are in prison because of these priests,” shouts Konstantin, part of an action in support of the architects.

“What are you yelling for? You’re stopping people from praying to God,” the church members hiss back at him.

“For some reason, priests here are a separate caste, above everybody else. What’s that about? Why do they get all kinds of benefits and preferential treatment?

“What god is that, then? We’ve got laws in Ukraine! What are those priests yelling about?” Konstantin is not to be shouted down and continues to argue loudly. “For some reason, priests here are a separate caste, above everybody else. What’s that about? Why do they get all kinds of benefits and preferential treatment? So that they can drive Mercedes-Maybach cars and rob people who come to them for counselling? The church should be helping people, not itself! But it helps itself, because it belongs to Moscow. There have been no normal people in the Moscow Patriarchate church since the commies killed them all – there have just been KGB and FSB agents!”

High-ranking Orthodox church officials, including the late UOC(MP) leader Metropolitan Vladimir, are regularly in the headlines, with journalists investigating their sumptuous lifestyle and close links with the politicians, especially those from the now defunct Party of Regions. And Metropolitan Pavel, abbot of the historic Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, one of the most sacred sites of Orthodoxy, has no scruples about entering into conflict with the media: his security people have been known to threaten journalists, and the Metropolitan himself has verbally abused media people and even taken a mobile phone off one of them.


February 3, 2018: protest action near the Monastery of the Tithes. Photo courtesy of the author.During the Maidan protests in 2014, Metropolitan Pavel assured then President Viktor Yanukovych that he had the support of the Church, and after Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) on the peninsula was re-registered and now is under direct control from Moscow. This was taken by Kyiv as recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, and the Moscow Patriarchate’s calls for peace in Donbas echo the clichés of Kremlin propaganda.

Two elderly women are frantically praying for peace as they circle the monastery site with icons in their hands.

“There is no love, you see. Just hatred,” they wail.

“Down with the FSB! Free the architects!” counter the protesters. They include ultra-nationalists, members of radical groups and people who have fought against the separatists in Donbas, as well as members of the creative professions – architects, artists, planners.

The diversity of the crowd is no accident. For the last few years, urbanism has been developing as a movement in Ukraine. People are involved in initiatives aimed at humanising urban spaces, studying and transforming towns and cities “from below” and basing their plans on residents’ needs rather than those of business or government. And architects are by definition an important part of this process. Shemotyuk and Gorban also have close links with the veterans’ movement – Oleksey did his military service in Ukraine’s air reconnaissance service and Oleksandr supported the Ukrainian Army as a volunteer.

The rally sings Ukraine’s national anthem, and start including lyrics from popular poet Serhiy Zhadan.

“What’s happening now is madness, Satanism, paganism, unbelief in the real God,” comments one of the church members.

Shemotyuk and Gorban’s friends and colleagues are worried about potential provocation and call for the protest to remain peaceful – any violence could threaten their court appeals. Dozens of police and National Guard officers are keeping their eyes on the situation, and whenever confrontation seems to be looming, the police form a line between the two factions. But in general, the rally passes off without incident – both the churchgoers and the protesters have brought children with them. And both groups actively engage with one another and debate the situation.


Archimandrite Gedeon (left) near the Church of Tithes on the day of the protest. Photo courtesy of the author.A member of the “Moscow church” tries to reason with the protesters: “We’re nothing to do with Moscow: we’re the canonical Ukrainian Church.”

“We have to respect all religions, and especially because it’s a single religion,” says church member Vladislava angrily. “We don’t want them to spoil that. We’ve been Orthodox all our lives – I’ve been baptised, and so have my children. What way is this to resolve the issue?”

Archimandrite Gedeon, abbot of the Church of Tithes, explains his views on the subject a little way off: “It’s radical elements who are responsible for this conflict. And they include members of parliament, pagans, who incite people to make war on canonical Orthodoxy.” He repeats his message that the monastery is legal, that all the documents are in order. And also, that it’s a popular parish with thousands of members and the monastery has 20 monks, 10 priests, two miraculous icons and a large number of relics.

Meanwhile, beside the church, the protesters have unrolled a banner with a portrait of Putin on it, and the children are using it to slide down the hill. The prayers and the protest continued till evening.

“I regret having insulted ordinary believers”

On 5 February, it was impossible to reach the fifth floor of Kyiv’s Appeal Court. Dozens of people had come to support Shemotyuk and Gorban as they put their case for the overturning of their sentence. Their defence counsels were going to demand that the court release them on bail, and the public prosecutor was also asking for a milder form of pre-trial custody. Several MPs announced their readiness to support the architects, as indeed did clergy from the monastery (although they failed to turn up in court).

The defence appended an addition to the court papers from the Planning and Architecture department responsible for the monastery. It stated that it hadn’t assigned any address to the monastery, that the land registry had not received any plans for the building and that the department had received no data on the design of the project.

The accused were not in the courtroom: they took part in the proceedings by videolink.


Oleksiy Shemotyuk via video in the hall of Kyiv’s Appeal Court, February 5, 2018. Photo courtesy of the author.“Where such a sensitive and painful subject as religion is concerned, any violence is totally impermissible,” admitted Oleksiy Shemotyuk. “And although we just wanted to draw attention to the issue, there was a certain element of violence involved. And I would agree that we insulted those apolitical believers who go the church. I’ve had time to think it over,” the activist told his supporters in the courtroom. The Appeal Court released Shemotyuk and Gorban on bail for the duration of their judicial investigation

As the case attracted increasing public attention, Ukrainian MPs have also got involved. The illegal building situation was examined by the Parliamentary Anti-corruption Committee, after which Ihor Lutsenko, one of its members, filed two lawsuits with the public prosecutor’s office – one for the unauthorised acquisition of land and the other for the destruction of an architectural layer as a result of unauthorised construction works.

The Moscow Patriarchate is more interested in preserving its influence than its soul

Ministry of Culture officials also announced that they would take part in the examination of the case and re-send their original requests to Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies. Kyiv’s relevant municipal committee also supported the monastery’s demolition, and on 9 February MPs examined the petition initiated by the two architects,

The church’s parishioners produced their own response – 10,000 signatures on a petition asking for the building to be preserved. Archmandrite Gedeon meanwhile sent a request to “all current organs of power”, not to mention the UN and USA president Donald Trump, to defend “the right to security and freedom of religion”.

The church has now acquired a major new relic – St George’s right hand – a gift from Mount Athos, and daily prayers are being offered up there for peace in Ukraine before the beginning of Lent.


By this stage, public attention is focused on other unauthorised church buildings that were proposed or under construction – an interactive map of them recently appeared online. And after the arson attack on the Church of Tithes, another protest was organised, this time to protect a famous Kyiv monument, the “Hedgehog in the Fog” sculpture (the eponymous animal was the star of a popular 1975 cartoon film). The Moscow Patriarchate also recently erected a cross nearby, on the site of St George’s Church, which was demolished by the Soviet government in 1934.

“These attempts at pin prick occupations are part of a hybrid strategy of the Moscow Patriarchate to legitimise its ancient Russian origins. ‘We have always been here,’ they seem to be saying. But we’re saying: ‘The hedgehogs were here first,” reads the protest organisers’ statement. People tore down the Orthodox cross and gave it back to the priests.

“There are people who don’t believe priests driving around in expensive cars are moral compasses, but still believe that the Church is higher and stronger than the weakness of a single person, including one wearing a cassock”

The pollsters have identified a decrease in membership of the UOC(MP) in Ukraine. According to a 2017 survey by the Razumkov Center, more than 38% of Orthodox Church members belong to the church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, and only 17.4% to the Moscow Patriarchate. And only 7.7% of believers (as opposed to 22% in 2010) want the UOC to remain part of the Russian Orthodox Church. The number of people wishing to unite around the Kyiv Patriarchate is growing, with more than 50 former Moscow Patriarchate congregations becoming part of the UOC(KP).

Despite the high level of trust enjoyed by the church in general, its institutions are losing their moral authority. As Elena Bohdan, a senior lecturer in sociology at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, says: “There are people who don’t believe priests driving around in expensive cars are moral compasses, but still believe that the Church is higher and stronger than the weakness of a single person, including one wearing a cassock.”

Over the last four years, Ukrainian civil society has shown its capacity for self-sacrifice in the interests of building a state based on the rule of law and determining the future of its country. The Moscow Patriarchate, unfortunately, is not prepared, as it is more interested in preserving its influence than its soul. This is why it will have more and more questions to answer.


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