Long history behind bitter Orthodox schism in Ukraine
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After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Orthodox Christians throughout the Slavic world celebrated the slow, steady construction of churches after decades of persecution.
In 2004, the poet Nina Borodai wrote a long prayer — “Song of the Most Holy Theotokos” (Greek for “God-bearer”) — seeking the prayers of St. Mary for the lands of “Holy Rus,” a term with roots dating to the 988 conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev.
“Mother of God, Mother of God / … All Holy Rus prays to you / And valleys and mountains and forests. … / Consecrate all the churches to you,” wrote Borodai (computer translation from Russian). “Domes, domes in the sky are blue / I can’t count the bells / The ringing floats, floats over Russia / Mother Rus is awakening.”
Borodai’s prayer of joy and repentance was an unlikely spark for an explosion of religious conflict inside Ukraine. Leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — with centuries of canonical ties to Russian Orthodoxy — face Security Service of Ukraine accusations of collusion with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Some churches have been seized or padlocked as pressures rise for conversions to the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine, officially born in 2019 with recognition by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Istanbul and Western governments.
In November, an OCU priest posted a video showing laypeople singing Borodai’s poem after a service inside the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the font of Slavic monasticism since its birth in 1051 in caves above the Dnieper River. Monastery critics made headlines by claiming the video proved the monks — part of the historic UOC — are disloyal to Ukraine. Lavra visitors, according to the New York Times, were “cheering for Russia.”
Days later, security forces raided the monastery and, in the weeks since, officials have accused bishops and priests of aiding Russia. They released photos of Russian passports, theological texts in Russian and pamphlets criticizing the newly created Ukrainian church.
The UOC synod responded by pleading for fair, open trials of anyone accused, while noting: “From the first day of the invasion of Russian troops, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has condemned this war and has consistently advocated the preservation of the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Our believers, with God’s help and the prayers of their fellow believers, courageously defend their Motherland in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. … Memory eternal to all victims of this terrible war!”
This echoed waves of UOC statements condemning the invasion. When fighting began, Father Nikolay Danilevich, head of its church relations office, tweeted: “Putin treacherously attacked our country! We bless everyone for the defense of Ukraine! … God save Ukraine!”
UOC Metropolitan Onuphry proclaimed: “We appeal to the President of Russia and ask him to immediately stop the fratricidal war. The Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the Dnieper Baptismal font, and the war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy.”
Orthodox believers around the world have been stunned by these events, while watching for signs that global Orthodox leaders will intervene in this schism. I am Orthodox and have — in 2009 and 2012 — worshipped in the Lavra and visited its vast underground matrix of sanctuaries, tombs and monastic cells. It’s hard to imagine officers with machine guns walking past the bodies of numerous saints.
After meeting believers on both sides, I believe three clashing views of “Holy Rus” have shaped this tragedy.
Putin proclaims that the Rus is real, and this justifies his invasion. Supporters of the new Ukrainian church argue that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, after years of conflict with Russian Orthodoxy, had the authority to trump centuries of Slavic history and create the OCU.
Caught in the middle, leaders of the historic UOC say the Rus is a historical reality but insist that this makes Russia’s invasion even worse — the sin of brothers killing brothers.
During worship in my own east Tennessee parish — part of the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russian roots — we continue to pray “for those who are suffering, wounded, grieving or displaced because of the war in Ukraine. And for a cessation of the hostilities against Ukraine, and that reconciliation and peace will flourish there, we pray thee, hearken and have mercy.”