#37 - JRL 2009-141 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
July 27, 2009
Kirill on a Mission
Will the New Patriarch of Moscow Succeed in His New Role in Ukraine?
Comment by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

On Monday, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia began a visit to Ukraine, unprecedented both in its scale and symbolical significance. Its results will greatly influence both the future of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and, to some extent, that of the Russian-Ukrainian relations, as well as the status of the Moscow Patriarchate itself.

It began in the capital of Kiev, where the Patriarch is to lead the celebrations dedicated to Saint Prince Vladimir, the Baptist of Rus’, on Tuesday. His 10-day-long pilgrimage will then take him to Donetsk and Gorlovka in Eastern Ukraine, which is traditionally pro-Russian. Then he will go to the Crimea, where on August 2 the Patriarch will worship in the ancient Chersonesus where Prince Vladimir himself had been baptized. The last – and likely most daring –days of the visit will be spent in the Western regions of Ukraine, where the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches epitomized by the Russian and Western civilizations had been the historic rivals and neighbors, and which is today dominated by the anti-Moscow political and church forces. Visits to Rivno, Luts’k, and Volodymyr-Volynsky are all on the agenda, and the trip will conclude on August 5 at the Pochayiv Monastery, the outpost of Orthodox Christianity in the West.

For an outsider who is not familiar with the intricacies of Ukrainian history, it is not easy to understand the complexity of the church situation in Ukraine. Over the centuries, the heirs to Prince Vladimir’s baptismal font have repeatedly found themselves in different states and different Churches, while the numerous wars that have rolled over this part of Europe inevitably turned out to be civil wars for the ancestors of those who make up the people of Ukraine today. It was only within the framework of the Soviet Union that Ukraine’s current borders were set. When the Soviet Union disintegrated and Ukraine became an independent state, a complicated and as of yet unfinished process of forming a united Ukrainian nation began. There are few other places in the world where the religion factor would play such an important role both in the day-to-day life of the people and in the identity of the nation. That is in Ukraine, the Church is an object of colossal political pressure, often directed at breaking the spiritual and historical ties. As a result, the Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are presently divided into at least three church groups and live next door to Greek Catholics, or Uniates, -- Christians who abide by the Byzantine Rite while belonging to the jurisdiction of the Vatican.

Patriarch Kirill repeatedly emphasizes that he is coming to Ukraine with a pastoral visit, to worship on the holy sites of this land and pray for the unity of the Church, for the unity and well-being of the Ukrainian people, who are presently living through a difficult economic and political crisis, and for the unity of all nations tracing their history back to the Kievan Rus – and that is not only Ukrainians, but Russians and Belorussians as well. The Moscow Patriarchal See identifies itself as a successor to the ancient Kievan See. It is not a political visit, Church officials say. The Patriarch is coming to his flock.

However, there is another side to this statement. By coming to his Ukrainian flock and speaking to it not only in Russian or in our common Church Slavonic liturgical language, but also in Ukrainian, by emphasizing his respect for the Ukrainian statehood, Patriarch Kirill shows that he is not a patriarch of the Russian Federation and not just the head of the church of the Russian people, no matter how handy such an interpretation would be for both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists. He sees himself as the patriarch of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and all the Orthodox Christians throughout the world, who see in him as the earthly head of their Church.

In this he is somewhat different from his predecessor--the late Patriarch Alexy II who in 1990 granted a wide-ranging autonomy to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and, facing protests in Kiev when he came the same year to hand the Tomos of Self-Government to the then-Metropolitan and later a self-proclaimed schismatic Patriach Filaret, did not set foot on the Ukrainian soil for almost 18 years. A year ago, 80-year-old Patriarch Alexy came to Kiev when it became the site of a grand intra-Orthodox and international drama staged by President Victor Yushchenko. At the time, two Orthodox Patriarchs – one of Moscow, another of Constantinople – were simultaneously in Kiev, the latter being nudged by the presidential administration to unite the Ukrainian Orthodox under his jurisdiction, not under Moscow’s. Paradoxically, after the meeting in Kiev, which could result in a major schism of the Orthodox Church worldwide, a new phase in the relationship between the Moscow and Constantinople Patriarchates began. It developed further last month, when Russian participants described Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Turkey as an exceptional success. Among other things, the two most influential Orthodox Patriarchates appear to have reached some agreement on Ukraine, which has not been revealed to the public.

It would be wrong today to see the very Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as simply a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. With all of its complex internal processes usually described as a rivalry between a pro-Moscow and a pro-independent party, with all of its organizational flaws, one can still decipher a formation of a separate Ukrainian Orthodox identity somewhere in between the East and the West. This identity is being promulgated today by the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church in no lesser (if not greater) way than the breakaway groups, which had until recently positioned themselves as the main standard-bearers of Ukrainian national consciousness.

The relatively young and energetic Patriarch Kirill, who has 20 years of top Russian Orthodox diplomat’s experience on his resume, is prepared to face the protest rallies, which predictably began when he first stepped on Ukrainian soil. He is prepared to address his Ukrainian flock in Ukrainian and lay flowers at the memorial to the victims of the Joseph Stalin-era famine. It is not a coincidence that to a large degree, he owes his victory in being elected as Patriarch of Moscow in January to the Ukrainian bishops and Ukrainian delegates of the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, who voted overwhelmingly for Kirill. On Monday, he held a session of the Holy Synod of the entire Russian Orthodox Church in Kiev for the first time. He repeatedly calls this city not only by its traditional title “the Mother of all Russian Cities,” but also uses a newly coined term – “the Southern Capital of Russian Orthodoxy.” He sees himself as a spiritual leader of the entire “Eastern Slavic civilization” and tries to bring the whole “Church of the historical Holy Rus” back to its roots in Kiev. He strives to find a way of maintaining the unity of this civilization while respecting the political and cultural boundaries and distinctions of the present-day states and nations.

He is attempting to emphasize the universal, supra-national character of his Church and build a new relationship with the Western Christianity, and primarily with the Roman Catholic Church, in the face of the challenges of the secular world. In the meantime, Ukraine is the land where historically both the rivalry and the mutual enrichment of the two great Christian civilizations had been taking place.

Will he succeed in this grandiose project? Will Patriarch Kirill manage to eventually become not another outside force tearing the Ukrainian people apart, but a unifier of Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity and a builder of a new relationship with the Christian West? Time will tell. But the visit to Ukraine that began on Monday will foreshadow.

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