From the moment the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch early in 2019, it has competed with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) not only over canonicity but also about the number of parishes and the number of faithful. Each claims to be the only canonical church in the country, and also the largest, but numerous transfers of parishes from the jurisdiction of the UOC to that of the OCU (and a few the other way around), the situation of the war—and thus the preoccupation of the authorities and the faithful alike with more urgent problems—make it almost impossible to arrive at reliable data. On September 13, 2022, the head of the State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience, Olena Bohdan, publicly described the UOC as being the largest religious “network” in the country. A few days earlier, a leaked document showed the administration of the Ukrainian Security Service for the city and the district of Kyiv as saying that the transfers of faithful from the UOC to the OCU present a threat for national security (since parish meetings of those preparing transfers can lead to open conflicts, and since “transfers can foment interconfessional hatred”). The Synod of the OCU reacted on October 18 with a statement claiming that state authorities hinder the transfer of parishes from the UOC, “which has only 4% public support.”
The question of which church is larger remains open, however. There are two ways to count: by number of parishes or by number of faithful. Regarding parishes, the Ukrainian authorities have very thorough statistics. Every religious community that wants to exist legally in Ukraine has to register with the aforementioned State Service and to provide data regularly about numbers of parishes, clergy, training institutions, etc. We have these statistics for many years, enabling us to see the dynamics of the growth (or decline) of religious communities. To interpret these numbers, several elements are important:
Discussions on contemporary Orthodox Christianity have often focused on the multiple ways in which historical legacies and political contexts have shaped the trajectories of Orthodoxy’s institutional development, social presence, and theological responses to important issues such as modernity, secularization, globalization, and religious pluralism, among others. Importantly, Orthodoxy’s responses to adverse historical circumstances, particularly in Eastern Europe, have typically been dominated by a “besieged-fortress” mentality—a mentality which has entailed a self-imposed institutional and theological stagnation that, in my view, can be described as self-colonization.
The notion of self-colonization proposed here is different from the “self-colonizing metaphor” of Alexander Kiossev as well as from the narrative of “internal colonization” of Alexander Etkind. Kiossev showed that the countries in Eastern Europe and other places outside of an actual military, economic, financial and administrative rule by a colonial power, nevertheless, succumbed to the rule of colonial Eurocentric imagination. Etkind interpreted Russia’s imperial experience as simultaneously external (the colonization of other people) and internal (the colonization of its own people). In my usage, self-colonization denotes Orthodoxy’s self-induced encapsulation and stagnation as a result of the traumatic experiences of significant restrictions under Ottoman rule and of oppression and persecution under totalitarian communism. This psychological mindset has hampered enormously Orthodoxy’s coming to terms with contemporary pluralism and the principles of human rights and gender equality, among others.
What are the major traits in the organizational behavior of the Orthodox churches today that manifest its persevering self-colonization and impede constructive responses to the challenges they face?
Many observers of the current war in Ukraine who try to analyze its deeper reasons refer to the idea of a “Russian World,” “Russkii Mir.” This idea, they claim, is the key concept behind the Russian aggression, and shows the tight connection between religion and politics in Russia. A glance at the website of the Moscow Patriarchate, however, shows that in recent years the term has been used very rarely—and then mostly to refer to a foundation called “Russkii Mir,” established by President Putin and meant to promote Russian culture and the knowledge of the Russian language abroad. True, high-ranking representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have played an important role in that foundation from the time of its 2007 creation. But what does that have to do with Ukraine now?
In some ways, the year 2014 was decisive. When it became clear after the Euromaidan demonstrations that Ukraine had decided to leave the orbit of Moscow and to definitively turn towards the West, the term “Russian World” all but disappeared from the statements of Russian Church leaders. It was clear that the idea of a civilization based on East Slavic Orthodoxy could not work without Kyiv and Ukraine, so the concept seemed to be no longer feasible. Some of its central ideas stayed, however. It is they which have proved important for the justification of the war against Ukraine, both in President Putin’s and Patriarch Kirill’s argumentations. Here, I will try to outline and to assess the most important points: the denial of a distinct Ukrainian nation, and the denial of Ukrainian statehood as such. The worldview behind these ideas seems to me more important for understanding the Russian aggression than the somewhat amorphous category of a “Russian World.”
A Greek version of this text is available at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies
At the time of writing, the tsar’s fighter jets are pounding the gorgeous Kyiv, and air raid sirens are echoing everywhere. “Who has believed our message” declares the prophet Isaiah: the fighters of Vladimir Putin are striking Kyiv, not Tbilisi, Yerevan, Berlin, Paris, or Istanbul, and certainly not New York. In fact, the Russian tsar wants to exact revenge on the Ukrainians…and on his own history. He is destroying the cradle of his own civilization, never the cradle of the western civilization that causes him disgust and nausea. He is destroying Kyiv of antiquity with its majestic laura of caves that was established in the 11th century and is considered the mother of the Russian church and its sanctuary. Thousands are blessed daily with its bones that emanate myrrh. He is destroying a Kyiv that is proud of its Saint Sophia church that takes us back to the genius of Slavic Christianity and to the extent of its deep rooting in the cultural ambit that comes from Byzantium, precisely from Constantinople, from the shores of the glorious Bosphorus and the suns that dance there on the splashes of the waves.
Kyiv has woven the beginnings of the Russian people’s civilization. There, from the care and the diligence of the Hellenic monks and their blessed disciples, the Russians started laying the foundations of their civilization: books, architecture, and icons where light dwells in their coloring and meaning transpires. Therefore, the attack that is lead today by the master of the Kremlin on his neighbor, on his “soft spot,” as some fools would like to call it, isn’t measured by political and economic interpretations only; further than that, it assumes far reaching cultural consequences. In fact, the destruction of civilizations is neither a passing matter, nor is it an inevitable consequence of unavoidable wars.