Sean Kim's blog

The Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Its implications for Ukrainian Identity and Russia

June 17, 2019

Ukraine’s history has consisted of a desire and efforts to consolidate national identity and utilize its self-determination despite opposition from Russia. These efforts have included legislation regarding language, decommunization, and even the controversial figure, Stepan Banderas. There is another big tenet of Ukrainian identity: religion. The Russian Orthodox Church spreads to Russia, Ukraine and to Belarus the idea of the Russian World, a group of people united solely by their faith.[1] In a time when Ukrainians are struggling for an identity, this aim to unify Ukrainians with Russians does not sit well with Ukrainians. The Kremlin has used the Russian Orthodox Church’s evangelism to court neighboring countries into other forms of unification, like the Eurasian Union and into alliances, be it militaristic or economic. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, or UOC(MP), has served this purpose, but in Ukraine, not Russia. Some see this as a move for Russia to spread Russian cultural narratives to Ukrainians and has divided Ukrainians on the issue. The religious divide between Russian and Ukrainian religious institutions has widened in wake of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. By analyzing Russia’s past influence on Ukraine through religion and the recent developments of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, this paper will explore the implications of this move by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for a Ukrainian identity and for Russian influence in Ukraine.



During the Soviet Era, atheism dominated the territories of the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, the Russian Orthodox Church as well as other religious groups began to operate in Ukraine. In 1991, a meeting was held with members of all faiths in Kiev in order to persuade them that after independence, they could practice freely. Kravchuk stated that “a pluralistic religious situation awaits us.”[2] However, some had leanings to the new country, while others were still leaning towards Moscow. A Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate was created in 1992, and those with leanings to Moscow took to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. To add to these institutions, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church also returned since its forced dissolution in 1930.[3] The addition of Crimean Tatar muslim minorities and Greek Catholics did not make the situation easier for the leaders. These divisions continue to exist today, with some faiths bigger than others. In 1999, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was the biggest religious institution in Ukraine, as it made up a huge percent of all religious organizations. However, in Western Ukraine, regions showed only 2 to 8 percent of all religious organizations as UOC(MP).[4] In the east, there are few parishes per 100,000 people, and this can be attributed to the fact that in those areas of Ukraine, atheism or religious indifference are higher and the number of believers per parish is much lower.[5] Those following the UOC(MP) are more pro-Russian, and tend to be located in the eastern Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, as well as Crimea. Despite the multitude of organizations (parishes) owned by the UOC(MP), in a 1997 opinion poll, only 23.9% of people claiming allegiance to a church supported the UOC(MP), while 43% were supporters of the UOC(KP).[6] This two-sided game, with the UOC(MP) claiming more parishes but the UOC(KP) claiming more followers, has divided the country from its creation to this day. In 2014, these trends are no different. There are still significantly more parishes of the UOC(MP) all but in the west, where there are more parishes of the UOC(KP). Per 100,000 people, there are more parishes in the west than in the east, similarly due to higher levels of religious indifference.[7]

This religious nationalism translates politically to ask more questions about the future of Ukraine as a nation. In April of 2014, in a poll asking about support for reunification with Russia, only the East had a significant percentage of those in favor, and not even a majority at that.[8] The rest of the country polled at around 0 to 11.5% for supporting reunification.[9] This is following the annexation of Crimea, showing that the people outside of the East were united in support of Ukraine. While this does not necessarily have any bearing on religion, it is important to note that most of these people opposing reunification efforts are probably opposed to the annexation and more likely to lean away from the UOC(MP). If the UOC(MP) were to regain the following that it once had, it has a long way to go, but so does the newly independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in their search for national identity.

The argument for a national Ukrainian church is hugely dependent on Ukraine’s desire for identity. Being an independent state, Ukraine was free to make its own national church as it desired. On top of its own desire to carve out its own national church, the one in place belonged to Russia, their neighbor and a country that was anti-Ukrainian in its ambitions. However, religion in Ukraine does not seem as faith-based as identity-based. People choose their religious institution by where they live and the regional differences in terms of history, ethnicity or language. Those campaigning for a national church want Ukrainian in services, and not Church Slavonic. Critics of the UOC(MP) also say that the UOC(MP) denies the 1933 Famine, and that they cannot relate to Ukrainian struggles.[10] Admittedly, the decisions of the Russian Orthodox Church are put into practice in Ukraine by this church, and due to the plethora of parishes at its disposal, it can do so effectively. One of the ways to exert their influence over Ukrainians was through mass media. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2009, would make frequent public visits, raising the UOC(MP) up in society and presenting himself with Yanukovych.[11] With plentiful resources, the UOC(MP) was and is easily able to influence Ukrainians. However, seeing this perspective, the UOC(MP) has tried to genuinely appeal to Ukrainians. They adopted some policies to use Ukrainian in certain services. They also held a memorial liturgy on the anniversary of the 374th birthday of Ivan Mazepa, a medieval Ukrainian hetman.[12] Despite these initiatives to gain the trust of Ukrainians, they committed to resisting these moves. The UOC(MP) differs itself from Moscow in that they do support narratives of Ukrainian statehood, but these efforts would not matter, especially when the pressure of Russia dissuaded Yanukovych from signing the EU agreement.

The failure to sign the EU agreement led to the popular uproar known as the Euromaidan. The Euromaidan was the first in a series of events that led to the downturn of the UOC(MP). Ukrainians were united in defiance against Yanukovych and his government, and Russia in the process. As for the UOC(MP), they were stuck in the middle ground between representing the Russian Orthodox Church and also trying to resonate with Ukrainians and their struggle for national identity. Many of the clergy of the UOC(MP) opposed Ukraine’s EU integration, further alienating itself from Ukrainians. The UOC(KP) and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church were quick to respond and rally to the side of the protesters. Due to the pressure, the UOC(MP) had no choice but to join on their side as well. These churches were active by holding prayer vigils, singing in choirs on the ground, and even one church of the UOC(KP) opening up their church for protesters to take refuge.[13] While the UOC(MP) did participate on behalf of the protesters, it was still holding somewhat of a neutral position, while the other churches clearly and fully gave their support to the Ukrainian cause. The UOC(MP) still emphasized the unity of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, which was ineffective in the protests and in gaining followers among Ukrainians. The weak positions that it held in regards to the protests gave the media and critics opportunities to portray the UOC(MP) as anti-Ukrainian.

Although some of the clergy did oppose the Euromaidan and Ukrainian interests, it would be inaccurate to say that the church as a whole did not support the protesters in the Euromaidan. Its website places emphasis on the charitable work they did for the protesters in Kiev.[14] However, given that Ukrainians were straying further and further from Russia, it was natural that many of them would stand against the UOC(MP). One result of the Euromaidan was increased calls for an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Many of those that support the autocephaly have switched their allegiance from UOC(MP) to UOC(KP), and there remain those in the Moscow Patriarchate who support decoupling the UOC(MP) from Moscow.[15] Petro Poroshenko openly supported such a change, and showed his support through approving legislation in the Rada to get rid of a hub for UOC(MP) activity as well as placing tax burdens on the Moscow Patriarchate.[16]

After the annexation of Crimea and during the crisis in the Donbas, the views of the UOC(MP) remained largely unchanged. Putin put the annexation of Crimea in a religious light, once again putting religion in the forefront of the bigger issue. The UOC(MP) still held on to neutral statements that seemed to support the Ukrainian side of things, while promoting the Russian World to the same people. The church had tried to support the Ukrainians, by sending letters to Putin and to Patriarch Kirill to hold the war off in March 2014.[17] While seeming to support the Ukrainian side of the conflict, when it erupted, the UOC(MP) went backwards, calling the conflict a ‘civil war’.[18] The UOC(KP) was quick to respond when conflict broke out, citing Russian aggression. They go a step further and state that the UOC(MP) cannot say that they “acknowledge the participation of Russia in this war because they are politically dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate.”[19] Patriarch Filaret of the UOC(KP) called out the UOC(MP) directly, accusing it of lying that there is a civil war in Ukraine, and that Russia is the aggressor in the conflict.

The Russian Orthodox Church, in the form of the UOC(MP) has consistently lost popularity since the Euromaidan, with the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas further plummeting its popularity in Ukraine. Had these events not occurred, it could be very possible that the UOC(MP) maintains its strong resources and position in Ukraine. The UOC(MP) lost popularity due to its connection with Russia, which already put them at a disadvantage. However, instead of repositioning their views to appeal to Ukrainians, the UOC(MP) had no choice but to maintain the positions that the Russian Orthodox Church ordered them to preach, and this led to a disappointing neutral position in most, if not all, of the conflicts. The government saw these weak stances and was quick to pass legislation restricting their activities in Ukraine. Eventually, these events led to the schism, and even the call to rename the UOC(MP) to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.[20] Whether right or wrong, Ukrainians accused the UOC(MP) for being an instrument of the Russian government and holding Russia’s interests over theirs.

The paper by Hudson states that “Indeed the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople looks increasingly likely to grant autocephalous status to a single national Orthodox Church in Ukraine.”[21] In 2018, that decision to grant such a status came, and much to the dismay of Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. From 2016, Ukrainian officials met with the Ecumenical Patriarch, asking for autocephaly and to intervene in the crisis between Ukraine and Russia. This was significant for Ukraine’s identity and for Russia’s decreasing influence because through these talks, Ukraine was able to skirt the Russian Orthodox Church as a cultural and religious center in Eastern Europe. With continuing disputes between Ukrainians and the UOC(MP), particularly in government, the Ukrainian government was desperate for a ruling to split the UOC(MP) from the Russian Orthodox Church. These meetings led eventually to the decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to allow the split of the UOC(MP) from the Russian Orthodox Church.[22] Ukraine was very happy with this decision – the Rada was quick to endorse this move by the church, at a loss to Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia has denounced such a move, as the schism is not in Russia’s interests for its foreign objectives.

Russia has responded to such significant moves in Ukraine and the West before, and with different tactics. When the Euromaidan broke out, Putin feared a similar popular backlash spreading from Ukraine to Russia, which would be a disaster for his popularity and power in Russia. Seeing Putin as an authoritarian, his main objective is to stay in power, and for Russians to come out and protest him as Ukrainians did Yanukovych would be detrimental to that objective. Therefore, Putin responded by annexing Crimea, Ukrainian territory. This move can be seen as preemption. In order to prevent any future protests in Russia that spread from Ukraine, Putin must consolidate his own popularity in Russia, and the annexation did just that. Putin also blamed the United States for having a role in the protest in Ukraine, and with that hated the promotion of democracy abroad by the United States. He argued that if the United States was able to spread their ideas of government to other countries, then Russia could also influence the governments of other countries. One can see this move as revenge, as Putin proceeded to interfere in the 2016 U.S elections. Russia’s navy also captured 3 Ukrainian ships on the Sea of Azov in 2018, much to the anger of Ukrainians, with some claiming it to be a declaration of war.[23] As shown, Russia has the ability to react strongly when their interests are opposed by events in and out of Russia. Regarding the split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin has yet to lay down a concrete plan of action, although he did warn of severe consequences for the political maneuvering. The Russian Orthodox Church then cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, the seat of the Orthodoxy.

The move to separate the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russia’s influence is a huge step towards building national identity for Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko stated that “For Ukrainians, our own Church is a guarantee of spiritual freedom. This is the key to social harmony.”[24] Poroshenko, as well as Ukrainians themselves, were delighted at the news, but some question the motives of it. There are reservations about how politically motivated it was, with one student claiming, “but I don’t like how politics is involved.”[25] When Poroshenko declared martial law in parts of Ukraine in wake of the incident with the 3 Ukrainians ships being seized, Russia accused Poroshenko of doing so just for the sake of the chances of his own reelection, and that this move was a perfect opportunity to increase his popularity, like to when Putin called the schism a political maneuvering. The church schism could be a similar one –Poroshenko could very much have openly supported this move so early and so often that he would be associated with it. Nevertheless, Ukrainians, particularly in the west, got the independent church that they supported, and have moved further from Russia.

Ukraine, despite the huge step forward that it took to gain its independent church, has much more ground to cover to further develop their national identity. While the Ecumenical Patriarch supports their endeavors on paper, the other recognized Orthodox Churches are far from it, especially the Russian Orthodox Church. Some of the other Orthodox Churches, like the Serbian and the Greek Orthodox Churches, are close with Moscow and will not acknowledge such a decision so easily. Also, since the move formally annulled the 1686 decision to transfer the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to Russian control, this means that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church needs to win back the parishes that it lost in 1686, some of which are outside Ukraine, in Belarus and Lithuania.[26] Also, the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church still has less parishes than the Moscow Patriarchate, although it has more of a following. With that being said, the Moscow Patriarchate still commands attention and influence in Ukraine. The independent Ukrainian church will have to deal with increasing their presence in Eastern Ukraine, where they do not have as significance of a presence. Also, they will have to contend with the Greek Catholics and other minority religions in Ukraine to prevent future religious crises in Ukraine. On top of that, there will be a property crisis in Ukraine between the UOC(MP) and the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which Putin states can possibly lead to bloodshed.[27]

As for Russian influence in Ukraine following the schism, the church has had less of an influence on Ukrainian culture, as more Ukrainians pledge their allegiance to the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church and no longer the Moscow Patriarchate. However, the Russian government has had no problem exerting their influence in Ukraine, as Russia seized three Ukrainian ships on the Sea of Azov. These two events are not connected, but still shows that Russia has leverage over Ukraine. There is still a significant portion of the Eastern part of Ukraine that pledges its allegiance to the UOC(MP), and those same people are likely to be in favor of reunification with Russia. When Putin instigated trouble in the Donbas region in what they call a civil war, those regions did not have as significant of a Russian population as Crimea did. Yet, Putin decided to go on with the operation, and even sent Russian troops in the fray when it was not going so great. Causing war in the remaining eastern regions of Ukraine over those that still pledge allegiance to the UOC(MP) is easily dismissible as a possible option for Russia. For one, the war in the Donbas has not tipped in Russia’s favor to this point, and have sent much of their resources to the front. These increasing costs are part of the contribution to the raising of the retirement age in Russia. Some of the funds for pensions in Russia were needed for other initiatives, including the war in Donbas. If Putin were to try to invade the regions of Ukraine that favor the Russian influence of the Moscow Patriarchate, he would need to spend much more money and at uncertain cost. The annexation of Crimea was a big success for Putin’s popularity, but the Donbas has costed Putin much money and has consequently led to a decrease in popularity, although that does not put his presidency in jeopardy. Another concern for Russia is that if they do retaliate against Ukraine, more sanctions could be on the way from the West, hurting Russia’s trade, and yet bringing Ukraine closer to the West. One possibility, however, is that Russia intensifies the property struggle between the two churches when the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church tries to reclaim its properties from the UOC(MP).

Given the huge disadvantages of a strong reaction to the schism like the war in the Donbas, Russia will have to search for alternatives if they are serious about consequences for Ukraine. Russia often utilizes what Michael McFaul would call “linkage’, which is the linking of two different issues in political negotiations. This means that Russia’s response to the religious schism would not come in a religion-related manner. It may well be that Russia just cuts some of its oil and gas supply to Ukraine in order to damage it that way. Russia is still a big business partner and neighbor to Ukraine, so Russia cutting trade with Ukraine can have huge consequences for Ukraine. Russia does have economic and militaristic ways of getting back at Ukraine if Russia is seriously committed to such ideas. However, Putin can be making such statements simply to gesture that he is strongly opposed to such a split. Given the lack of action by the West, other than sanctions, when Russia makes a move against their interests, Russia could also act similarly when Ukraine makes a move of their own.

From 1991, the UOC(MP) has had religious control over Ukraine, through services in Church Slavonic to spreading the idea of the Russian World to united Ukrainians and Russians together. While these measures were effective in spreading Russian ideologies to Ukrainians, when the Euromaidan rolled around, Ukrainians distanced themselves from the UOC(MP), with the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas not helping the cause. The church also maintained neutral positions regarding the conflicts, while other religious organizations were quick to side with Ukrainian protesters and offer aid. These divisions continued to drive Ukrainians out of the Moscow Patriarchate and to the UOC(KP), until the Ecumenical Patriarch allowed for the split and the creation of the national Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This move was met with anger in Russia and the opposite in Ukraine. For Ukraine, while this move means a greater definition of national identity that they sought, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will have to work with other Churches in and out of Ukraine in order to be acknowledged as a legitimate religious body, which may be a challenge with Churches having relations with Moscow. For Russia, it would be difficult to seek the consequences for Ukraine that Putin claimed was coming, due to the economic burdens associated with any military and economic action. Given the past economic damage done by the conflict in Donbas, Russia is unlikely to pursue any military operation in Ukraine in response to the schism, due to its own consequences. While Ukraine takes steps forward in developing its national identity, Russia will do all it can to block those steps, most likely through a property frenzy between the two churches.


[1] Victoria Hudson (2018 )The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as a Potential ‘Tool’ of Russian Soft Power in the Wake of Ukraine’s 2013 Euromaidan, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:9, 1355-1380, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1536780, pg. 1357

[2] Wilson, Andrew. The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, 3rd Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Pg. 234

[3] Ibid. Pg. 235

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Victoria Hudson (2018 )The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as a Potential ‘Tool’ of Russian Soft Power in the Wake of Ukraine’s 2013 Euromaidan, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:9, 1355-1380, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1536780, pg. 1365

[11] Ibid. Pg. 136

[12] Ibid. Pg. 1364

[13] Victoria Hudson (2018 )The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as a Potential ‘Tool’ of Russian Soft Power in the Wake of Ukraine’s 2013 Euromaidan, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:9, 1355-1380, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1536780, pg. 1368

[14] Ibid. Pg. 1372

[15] Ibid. Pg. 1374

[16] Victoria Hudson (2018 ) The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as a Potential ‘Tool’ of Russian Soft Power in the Wake of Ukraine’s 2013 Euromaidan, Europe-Asia Studies, 7:9, 1355-1380, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1536780, pg. 1375

[17] Denys Shestopalets (2018 ): The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the State and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, 2014–2018, Politics, Religion & Ideology, DOI: 10.1080/21567689.2018.1554482, pg. 6

[18] Ibid. pg. 11

[19] Ibid. pg. 12

[20] Higgins, Andrew. "As Ukraine and Russia Battle Over Orthodoxy, Schism Looms" The New York Times. December 31, 2018. Accessed January 15, 2019.

[21] Victoria Hudson (2018 ) The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as a Potential ‘Tool’ of Russian Soft Power in the Wake of Ukraine’s 2013 Euromaidan, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:9, 1355-1380, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1536780, pg. 1376

[22] Gall, Carlotta. "Ukrainian Orthodox Christians Formally Break From Russia." The New York Times. January 06, 2019. Accessed January 15, 2019.

[23] "Russia-Ukraine Tensions Rise after Kerch Strait Ship Capture." BBC News. November 26, 2018. Accessed January 15, 2019.

[24] Gall, Carlotta. "Ukrainian Orthodox Christians Formally Break From Russia." The New York Times. January 06, 2019. Accessed January 15, 2019.

[25] Gall, Carlotta. "Ukrainian Orthodox Christians Formally Break From Russia." The New York Times. January 06, 2019. Accessed January 15, 2019.

[26] Peter, Laurence. "Orthodox Church Split: Five Reasons Why It Matters." BBC News. October 17, 2018. Accessed January 15, 2019.

[27] Higgins, Andrew. "As Ukraine and Russia Battle Over Orthodoxy, Schism Looms" The New York Times. December 31, 2018. Accessed January 15, 2019.

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