Svitlana Morenets

    Is Russian Orthodoxy dying in Ukraine?

    Is Russian Orthodoxy dying in Ukraine?
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    Ivano-Frankivsk has just become the first city in Ukraine to have no Russian Orthodox Church, amid a mass defection of churches away from the Moscow patriarchate and towards the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine. 

    At the start of the invasion in February, almost two-thirds of Orthodox churches were still formally aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church whose leader – Patriarch Kirill – is a close ally of Putin. Until recently, the Russian Orthodox Church claimed dominion over Ukraine for centuries. The 2014 invasion of Crimea dampened its appeal. In 2019 a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine was recognised by Patriarch Bartholomew – the archbishop of Constantinople and the de facto leader of Orthodoxy. The church was set up to distinguish Kyiv from Moscow: in the words of Ukraine’s then-president, it would be ‘without Putin, without Kirill’ and instead with ‘God and Ukraine’.

    Kirill, the leader of the Russian church, has refused to call Putin’s actions an ‘invasion’ (he calls it a ‘special military operation’), and said that Russia ‘has only defended its borders’. So 74 per cent of Ukrainians now support ​​severing ties with the Russian church.

    Before the war, many Orthodox Ukrainians couldn’t work out the difference between Kyiv and Moscow’s patriarchates. Doctrinally, there is none: their beliefs, dogmas, rituals and biblical interpretations are the same. The difference is political. Putin has close ties with the Russian Orthodox church and it has increasingly been used as his mouthpiece. To great effect: some 63 per cent of Russians identify as Orthodox, so the churches make a powerful network to spread his message. The Russian Orthodox church is now regarded as being as much a part of the regime as Gazprom and state television.

    The defections are part of a general transformation of Ukrainian identity. One study found that the number of Ukrainians identifying as ‘citizens of Ukraine’ has jumped from 75 per cent to 98 per cent since August last year. The number identifying as ‘Europeans’ has significantly increased: from 27 per cent to 57 per cent.

    The shift away from the Russian church doesn't all come from the people: the authorities are taking action too. Since the Russian invasion, some Russian Orthodox clergy have been punished for supporting Putin, like the abbot of a Dniprovskiy church who has been arrested for telling parishioners how to help the Russian armed forces. 

    The fight for Ukrainian religious freedom looks to have been won in Ivano-Frankivsk, and it will continue elsewhere. Since the war broke out, more than 600 church communities of the Moscow patriarchate have already joined the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The triumph of Ukraine’s church over Russia’s is another example of Ukraine rejecting the Kremlin and asserting its sovereignty: the exact opposite of what Putin wants.