Putin’s war with the Church

  • Themes: Russia

You can’t separate the Ukrainian – Russian war from the region’s historical struggles over Orthodox Christianity. The Russian state is using every tool in its arsenal, including aggressively clamping down on those who disagree with its stance on the Church.

The colourful frescoed vault in small crypt of St Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.
The colourful frescoed vault in small crypt of St Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Credit: eFesenko / Alamy Stock Photo.

Ukraine’s Christian history offers us a necessary insight to fully understand why for Putin this is a religious war. His speech on February 21 claimed that recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics was necessary to protect the Orthodox Church, which he asserted Ukraine was bent on destroying. These claims are not mere rhetoric, but a fundamental aspect of the current conflict. Ukraine’s Christian history offers us a necessary insight to fully understand this war.

Orthodox Christianity is the majority religion in Ukraine, and is structured differently to the Catholic Church. Unlike Catholicism, where all authority is centralised in the pope, the Orthodox worldwide communion is broken into a number of autocephalous, that is to say self-governing, churches.

Often, but not always, the heads of churches are given the title ‘patriarch.’ As a result, we have Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox ChurchPatriarch Daniel of the Romanian Orthodox Church, and so forth. These individual, self-governing churches are equal and fully independent. Only a council of all churches together can make any sort of change for the entire Orthodox communion.

In addition, there is one patriarch, who, due to his position, and for historical reasons, is seen as ‘first among equals’, who is often seen as a unifying and leading figure, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.  

Christianity has a long history in Ukraine. According to the tradition from the Primary Chronicle, a main source in the history of the East Slavs, it came to Kyivan Rus’, the medieval state seen as the forerunner of both contemporary Ukraine and Russia, in 988, when it was formally adopted by Prince Vladimir in Kyiv.

Over time, the balance of power shifted from Kyiv to Moscow, eventually leading to the formation of the Moscow Over time, the balance of power shifted from Kyiv to Moscow, eventually leading to the formation of the Moscow Patriarchate, which became essentially autocephalous in 1448. It was not recognised by other Orthodox Churches until 1589. The territories that today make up Ukraine were largely under Russian control: In the seventeenth century, Orthodox Ukrainian believers were under the Moscow Patriarchate.

However, there have been distinct moments when Church members have looked for greater independence from Moscow. Most recently, following the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of an independent Ukraine, two main groups, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP), emerged with the goal of providing a self-governing church for Ukrainians. Then, neither of these groups were recognised by any other Orthodox Church, and they remained in an irregular state.

The Moscow Patriarchate recognised this threat to its authority in Ukraine. As a result, its presence in the country is now known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) – a so-called autonomous church. This distinction means that the UOC-MP has a great deal of freedom in regard to governance, but was not afforded full independence.

This uneasy status quo held for a while. Then, calls for Ukraine’s own Church rang out strongly in the period following the Maidan protests and Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Donbas and its subsequent illegal annexation of Crimea. Gaining an autocephalous Church was seen as a key indicator of Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, allowing the country to no longer be beholden to an institution with such deep ties to the Russian state.

In late 2018 and early 2019, this goal was achieved. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted autocephaly to what is now known as the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This process has allowed members of previously unrecognised Orthodox groups such as the UOC-KP and the UAOC to unite and enter into full communion with other Orthodox Churches around the world.

The Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian state, however, saw this as an act of aggression. In response, Moscow has broken communion with Constantinople, creating the largest schism within Orthodoxy in recent centuries. The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest in the world: this schism has the potential to break the global Orthodox communion in half.

Since the Orthodox Church of Ukraine gained autocephaly, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian state have conducted a wide-scale campaign – through official statements, actions, and the media – to discredit the new institution in the eyes of Ukrainians and Russians alike.

Patriarch Kirill’s fealty to and dependence on the Vladimir Putin has resulted in his unwillingness to stand up for his flock in Ukraine. The word ‘war’ has not entered his official statements on the conflict.

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the UOC-MP, has called directly for Putin to end the war and labelled the violence as a ‘repetition of Cain’s sin.’ The UOC-MP appears to have been largely abandoned by the Moscow Patriarchate.

In addition to its Orthodox majority, Ukraine is also home to a sizable Catholic population. Most of Ukraine’s Catholics are members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – which differs from Roman Catholic churches. For example, it conducts the liturgy in a manner similar to Orthodox churches, rather than in Catholic Mass. Equally, it is in full communion with the pope, and its believers are integral members of the Catholic Church.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), both in Ukraine and in the diaspora, has been a strong defender and preserver of Ukrainian national culture, language, and identity. During the Soviet period, the state liquidated the Church, seizing its land and property, giving it to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Since the Soviet Union dissolved, the Church has undergone a revival and has been a critical partner in the building of Ukrainian civil society. Both the Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church, however, see the UGCC as a Trojan horse, allowing a Western foothold into the country that, in their interpretation, threatens both Orthodox and Russian values and interests.

This continued dispute over religious jurisdiction has been a key element in Russia’s animosity against Ukraine. Putin’s speech declaring he will fight to defend the Orthodox Church demonstrates the extent to which this war is now a religious war.


Jacob Lassin