What were relations like inside Ukraine’s Orthodox community before the moment when the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople supported the idea of a national Church? Russia in Global Affairs put this and other questions to Vladislav Petrushko, Doctor of Ecclesiastical History, and Professor at St. Tikhon Orthodox University.
– On December 15, 2018, the so-called Unification Council took place in Kiev. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), which had been exonerated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate shortly before that, were its main participants. What are these Churches and why have they requested autocephaly from Constantinople? Weren’t they quite independent without that?
– However different their histories, both entities are associated, first, with dramatic historical turmoil, and second, with an upsurge of nationalist sentiment during these troubled periods in Ukrainian history.
But let’s begin from the beginning. The UAOC dates back to the revolutionary period of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War. In 1921, Priest Vassily Lipkovsky founded Ukraine’s utterly uncanonical community where bishops began to be self-ordained. In the Soviet Union, the UAOC existed only for a very short time. During the Nazi occupation it was restored by Policarp Sikorsky and later within the emigrant community. The UAOC reemerged in Ukraine again in the late 1980s with the tide of perestroika reforms. The resumption of UAOC activity in Soviet Ukraine was officially declared on August 19, 1989 at Lvov’s Peter and Paul Cathedral. When Metropolitan Ioann (secular name Vasyl Mykolayovych Bodnarchuk)—until that moment in retirement for health reasons—and imposter Victor Chekalin (a former deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, excommunicated for conviction and who had proclaimed himself a Bishop of the Catacomb Church) joined in, the uncanonical ordainment of bishops began. The UAOC’s First Council in Kiev on June 5, 1990 elected the UAOC’s head, who held the title of patriarch. The man was U.S. citizen Mstislav Skrypnik, at that moment the sole surviving “archpriest” of the UOC-KP, which Policarp (Sikorsky) created in Ukraine in 1942. The schism kept growing, in particular in the western regions of Ukraine, where the process of church communities’ pullout from the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church and their subsequent merger with either the UAOC or the Uniates (Greco-Catholic Church) proceeded on a massive scale.
– How did the Russian Orthodox Church respond to that? Was it unaware of what was happening or was it too late already to intervene?
– It is noteworthy that the chief opponent of schism at that time was Metropolitan Philaret (Denisenko) of Kiev, one of the most influential hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was he who initiated such measures against the schism as the decision the ROC Bishops’ Council adopted in Moscow in January 1990 to grant significant independence to the Ukrainian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and the right to be called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Pimen of Moscow and All Russia was already very sick then. Everybody knew that the day when a new ROC head would have to be elected was around the corner. Metropolitan Philaret was the number one contender for the Patriarch’s chair (incidentally, when Patriarch Pimen died on May 3, 1990, Philaret was elected patriarchal locum tenens). Subsequent events took a different turn, though. In the first truly free election of the patriarch since the Local Council of 1917, Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod Alexy (Ridiger) was named Pimen’s successor.
Starting from that moment Philaret, very angry about the Local Council’s choice and certain that he had been undeservedly rejected, launched a campaign of his own: he would be a patriarch one way or another, if not in Moscow, then in Kiev. For that the Ukrainian Church would have to separate from Russia and his personal power in the Ukrainian exarchate consolidated. Using such arguments as the risk of a still greater split and of the Uniates gaining more strength to back up his demands, Philaret in fact at once put forward new conditions, mostly aimed at giving the Metropolitan of Kiev greater powers. It has to be acknowledged that in the first months of his ministry Patriarch Alexy II as a rule preferred to turn an attentive ear to Metropolitan Philaret’s requests, possibly trying to avoid a standoff inside the Synod, but most likely because he had confidence in the Metropolitan of Kiev. The ROC Bishops’ Council on October 1990 ruled that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church should be granted independence and self-governance. The head of the UOC was awarded the title Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine, began to be referred to as the Most Blessed, wore two panagias on his chest, and had acquired the right to have a cross carried before him in a procession (only in the territory of Ukraine, though). The primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was to be elected by its bishops and receive a blessing of his ministry from the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. The UOC Synod was empowered to elect and appoint ruling bishops and non-ruling bishops, and establish and abolish dioceses within the UOC. The Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine retained the post of a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Philaret (Denisenko), as the first primate of the UOC, received a blessing letter from Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia on the granting of independence and self-governance to the UOC. The letter was delivered to him in a special ceremony in Kiev’s St. Sophia’s Cathedral on October 28, 1990. Convened in Kiev, the First UOC Council would soon institutionalize the UOC as the sole canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine. From that moment on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church enjoyed all canonical privileges and instruments for overcoming the schism.
– And? It didn’t work? Was there any chance it would?
– Possibly, it could’ve worked. But then came the August coup of 1991, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine’s state independence, proclaimed by the Supreme Soviet. Metropolitan Philaret got a new chance to become the head of an independent Church and obtain the long-cherished title of its patriarch. Support from Ukraine’s first President Leonid Kravchuk, Metropolitan Philaret’s good acquaintance, was more than guaranteed. It was at that moment that the alliance of the Church and the state, fueled by a common intention of “getting away from Russia,” made itself felt for the first time. In November, the UOC Council gathered at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves) under Metropolitan Philaret’s chairmanship to declare the full independence of the UOC. The statement contained an appeal addressed to Patriarch Alexy II and the ROC Episcopate for requesting autocephaly. That the Council’s participants came under pressure we know from those who eventually revoked their signatures. Incidentally, the current primate of the UOC Onuphry (Berezovsky) was among them. All of them were instantly dismissed from their posts.
– Did many refuse?
– At first only three. Later, at the Council of Bishops in Moscow in April 1992, when a free discussion began after Metropolitan Philaret’s request for autocephaly (his main argument was that an independent Ukrainian state must have an independent Orthodox Church), and Ukrainian archpriests started revoking their signatures one by one. They explained that they had agreed to sign the request exclusively under pressure from Metropolitan Philaret and the staff of President Leonid Kravchuk. Most of the Ukrainian bishops changed their minds. The discussion took a very unexpected turn: Philaret was accused of authoritarianism and immoral conduct and urged to resign. He promised to leave the post of the UOC’s primate, but asked the Council to let him do so after his return to Kiev. He explained that he would not like to let the Ukrainian authorities suspect he was under pressure from Moscow. The Council believed him (the promise was made in front of the Cross and the Gospel) and postponed the decision until the Local Council.
– But Philaret did not step down in the end, did he?
– He didn’t. On April 7, 1992, the Feast of the Annunciation, during the liturgy in the St. Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, Philaret officially declared that he would not leave the See of Kiev’s Metropolitan. Apparently, this date should be regarded as the beginning of the schism that followed the breach of the oath.
– Did many support him then?
– Very few. Only Bishop Jacob (Panchuk) of Pochayev did so immediately, for which he was expelled by the brethren of the Holy Dormition Pochayev Monastery, of which he was governor. In the summer of 1992, Bishop Andrei (Gorak) of Lvov and Drogobych teamed up with Philaret. The other hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remained within the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. On April 30, delegates from the episcopate, clergy, monkery, and laymen of the UOC gathered in Zhitomir to qualify Metropolitan Philaret’s behavior as perjury. The meeting declared it was necessary to convene a Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in order to oust Metropolitan Philaret from office and elect a new metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine. Philaret refused to obey. The bishop with the highest rank, or Episcopal Chirotony—Metropolitan Nikodim (Rusnak) of Kharkov—was asked in accordance with church rules to convene the Council. The meeting took place in Kharkov, with 18 Ukrainian bishops present. The Council in Kharkov found that Metropolitan Philaret had committed schismatic actions and ruled to displace him from the office of primate and to suspend his ministry. A final decision was to be made by the ROC Council of Bishops. The Council elected Metropolitan Vladimir (Sabodan), an ethnic Ukrainian, born in the Khmelnitsky Region of Ukraine, as primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
On June 11, 1992, the ROC Council of Bishops considered the continuing schismatic activity of Metropolitan Philaret (Denisenko) and excommunicated him, stripping him of all degrees of priesthood “for cruel and arrogant attitude to the subordinate clergy, dictating and blackmail (Titus 1:7-8; the Canons of the Apostles, Canon 27), for “inducing temptation among believers with one’s behavior and private life (Mathew 18:7; the First Ecumenical Council, Canon 3, the Quinsext Ecumenical Council, Canon 5), perjury (Canons of the Apostles, Canon 25), public calumny and animadversion against the Council of Bishops (the Second Ecumenical Council, Canon 6), performance of religious rites, including ordainment, despite suspension from the ministry (The Canons of the Apostles, Canon 28), and creation of a schism in the Church (the First-Second Ecumenical Council, Canon 15).” All chirotonias that Philaret had performed starting from May 27, 1992 following his suspension, and all bans he had imposed were declared void. Philaret refused to recognize his guilt and disobeyed the Council’s decision.
– So, he preferred to have it this way, to be all alone, or almost all alone against everybody else?
– Within the Church, yes. He was practically alone against everybody. But together with President Kravchuk, who threw his weight behind him. Also, there were nationalistically-minded politicians. With this support to rely on, Philaret (Denisenko), together with a small group of his followers and several representatives of the UAOC, held what was called the All-Ukraine Orthodox Council, which proclaimed the creation of a so-called Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. Mstislav Skrypnik, at that moment residing in the United States, was elected in absentia as its primate with the title of patriarch. Philaret (Denisenko) became the patriarch’s deputy, while retaining his title of “the Most Blessed Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.” Old-aged “Patriarch” Mstislav (Skrypnik) learned the news of his “election” in mid-July, when he arrived in Kiev from the United States. In fact, Mstislav became the nominal primate of the UOC-KP, its figurehead, while “Deputy Patriarch” Philaret (Denisenko) assumed all power in this schismatic organization. Many advocates of the autocephalic schism (mostly those who played a role in the UAOC’s recreation) were angry about Philaret’s rise to prominence in the UOC-KP. They began to suspect, not without reason, that he had joined the schism exclusively out of conformist considerations, without being a nationalist ideologically (at that moment Philaret did not speak Ukrainian at all; he only gained command of the language in the mid-1990s). Nevertheless, with support from radical nationalists the Philaret-led UOC-KP managed to take away from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church a number of parishes, mostly in Ukraine’s western regions.
– In other words, Philaret and the UAOC merged to become one Kiev Patriarchate.
– Yes, but only for a very short period of time. On June 11, 1993, “Patriarch” Mstislav Skrypnik died in Grimsby, Canada, at 95 years of age. After his death a group of Philaret’s opponents broke away to declare a recreation of the UAOC. On October 14, 1993, they elected Vladimir Yarema as its primate, who took monastic vows and assumed the name Dimitry and was proclaimed the new “Patriarch of Kiev.” This was certainly not on the authorities’ agenda, so the restored UAOC obtained official state registration only in 1995 during the Leonid Kuchma presidency. St. Andrew’s Church in Kiev that the UAOC was allowed to use was turned into its main shrine. “Patriarch” Dimitry (Yarema) died on February 25, 2000. The UAOC decided against electing a new “Patriarch of Kiev.” On September 14, 2000, Mefodiy (Kudryakov) was elected the UAOC’s primate and received the title of Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.
– The plight of St. Andrew’s Church is regrettable. It has been treated as a challenge prize. Today it is the center of the Constantinople Exarchate. Did Philaret manage to achieve his dream of wearing the patriarchal koukoulion?
– Not at that moment. After Skrypnik’s death the UOC-KP elected a new “patriarch.” Naturally, Philaret was among those who contended that post, but many “hierarchs” of the UOC-KP opposed him. In the end, the All-Ukraine Orthodox Council on October 21, 1993 elected the “Patriarch of Kiev and All Rus-Ukraine”—Vladimir Romanyuk, a Russian Orthodox Church priest who in the Soviet era had been prosecuted for anti-Soviet activity and in 1990 became a “bishop” of the UAOC. Philaret (Denisenko) retained his post of “deputy patriarch” and remained the actual leader of the schismatic community. Only after “Patriarch” Vladimir Romanyuk died in Kiev under very mysterious circumstances on July 14, 1995 was Philaret elected the primate of the UOC-KP and became the “Patriarch of Kiev and All Rus-Ukraine.”
– Since that moment Ukraine has for nearly 25 years had three Orthodox jurisdictions. How have they been getting along? Have there been any attempts at reconciliation? To excuse its intervention the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople claims that the Russian Orthodox Church has failed to overcome the schism on its own.
– I would not say there are three jurisdictions. It will be more accurate to say there is one canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized by all local churches as an independent part of the Russian Orthodox Church and two schismatic organizations—the UAOC and the UOC-KP.
After Metropolitan Vladimir’s death on June 5, 2014, Metropolitan Onuphry was elected head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. For nearly six months he had performed the duties of locum tenens of the Kiev Metropolitan’s See in connection with the medically confirmed inability of Metropolitan Vladimir to continue to govern the metropolitanate.
Back in 2009 the UAOC had declared its intention to enter the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople in the capacity of an autonomous metropolitanate. On July 16, 2010, the UAOC Council of Bishops convened in Kiev to decide that the Patriarch of Constantinople should be obligatorily mentioned during services at all UAOC churches. Constantinople ignored that decision. Mefodiy (Kudryakov) led the UAOC until his death on February 24, 2015. After that “Bishop” Makary (Maletich) became locum tenens and on June 4, 2015 the UAOC Council of Bishops elected him as the UAOC primate under the title of the “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.”
Eager to obtain international recognition, Philaret eventually contacted different schismatic communities that had broken away from other local Orthodox Churches: Greek, Bulgarian, Montenegrin, and others. In 1995, the UOC-KP created its structures in Russia and appointed as their “hierarchs” such personalities expelled from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and excommunicated for schism as former Archimandrite Adrian (Starina) in Noginsk, the Moscow Region, former Archimandrite Ioasaf (Shibayev) in Oboyan, the Kursk Region, and Varukh (Tishchenkov) in Tobolsk. The UOC-KP dioceses saw no further development and remained marginal organizations consisting of very few parishes.
As far as reconciliation is concerned, the positions of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the entire Russian Orthodox Church remained united and canonically verified: reconciliation would be possible only after the recognition of the sin of schism and repentance. Philaret ignored this and in 1997, when the Council of Bishops in Moscow excommunicated and anathemized him (that decision was recognized by all local Orthodox churches, including the Constantinople Patriarchate) and in 2017, when Philaret addressed Patriarch Kirill, of Moscow and All Russia and the ROC Episcopate with a letter expressing the wish to achieve reconciliation and terminate the schism, but without repentance for his anticanonical activity. No continuation of the reconciliation dialogue followed, because Philaret refused to admit his guilt of schism and repent.
– What about their relations with the authorities and, first and foremost, with President Pyotr Poroshenko as the initiator of obtaining autocephaly?
– Metropolitan Onuphry keeps calling for the early termination of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, which he regards as civil war. For this reason, he refused to stand up at the May 8, 2015 ceremony during President Poroshenko’s speech in the Verkhovna Rada in protest against the continuing military operation in Donbass. Metropolitan Onuphry said that in a civil war there could be no “heroes,” whom President Poroshenko had called for honoring. At the same time, President Poroshenko argues that the Kremlin regards the Russian Orthodox Church as one of the key instruments of influence on Ukraine.
Philaret strongly supported the so-called Maidan protests in Kiev. Although born in Donbass himself, he later approved of the Ukrainian military’s participation in the so-called “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and strongly criticized Russia, which he repeatedly called “an aggressor country.”
– What is happening in Ukraine after the granting of the Tomos and the creation of a new Autocephalous Church of Ukraine? And what is the role of the state in this process?
– The role of the state and of President Poroshenko and his staff was decisive. The purpose of this initiative was not ecclesiastical, but political—not to achieve the creation of a truly autocephalous Church in Ukraine, but to disrupt all spiritual bonds between Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians. The Ukrainian authorities today provide all-round assistance to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Verkhovna Rada passed special laws requiring the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to change its name to incorporate a special mention that its center was located in the “aggressor country” and setting the rules of religious communities’ transition to a different jurisdiction to facilitate the transfer of UOC parishes to the OCU.
Ukrainian autocephaly is the focal point of the interests of three main political actors involved. First, the Poroshenko regime, which ahead of the presidential election was mostly concerned with bolstering its popularity rankings by means of publicizing the autocephaly issue and also was interested in destabilizing the domestic situation. Among the factors for achieving this will be the emergence of religious tensions after the creation of the OCU and a massive campaign to compel the UOC clergy and believers to join the new “Church” and redistribute church property in the OCU’s favor.
Next, one should mention the political forces in the West, which are pushing ahead with an extremely dangerous and short-sighted plan for fanning Russian-Ukrainian tensions. It is noteworthy that the U.S. Department of State (as represented by its spokeswoman Heather Nauert and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), in defiance of its professed commitment to the principles of non-interference in the affairs of religious confessions, has more than once called for giving autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. It is no less noteworthy that Pompeo hurried to congratulate “Metropolitan” Epiphanius (Dumenko) upon his election as the primate of the OCU.
Lastly, there is the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, which throughout the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century pressed for hegemony in the Orthodox world, and which is now using the Ukrainian autocephaly issue to achieve its power ambitions. It is keen to gain firmer commanding positions among the other autocephalous Orthodox Churches and to weaken its main opponent—the Moscow Patriarchate.
– What is to be done in a situation like this?
– The current state of affairs that has emerged as a result of uncanonical actions by Constantinople may have far more dire effects than the total isolation of believers in Ukraine from the Russian Orthodox Church, which means further deterioration of Russian-Ukrainian ties, already reduced to the maximum possible degree.
There is a growing risk that the ecclesiastical factor may be used for political purposes on a far greater scale. In fact, the point at issue is putting ecclesiastical affairs in a situation identical to the one that has taken shape in geopolitics as a result of systematic attempts to place Russia in complete isolation and the position of a rogue state.
But Russia is not alone in the Orthodox world, so the Phanar’s attempts to persuade other local Orthodox churches to recognize the OCU may result in a situation in which the Russian Orthodox Church would have to terminate communion with them, which would cause a deep split in the entire Orthodox world.
I believe it is extremely important to use the most convincing arguments to help the hierarchs of the other Orthodox Churches develop the awareness that the current situation is fraught with great dangers not only for the ROC, but also for the entire Orthodox world in view of the risk that Constantinople may try to intervene in the affairs of other churches. In particular, this concerns new attempts at legalizing existing schisms and giving them autocephaly regardless of their canonical ecclesiastical centers. It is essential to obtain the local Orthodox Churches’ unequivocal public condemnation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s aggressive policies in the canonical space of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The question must be raised of terminating the Constantinople See’s prevailing position in the Orthodox world. Canon 28 of the 4th Chalcedon Ecumenical Council stipulating that “the city which is honored with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome” should be officially declared void for historical reasons (the fall of Constantinople and the abolition of the Byzantine Monarchy in 1453) and in view of the Constantinople Patriarchate’s destructive influences on Orthodox unity. For this a Pan-Orthodox Council or conference is to be convened to scrutinize the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s activities.
A new mechanism is to be devised to support the unity of the Orthodox community. As an example, a Pan-Orthodox Synod could be created consisting of the primates of local Orthodox churches that would meet at least once a year to address the most crucial issues of pan-Orthodox importance. Such a Synod would see one of its priority tasks in comprehensive codification and revision of the Orthodox Church’s canon laws and the subsequent creation and adoption of a unified church law code that would rule out arbitrary interpretation of the existing canonical rules; initially, those concerning inter-Orthodox relations and the granting of autocephaly.