Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv, Ukraine (Києво-Печерська Лавра)

Almost four years ago, Archbishop Afanasy faced a firing squad.

Several armed separatists in southeastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region blindfolded and beat the full-bearded, stately Orthodox cleric in June 2014, weeks after pro-Moscow leaders declared Luhansk’s independence and intention to join Russia.

The separatists targeted Afanasy because his spiritual leader, Patriarch Philaret, had broken away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1990s and lambasted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies in Ukraine.

Afanasy heard a shot, but the bullet did not hit him. The separatists removed the blindfold and told him to leave Luhansk. His run-down car soon crashed because they had deliberately damaged its brakes, he said. He hates recalling that day, his personal episode in a Russian-Ukrainian religious war that seems far from over.

“I don’t like to rehash the past,” he said in an interview.

But it is the past — the shared, ancient past of Russia and Ukraine — that fueled the conflict.

More than a thousand years ago, in roughly 988, Prince Vladimir of Kiev, a warlike pagan of Viking origin, arrived in Crimea, the peninsula that would eventually be jointly claimed by Russia and Ukraine. There he converted to Orthodox Christianity and wed a Byzantine princess. That immensely boosted the international prestige of Kievan Rus, a nascent Eastern European power that would morph into the modern states of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

It would be another Vladimir — Putin — who would underscore that shared heritage when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, hailing its return to the “motherland.” The annexation came as pro-Russian separatists covertly supported by the Kremlin fought to split off eastern Ukraine, which borders Russia, from the rest of the country.

Eastern Ukraine has long leaned toward Moscow in its politics. Many of its people speak Russian as their primary language. The west of the country, including the capital, Kiev, has looked longingly to central Europe for its cultural and political cues, and is linguistically Ukrainian — a Slavic language that is close to, but distinct from, Russian.

Religiously, though, the majority of Ukrainians have long been faithful to Orthodox Christianity, which split from Catholicism [sic] in 1054 and is based mostly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

After the Crimea annexation, Metropolitan Onufri, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s Ukrainian branch, called the pro-Russian separatists “brothers in faith” and bristled at Kiev’s military operation against them.

During a parliament session in May 2015, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was reading aloud the names of Ukrainian servicemen awarded for fighting the separatists, the entire audience stood up — except for Onufri and his coterie.

What’s even more irksome to many Ukrainians is that Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the most revered leader of Orthodox Christianity, recognizes only Onufri’s church in Ukraine.

To Poroshenko, who came to power in 2014 after violent protests ousted his pro-Moscow predecessor, Ukraine’s ecclesiastic independence is not just a matter of squabbles of elderly, long-bearded men with archaic names.

In early April, Poroshenko urged Bartholomew to recognize an independent and “unified” Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“This is a matter of national security in this hybrid war, because the Kremlin sees the Russian Church as one of the main tools of influencing Ukraine,” Poroshenko told Ukrainian lawmakers in mid-April.

It was not a far-fetched argument.

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a Putin ally, argues that ethnic Russians anywhere, from Kazakhstan to California, are “ethnic Orthodox Christians” whose rights must be protected by Moscow’s spiritual and secular rulers.

Their “Russianness” stems from Prince Vladimir’s Kievan Rus — and Ukraine is, therefore, a part of the “Russian world” that broke away temporarily, Putin claims.

“Russians and Ukrainians are one people, after all. We don’t see a difference,” he proclaimed in 2015 during his first visit to annexed Crimea. “I am sure the situation in Ukraine will be straightened out, and Ukraine will develop positively, will step away from the shameful practices that we see today.”

Continue reading in the Los Angeles Times.

Mansur Mirovalev is a freelance print/video journalist originally from Uzbekistan and based in Moscow. He has written for HuffPost, The Telegraph, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Chicago Tribune, Washington Times, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, CNN, USA Today, the Associated Press, and a number of Russian-language newspapers.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue has published a number of articles relative to Ukraine’s struggle for political and ecclesiastical independence from Russia. See Death of Small Child Reveals Split in Ukrainian Orthodox ChurchWhen God Becomes the Weapon: Persecution Based on Religious Beliefs in the Armed Conflict in Eastern UkraineRussia-Backed “Cossack” Fighters Take Oath in Moscow Patriarchate Church to Fight Against the Ukrainian “Enemy”The Promise of Autocephaly in Ukraine: What’s at Stake?Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate under Investigation for Supporting Russia’s War against UkraineThe Russian Orthodox Church Declares that the Constantinople Patriarchate Cannot Proclaim Autocephaly UnilaterallyMoscow Patriarchate Hierarch in Favour of Ukrainian AutocephalyStatement of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Support of the Canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and Statement on Ukrainian Autocephaly
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