Spotlight on Ukraine 8

Is There a Russian Church in Ukraine?

by Andriy Fert 27/05/2024

After years of close communion, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared its independence from the Patriarchate of Moscow on 27 May 2022. Interviews with members of this church now confirm that ‘pro-Russian’ attitudes are still present in the parishes. How genuine was the separation?

The Metropolitan of Kyiv and Ukraine Onufriy in the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, which was damaged by Russian bombs in July 2023. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

In a park beneath the trees stands a church with onion domes. It is a typical church for Ukraine: nothing stands out, from the standard set of icons inside to the small Ukrainian flag on the wall, from the parish announcements in Ukrainian to the priest saying a prayer for Ukraine’s victory in the war with Russia. And yet, Google Maps reminds visitors that this is a parish of the ‘Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine’.

Officially called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) but also known as the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and even the ‘FSB church’ (a reference to Russia’s Federal Security Service), this religious organisation was – and, according to the Ukrainian government, still is – part of the Russian church, one of the pillars of the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church

The UOC had long been in church communion with the Patriarchate of Moscow and was considered an important link between Russia and Ukraine. This has increasingly become a security policy problem, as Russia has used the church as an instrument of hybrid warfare since 2014.

Shortly after Russia launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the UOC declared itself ‘fully independent’ from Moscow on 27 May 2022. Yet, many of the church’s priests have doubted the sincerity of that move, as did many state officials. There has been a surge of investigations into prominent clerics, not to mention reports by journalists into how Russia used Ukrainian church media to spread disinformation. And even within the church, the church leadership is ambivalent about the Russian war.

On the second anniversary of its independence from Moscow, the UOC appears increasingly pro-Russia in the eyes of the Ukrainian public. Some prominent speakers go so far as to call all clerics and believers in that church ‘pro-Russia’ and accuse them of ‘supporting Putin’ and ‘wishing to be part of the Russian world’.

Pro-Russia people in the church

‘How many people in our church do you think are pro-Russia?’ one senior priest asked me as part of a series of in-depth anonymous interviews and conversations I have been conducting with clerics and parishioners of the UOC, before blurting out, ‘Forty per cent.’ He calculated that number by asking priests in his dioceses if they wanted to break away from the Russian church’s jurisdiction. Those who did not were, in his opinion, pro-Russia.

It is impossible for an outside researcher to survey clerics via official diocesan networks, so there is no way to verify these results. Yet, virtually every respondent I have interviewed mentioned people with ‘pro-Russia views’ whom they know personally, either in their church or in nearby parishes.

In one church, ‘ruskomirni’, or supporters of the ‘Russian world’, as the rector called them, left the parish in 2022 because they disagreed with the rector’s condemnation of the Russian patriarch Kirill. ‘Half of our parish left,’ a local parishioner confided in me. As another parishioner pointed out, they now belonged to the parish several blocks away, where the rector is known for his ‘love of Russia’.

Another parish has seen a similar exodus. Yet, there are enough pro-Russia parishioners left to exasperate those who consider themselves pro-Ukraine or patriots. In one such religious community, according to a local parishioner, ‘old people are all like that’: they block any attempts to introduce the Ukrainian language, as opposed to Church Slavonic, into religious services and doubt whether the Russian invasion is really happening.

What it means to be pro-Russia

Whenever respondents used the label ‘pro-Russia’, I asked them to develop their understanding of what that concept meant. And it turns out to be a fairly vague term that describes a range of practices and attitudes. The most obvious marker of ‘pro-Russia attitudes’, brought up by several respondents, was denial of the Russian aggression. One man listed remarks he had heard from his fellow parishioners, such as ‘Russia was provoked into starting the war’ or ‘Ukraine shells its own citizens’. According to another man, some parishioners find it hard to admit that Russia invaded Ukraine; some of them left the parish because the rector called Russia an aggressor in his sermon. It is impossible to corroborate these claims, as parishioners are reluctant to discuss such matters with outsiders, for it is a criminal offence under Ukrainian law to deny the Russian aggression.

Another sentiment that respondents deemed to be pro-Russia is alienation. As one parishioner described it, ‘many people feel estranged from the state’. They grew up on narratives that called the Russian nation ‘people chosen by God’ and saw Russian culture as the apex of civilisation. As a result, according to one priest, many people feel no connection with Ukraine. It should be noted, however, that these narratives of Russian superiority and Ukrainian inferiority did not necessarily originate in the church but mostly date back to Soviet propaganda and beyond.

There is also a group of people in the church who, as one priest pointed out, ‘do not deny Russian aggression but believe that there should be one church [for Russians and Ukrainians]’. These people appeal to history, saying that there has always been one church for these two nations since the introduction of Christianity in Kyivan Rus in the Middle Ages (this is not true, to put it mildly). Some appeal to saints who allegedly urged Ukrainians to never break with the Russian church.

Finally, there are ‘pro-Russia’ people who, according to one cleric, ‘believe that Ukraine is moving in the wrong direction, as if there exists some request from the world financial elite and Western countries to destroy traditional Christian values and Orthodoxy […] they have a negative attitude to the Ukrainian idea because they believe that Ukraine gives itself to the West […] they are scared of what the Russians are doing, but they think it could be worse with the West’.

A changing church?

In the church with the onion domes, the priest tells me how he is gradually introducing the Ukrainian language for religious services to engage more young people in prayer. We talk about his church being called Russian, and with a sad smile he admits he understands why people think this way: the church leaders have failed to properly communicate their break from Moscow and have fallen short of enforcing that independence. Yet, the priest confesses that sometimes people demand too much too quickly. ‘My church changes, but gradually, and that is the only way the changes might have a chance to live.’

Pro-Russia people and ideas stand in the way of change, according to many respondents. But sometimes, the church’s regular members and outsiders understand the meaning of ‘pro-Russia’ very differently. In any event, the shadow of the Russian church – be it in the form of people defining themselves and others as pro-Russia or not pro-Russia, or outsiders calling the church Russian – seems to be haunting Ukrainian parishes.

Andriy Fert is a lecturer at the Kyiv School of Economics and a non-resident fellow at the Ukraine Research Network@ZOiS, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.