The religious history of Russia and Ukraine are closely tied together. Both countries link their Orthodox Christian heritage to the conversion of the Grand Prince of Kiev in 988. The Russian Orthodox call him St. Vladimir, the Ukrainians call him St. Volodymyr. He was baptized by missionaries from Constantinople, so the Orthodox Christians in Ukraine came under the pastoral leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople. As Kiev was overthrown by the Mongols and Moscow rose in power, the Russian Orthodox Church became more influential in Ukraine. In 1686, after Russia had conquered Ukraine, the Patriarch of Constantinople transferred pastoral responsibility to the Patriarch of Moscow.
For many decades now, Ukrainian Orthodox have sought recognition of their own church, independent of Russia. These efforts had failed, until in 2018, at a council in Kiev, the various churches claiming to be the true Ukrainian Orthodox Church, were formally dissolved and a new Church, electing Patriarch Epifaniy as their leader, was created. In 2019, despite the transfer of pastoral responsibility in 1686, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is regarded as first among equals of Orthodox patriarchs, recognized the new church, claiming he had the authority to do so based on the original spiritual patronage of Constantinople over Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous church (meaning it is self-governed) and independent from the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow denounced the creation of the new church and broke communion with Constantinople over the matter. There remains in Ukraine the Orthodox Church of Ukraine – Moscow Patriarchate, which continues to recognize the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow. Though it is largely self-run as far as internal affairs are concerned, Moscow still must approve its choice of church leader.
All of this plays into the vision of Russia and Ukraine held by the opposing sides. Clearly, the Ukrainians regard themselves as an independent nation, created in 1991, and its independence essential to Ukrainian identity. Clearly, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill regard Ukraine and Russia as essentially one people, who ought to be united by one government and one faith.
In contrast to Kirill’s vision of Russia and Ukraine united in one faith and his relative silence on the war, hundreds of Russian Orthodox clergy have signed a public letter opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At least 284 priests, archpriests, and deacons have signed the letter, with more adding their names daily. Abbot Arseny Sokolov, a representative of Patriarch Kirill, was the first to sign the letter. While Kirill has stated that “evil forces” oppose the reunification of “Russian land” including “Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples,” he has not prevented his clergy from taking public stands against the war or punished them for doing so. In a bizarre statement, Kirill claimed that separatists in eastern Ukraine were protecting the country against the influence of other nations that seek to impose different values from those of the Russian and Ukrainian people, including demands for “gay parades.” Kirill’s statement was roundly condemned by other Orthodox leaders.
The letter signed by the Russian Orthodox clergy communicates not only their opposition to the invasion but a warning to those whose hands are stained with the blood of innocence regarding their judgment when they stand before God. “We mourn the ordeal to which our brothers and sister in Ukraine were undeservedly subjected,” they write. The letter continues: “The Last Judgment awaits every person … No earthly authority, no doctors, no guards will protect from this judgment. Concerned about the salvation of every person who considers himself a child of the Russian Orthodox Church, we do not want him to appear at this judgment, bearing the heavy burden of mother’s curses … We remind you that the Blood of Christ, shed by the Savior for the life of the world, will be received in the sacrament of Communion by those people who give murderous orders, not into life, but into eternal torment.”
Finally, the letter demands plainly, “Stop the war.”
It’s difficult for us in the West, with our tradition of separation of Church and State, to appreciate the close ties between Church and State in many eastern nations. The Russian Orthodox Church was closely tied to the czars of past centuries, and Russian Orthodox suffered terribly during the decades of communist rule. Certainly, Kirill rejoices that the past persecutions are over and that the Russian Church enjoys a certain renewal of privilege and power in the current regime. He is also a Russian who appears to embrace the concept of a “greater Russia” that includes those territories formerly formally aligned with Russia. At the same time, he cannot be unaware of the vagaries of history and that Russia is not immune to the tides of change. Ukraine is no longer part of Russia (or part of Poland, or part of Lithuania, as it was in the past). Ukraine is independent. That is a fact that Kirill ought to accept and employ whatever influence he has over Putin to persuade him to accept. I doubt he has much influence at all, however. There is reasonable concern that, should Kirill aggressively oppose the war, the freedoms and privileges enjoyed by the Russian Orthodox Church would come to a quick end, as might Kirill!
Even still, risk of persecution or even death is not an excuse for silence or inaction. It is inevitable that Putin will seek the blessing of the Russian Church for his conquests. That’s how he rolls. It’s possible even that some anachronistic clergy will look to this invasion as a way to restore Moscow’s religious authority over all Ukrainian Orthodox, destroying the autocephalous Church created in 2019 and blessed by Bartholomew in 2019. If the Russian Orthodox Church caves in to Putin, it will lose more than its moral authority. It will lose its soul.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.