Ukrainian Church Schism: Political Ramifications
No. 2.1 2019 June/SPECIAL ISSUE
Svyatoslav I. Kaspe

Doctor of Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of Social Sciences
School of Politics and Governance
Politeia journal


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National Versus Transnational

“They divided my clothes
among them and cast lots for my garment.”
(John 19:24)

The latest developments in Ukrainian Orthodoxy are of a religious nature and have political ramifications. The ecclesiastical dimension of the conflict is quite trivial; it certainly is much more trivial than some overly excited but not very competent (and yet countless as always in such situations) commentators think. Possible political consequences are quite serious, much less trivial, and do not lie exactly where these commentators are looking for them.

But before focusing on political issues, it is necessary to clarify several things related to church affairs in order to grasp the details of the picture and put aside some of the undeniable and unavoidable circumstances, the discussion of which will only distract attention from the political analysis proper.




First. In the Orthodox world, issues of autonomy, autocephaly and subordination in general have always been difficult and painful, and resolved through disputes, quarrels, breakups, and long reconciliations. The reason is that they are at least as much about power (and often about greed) as they are about truth, and it is impossible to say what comes first and what comes second. Intrigues, conspiracies, and the struggle of ambitions accompany all battles of thrones, even if they are episcopal, metropolitan or patriarchal ones. The history of the Serbian, Bulgarian, and Greek Churches provide ample proof of that, as does the history of the Russian Church. Its autocephaly, proclaimed for the first time without prior arrangement in 1393, was disavowed after the Patriarch of Constantinople’s angry reaction, only to be re-established in 1448. However, it received the mother church’s recognition and restored full communication with it only a century later, in 1561. 

Second. There is no way to determine who is right and who is wrong in these controversies, which local church is entitled to have autocephaly (or grant it to another church) and which is not. In particular, there is no way to decide whether the Patriarch of Constantinople has the power to do what he is doing or not. Naturally, all sides involved are citing canon law. 

The only problem is that Orthodox canon law is extremely archaic (largely dating back to the times of Ecumenical Councils), confusing and ambiguous, and there is no generally recognized authority in the Orthodox world that could provide firm, reliable and binding interpretations of this law.

For comparison: Catholics have been working to codify, that is, put together separate norms adopted at different times, resolve contradictions between them, and combine them into something coherent with a common logic since the 12th century. Around 1500, they compiled the Code of Canon Law and adopted it in 1580. In 1917 it was replaced with a universal and systematized Code; in 1983, Pope Paul II approved its new (but hardly last) version. This document (the Latin original of which has been supplemented with official translations in all main languages, including Russian) guides the activities of all structures and hierarchs of the Catholic Church, with the Pope naturally being the highest and unquestionable arbiter of its interpretation, even though his direct interference is a rare occurrence.

Orthodox Christians have always been scornful of this way of conducting church affairs: Romans are obsessed with legalism, jurisdiction and dead letter, but we adhere to collegiality and the spirit of brotherly love which render unnecessary the lifeless mechanics and technics of Catholicism. True, the primacy of love over law is an attractive idea and without a doubt conforms to the spirit of Christianity. The New Testament contains many such examples, and it is not accidental that Metropolitan Hilarion defended it so ardently in his famous “The Word about Law and Grace” (middle of the 11th century). Nowadays one cannot but see the “overwhelming brotherly love” sweeping over Ukraine, Russia, and the entire Orthodox world in the absence of firm canonical norms, rules, and generally recognized authority to interpret and enforce them. For example, the adjective “ecumenical” in the title of the Patriarch of Constantinople, recognized by all other Orthodox Churches, can be interpreted differently as having all sorts of connotations from purely symbolic to the literal ones presupposing unconditional subordination of all other sees. In the hodgepodge of unsystematized church regulations one can find arguments in support of any point of view, each of which will be just as weighty as all the others.

But this can go too far. Logically speaking, the Patriarch of Alexandria can also invoke his title as “Judge of the Universe.” He will only need sufficient resources and a proper occasion to back up his claims. This is just fantasizing, of course (at least for now), but Christianity without a doubt came to Rus from Byzantium, the Russian autocephaly was granted by Constantinople and so was the patriarchal status of the Metropolitan See of Moscow. The Patriarchate of Constantinople may as well revise those decisions, too. Why not? Such hints and threats are inevitable and they can already be heard. In fact, anything is possible in love, for love knows no obstacles, including those of common sense.

One cannot but recall long preparations for an All-Orthodox Council which was expected to adopt the rules of granting autocephaly for the entire Orthodox world to abide by. The Council took place in Crete in June 2016. But a few weeks before its opening, four local Churches (Antiochian, Georgian, Bulgarian, and Russian) had refused to participate, each for its own reason. So Russian Orthodox Church hierarchs’ references to a document titled “Autocephaly and the Way in Which It Is to Be Proclaimed,” approved by the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission in November 1993, look unconvincing, for it was no more than an expert opinion that was never adopted conciliarly.

The following quote winding up the aforementioned reflections is big enough, but its use is justified not only by its accuracy but also by its authorship. “All commentators who write about certain actions being canonical or uncanonical fall into a trap. The issue of canonicity (legality) can only be raised when there is a system of law which includes not only the legal code but also the law-enforcement practice as well as the bodies that supervise the enforcement of law. Appeals to canons in the absence of such a system are no more than attempts to justify lawlessness … Conflicts between Churches cannot be resolved within the framework of church-wide canon law (because there is none). There are two scenarios for resolving bilateral conflicts: a) the victory of one sovereign over another (when one force is vastly superior to another), in which case one party loses its sovereignty and recognizes the supreme power of the other party; b) a compromise expressed in the form of an agreement between the parties. However this does not mean that this agreement cannot be broken because there is no authority that would oversee its implementation. In the absence of inter-Church law, it is pointless to appeal to agreements made 300 years ago because their only guarantors are the wills of the two sovereign sides.” This is the opinion of Andrei Shishkov, Secretary of the Synodal Biblical and Theological Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church, which he has expressed with regard to the situation in Ukraine.

Third. Reorganizations of church structures have always depended heavily on political configurations and transformations. In fact, the decision to raise the status of archbishops of Constantinople to the level of patriarch was prompted by the transfer of the empire’s center to the East. Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon (451 A.D.) says: “…the city which is honored by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equaling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her.” Interestingly, the same logic was retroactively extended to “older Rome” to which “fathers rightly accorded prerogatives” since “that is an imperial city.” However Pope Leo I firmly rejected this logic and justified the special status of his see without appealing to political matters but by tracing it to Apostle Peter rather than Caesar. But his objections had no weight for Eastern Christians. The tradition was established and continued until the era of nation states. For example, the autocephaly of the Greek Church was proclaimed in 1833 after, and solely due to, the creation of the independent Kingdom of Greece not even by the church but by the state, namely, the regency council (composed of three Bavarians) under young King Otto I of the House of Wittelsbach, a born Bavarian.

It took seventeen years for Constantinople to recognize the Greek autocephaly, but eventually it did. The present Ukrainian case fits into the same nation-building logic. It was solely for the purpose of encouraging the nation-building process that the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was created in the spring of 1920, when Simon Petlyura’s troops took Kiev for one last time. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev patriarchate was established in the early 1990s for the same purpose. These projects had little success, but this did not reverse the general trend, and new attempts to revive them had to be expected. They have been made now, thus reaffirming the centuries-old pattern whereby Eastern Orthodox Church forms follow political ones. The text of the Patriarchal and Synodal Tomos issued by Constantinople on January 5, 2019, does not contain any arguments in support of autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, except that “the most devout and divinely-protected country of Ukraine has been fortified and magnified by heavenly providence, while also acquiring comprehensive political independence.” Its “identical and accurate copies” were delivered (presumably on equal terms) to “His Beatitude Epiphanius, the Primate of the Most Holy Church of Ukraine” and to “His Excellency the President of Ukraine, Mr. Petro Poroshenko.”




Now we can move on to politics proper. The motives of the two actors—Patriarch Bartholomew I and President Poroshenko—who have upset the fragile equilibrium maintained in Ukrainian Orthodoxy over the past quarter of a century or so are absolutely clear, have been described many times, and are quite trivial. The former had been waiting for a convenient occasion probably even more than one could expect. The latter could not wait any longer—presidential elections were nearing but no visible success had been achieved in building and consolidating the Ukrainian political nation. What could be more logical than presenting the long-awaited establishment of a national Church as such a success? Even the most mediocre spin doctor would have given such advice. Actually, one does not need any spin doctor to put two and two together.

What’s next? Driven by opportunistic considerations and trapped in a dubious situation like this, church hierarchs can act differently and stay with the Moscow Patriarchate or switch sides. There is no way to tell what the other Orthodox Churches and their heads may do. Most probably, they will try to avoid taking sides as long as possible. And why should they be asking for trouble? 

The fate of Ukrainian Orthodoxy will be decided by rank and file Orthodox Ukrainians because the Church, and especially its Orthodox Church, is not an army or a state, and offers much more freedom. The real authority of hierarchs depends on their formal status indirectly (and often very little), and there is no such thing as “a vertical of power” or church discipline as it is commonly understood.

Naturally, Ukraine is facing a period of acute internal church conflicts: churches and monasteries will change hands many times, most probably violently (as has so often happened in Ukraine before and just recently too). One can only guess what methods will be used to force the brethren out of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra or the Pochaev Lavra, but regrettably we will most likely see this happening in front of our eyes quite soon. There is no doubt that a considerable part of Orthodox believers will remain with the “Moscow” Church, and most certainly nothing will change in the territories around Donetsk and Lugansk which Kiev does not control. But sober-minded insiders in the Moscow Patriarchate are rather pessimistic: “Bartholomew will win, Kirill will lose.”

The rejection of Moscow in all spheres of life has reached a critical level in Ukraine. The Church of Constantinople is generally perceived as a culturally “Western” church, not without reason. Constantinople is backed by numerous Greek and Ukrainian diasporas in the U.S. and Canada, with their substantial financial resources and means of influence. Their attitude towards modern Russia is also quite clear. The Moscow Patriarch, although he is the head of the largest Orthodox Church, is often regarded in the rest of the Orthodox world as a barbarian and upstart, who has happened to be in the same line with the heads of old patriarchates (Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian patriarchs, who acquired their titles even later, dare not claim any place among them) by a sheer quirk of history. The Church judges history in its own way and remembers quite well how Moscow fought for the patriarchate, using bribery and strong pressure, which included the home confinement of Patriarch Jeremias of Constantinople ordered by Boris Godunov. In addition, the Patriarchate of Constantinople for centuries received support from the Russian Church and the Russian authorities, demanded and begged for their gifts and handouts. Hatred towards those on whom one depends or depended in the past is a rather common and psychologically understandable phenomenon. A combination of these circumstances with guaranteed support from the Ukrainian authorities and inevitable pressure from radical political forces, which have an even more limited range of means than the authorities, makes the division of Ukrainian Orthodoxy and defection of its considerable part “from Moscow” practically predetermined.

To some observers the situation appears to be absolutely clear: Ukraine is on its way into a family of civilized nations, while Russia and personally President Putin are going to suffer a defeat. But this is a superficial view. As for Ukraine, common sense does not allow one to regard further chaotization of the country and an inevitable upsurge in violence as a step towards civilization. One civil war, albeit a low-grade one, is already underway in Ukraine. Poroshenko has started another war, an all-out one this time, with no clear geographic boundaries (for example, the Pochaev Lavra is located in the Ternopol region in the west of Ukraine). 

As for Russia, political ramifications of these seemingly peripheral events may prove to be truly (and at first sight disproportionately) massive. Until now the mismatching borders of the Russian state and the Russian Church have been the main constraint in their relations. How much they mismatch each other is rarely realized even though only slightly more than a half of the Moscow Patriarchate’s 36,000 parishes are located within the Russian Federation. One third of them are in Ukraine, and those parishes are quite large and rich, they consist of devout believers, not just nominal church-goers. The anguish from the future loss, which is already felt in Moscow quite strongly, is caused by this peculiarity of Ukrainian Orthodoxy just as much as by an inevitable decrease in revenue.




The Moscow Patriarchate is often equated with the Russian Orthodox Church, but they are not synonymous. These are two different entities. For example, there is no Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. There is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate also includes the Japanese, Chinese, Latvian, Estonian, and Belarusian Orthodox Churches, the Orthodox Church of Moldova, the Kazakhstani and Central Asian metropolitan districts, and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

The fact that the Russian Church is much bigger than the Russian state largely determines the high degree of the former’s autonomy from the latter. True, a merger of the church and the state, and the creation of some “Orthodox totalitarianism” on this basis as a substitute for communist ideology has long become a nightmare for the liberal public (mainly anti-clerical), the biggest part of which feels affronted even by the mere sight of an Orthodox priest. But until recently this merger was just a fantasy.

It is quite symptomatic (for an obsession) that the same people accuse the church of servility to the state and the state of servility to the church. But it does not work that way: if one of the partners serves, the other one dominates, or vice versa, but one cannot do both at the same time. Indeed, the church and the state have a friendly relationship, they are partners (why should they not be?), but no more than that. There is virtually no mutual influence in the strict meaning of this word. In fact, there is not a single example proving that the Russian Orthodox Church (or the Moscow Patriarchate) has lobbied for a more or less significant political decision or prevented one. And there is not a single example of the state’s even indirect, let alone direct, interference in church affairs. It was not allowed.

The Moscow Patriarchate has emphasized and maintained its transnational character even when the political situation and state interests prompted the opposite. In 2009, during his first foreign trip after enthronization (made, naturally, to Ukraine), Patriarch Kirill had to respond to a question from a journalist who asked whether he had come on the Kremlin’s political mission. Visibly gritting his teeth, the patriarch replied: “I am not a patriarch of the Russian Federation. I am a patriarch of the Universal Church.” After the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008, the Orthodox Church of South Ossetia asked to be admitted into Moscow’s jurisdiction (it seceded from Tbilisi’s jurisdiction in 2005 and found doubtful shelter in one of the unrecognized Greek Churches) but received a firm negative answer justified by the inviolability of the Georgian Church’s canonical rights (the status quo ante bellum is still observed in church affairs in the region, which is not the case in political, economic, and other spheres). In 2014, despite expectations, Patriarch Kirill refrained as long as he could from making any comments on the Crimean events, even though the incorporation of the Kherson cradle of Russian Orthodoxy into Russia should have filled him with enthusiasm. But even when he could no longer keep silent, his remarks were very cautious, certainly more cautious than the triumphant speeches delivered by government officials. Undoubtedly, the reason for such cautiousness was the unwillingness to lose the Moscow Patriarchate’s large flock of believers in Ukraine. As a matter of fact, after the reincorporation of Crimea, its eparchies subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate remained within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, that is, they continue to be governed from Kiev, not from Moscow, and there is no indication that this situation may change any time soon as the standard political logic would require. Patriarch Kirill’s meeting with Pope Francis (the first ever in the history of the two Churches) in 2016 looked quite surprising, too, amid the growing anti-Western sentiments in Russia. It was held in a very warm atmosphere and confused many Russian Orthodox believers who usually view Catholics as archenemies.

Ukraine’s departure will change the situation fundamentally. The shrinking of the Moscow Patriarchate almost to the borders of the Russian Federation (all its other parts are less important in terms of quality and quantity than Ukraine) will undermine its autonomy dramatically and push the patriarchate, that is, its administrative center, into the embrace of the state. The state, which is experiencing an increasingly growing deficit of legitimacy, will most likely embrace it willingly. In fact, the old problem of insufficient diffuse legitimacy has now been compounded with the lack of specific, situational, legitimacy. The unavoidable start of really painful reforms has forced President Putin for the first time to assume full personal responsibility for the severance of the social contract which ensured political stability for almost twenty years, and the consequences followed immediately. Trust ratings, focus group polls and the unexpected results of the autumn elections in some Russian regions reveal the nature of those consequences quite clearly.  

If such a rapprochement occurs, the creation of a mandatory ideology based on Orthodoxy may turn from a fantasy into reality. In this case the enemies of the church will become the enemies of the state and vice versa. Clerics will pervade education and culture entirely, not just symbolically or sporadically. This will be followed by the adoption of clear-cut censorship criteria for the public space and many other changes, making the difference between a simulacrum and reality quite palpable to the critics of the current situation. The state itself, defined by the constitution as democratic, republican, federative, law-governed, and secular, will get a strong and convincing argument for revising all or part of these provisions which cause so much inconvenience.




There once was a period of complete church isolation in the history of Russia from 1448 to 1561, when Moscow had severed ties not only with Constantinople but also with Kiev. It was a dual schism: unlike Moscow, Orthodox believers in Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (also defined by many historians as the Russo-Lithuanian state) broke all ties with Moscow and resumed communication with Constantinople after it had renounced the decree of union signed in Florence. Metropolitans of Kiev and All Russia were once again appointed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, and metropolitans of Moscow and All Russia, by a Council of Bishops (with the active participation of Russian grand princes and later tsars). But that isolation was not only religious but also cultural and political. The concept of Moscow as the Third Rome was conceived at that time due to the sudden realization that Russian politics was tragically and existentially lonely.

Something similar may occur now, too. The confrontation with the West, of which Russian society becomes increasingly tired, as the latest public opinion polls indicate, requires a more convincing value base to go on. And here it is, ready for use. Some ultra-patriots have already branded Patriarch Bartholomew I as “a NATO henchman” and moved on to expose “liberal Orthodox” “minions of the Western civilization” who, as they claim, have made their way into the “church and power establishment.” Meanwhile, patriarchal sees are determined to go all the way to the bitter end in their standoff. It has not been reached yet and a communication breakdown, even a Eucharistic one, is not identical to anathema. And yet, such a radical step no longer seems impossible. 

However attempts to nationalize the church and clericalize the state will inevitably run into serious constraints. As far as one can judge, people, even nominally Orthodox, will hardly appreciate it if their life will become subject to tight state-church regulation. It is easy to imagine the reaction to anti-abortion measures which will simply have to be placed at the top of the agenda in this case. Active Orthodox believers—the church in its entirety, far from being monolithic and with no strict discipline—will hardly welcome the transformation of the Russian Orthodox Church into a “Department of Orthodox Confession.” The church is very critical of its Synodal period and views it as “imprisonment by the state.” It almost rejoiced at the collapse of that system in 1917, feeling no special regret about the fall of Orthodox monarchy—the tsar’s armchair (which had always been empty) was literally carried out of the Holy Synod meeting room by metropolitans themselves. The clericalization of the public sphere may not be comfortable for elite groups either. Originally, monk Philotheus’ concept of Moscow as the Third Rome did not pursue any political goals (this interpretation appeared later and was not made by the church) but meant the tsar’s special responsibility for maintaining the purity of Orthodox faith and applied high moral requirements to him and his entourage. The Russian elite’s readiness to meet these requirements raises serious doubts.  

Moreover, the politicization of the Russian Orthodox Church can assume some unexpected forms, hardly desirable for those who see it as a solution to the issue of state legitimacy. The appearance on the political stage of an actor of such scale and credibility (the latest VTsIOM surveys have reaffirmed that it is second only to that of the army, is slightly above the president’s credibility and by far exceeds the level of trust towards all the other state and public institutions) will seriously change the alignment of forces. Moreover, one must remember that the legislative ban on the creation of political parties based on religion is weak and can easily be bypassed (it is quite possible that recent rumors about some Orthodox patriotic party with Deputies Natalia Poklonskaya and Sergei Zheleznyak as its public mouthpieces were just an attempt to probe the ground, preposterous as it is). The ban on the nomination of clerics for elected positions in all countries and at all levels, imposed by the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (adopted in 2000) similarly to state regulations, was waived in 2010 for situations where it is “necessary to oppose forces… seeking to use elected positions for confronting the Orthodox Church,” an exception which can be interpreted most broadly. Real political power is not wielded by legislative bodies alone, particularly in Russia, which are just mentioned in the Basis of the Social Concept; the question of clerics’ potential claims to other political positions is discussed but has not been finally settled yet. One must also remember that Archbishop Makarios of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus successfully combined (from 1959 to 1977) his priestly service with the position of a democratically elected president of Cyprus; and that the position of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia is after all the only position in the country whose legitimacy is fully autonomous from the state, immaculate, and on top of it all perpetual. That his power is not inherently political is of little importance, because power resources and capital of various origins can quickly be converted into each other under certain circumstances, with minimal losses. 

Mounting isolationist tendencies in Russian politics, the growing restrictiveness of the Russian political regime and its further consolidation remain the most probable and most serious consequences of the Ukrainian church turmoil, which were hardly planned by its masterminds and which hardly serve their interests. However internal pressure in an isolated and sealed space, which thus protects itself from external impacts, is rising. In the absence of relief valves prepared in advance this may be dangerous.

A Thorny Path of Ukrainian Orthodoxy
Vladislav Petrushko
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.