The news was jarring to those who had come to regard Volodymyr Zelensky as a warrior for freedom, standing unflinchingly against a sinister, unscrupulous and powerful foe: in December, he signed a decree banning the Church to which millions of Ukrainians belong, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Last Sunday, thousands of those Ukrainians gathered outside the Church’s headquarters, the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery, to pray and show their support for the monks whom Zelensky has ordered to vacate the premises. This is the new Churchill? A man who evicts monks from their monastery and closes churches? But the situation, as with all matters regarding Ukraine, is complicated.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding Zelensky’s action because most Westerners aren’t aware that there is actually more than one Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This situation goes back to the period when Ukraine was a republic of the Soviet Union. When the nation won its independence in 1991, the Ukrainian Church did not, and remained under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow, which rebuffed repeated Ukrainian requests for autocephaly, or ecclesiastical independence.
However, some Ukrainian Orthodox began to operate independently of Moscow. Finally, in January 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, granted autocephaly to this Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Moscow refused to recognize this, severed relations with Constantinople, and continued its operations in Ukraine.
In April 2018, four years before the war began and nine months before the Ecumenical Patriarch officially granted autocephaly, the Religion News Service estimated that 40 percent of Orthodox Christian Ukrainians belonged to the independent Church, and 25 percent to the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Once Putin began his war, however, the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has seen a steady decline in its following, as millions of Ukrainians have shifted their allegiance to the independent Church. A July 2022 survey showed only four percent of Ukrainians stating that they belonged to the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
In an attempt to stem this decline, the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate officially severed ties with Moscow in May 2022. Nonetheless, Zelensky still contends that this Church is not so much a Church as an arm of Vladimir Putin and the KGB, and thus a subversive force within Ukraine. It was, of course, this Church that he has moved against, not the Ukrainian Orthodox Church granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch in 2019. Zelensky has enjoyed a warm relationship with Bartholomew, and when he ordered the monks to vacate the Lavra monastery, he echoed the Ecumenical Patriarch’s statements about the right of the Ukrainians to have their own Church that was not controlled by outside forces. Zelensky said Monday that “one more step towards strengthening our spiritual independence was taken this week.”
The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, has offered evidence to support its contention that the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate continues to be an instrument of the Russian state. On December 2, 2022, the Associated Press, “members of the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s National Guard and police searched the monastery last week after a priest spoke favorably about Russia during a service there. The Security Service said its agents searched more than 350 church buildings in all, including at another monastery and in a diocese of the Rivne region, 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of Kyiv.” According to that Ukrainian security agency, the SBU, the searches found “pro-Russian literature, which is used during studies in seminaries and parish schools, including for propaganda of the ‘Russian world.’” The SBU said it was undertaking “systematic work to counter the subversive activities of the Russian special services in Ukraine.”
Would Moscow be conducting subversive actions through its Church in Ukraine even after that Church had officially broken relations with it? The idea cannot be easily discounted. After all, Moscow Patriarch Kirill spied for the KGB in the 1970s and many contend that he is still a KGB operative. Nevertheless, the monks at the Lavra insist that they’re not engaged in any kind of work for the Russian government. One declared: “For centuries we have belonged to the church, which has its own beginning and patriarch…and to make us out to be some kind of foreign agents or enemies…this is not true, this is not so. These are our people, our land and our Lavra.”
Zelensky, however, was adamant on Monday, saying: “We will continue this movement. We will not allow the terrorist state any opportunity to manipulate the spiritual life of our people, to destroy Ukrainian shrines — our Lavras — or to steal values from them.”
Certainly it cannot be said that the thousands of Ukrainians who stood and prayed outside the monastery last Sunday are KGB operatives. They don’t deserve to be punished for exercising their religious faith. If Zelensky wishes to maintain the wholehearted support he has enjoyed in many quarters of the West, he would be wise to ease up on his actions against the Lavra and the Church of which it is the headquarters, while maintaining vigilance regarding any actual subversive activity. Otherwise, the evicted monks and orphaned faithful will stand in mute witness against his claims to represent the side of freedom against tyranny.