Is the Kremlin’s “Orthodox World” Breaking Up?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on June 5 to the Russian World Affairs Council in Moscow, claimed that the West has intervened in Ukraine’s internal affairs as part of a larger offensive against the world of Russian Orthodoxy.  The United States and the West, despite living in a multicultural world, are determined to “impose Western values on everyone.”  Thus they have pushed Ukraine into a conflict with Russia because of the latter’s return to its “traditional spiritual values,” namely those connected with the Russian Orthodox Church.

According to Paul Goble, an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, Lavrov’s remarks reflect assumptions held by President Vladimir Putin and others in Russia’s leadership that a “clash of civilizations” is taking place between the worlds of Western Christianity and Russian-led Eastern Christianity.  This clash of civilizations poses a direct threat to the dominance of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In southeastern Ukraine, where most Christians belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, those supporting the region’s separation from Ukraine have emphasized the significance of this civilizational divide.  Archpriest Andrei Novikov, who had to leave his Odessa parish, is one such example.  Writing for a Moscow-based Russian Orthodox news portal on June 4, he said that Russian forces needed to win the conflict in Ukraine.  The Ukrainian crisis is part of a broader struggle between Russian Orthodox and the dark forces of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Ukrainian Orthodox movements Novikov calls “schismatic.”  Failure to win this war would lead to the war in Ukraine coming “to Russia itself”.

Such claims that the Moscow Patriarchate is in a state of siege is understandable.  Up to 43 percent of its parishioners live in Ukraine, and while they do not contribute to the Patriarchate’s treasury, their numbers add prestige to the Russian Orthodox Church, making it the largest branch of Eastern Orthodoxy in the world.

Patriarch Kirill has recently suggested that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is seriously testing the Russian Orthodox world.  In a June 17 address to parishioners, he condemned the violence in eastern Ukraine that has so far produced hundreds of deaths, referring to it as “war of fratricide” (mizhusobna viyna) that has only benefited outside powers interested in subjugating the Orthodox “Fatherland” (Vitchyzna).  “I appeal to all the powers that be: end the bloodshed immediately and begin real negotiations for establishing peace and justice,” he said.  “In a war of fratricide, no victors, no political victories can be of greater value than human life.”  Patriarch Kirill made clear his church’s position on the conflict.  The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, as the church of “one indivisible Rus,” “cannot divide God’s people by political, national, social, or other criteria.”  He said, “The Church carries out the mission given to it by the Lord Jesus Christ, and not the orders or requests of this or that political power”.

Patriarch Kirill’s June 17 statement suggests that the Russian Orthodox world has become uncomfortable with this clash of civilizations suggested by Lavrov and others.  Yevstratii Zoria, Bishop of Chernihiv for the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, has suggested its explosive potential.  Commenting on Facebook on June 18 about Patriarch Kirill’s statement, he said that Patriarch Kirill was sending an important signal to President Putin.  The Patriarch was asserting, however cautiously, that the Russian Orthodox Church is looking after its own interests, including the substantial numbers of followers it has in Ukraine, and that it was not entirely beholden to President Putin.  In referring to the conflict in Ukraine as a “war of fratricide,” he hinted that this was more about a conflict between Kyiv and Moscow than a civil war within Ukraine.  In other words, Patriarch Kirill is beginning to hedge his bets and distance his church from the Kremlin.

Patriarch Kirill’s distancing himself from this war in defense of Russian Orthodoxy is not entirely surprising.  Journalist Nikolai Mitrokhin, commenting on the Patriarch’s absence from the official ceremony celebrating Crimea joining Russia in late March, emphasized that the Moscow Patriarchate has been quite aware of the dangers it faces if it alienates its followers in Ukraine.  Since 1992, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has enjoyed autonomy within the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Its synod in Kyiv deals with administrative and personnel issues entirely on its own.  Since the Orange Revolution of 2004, a faction within the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – what Mitrokhin calls a “Ukrainian party” – has emerged, favoring greater independence from Moscow and distancing themselves from older clergy, particularly those from southeastern Ukraine, who have expressed greater sympathy for a restoration of the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire.  This “Ukrainian party” has enjoyed the support of the main mass of the church’s followers who have developed a sense of belonging to one nation-state after over twenty years of independence.

During the Euromaidan protests, leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine were compelled to support President Viktor Yanukovych, who supported them financially.  Yet a significant portion of their church hierarchy and apparatus either secretly or openly expressed their solidarity with the protests.  Its leaders have spoken out against Russian aggression in Ukraine.  Metropolitan Onufriy, currently acting on behalf of Metropolitan Volodymyr, who has been incapacitated, made a number of passionate appeals to Patriarch Kirill and President Putin, demanding that Russia stop its military operations in Crimea.  Other figures in Ukraine’s Moscow Patriarchate, including Lviv’s Bishop Filaret, have done the same.

Mitrokhin, reflecting on Patriarch Kirill’s distancing himself from celebrations over Crimea’s annexation, concluded that the “Russian World” (Russkii Mir) project – one celebrating a civilization united by the values of Russian Orthodoxy – has failed.

Considering the Ukrainian Moscow Patriarchate’s position on Ukrainian statehood, the Euromaidan protests, and the war with Russia, Patriarch Kirill had to condemn this “war of fratricide” between brother Orthodox peoples.  Thus the Russian Orthodox civilization touted by Foreign Minister Lavrov is showing serious signs of possible disintegration.  Patriarch Kirill may be trying to stop the Moscow Patriarchate from losing its followers in Ukraine, but in the process, he is already facing the risk of colliding with the likes of Lavrov and Putin.  The clash of civilizations portrayed by Lavrov thus distracts us from more serious fissures between Russian Orthodoxy and the Kremlin that may get worse as the “war of fratricide” becomes even bloodier.

William Risch,

Associate Professor of History at Georgia College