In Ukraine, the Future of the Russian Orthodox Church is at Stake

Tr@nsit Online

When President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea as a part of Russia on Tuesday, 18th March, 2014 in a pompous speech televised directly from the Kremlin, Patriarch Kirill was missing from the audience. He had sent a substitute. His absence was noticed by all observers, and it was interpreted as a sign that the Moscow Patriarchate was taking a distance from the politics of the government. It is hard to judge, from today’s perspective, what strategy the Patriarch of Moscow will pursue with regard to Putin’s politics towards Ukraine and whether his absence from the presidential speech was a sign of friction or of silent consent. But what can be said for sure is that in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church’s approach to pluralism is at stake.

In Ukraine, the Future of the Russian Orthodox Church is at Stake
Praying clergy of Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) during Euromaidan protests, Kyiv, January 21, 2014.


The beginning of 2012 in Russia was marked by widespread street protests against the results of the Duma-election of December 4th, 2011, judged by the protesters and international observers to have been marred by fraud and violations. In an interview on state-television on the Orthodox Christmas Day, Patriarch Kirill urged the Kremlin to be sensitive to the protesters’ demands. Kirill said that it was the task of the Church to remain neutral in political matters: “Among our congregation are both the people who were at the demonstration and those that were speaking out against them, therefore the word of the Church cannot be politicized,” he said.

But the Patriarch’s proclaimed neutrality in political matters did not last very long into the year 2012. President Putin was re-elected to the presidency of the Russian Federation on March 4th, 2012. Patriarch Kirill supported him during his presidential campaign. He even called the 12 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule a “miracle of God”. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the official voice of a faction of hardliners inside the Patriarchate, declared that the Russian Orthodox model of civil society was a conflict-free, family-like organic unity between the state and the people. And Patriarch Kirill said, on February 2, 2012, that “Orthodox believers don’t go to demonstrations”, but pray in silence for the future of the Russian people.

The close connection between Patriarch and President became the subject of the protest of the Pussy Riot punk-group. There is evidence that the Pussy Riot scandal had a decisive influence on the way in which civil protest came to be seen inside the Church. Believers divided themselves on the question how the event was to be interpreted: as an act of blasphemy that needed to be punished, or as an act of foolishness that should be pardoned. And there were even voices who agreed with the critical message of the “punk-prayer”. Dmitry Uzlaner has shown that the trial against three members of the group has contributed to a definition of the “warring factions” inside Russian society: patriotic Russian Orthodox believers on one side, and “militant secularist”, liberal, “Western-agents”-protesters on the other side. The category of the Orthodox believer, Uzlaner points out, was constructed through the criteria of “offense”, so that only those people came to be seen as properly Orthodox who declared to have been offended by a performance that targeted Putin as much as the Patriarch. As a result, being Orthodox and being pro-Putin became two very similar things. Patriarch Kirill did nothing to complicate this picture, and Putin himself did everything to confirm it. Since 2012, his party has manufactured one social conservative law after the other, demonstrating full alignment of the government with the moral vision of the Russian Orthodox Church: the law against the “propaganda of homosexuality”, the law against the offense of religious feelings, or the non-passing of the law on juvenile justice – to name only a few examples.

Russian Orthodox believers critical of Putin, they must have found themselves pretty much abandoned, if not downright excluded during the last two years.

The beginning of 2014 in Ukraine has seen a revolution. Civil protests against a corrupt government and for closer ties with the European Union swept away the Russia-backed president. The months that followed have seen the forceful annexation of Crimea by Russia and civil unrest and violence in the Eastern parts of Ukraine. On March 2nd, 2014, Patriarch Kirill sent a letter to the hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in which he wrote: “The faithful of our Church are people of various political views and beliefs including those who are standing today at the opposite sides of the barricades. The Church does not take a particular side in political struggle.” And on May 6th, 2014, the locum tenens of the Metropolitan See of Kiev (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in communion with Moscow), Metropolitan Onufry of Chernovtsy and Bukovina, made a public statement that “the Church of Christ does not divide her flock on ethnic grounds or the grounds of political preferences. We pray for all regardless of the side of the barricades on which they have found themselves.”

“The Church of Christ does not divide her flock on grounds of political preferences…” – believers in Russia will be interested to hear this message. Is Ukraine teaching the Russian Orthodox Church to become accommodative of a political pluralism inside? Ever since the break-down of the Soviet Union, the Moscow Patriarchate has relied on a friendly Russian state to curtail the social, religious and intellectual pluralism that it finds so threatening. The laws I cited above and the 1997 Law on Religious Freedom are examples for this strategy. Outside Russia, where the Moscow Patriarchate claims jurisdiction over parishes and believers but cannot rely on direct access to lawmakers, it has to come to terms with pluralism.

One can think of many self-interested reasons why the Moscow Patriarchate keeps a cautious neutral stance on the situation in Ukraine. For one, it does not want to force believers to take sides because this would with all likelihood provoke a split inside its Ukrainian branch. One also has to see that the neutrality of the leadership may well be contradicted by conflicts on the ground. But fact is that, in 2012, in Russia, we had people protesting on the streets for fair elections, civic rights and a free and democratic society. The Patriarch’s acknowledgment that Orthodox believers were among those who protested and his pledge of neutrality were extremely short-lived; he changed position within less than a month. In 2014, in Ukraine, we again have people protesting on the streets for fair elections, civic rights and a free and democratic society. Will the Moscow Patriarchate’s acknowledgment that Orthodox believers are on both sides of the barricades in this conflict and the pledge of neutrality be longer-lived this time? If the Moscow Patriarchate maintains a neutral stance in Ukraine, it will send a message to believers inside Russia as well. And this message is that the Russian Orthodox Church can stand with those who defy Putin.

Kristina Stoeckl is a researcher at the University of Vienna and an associate fellow at the IWM (Institute for Human Sciences) in Vienna. She has recently published The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights (2014).

In spring 2015, the IWM will host a research-cluster on „The perils of moralism: Russian Orthodoxy and politics”, which will focus on the year 2012 as a turning point in the relationship between the Orthodox Church and state in Russia.