Every president of independent Ukraine, except Viktor Yanukovych, tried to make the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from the Russian Orthodox Church and, having removed this stumbling block, unite three separate Orthodox churches of Ukraine. However, only last year the effort was taken in earnest by President Poroshenko and was supported by the Ecumenical Patriarch. As Ukraine is edging nearer to having its independent and united local Orthodox Church, let us look at the main facts of the process, the history and logic behind as well as the information warfare around it.
In early April 2018, Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine held talks about the perspectives of the Ukrainian orthodoxy with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide and of the Constantinople Patriarchate. They were followed by an official request for ecclesiastical independence (or autocephaly) for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) on 17 April. Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch started an assessment process, which also included a feasibility study into the unification of three separate orthodox churches in Ukraine Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) into the OCU, aiming to heal the many-year schism in the Ukrainian orthodoxy. Exarchs or legates of the Ecumenical Patriarchate were dispatched to Ukraine in summer. The official announcement of the final positive decision was made by Phanar on 11 October. In response, the ROC following a synod, or gathering of its bishops, in Minsk announced on 15 October that it would sever all ties with Constantinople provoking a massive rift in the world orthodoxy. On 29 November, the decree or tomos on the autocephaly of the OCU was ready, following a synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The document will be handed over to the newly elected leader of the united church. The unification council of Ukrainian Orthodox churches was successfully held on 15 December having produced the unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine and its leader, UOC-KP and UAOC disbanded themselves. Representatives of all the three Ukrainian Orthodox churches took part in it, they elected Metropolitan Epiphanius (Dumenko) as the leader or Primate of the OCU. The handover ceremony of the Autocephaly Tomos is scheduled for 6 January 2019, the Christmas Eve by Julian calendar. Ukrainian Parliament passed a law forbidding UOC-MP to call itself “Ukrainian”, obliging it to go under the name “Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine”.
This is a very short and dry summary of the events around Ukrainian orthodoxy in 2018. However, the autocephaly process was fraught with a lot of drama as well as fierce resistance and lobbying of the ROC and Russian Federation.
Media coverage and information warfare
To our surprise, the reporting and analysis of the autocephaly process for the Ukrainian orthodoxy in the mainstream western media was factually and conceptually more or less correct. Reasons like Russian aggression, the support of the hybrid war in the east of Ukraine by the ROC and consequent slump in popularity of the UOC-MP were cited.
- Ukraine’s church independence increases Russia’s isolation (FT)
- Ukraine-Russia tensions spark historic religious rift (The Guardian)
- Putin Is Loser as Ukraine’s Orthodox Church Seeks Independence (Bloomberg)
There were very few notable blunders, like Reuters tweeting “After 1000 years, Ukraine splits from Russian church”. The tweet was promptly removed after its obvious absurdity was called out by the pro-Ukrainian community.
On the other hand, Russian government-controlled media predictably responded very negatively quoting and repeating the rhetoric of the ROC, calling the processes in Ukraine a “schism”. The coverage of the autocephaly process by RT and TASS amounts to no less than a propaganda offensive with headlines full of wordings like “Kiev tampering with religion”, “idolaters with blood on their hands” and even a stern warning from patriarch Kirill that “schismatics will steer Ukraine to spiritual death”. Russian presidential administration, notorious for communicating by “sending signals” to the international community also warned of a possible bloodshed in Ukraine over the matters of faith.
Here are some of the Russian media headlines:
- Kiev’s push to split from Russian Orthodox Church will boost ‘nationalism’ & ‘chaos’ in Ukraine (RT)
- Separation of church & state? Not in Ukraine, with Poroshenko’s push for ‘independent’ church (RT)
- Canonical Ukrainian Church ousts two bishops who took part in ‘unification council’ (TASS)
- Ukraine’s secular authorities meddling with church affairs, says Putin (TASS)
But now let us look at the reasons why the question of independence of the OCU from the ROC has become so important, to the point that the President of Ukraine threw all his diplomatic weight behind the process? Why is Poroshenko calling it a matter of the national security for Ukraine and treating it accordingly?
While Western media broadly acknowledge the “Russian orthodoxy’s failure to condemn the east Ukraine bloodshed that has cost 10,000 lives”. And concede that “Indeed, Orthodox Russian businessmen and officials played a role in fomenting the conflict” (FT), they still insist on calling the ROC a “church” and regarding it as such. However, this organization is in effect not a church, but an extension of the Russian state, an arm of the FSB (and, before that, KGB) and the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. It is used as a propaganda machine, agent network and a business cover.
The key to this understanding lies in the history of brutal persecution of the Orthodox faith in the early soviet period and the following domestication of the Church.
Violent attacks on the Orthodox Church involving mass killing of the clergy in Russia and other territories occupied by the Bolsheviks started as early as 1917. They lasted with varying degrees of brutality till 1943. In the years 1917–1935, over 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested; 95,000 were put to death. In the early years of Bolshevik rule, priests were often murdered with exemplary cruelty. Then, only during the purges of 1937 and 1938, church documents record that 168,300 members of the Russian Orthodox clergy were arrested; of these, over 100,000 were shot. The repressions of 1917-1943 effectively wiped out the overwhelming majority of the traditional Orthodox clergy and intimidated the rest into submission.
During WW2 Joseph Stalin had an idea of reviving the Russian Orthodox Church to use it as a political and ideological tool. On September 4, 1943, Stalin summoned three metropolitans of the Russian Church and proposed to create the Moscow Patriarchate. They accepted the proposal and received a permission to convene a local council. One of the three, Alexius (Simansky), was elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in 1945. The Mitrokhin Archive and the KGB archives made public by the State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in December 2017 confirm that all the delegates of that ROC Local Council were carefully vetted by the local NKGB organizations, which resulted in a situation that all of them were either agents or officers of the NKGB, the predecessor of the KGB.
This agreement with Stalin heralded the end of systemic bloody persecution of the Orthodox Church in Russia and the beginning of the period of cooperation and domestication of the ROC by the Soviet state. Between 1945 and 1959 the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches reached 25,000. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the ROC and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1965 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB.
In 1965 the state control over Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union, and first and foremost in Russia and Ukraine, was further consolidated with two governmental bodies overseeing religious affairs merged into the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA). This new body was given official legislation that gave it dictatorial powers over the administration of religious bodies in the USSR. Several years later, Vasiliy Furov, the CRA deputy head wrote in a report to the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, “The Synod is under CRA’s supervision. The question of selection and distribution of its permanent members is fully in CRA’s hands, the candidacies of the rotating members are likewise coordinated beforehand with the CRA’s responsible officials. Patriarch Pimen and the permanent members for the Synod work out all Synod sessions’ agendas at the CRA offices … and co-ordinate [with us] the final ‘Decisions of the Holy Synod”. In 1975 the CRA was given an official legal supervision role over the grass-roots affairs of the church. The CRA could arbitrarily decide on the registration of religious communities or parishes and grant authorizations to worship. The CRA in Ukraine was even criticized for excessively tough stance. The CRA reported to the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and KGB.
All key positions in the Church, including bishops, were approved by the Ideological Department of the CPSU and by the KGB. The priests were used as agents of influence in the World Council of Churches and front organizations, such as World Peace Council, Christian Peace Conference, and the Rodina (“Motherland”) Society founded by the KGB in 1975. In 1989 Konstantin Kharchev, Chairman of the CRA, confirmed that the Russian Orthodox Church was rigorously controlled by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, especially its Ideological Department. In a later interview of June 08, 2015, he said about the church hierarchs: “After all, they were flesh and blood of the Soviet regime. If you looked at their biographies – they were all the same. Some of them early in life were even secretaries of primary Komsomol organizations. Then “biographies” were cooked for them. Then they were dragged through the necessary church career stages. They had to go through the academy rector positions, then up to ruling bishops. They all went through an x-ray machine.”
The KGB had a whole Fourth Department at the Fifth Directorate (counterintelligence) dedicated to the church affairs. This was the directorate where Vladimir Putin started his KGB career. And that is where appointees were vetted and the “biographies” were cooked. The department laid the groundwork for the First Directorate’s subversive promotion of favorable opinion about the Soviet Union’s position and policies around the world. In January, 1992, a parliamentary Commission investigating the causes and circumstances of the 1991 putsch was set up in Russia. The Commission’s report issued on March 6 contained shocking revelations: “KGB agents, using such aliases as Sviatoslav, Adamant, Mikhailov, Nesterovich, Ognev and others, made trips abroad, organized by the Russian Orthodox Department of External Relations [which was headed by Metropolitan Kirill (Gundiaev) [the future ROC patriarch], performing missions assigned to them by the leadership of the KGB. The nature of their missions shows that this department was inseparably linked with the state and that it had emerged as a covert center of KGB agents among the faithful.”
All these facts allow us to conclude that by the time of disintegration of the USSR, the ROC was under effective systemic two-tier control of the Soviet state; from the very basic parish level more or less openly managed by the government and all the way up to the higher tiers of hierarchy covertly controlled by the KGB. The CRA was dissolved in 1991, but there is strong evidence that the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation inherited and retained much of the sway over the affairs of the ROC.
Subversive activity of the ROC in modern Ukraine
ROC’s hierarchs implicated by the Mitrokhin and the SBU archives as intelligence assets and agents of influence for the KGB continued to serve in and advance their careers. Few of them openly acknowledged their cooperation with the KGB, as a forced solution to protect their congregations, and repented of it. However the majority kept silent, Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) included. His links with the KGB have been known since early 1990s, he had worked under the codename “Mikhailov“.
Let us quote once again Konstantin Kharchev and his interview of June 2015: “After 1991, the ROC was actually integrated in the state power structure. It turned out about the same as in the tsarist time. The church has become a state department. Now it is in direct contact with all ministries and departments, it enters into contracts, it tells us how to live. Of course, the Council for Religious Affairs, with its supervision over the actions of the Church leadership in such conditions, is not needed.”
Moreover, the ROC received generous funding and tax breaks from the state which helped it advance its business interests, at the same time it also enjoyed a very lax governmental oversight. The ROC surrounded itself with a whole ecosystem of “Orthodox businessmen”, many of them bearers of the Black Hundreds mentality. One of them, Konstantin Malofeev is implicated by the SBU for direct involvement in the financing and support of the hybrid aggression of the Russian Federation in Donbas. By a “strange coincidence” Malofeev had in his employment Igor Girkin (aka. Strelkov) and Alexander Borodai, the FSB officers who played a central role in early stages of the war in Donbas. Malofeev was caught by the SBU giving detailed tactical instructions to Girkin and Borodai over the phone. This, and other known facts suggest a strong connection of Malofeev with the FSB. He features in many investigations of InformNapalm linking him not only to subversive and terrorist activities in Ukraine, but also to funding rightist and of ultra-right political parties and groups in the EU.
The ROC has become a magnet and hub for other deeply bigoted and obscurant groups like Don Cossacks, monarchists, and even Orthodox fascists in Russia. They were among major sources of “volunteers” for illegal armed groups (IAG) in Ukrainian Donbas with a pronounced “orthodox” coloring, like all kinds of “Cossack hosts” which terrorized Luhansk Region or Russian Orthodox Army (ROA), an illegal armed group blessed and supported both by the ROC and UOC-MP. Among other things, the ROA was implicated in looting, abductions, torture and murder of protestant priests.
UOC-MP also became a cradle of a whole plethora of Orthodox jihadists all over the territory of Ukraine.
Tatiana Derkach, a journalist of petrimazepa.com made a comprehensive study of the connection of the UOC-MP with the “Cossack” organizations in Ukraine linking fifteen major eparchies of UOC-MP in different parts of the country with the IAGs, active in the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Among other things, these articles contain pictures taken at the gatherings of those “Cossacks” with flags of the Russian empire, flags with the icons of Christ, the same flags brandished by the IAGs of the Russian hybrid army in the war zone in Donbas. The series proves systemic involvement of the UOC-MP in the subversive activity of the ROC in the territory of Ukraine.
The ideological connection of the ROC with the Russian Presidential Administration as well as systemic interference in the internal politics of Ukraine through ROC and UOC-MP was demonstrated in the #FrolovLeaks investigative series of InformNapalm. Our team went through the mail dump of the “church-going expert” Kirill Frolov from 2004 to 2016. On the one hand, he cooperated with the likes of Konstantin Zatulin, Vladislav Surkov, Sergey Glazyev, on the other with all kinds of “Orthodox activists” in Ukraine and hierarchs of the UOC-MP. The series is a long story of meddling in the matters of the Ukrainian churches, squabbles within the ROC, public scandals in Russia and Ukraine. The culmination of the saga is the revelation in part VII of the direct cooperation between the secretary of Odesa eparchy and the FSB in financing the anti-Maidan and separatist movement in Odesa which led to the bloodshed on May 2, 2014.
UOC-MP, an extension of the ROC in Ukraine, has also served and continues to serve as a network of pro-Russian propaganda, praying for the Russian army and Putin at the same time refusing the last rites to the fallen Ukrainian soldiers, promoting the messages of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians being “one people” etc., in short repeating the talking points of the Russian state media.
The hierarchs of the ROC and many of their colleagues in Ukraine are known for lavish lifestyles and love of luxury. By the Orthodox canons they give monastic oaths of austerity. The love of Swiss watches, fast German cars and yachts show them for who they are – impostors in frocks.
We are conscious that there were priests of true integrity in the ROC, like Fr Gleb Yakunin or Fr Aleksandr Men, but they were rare outcasts that did not make it to any important levels of the hierarchy, regardless of their moral authority. The truly believing laity and such priests kept the church alive through the darkest periods of the Stalinist repressions. They are also a force driving the self-purification of the church.
However, the hierarchy, both in Russia and Ukraine, was deeply and systemically penetrated by the soviet intelligence and security agencies. There are solid grounds to believe that in modern Russia, the FSB (the successor of the KGB) vastly retained its grip over the hierarchical structure of the ROC and, by extension, of the UOC-MP. The extent of this penetration calls into doubt the very use of the word “church” as applied to the ROC. Therefore, the moves to unite the three Orthodox churches in Ukraine and take the Ukrainian Orthodoxy out from the sphere of direct influence of the ROC are long overdue and of utmost importance of the state security of Ukraine.
In the next part, the InformNapalm team, will discuss and disprove some of the favorite talking points of the Russian propaganda surrounding the process of the unification of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and its autocephaly.
By Artem Velichko specially for InformNapalm.
Distribution and reprint with reference to the source is welcome!
Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 International — CC BY 4.0.
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