The orthodox Church in Ukraine: an introduction

The orthodox Church in Ukraine: an introduction

If you are a foreigner, you must have been astonished by a steady stream of headlines from the Security Service of Ukraine in recent weeks, visiting one church after another. Here at the Svidomi Media we have purposely limited this tide, when producing our English-language coverage. It’s not that we don’t want you to know what’s going on, however, as a foreigner, you might miss out on some essential context. So here is the backstory, explaining why Ukrainian law enforcers are investigating the churches. 

Balance sheet

In Ukraine, there are roughly 37 thousand religious organizations. Orthodox communities make up around half of them. They are mostly divided between the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). The balance of power between the two is about 1:2. Currently, it is shifting in the direction of OCU: in the past 10 months roughly 600 communities left UOC-MP. Yet, UOC-MP still holds the hegemony. Why is that? 

Churches in Early Soviet times

However strict the anti-religious Bolsheviks were, in the 20s they faced a rural, highly-religious country. There were early attempts to completely supplant religions with Marxism-Leninism by translating this highly complex ideology into simple catch-phrases and rituals. 

Despite this, Orthodoxy lived on in the Soviet empire. The Russian Orthodox Church sought to come to terms with the Bolsheviks. It bashed the anti-Bolshevik religious dissidents in exile to show its commitment to muddle. When its patriarch Tikhon (Bellavin) died, ROC could not organize the elections due to repressions. Its chain of command was shattered. Caretaker patriarch Sergii (Stragorodsky) went as far as to issue in 1927 a declaration that called on his followers to show loyalty and gratitude to the Bolsheviks. At first the party took this into account, but during the thirties no declarations could save the religious activists from repressions. 

Although ROC had control over roughly 6000 parishes in Early Soviet Ukraine, it was not the only Orthodox actor. Around 1000 perishes were loyal to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). This religious organization started to form as the Ukrainian national movement intensified after the fall of the Russian empire. This church used Ukrainian language in its services and cooperated with the Ukrainian National Republic, a state that opposed both the Red army and White army during the post-imperial wars (1917-1921). 

The Bolsheviks committed more violence against UAOC than they did in the case of ROC, as they saw UAOC not only as a religious actor, but also as a national organization. The church was infiltrated with Soviet agents, its activists were repressed. In 1930, Soviet secret services made metropolitan bishop Mykola (Boretsky) sign a decree to dissolve UAOC. By 1937, most of its leaders were sent to the GULAG camps and were executed. ROC, instead, continued to exist, even if in a reduced form. 

World War and reinvention of the past 

Then Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Whatever Russian propagandists might now tell you, in the early months of the invasion citizens of the Union lacked  fighting morale. Historian Vladyslav Grynevych found that desertions rose in the years leading up to 1941. Some conscripts were voicing anti-regime opinions and were even actively trying to attack it. General public panicked at every rumor of war, hoarding essentials. Well, at least trying to hoard something. For instance, workers from the Ukrainian town of Berdychiv testified that they would cope with a shortage of sugar. However, in January 1941 there was no bread in the town. Would you fight for such a state?

That is why in the coming years the party tried to reinvent nationalism step by step. This campaign had many elements and religion was one of them. Religion, however, was a concession the Soviet regime made relatively late: in April, 1943, just before the tide of the war changed. Head of state of the USSR Mikhail Kalinin gave a speech in which he argued that although religion is in aberration, the Soviets do not persecute anyone for it. It was a lie, but a lie that signaled a policy change. Soon, a meeting between acting patriarch Sergii and Stalin took place. Since then ROC was back in the game. Soon, for the first time since 1917, a patriarch was elected.

ROC: an instrument in Kremlin’s playbook

Bolsheviks were not only motivated by the need to foster extreme devotion to the war. Scholar of Soviet religion policy Steven Miner argues that there were also two policy explanations for the policy change: the Balkans and Nazis. 

In 1943 the Soviet war planners were developing their designs for the outcomes of the war, which included Soviet expansions towards the West. They believed that propaganda had to come along with guns. ROC was utilized to persuade the Orthodox nations of the Balkans that the Soviet Union is a friend and not a foe. For instance, in November 1943 patriarch Sergii issued an appeal to the Romanian soldiers, calling them brothers-in-faith. Precisely, when the Romanian army crumbled at the Soviet Stalingrad counteroffensive, allowing the Soviets to cut deep into German-held territory and cut their supply routes. Soon after, the German 6th army was surrounded. 

Additionally, the ROC was supposed to help the party with the reoccupation of Ukrainian territories. In 1945-1946, when the Soviets had already occupied all of Ukrainian territories, the ROC was utilized to destroy the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church which was popular in the western regions of Ukraine. Pressured by Soviet secret services, its functionaries agreed to «reunite» with the ROC. Why? Because authoritarian states seek to control every sphere of life. 

Therefore, Moscow had reasons to trust the ROC. This church was — and still is — subordinate to the Kremlin's political will. For example, Felix Corley, an expert on Soviet religion archives, argues that incumbent patriarch Kirill (Gundyayev) has been an agent of the KGB since 1972. 

Religion in Ukraine after the Russian invasion

After the 2014 Russian invasion, Ukraine was uneasy about holding the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) that is accountable for its ties with Moscow. 

Until recently, in early November, OCU priest Mykhailo Omelian published a video of a service held at UOC-controlled Lavra monastery, in the heart of Kyiv where UOC-MP can be heard preaching for Russia. Since then, the Security Service of Ukraine has been actively deconstructing the net, developed by their Russian adversaries. The Security Service has paid visits to many UOC-MP locations. Wherever they go, evidence such as rubles and literature denying Ukrainian independence is to be found.

Even if to disregard the Lavra incident as an OCU attack against UOC-MP, the episodes of collaborationism are numerous. For instance, a priest from Lysychansk was passing on information about Ukrainian army locations in Severodonetsk to the Russians. Another priest from Kupyansk called on the parish to collaborate with Russians. A cleric from Yarova, Donetsk oblast, was instrumental in the creation of temporary occupation administration. 

Volodomyr Zelensky was elected on the basis of multilingual and multiconfessional unity. After his win in the elections, Zelensky met with representatives of different churches, including UOC-MP. There were a few people who lobbied for the Moscow-ruled church. Among them was the head of SSU Ivan Bakanov. He was dismissed in July when it became evident how many Russian agents SSU harbored. His successor Vasyl Maluk openly said that UOC-MP is an «ideal field for hostile agents». 

Zelensky, too, has changed his approach. On the 11th of December, the President rubber-stamped a package of sanctions, targeting UOC-MP’s high-ranking officials who were collaborating with the enemy. 

For centuries, Orthodoxy was one of the dearest Russian strongholds in Ukraine. Now it is gone.