Inter-Orthodox Relations

Church Schisms in Ukraine and Russia: Patriarch Kirill as Comparative Historian

Published on: February 14, 2023
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“Renovationist” leader Alexander Vvedensky

On January 8, 2023, the Sunday after Christmas Day, Patriarch Kirill preached a sermon in the ancient Uspenskii (Dormition) Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. The Patriarch presented a very upbeat view of the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church, which—he said—had not only revived but flourished in the post-Soviet period. He contrasted this with the situation in Ukraine, where the same “madness (besnovanie)” now prevailed as had existed in Russia in the early years after the 1917 revolution, when the Renovationist Church, “artificially created by the Godless authorities,” had seized the church buildings of the true Russian Orthodox Church. In present-day Ukraine, Kirill claimed, a schism (raskol) had arisen that was very reminiscent of the Renovationist schism in post-revolutionary Russia. The two situations were almost identical: in both cases, the power of the state lay behind the schisms; and in both cases the aim was to weaken and destroy the Orthodox Church and to alienate God’s people from it. But just as the Renovationist schism in Russia had vanished without trace, so would the latter-day schismatics in Ukraine, because they were implementing “an evil, diabolical will, destroying Orthodoxy in the Kievan land.” And just as the Soviet leaders who had attacked the Church had perished, so would the present-day authorities in Ukraine.

Why did the Patriarch cite the Renovationist schism as a parallel to the current divisions in Ukrainian Orthodoxy? The term “Renovationist” was applied to the group of modernizing reformers within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) who created a “synodal” church after 1922 which was favored by the Soviet authorities to the detriment of the patriarchal Church. Kirill does not explicitly identify the Ukrainian schismatics whom he compares to the Renovationists, but he clearly has in mind the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was granted autocephaly by the Constantinople Patriarchate in January 2019. The rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which had maintained its links with the Moscow Patriarchate, declared its independence from the ROC in May 2022, but this is not recognized by Moscow, and the reality of its autonomy is questioned by some Ukrainian authorities.

Before Kirill’s January sermon, a parallel between the Ukrainian schismatics and the Russian Renovationists had already been drawn by Professor A. V. Shchipkov, the pro-rector of the Russian Orthodox University in Moscow, in an interview that he gave on November 23, 2022 to the television channel RTV1. This was the day after the Ukrainian security service had conducted a raid on the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, accusing its UOC leaders of support for the Russian invaders; on the same day there had been calls in the Ukrainian parliament for a ban on all religious bodies that recognized the authority of the ROC. It was in this context that Shchipkov recalled previous attempts by governmental authorities to ban the ROC by methods including the fomenting of artificial schisms. As his main example of this, Shchipkov cited the creation, with the support of the Bolsheviks, of the Renovationist Church. This and other schismatic groups that were formed in the early Soviet period—here Shchipkov cited the underground “catacomb” movement and the Russian Church Abroad—had proved to be ephemeral: the Renovationists had ceased their activity by the beginning of the Second World War, and the katakombniki by the 1970s, while the Russian Church Abroad had reunited with the ROC in the early 21st century. The current Ukrainian authorities, however—Shchipkov argued—had failed to learn the lesson of these precedents and foolishly believed that they could ban the ROC—not realizing that while it was possible to proscribe the canonical Church on a legal basis, it was not possible to destroy the Church as a community of believers. If Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin had failed to annihilate the ROC, Zelensky and Biden were even less likely to succeed in this latest attempt by the “Godless, secular world” to destroy the Orthodox faith: the ROC would continue to exist on its canonical territory, because of the presence of millions of believers there, Shchipkov concluded.

Like Shchipkov in his television interview, Kirill in his Christmas sermon did not offer any evidence to justify the suggestion that the OCU was a tool of the Ukrainian authorities. Rather, the Patriarch focused on the UOC, drawing a distinction between the canonical Church and the schismatics that reflects his view of the conflict in Ukraine more generally as a battle between global good and evil. It seems that the November raid by the Ukrainian security service on a high-profile institution such as the Monastery of the Caves has enabled Kirill, like Shchipkov, to present the UOC as a victim of persecution by the present-day Ukrainian government, just as the ROC had been a victim of persecution by the Bolsheviks in the early Soviet period. Of course, the problems faced by the UOC in recent months have stemmed not so much from the actions of the Kyivan authorities as from those of the government in Moscow that ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The understandable suspicion of the UOC in Ukraine today results from its association with the Moscow Patriarchate—and from the association of the Moscow Patriarchate with the Kremlin. This is something that Kirill is unable to openly acknowledge. It is evidently simpler and more convenient for him to blame the Ukrainian government for the present situation of the UOC, and to smear the Kyivan authorities by comparing them to the Godless schism-fomenting Bolsheviks of early Soviet Russia.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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