Orthodox Schism Reveals Political Dynamics in Russia and Ukraine

The Russian Orthodox Church announced on 15 October 2018 that it would break communion with the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, over the decision to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from the Moscow Patriarchate since coming under its control in 1686. The historic schism has implications beyond religious practice as political leadership in Kiev and the Kremlin connected the decision to foreign policy considerations. Amy Fallas argues that the geopolitical dimensions of the Orthodox crisis and the agency of ecclesiastical actors underscores the urgency of paying closer attention to religious diplomacy in the region. 

Amy Fallas
October 24, 2018

On 15 October 2018, the Russian Orthodox Church broke ties with the leader of the Orthodox community, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, over granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate. Since the 1990s, Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) has advanced the cause of Ukrainian autocephaly (independence) and now heads the efforts to forge a national church under the leadership of Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew. The break has been called the largest ecclesiastical schism since the Great Schism that separated Roman Catholics from the Orthodox in 1054 and grants the Ukrainian church independence since coming under Russian control in 1686.  

The decision has fueled anxiety over the state of global Orthodoxy. Leaders from the Bulgarian and Serbian Orthodox churches issued strong statements in opposition to Patriarch Bartholomew, contending that Ukrainian independence will normalize schism and threaten the unity of Orthodox communion. Metropolitan Hilarion, Chairman of External Affairs for the Russian Orthodox Church, called into question the legitimacy of the leadership of the Istanbul-based Patriarchate: “We no longer have a single coordinating center in the Orthodox Church, and we should very clearly realize that the Patriarchate of Constantinople has self-destructed as such.”

Yet the implications of this ecclesiastical crisis extend beyond the religious domain. Both Kiev and the Kremlin hold positions in support or opposition over the issue. In addition to lobbying the Patriarch of Constantinople to secure autocephaly, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also promotes a foreign policy linking church independence to national sovereignty. In an address during Mass prayers in Sofiivska on 14 October, Poroshenko assured parishioners that “An independent church is one of the key elements, a guarantee of the country’s independence.” 

Ahead of the 15 October decision, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was worried about the prospect of schism but affirmed the Russian Federation’s commitment to protecting Russian speakers and “the interests of Orthodox believers.” While 44 percent of Ukrainians worship at Kiev Patriarchate churches, 16 percent still attend churches under the direction of Russian Patriarch Kyril. Since the Kremlin stated its position, speculation about what Moscow may do to protect worshippers at Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine contributes to an already tense diplomatic situation between Russia and Ukraine. 

Simon Tisdale of The Guardian provocatively argues that the Patriarch of Constantinople is in a unique position to challenge the irredentist policies of the Russian Federation since its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Tisdale contends that by allowing for Ukrainian Orthodox independence, Patriarch Bartholomew has been able to disrupt Putin’s vision for territorial expansion in ways international leaders have not: “Bartholomew’s act of defiance is a serious blow for Putin, who has used the Moscow branch’s dominance – it oversees about half of the 300 million-strong Orthodox communion – to bolster his regime’s claim to be the heir to the tsarist imperium.”

The politicized dynamics of schism have not been lost on Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox leaders. Russian Orthodox leadership accused the Patriarch of Constantinople of basing his decision on “senseless and politically motivated decisions.” Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret reproduced a similar argument as President Poroshenko by associating spiritual autonomy with national strength. Last month Patriarch Filaret confided to an American audience “Ukraine has to be a strong nation, with a strong army and a strong spiritual base. Because without this base—which is the Church—the strong nation is not possible.”

The ecclesial fallout between Moscow and Constantinople has immediate ramifications for believers across borders. While religious leaders have called for tolerance as changes take form for both Russian and Ukrainian parishioners, concerns over access to holy sites and changes to religious practice remain. How will Russian worshippers adjust to liturgical changes or being prohibited from attending churches affiliated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Will Ukrainians affiliated with the newly independent Ukrainian Orthodox church have access to one of their pilgrimage sites—the 11th century Kiev Monastery of the Caves— since it is now under the control of a church aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate? How will states intervene in the interest of their nationals, both legally recognized or imagined?  

The magnitude of this religious event should command greater attention from policymakers and stakeholders examining Russian-Ukrainian relations. Embracing the relevance of religious actors and recognizing the political implications of ecclesiastical decision-making is crucial to a fuller understanding of this complex geopolitical theater.

Amy Fallas is a PhD student in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and specializes in Modern Middle East History. She holds an MA in History from Yale University and her research focuses on Christian communities and religious diplomacy in Egypt and Lebanon.