"A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall": The Nationalization of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine and Russia

By: Victor Roudometof

December 14, 2018

The Future of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine

The decision to grant ecclesiastical autocephaly to Ukraine is one more turn in the rocky road that East European nations have been travelling since 1989. To understand the contemporary situation, a long-term perspective is required. The central feature of Orthodox Christianity’s adjustment to modernity has been its redeployment as an essential ingredient of the people’s national identities. It is self-evident but still necessary to remind readers that Orthodox Christianity is a branch of Christianity and not a different religion. Protestantism and Catholicism have also historically served a similar function in the nations of Western Europe and North America.

Currently, the nationalized version of Orthodoxy is the dominant form of the faith, as reflected in the hyphenations used to designate Orthodox Christians: Serb-Orthodox, Russian-Orthodox, Romanian-Orthodox, etc. Since the Orthodox landscape has been fragmented along national lines, the suspension of communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not the most effective means of protest. This is even more the case in the aftermath of the 2016 Holy and Grand Synod, which failed to establish universally accepted provisions among the Orthodox churches with regard to such issues as diaspora churches and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. 

Historically, the modern synthesis between the Orthodox Church and East European nations entails (a) the creation of new national churches in the modern states of Eastern and Southeastern Europe through the institution of autocephaly; and (b) the cultural transformation of the meaning of church affiliation from religious into political-national. This process was initiated in the nineteenth century with the Serb and Greek cases, but it was forestalled in the Russian Empire. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, initial moves towards national self-assertion among the empire’s peripheries were short-lived, as the rising Union of Soviet Socialist Republics transformed neighboring countries into Soviet republics. The post-1989 era in the former Soviet space is characterized by the replication of the same dynamics that were originally present in the nineteenth century Balkans. 

The Orthodox churches in Ukraine are caught between Ukrainian national self-assertion and Russian efforts to protect their own transnational Russian diaspora and exert soft power into Ukraine. Everybody knows that the post-1989 Ukraine includes territories that are inhabited by Russians and belonged to the Russian Empire for centuries. In the 1950s Stalin’s “gift” of Crimea to Soviet Ukraine transferred control of formerly Russian lands as a means of safeguarding long-term Soviet control over Ukraine. Current events directly challenge this assumption, and Russian strategy is a reaction to that. Ecclesiastical politics are determined by the rising nationalisms of the two sides; already the Ukraine-based Russian churches and priests feel pressure from the Ukrainian state and paramilitary groups over control of buildings, churches, and property. 

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to grant autocephaly to Ukraine’s unrecognized national church is an extension of its own long-term policy of alignment with U.S. policy objectives. This policy dates back several decades and is predicated upon the historically strong relationship between the Greek American community and the patriarchate. Similarly, the Moscow Patriarchate’s policies are aligned with those of the Russian government; but both actors for the first time operate in accordance to Russia’s national interest (and not in order to further tsardom’s imperial goals or Soviet communism). The recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly is a significant step towards Ukrainian national self-assertion and of efforts to draw group boundaries between Ukrainians and Russians. Journalists have already reported that this might be very difficult. War is often the means through which such boundaries are constructed and policed. Death and suffering are highly effective instruments that contribute to social closure. As the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn feared, once war enters the picture, no good solutions exist. 

Irrespective of whatever soft power European or American state actors might be able to exert into this situation, the accident of geography means that Ukraine needs an eventually stable status quo with neighboring Russia. No one doubts that this translates into curtailment of the post-1989 Ukrainian territory: through the Moscow Patriarchate and other political and military means Russia defends its transnational diaspora against “religious and state persecution” (or some other similar term) and reclaims regions (such as Crimea) that have been Russian for centuries. Such events further contribute to the nationalization of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine and Russia, thereby offering additional affirmation of the privileged positions of the Moscow Patriarchate and of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church within their respective nations.

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