Procession for the United Autocephalous Church (source: Radio Liberty, https://www.svoboda.org/a/29654463.html
On 15 December 2018, the president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko officially announced the creation of an Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This new autocephalous (independent) patriarchate, whose spiritual home is Kyiv’s Saint’s Sophia Cathedral, was widely regarded as a victory for Ukraine in its battle for independence from Russia - the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had been a part of the Moscow patriarchate for the previous three and a half centuries. Yet, we argue that the decision taken by Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox world, to grant the Ukrainian Independent Church its own tomos (a decree granted by The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered to be the foremost leader and international representative of the Orthodox Church) has had little impact on Ukrainian identity politics and its struggle for independence from Moscow.
Many commentators feverously rejoiced because the Ukrainian Orthodox Church no longer bears allegiance to Moscow, some having claimed that it was the “last missing piece” in Ukraine’s battle for independence. This symbolic aspect of this moment should not be understated. Considering the some 13,000 deaths in the gruelling war in eastern Ukraine, the story of a Ukrainian Church at last free of “Russian tentacles” does carry important emotional symbolism for Ukrainians.
Similarly, Ecnumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s recognition of an independent Ukrainian Church is a logical step in Orthodox history. Kyiv was initially the spiritual heart of eastern Orthodoxy and was spiritually subordinate only to Constantinople (now Istanbul). However, the Mongol invasion of Kyiv in the 13th century saw the seat of eastern Orthodoxy relocate first to Vladimir and then eventually on to Moscow. Kyiv was stripped of its spiritual significance because of the geopolitical threat posed by the Golden Horde. The subsequent battle for Russia’s independence from the Mongols resulted in a redistribution of power in Eastern Europe. Centuries after independence, the Russian empire was formed. In 1667 the left-bank of Ukraine was effectively absorbed into the empire under the Polish-Russian Treaty of Andrusovo. 19 years later Kyiv became a spiritual subsidiary of Moscow. Geopolitics once again defined Ukraine’s religious standing. According to this logic, the Euromaidan revolution of 2014, where Ukrainians fought for national self-determination, should have been (and was) followed by a reassertion of Ukraine’s spiritual independence. In other words, the creation of the autocephalous Church of Ukraine once again reflects the country’s geopolitical standing.
Yet, it may be misguided to assume that thousand-year-old churches have remained a fundamental constituent of contemporary Ukrainian identity. Not only did Soviet rule diminish the Church’s influence on society for many decades. But capitalism, or perhaps consumerism, has also sidelined religious identities in many countries across the globe. And in Ukraine, for example, the youth are often more concerned about their Instagram followers and illegal raves than anything the New Testament can teach them. So does Ukraine’s autocephalous Church mean anything for Ukrainians outside of the swirling storm of political discourse?
Ukrainian national identity has become increasingly politicised since 2014. Any opportunity to distance Kyiv from Moscow has been seized upon by ethno-nationalists and liberals alike; even if this required declaring a new-found faith in Boh (God) himself. The creation of a new independent Ukrainian Church provides plenty of malleable symbols that could fit both of these groups’ political agendas. Indeed, there is one man, for whom this is particularly true.
The former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has routinely talked about the autocephaly project in terms of national identity and security. Speaking about the long-awaited arrival of the tomos, Poroshenko considered it a political strategy to enable Ukraine to break away from its colonial past and “reorientat[e] [itself] towards Europe”. The Church may have become the expression of the national struggle for sovereignty against external and internal enemies. For Ukrainian elites, getting closer to a globally recognized international church seemed a solution to the challenge of forming a national Ukrainian identity. Since Ukraine rejects Russkiy Mir ideology (the supposed common 'Russian' cultural and linguistic area headed by Moscow), autocephaly should reinforce growth in Ukrainian national integration and spur a final divorce from Russia. The issue of autocephaly could have been be a litmus test to define who ‘we’ and ‘they’ are: a new church that encourages Ukrainian patriotism can’t be unlawful and must unify real patriots around itself. So why then has Poroshenko failed to turn the “last missing piece” of Ukrainian identity into a safe electoral win?
First of all, we must consider the low number of followers the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate had -- only 19.1% of all Orthodox Christians in Ukraine. Less than a fifth of believers were ‘liberated’ from Moscow’s religious reach; and many of these will remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate despite this emancipation, fearing religious retribution in the afterlife.
Second, the politicisation of the unification of the Ukrainian Churches is so malleable that competing ideological factions within Ukraine -- pro-European liberals, more conservative centrists (like Poroshenko) and ethno-nationalists -- can create parallel narratives that serve to reinforce, rather than mend, ideological divides. Consequently, autocephaly cannot be seen as an inherently unifying electoral force. This was missed by Poroshenko’s political strategists, who had probably hedged their bets on the tomos becoming a symbol of both political and religious independence from Russia.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, after five years under Poroshenko, declining living standards, omnipresent corruption and the unending conflict in Donbass have left the ideals and goals of Maidan unfulfilled. Petro Poroshenko embodies this sense of unfulfillment. President-elect Vladimir Zelenskiy, conversely, is a fresh face with nothing to tarnish his record apart from dubious ties to offshore accounts and to broadcast oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. In addition, despite demonstrating a lack of political knowledge, Zelensky’s talk of a bright future, an end to the war in Donbass, and stamping out corruption has struck a chord with the Ukrainian electorate; his final electoral video illustrated a clear emphasis on youth. From the 24 close-up shots, over half include people visibly younger than 25; and many are young teenagers.
Where Poroshenko represents the old, stagnant, war-torn Ukraine, Zelensky has become a symbol of youth and change. This (perhaps somewhat essentialised) paradox trumps Poroshenko’s symbolic victory of autocephaly.
The social media celebrations of the autocephaly in Ukraine presented it -- and some would say unsurprisingly -- as a significant victory for Ukraine in its ongoing war against Moscow; it certainly makes a good headline. But for the reasons mentioned above attempts to determine the national identity under the banner of religious independence have failed. Thus, in real terms, this process has had little, if any, impact on voting patterns and electoral priorities in Ukraine. The 2019 the granting of autocelaphy adheres to a retrograde historical pattern in which geopolitics determine religious hierarchies between Moscow and Kyiv. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should write off the future roll the Ukrainian Orthodox Church may play in rebuilding Ukrainian society.