The celebration is highly symbolic since the baptism of ancient Russia (Rus) occurred in what is now Ukraine. Only a year ago, the Russian parliament (Duma) passed a law recognising as a national holiday the day in which Prince Vladimir gathered the inhabitants of Kyiv on the shores of the Dnieper River in the summer of 988 AD for mass baptism by Byzantine priests.
The event set in motion the long process of Christianisation of Russia and it is highly significant as a symbol of Slavic unity, which the patriarch has referred to in the past.
“Dear Ukrainians, in the past you contributed to the creation of the Empire and the Russian Church. The Empire that once was, and that shall be, will be partly yours. You tried to go west, but you found nothing good there. However, if we are united, we can stop being horses and can start being horsemen. Let us move in that direction,” Patriarch Kirill said to the Moscow Patriarchate’s Ukrainian cousins.
Together, Russia and Ukraine, "We preserve unity as nation. We're joining the family of other European nations not as a guided nation hanging upon words of the other, stronger partner, but as equal partners, bearers of our own historic and cultural code," Patriarch Kirill said in his interview to Ukrainian TV-channels on the eve of his visit to Ukraine.
The patriarch also used the occasion to stress the community of view between the Patriarchate and Pope Benedict XVI. “The Pope’s views are reasons for optimism . . . . On many social and moral issues, his approach coincides with that of Russian Orthodox Church. This will give us an opportunity to defend Christian values together, in particular in the international community.”
This is Kirill’s third visit to the Ukraine since his election in January 2009. His first trip, which occurred in August 2009, led to protests by supporters of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church has to cope with strong tensions with other Orthodox Churches. There are in fact three Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church loyal to the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC).
The Moscow Patriarchate recognises only the UOC-MP; however, last year Kirill did show some openness towards the other two Churches. At least one issue, all three are united, namely opposition to the Greek Catholic Church of the Ukraine.
The election of a pro-Russian president, Yanukovych, opened the door to intra-Orthodox dialogue, which might lead to possible unification.
Viktor Elenski, an Orthodox Church expert at the Ukrainian Institute of Philosophy, said that in Ukraine, “the ideas about Slavic unity promoted by the patriarch have a great following” but “are seen more in political than in spiritual terms.”
“The Moscow Patriarchate follows Russian policy and the patriarch’s visit has contributed to the polarisation of the country” between the pro-Russian east and pro-Western nationalists.
“We have a saying,” Elenski said, “to explain the situation. Ukraine needs two visits from the US president and no more than one from that of Russia, because after the latter, there will be certainly little to do.”