Autocephalous Ukrainian Church: a history that has lasted for 100 years (Overview)

The new Church in Kiev fulfills a dream already attempted in 1919, blocked by Soviet events. A victory for Filaret, patriarch of Kiev, excommunicated by Moscow. Poroshenko hopes to be re-elected, having become the protector of the national Church. The only defeated is Kirill, the patriarch of Moscow. Fears of clashes between the faithful, priests and bishops linked to Kiev or Moscow.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - The initiative that led to the establishment of the new autocephalous Ukrainian Church dates back to the first attempt to establish an independent state after the 1917 revolution. The executive of the People's Republic of Ukraine on 1 January 1919, passed a law "On the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church", but everything was brought to a halt with the annexation of the new republic to the Soviet state; the Tomos will then be finally granted 100 years exactly from its first request.

The aspiration for ecclesiastical independence was renewed at the end of the Soviet Union, in 1991. Even before the collapse of the regime, on June 10, 1990, a fracture took place in the election of the new patriarch of Moscow, after the death of the patriarch Pimen (Izvekov) who had been in office since 1971, during the long Brezhnevian "stagnation". Among the main hierarchy of the Russian Church there were some very "aligned" metropolitans, who had accepted active collaboration with the politics of the regime, in order to save the ecclesial structure as much as possible. Two of the most important were Aleksij (Ridiger), metropolitan of Leningrad, who was elected in place of Pimen as the new patriarch, and Filaret (Denisenko), who took second place in the vote and remained metropolitan of Kiev.

The disappointment with the lack of election, together with the winds of independence that were already blowing among the Soviet republics, led Filaret to announce a separation from Moscow, and thus in fact the start of the procedure to obtain autocephaly. The following year ended Gorbachev’s reform, with the attempted putsch of the KGB and unseating by Yeltsyn; in 1992, independent Ukraine was born, which finally became a nation for the first time in its tormented history. The premier, and then first president Leonid Kuchma supported the aspirations of Filaret, who turned to the patriarchate of Constantinople with the official request for autocephaly. Most of the Ukrainian Orthodox bishops signed the request, including the current metropolitan of Kiev Onufryj (Berezovsky), head of the jurisdiction tied to Moscow, which today has officially lost its title to the Ukrainian law.

The work of Filaret

In the meantime, the Patriarchate Synod met in Moscow and eventually excommunicated Filaret, declaring him schismatic and reducing him to the lay state. In response, Filaret had himself elected and appointed patriarch by the Ukrainian bishops loyal to him, assuming the symbols and vestments equal to those of the patriarch of Moscow (which are distinguished from all other Orthodox patriarchates, for the pomposity and imitation of the "Roman" papal vestments), even though during the election of the new primate, out of respect, his head remained uncovered. The Patriarchate of Constantinople then preferred to "freeze" judgment, to avoid a complete break with Moscow already in the 1990s, with which it was already in conflict for a similar situation in Estonia (the native country of the same Patriarch Aleksij II).

Subsequently, Ukrainian politics continued to sway between a pro-Russian and a pro-Western line, remaining substantially linked to Russia due to energy dependency and production and market dynamics. The patriarchate of Moscow tried to assist and strengthen the ranks of the faithful communities as much as possible, trying to remain the main Church of Ukraine, something that has been succeeded from the numerical point of view, but not from the symbolic and political one, in which the patriarch Filaret has always remained the dominant personality.

Majdan and Crimea

The 2013-2014 crisis, with the demonstrations of Majdan Square in Kiev, led to the overthrow of the corrupt government of President Yanukovich, who refused the agreement with the European Union. This provoked the heightened tension with the Russian Federation, which led to the annexation of Crimea by the latter on March 18, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin rode the wave of nationalist enthusiasm to the victory cry "Crimea is ours!", in which historical-cultural and even religious motivations were reflected, Crimea being a "sacred land", where the first prince of Kiev, Vladimir the Great, was baptized. Patriarch Kirill distanced himself from this excess of euphoria, without "annexing" Crimea from an ecclesiastical point of view, out of fear of a definitive crisis with the Ukrainian Orthodox world, as indeed happened.

The new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, has instead decided to directly use the ecclesiastical argument as an ideological justification for the "new Ukraine", which affirms its independence above all from the eternal Muscovite master. The ideal occasion was presented in June 2016, when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I presided over the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, from which at the last moment the Patriarchate of Moscow had departed. The reasons for this absence were not very understandable, but now it is clear that the Russians feared that the question of the Ukrainian autocephaly would already emerge at the Council, which would have greatly reduced the role of the Russian Church in the Orthodox scene. Bartholomew could not forget such an offense, caused in the first person and all of Orthodoxy, which in its thousand-year history (since the schism of 1054) has never succeeded in celebrating a universal Council.

In the autumn of 2016, Poroshenko decided to renew the request for autocephaly to Constantinople, supported by the Ukrainian parliament and by the country's political and cultural elite, with the exception of the pro-Russian "hybrid" provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, in which conflicts are still ongoing. The two years allowed Bartholomew to deal with all the leaders of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches (which, moreover, avoided expressing themselves openly), including that of Moscow; Patriarch Kirill even went to Istanbul at the end of August this year, in a last attempt to avert the crisis.

Bartholomew and Kirill

The rest is recent news, with the acceleration of the final process of establishing the new Church, supported by President Poroshenko with all his strength. The rush to conclude is also motivated by the imminence of the Ukrainian presidential elections, which will take place in the spring of 2019. Not having received clear guarantees of re-election from the polls, Poroshenko is trying to boost his popularity, from that of "opportunist oligarch", to new protector of the national Church.

Filaret himself, now 91, was clearly interested in finding a successor who was universally recognized as soon as possible, identified in his young ex-secretary Epifanyj. After seeing all the variations of the political regime and of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the "old lion" of the Russian-Ukrainian Church of Soviet memory can now contemplate his masterpiece, bringing with him definitively the title of "patriarch of Kiev", until now 'unique in history, even if now only as "emeritus".


The patriarch of Moscow Kirill (Gundjaev) appears as the great loser of the whole affair. His arm wrestling with Bartholomew led the Russian Church to complete isolation, breaking the Eucharistic relations with the ecumenical patriarchate and embarrassing all the other Churches, including the Catholic Church. Several members of the Moscow Patriarchate, such as the Metropolitan of Pskov Tikhon (Ševkunov), had pushed for a preventive reconciliation with the Ukrainians and with Filaret himself, to arrive at an autocephaly "granted" by Moscow, but pride prevailed and the refusal of any compromise, embodied by the maximalist positions of metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev), Kirill's right-hand man and tireless propagandist of the break with the "schismatics".

Time, perhaps, will succeed in soothing the wounds, allowing a reconciliation between Russians, Ukrainians and Greeks, locally and universally. In the meantime, however, the new Ukrainian Church will try to assert its superiority in the country, urging pro-Russian parishes to move to the new Church (according to Ukrainian law, each parish can decide autonomously by simple majority of the faithful, without the need for permission of the bishop). There is a strong risk of new conflicts and hostile actions against those who remain faithful to the "foreign" Church of Moscow. It is to be hoped that the interference of the governments and armies, already lined along on the two fronts of the great dispute, will not come to pass. (VR)