The Fall of the ‘Third Rome’

Throughout 2018, the attention of Ukrainian society was focused on creating an independent (autocephalous) Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Even those who are far from the realities of church life have been passionately following these processes. In October 2018, Kateryna Shchetkina, a columnist for the Ukrainian newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, asked how, within a few months, this little known topic had become the focus of attention for the general public, who followed it with the excitement of football fans. “Of course, football fans do not care about ‘grace’, ‘apostolic continuity’, ‘canonicality’ and other purely church things,’ Shchetkina wrote, ‘but it is about ‘us’ having a victory over ‘them’ and that’s enough.”

There is nothing unusual, however, about this reaction. In Ukrainian minds, the topic of the church has long been part of the national-historical and current socio-political discourse. The problem of autocephaly is also being considered at present in the broad context of cultural and political circumstances. The archimandrite Kirill Govorun, Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA, and one of the most authoritative researchers on the topic, wrote that today the concept of autocephaly goes far beyond its original, narrow church-based meaning, turning autocephaly into mythology. “It is not only church hierarchs, but also politicians that are fighting for or against autocephaly, putting it on the agenda of their actions, party programs and ideologies. Sometimes, autocephaly becomes an ele- ment of international politics,” says Govorun. “Being linked with the idea of a nation and national independence, autocephaly has become an attribute of statehood for the new developing national orthodox countries, much like the anthem, the flag or the national currency.”

Many attempts to gain independence from Moscow

Having been christened by Byzantium in 988, the Kiev church was in the Constantinople jurisdiction. In the mid-eleventh century, the Kiev clergy independently elected the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia. The Kiev principality was a full-fledged subject of Civitas Christiana, and the daughters of the Kiev prince would become the queens of Hungary, France and Norway. In the thirteenth century, Kiev was destroyed as a result of internecine struggle and the Tartar-Mongol invasion. The Kiev metropolitans moved north: first to Vladimir, then to Moscow. In 1448, under the Tsar’s order and without the approval of Constantinople, the Council of Russian Bishops elected Jonah as Metropolitan. Thus, the Moscow church independently proclaimed autocephaly without coordination with Constantinople (that is, without receiving the Thomos). The heirs of Jonah ceased to be called ‘Kievan’, assuming the name of the Metropolitans of Moscow and All Russia.

The Patriarchate, contributed to the rise of the ideology of Moscow as the Third Rome, and the absorption of the Kiev church by the Moscow church.

The Metropolis existed 141 years in such a non-canonical condition, not recognized by other Orthodox Churches. In 1589, as a result of captivity, blackmail and bribery, the Patriarch of Constantinople Jeremiah II granted the status of Patriarch to the Moscow Metropolitan. The Patriarchate, obtained in such an illegitimate way, contributed to the rise of the ideology of Moscow as the Third Rome, and the absorption of the Kiev church by the Moscow church. This process finally came to an end with the annexation of the Kiev church in 1686 under the pressure of Peter I.

Constantinople never came to terms with it, continuing to consider the Kiev church to be its ‘daughter’. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church tried many times to gain independence from Moscow, but all such attempts were unsuccessful. Once again, this issue was raised with particular urgency with Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

The Presidents of the country as patrons

Since the early 1990s, there have been several Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (in fact, the Ukrainian Metropolitan Church of the Russian Orthodox Church) and two Ukrainian national churches not recognized by global Orthodoxy: the Ukrainian Autocefalic Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. None of these churches is the church of most Ukrainians. Two Ukrainian churches attempted to unite twice, in 1995 and 2003, but did not succeed. At different times, individual presidents of the country acted as patrons to one or the other branch of Orthodoxy.

Since the mid-2000s, Russia has become more active in the foreign policy arena, opting for an increasingly aggressive style. Russia’s aggression against Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) should be considered part of this policy.

These preferences clearly demonstrated the geopolitical orientation of the Ukrainian leaders. Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych supported, for example, the pro-Russian Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). Leonid Kravchuk, Viktor Yushchenko and Petro Poroshenko, in contrast, supported the ‘Ukrainian’ churches. And while Kravchuk faced the task of ‘creating’ an independent church in an independent country (UOC-KP), Yushchenko and Poroshenko faced the question of ‘legalizing’ these churches in the face of global Orthodoxy. This was expected in order to give these churches significance in the internal Ukrainian processes and in the world arena while weakening Moscow’s influences. For this very reason, the struggle around the autocephaly of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine became one of the main issues in Ukraine’s and Russia’s international policies in the last quarter of the century. These processes have pushed the Constantinople Patriarchate to function more actively.

The church policy as a key element of Putin ́s strategy

This activity coincided with the global processes that took place in recent years in Eastern Europe on the one hand, and within the Orthodox world, on the other. In 2003–2004, Georgia and Ukraine experienced ‘colorful revolutions’, following which the leaders of these countries declared their pro-European ambitions. In Russia, it was perceived as an unfriendly activity on the part of the USA and NATO in Russia’s territories of influence. These, and a number of other events, have led to a change in Russia’s official foreign policy doctrine.

Its main pillars were articulated in 2007, in Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech, which condemned the unipolarity of the modern world and NATO’s expansion to the east. Earlier on, in 2005, in his message to the Federal Assembly, Putin called the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” Since the mid-2000s, Russia has become more active in the foreign policy arena, opting for an increasingly aggressive style. Russia’s aggression against Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) should be considered part of this policy. The church policy is also becoming a key element within that strategy. This factor has been especially strong since 2009, when the newly elected Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) has promoted the doctrine of the ‘Russian world’ based on the Orthodox religion, the Russian language, and the common view of historical development. Since that time, the struggle at the symbolic level, i.e. in the perspective on culture and history, including the church, has intensified, becoming one of the key factors in the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.

The newly elected Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) has promoted the doctrine of the ‘Russian world’ based on the Orthodox religion, the Russian language, and the common view of historical development.

The independence became pressing in the context of the Russian aggression

After coming to power in 2004, President Yushchenko set a goal to achieve autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Ukrainian diplomacy has been actively negotiating with Phanar. During the celebrations of the 1,020 anniversary of the Baptism of Russia, Patriarch Bartholomew paid a visit to Kiev. In his speech, he emphasized Constantinople’s rights to the Kiev church and twice called the policy of the Moscow Patriarchate in respect to the Kiev Metropolis as ‘annexation’. At that time, the goal could not be achieved. Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow intervened in the process and Moscow promised to get involved in the regulation of the church issue in Ukraine, only for the entire process to later be ‘put on hold’.

Events around the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church have demonstrated how closely the issue of religion is woven into the canvas of geopolitical processes of the modern world.

The independence of the Ukrainian Church became particularly pressing in 2014 in the context of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. The activity of Ukrainian diplomacy in this matter coincided with the final preparations for the All-Orthodox Council, an event the Orthodox world had been preparing for the previous 50 years. On the eve of the Council in the summer of 2016, the Parliament of Ukraine adopted an appeal to Patriarch Bartholomew, requesting him to invalidate the act of 1686 and take an active part in regulating the Ukrainian church issue. This provoked a protest move from the Russian Orthodox Church, which did not send the delegates to the All-Orthodox Council. Since then, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has taken a number of active steps aimed at providing autocephaly to Ukraine. These took place against the backdrop of the increasing pressure of sanctions and Russia’s isolation. A number of high-profile American and European politicians expressed their support for the granting of autocephaly to Ukraine.

The delegitimization of the myth of the Third Rome

As a result, in October 2018, the Synod of the Church of Constantinople, lifted the anathemas from the ‘non-canonical’ hierarchs of the Ukrainian churches and revoked the 1686 decisions on granting temporary rights to the Kiev church to Moscow. In December 2018, the unification council of Ukrainian churches took place in Kiev, and on 5 January 2019 Patriarch Bartholomew granted the tomos to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Like the master of beads from Hermann Hesse’s novel entitled The Glass Bead Game, Patriarch Bartholomew symbolically reformatted the history of Eastern Europe in the last few centuries with one stroke of a pen. He delegitimized the myth of Moscow as the Third Rome as “Moscow’s most ancient conceptual claim to world domination” (P. Poroshenko), and demonstrated that, in both the first and third millennium, ‘the second Rome’ can still play a key role in historical and geopolitical processes. According to Poroshenko, this was another act of proclaiming Ukraine’s independence. “The empire is losing one of its last levers of influence on its former colony. For us, our own church is the guarantee of our spiritual freedom and a guarantee of social harmony.”

Events around the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church have demonstrated how closely the issue of religion is woven into the canvas of geopolitical processes of the modern world. In 1996, the sociologist Peter Berger wrote that the modern world remains as furiously religious as it has always been. As if echoing him in his latest work, Francis Fukuyama notes that modern politics is shaped today by identities. And religion continues to be an important part of any identity.

Alexander Dobroyer

Alexander Dobroyer is sociologist, philosopher, theologian and journalist. Moderator of the Leadership Seminars of The Aspen Institute Kiev. Program Coordinator of the IdeasFest (Odessa). Concept Manager in the Personal Branding Agency “Obrani”. Academic Director of Impact Hub Odessa.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 03/2019

Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

Download PDF