The war in Ukraine is destroying relations between Christians; it is the great schism of Orthodoxy. There are twice as many practicing Ukrainian Orthodox as there are Russian Orthodox. Most of the dioceses that remained under Moscow jurisdiction after the proclamation of autocephaly in 2018 have decided not to cite Patriarch Kirill’s name in their liturgies anymore. All the other national Orthodox Churches will have to take a more explicit position on what is happening.
The war in Ukraine began in 2014 when the Maidan Revolution brought to the fore the opposition between Kyiv and Moscow, a centuries-old confrontation that today has reached its most extreme point.
Whatever the outcome of military operations, peace negotiations and the division of territories, deep and inextricable rancour will remain between the two brotherly peoples, drawing a line between not only Slavs and Europeans, but also between different geopolitical and ideological alignments across the world.
We are all “either Russians or Ukrainians”, “a little Russian and a little Ukrainian”, “neither Russian nor Ukrainian” as this tragedy reshapes the consciousness of the men and women of the 21st century, much more than Islamic terrorism in this century’s first 20 years.
This war is destroying relations between Christians much more than all the alternatives and contradictions between East and West, globalizers and sovereigntists, Atlanticists and pacifists, neo-Nazis and theorists of real or alleged conspiracies.
It is the Great Schism in the East and within Orthodoxy. Eastern Christians never experienced as much internal divisions and anger, as the Christians of the West unfortunately did in the second millennium, when endless conflicts pitted the Papacy against the Empire, reformers against traditionalists, Catholics against Protestants, Huguenots against Sanfedisti, etc.
Europe is a continent of wars, often of religion and ideology, and its ancient Byzantine part is now reviving medieval ghosts and modern terrors.
The very term of Orthodoxy, imposed over the centuries by patristic councils against heresies, presupposes the identification of a heterodox “enemy”, someone of the “other faith”, different from the only true and dogmatic faith.
The split between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, which sadly began the second Christian millennium, seemed to have definitively settled the matter, leaving the ancient canons to the Easterners while driving Western Christians to seek new forms of Christianity, from those of the Middle Ages to those of the later centuries, based on reason and enlightenment.
In reality, no one knows exactly what divides Catholics from Orthodox, and by now even from Protestants, but the division of the areas of influence had left everyone satisfied, never mind if the world moved further and further away from faith and Christianity. The important thing was to guard one's own bell tower.
Within Orthodoxy, this sense of “exclusiveness” has held together communities in very different situations, from the haughty Greeks to the unpredictable and creative but often rebellious and ambitious Slavs. An ecclesiastical communion based on "conciliarity” distinguishes itself precisely by the lack of a dominant centre, never able to meet in council and truly agree on anything, turning instead to ancient canons that each interprets in their own way.
The “ecumenical” tradition of the old patriarchates was eventually replaced by an ethno-national profile created by the Russians at the end of 16th century, which eventually became the only true universal Orthodox kingdom. This later conformed to the various political subdivisions of modern nations, some 15 local Churches at present, each its own camp in a spiritual, bureaucratic and finally military war whose outcome is not yet known.
For a long time, the Orthodox in the Russian Empire, including those in Poland who formed Ukraine starting around 1600, were the great holders and defenders of the banner of the Eastern Church – since all the others (including non-Orthodox belonging to Armenian, Coptic, Syriac minorities and others) were held under the Ottoman Muslim yoke. As the great Russian philosopher and theologian Vladimir Solovyov put it at the end of the 19th century, the Eastern Church was nothing more than an extreme, highly “spiritualised” variant of Christianity.
Even after a century of state atheism and the worldwide process of secularisation, the community of Russians and Ukrainians continued to represent the main body of world Orthodoxy, well over half of the faithful, priests and churches at home and abroad.
Tensions with the Constantinople patriarchate, "primus inter pares" with unspecified prerogatives, have characterised Orthodox history since the origins of Kievan Rus', and even more Muscovite “Holy Russia”, but without ever reaching a complete break.
The Greeks have always been aware of the inevitable subservience to Russia’s intrusiveness, which has always ended up resolving territorial and canonical disputes to its advantage, starting precisely with its control of Ukrainian lands.
Such “forced harmony” has now been definitively shattered; never again will Moscow and Constantinople embrace one another, except in an eschatological union among all Christians, bringing together the first, second and third Rome in a future that can only be in God’s hands.
Two thirds of the entire Orthodox world, the Russians and the Ukrainians, are divided by a war that began even before Putin’s invasion in February. It begun in the 1990s, with the proclamation of Ukraine’s independence, which led to a first ecclesiastical schism, marginal in the beginning, until it reappeared in an explicit and official form after the events of 2014, especially 2016, when the Moscow Patriarchate refused to participate in the Pan-Orthodox Council of Crete, the first in Orthodox history in a thousand years.
This was followed by the approval of Kyiv’s autocephaly, an insult to Russia’s imperial idea, one that runs much deeper than the “cultural genocide” seemingly suffered by the pro-Russia population of the Donbass, a form of “religious persecution” of Ukraine’s true Moscow-oriented Orthodox by a corrupt and “neo-Nazi” state imposed on Kyiv by the Western Antichrist.
The choices made by then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, predecessor of current President Volodymyr Zelenskyj, rubbed salt in the wounds felt by Kirill and Putin. An oligarch himself and a reflection of Moscow’s own ruling caste, Poroshenko took the initiative to have the new metropolitan see of Kyiv consecrated by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In January 2019 he went to the Phanar, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul together with the new hierarch Epiphanius, to receive from the hands of Patriarch Bartholomew the Tomos which marks forever the split between Ukraine from Russia, a real declaration of war to which the Russians finally responded in 2022.
It is not surprising then that the patriarch of Moscow backs the president’s war proclamations, adding his own “metaphysical” explanations, which are rooted in symbolic conceptions that run deeper than the military controversies themselves.
After Kirill gave his pro-Putin homily on 6 March, Ukrainian Churches linked to the Moscow patriarchate stopped to commemorate his name during the liturgy, starting the real schism among the Orthodox. In Ukraine, autocephalous Churches are half the size of the pro-Moscow Church, which remained loyal to Kirill despite its own desire to feel like an autonomous Church.
Some churches and monasteries have already announced their formal transition to the Church of Epiphanius. Now Moscow risks being left without its western, most devout and faithful half.
In Russia, out of 80 million nominally Orthodox, at most five million go to church regularly. By contrast, out of 15 million Ukrainians more than half go to church on a regular basis. To these must be added six million, highly practicing members of the autocephalous Church as well as three million Greek Catholics, who follow the Orthodox tradition but are in communion with Rome.
In short, there are twice as many Ukrainian Orthodox as there are Russian Orthodox. Counting churches and parishes means precious little since numbers are played with when it is convenient. In Moscow itself, once described as the city of “forty forties”, a reference to the number of domes it had, the more churches are built, the fewer the faithful who attend them.
Pro-Moscow Metropolitan Onufriy, who for years resisted amid the crossfire of opposing nationalisms, today is calling on Patriarch Kirill and the leaders of Russia to "respect the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, immediately cease the fratricidal war, the sin of Cain who killed Abel out of envy ... This war has no justification, neither before God, nor man.”
So far, more than half of the 52 dioceses under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate have dropped Patriarch Kirill’s name from ritual commemorations, and this has immediately created a different notion of ecclesial identity.
In the liturgy, in fact, it is sufficient to remember one's local bishop to be in communion with the universal Church. The “diptychs” that list all the names of the top hierarchs are more important to the clergy than to the faithful, and have more “political” than spiritual or even dogmatic significance. It is up to the bishop to define his relationship with the patriarch, the metropolitan, or the pope in the Catholic version.
Now, not only are Ukrainian parishes and dioceses distancing themselves from the patriarch, but so are many entities of the Russian Church in Europe and other parts of the world.
The parish of Amsterdam, which takes care of the Orthodox in the Netherlands, has already declared its separation from Moscow. Odd at the very least is the fate of the network of Russian churches – a hundred or so parishes in various European countries with the centre in Paris that up to 2018 constituted the Russian exarchate of Constantinople.
Patriarch Bartholomew let them go to avoid having to answer to Russian believers, and most of the churches joined the Moscow Patriarchate. Today they are among the most outraged by Kirill's “imperial turn”, which revives memories of Soviet times and “pro-regime Churches”, which was the reason for the creation of the exarchate in the first place. Even the Russian-Lithuanian Metropolitan of Vilnius Innokenty, who has always been loyal to Kirill, condemned the "war of Russia against Ukraine".
Almost 300 Orthodox priests in Russia itself signed an appeal for reconciliation and an end to the invasion. To them must be added the members of the Russian Church outside of Russia (Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov' Zagranitsey). Set up after the revolution to support the tsarist Orthodox ideal, it was reunited with Moscow in 2004 thanks to the efforts of then Metropolitan Kirill, but today it demands the “end of hatred and division” by siding with Onufriy of Kyiv.
Paradoxically, the “Old Believers” seem to be the most pro-Putin. Heirs to a 17th century schism that asserted the superiority of Russia’s tradition over Greece’s, they were persecuted for centuries by the Moscow Patriarchate, the tsars and later the Soviets. Not surprisingly, in recent years, Vladimir Putin has openly expressed his sympathy for this separate and ethnocentric branch of Russian Orthodoxy.
The name of the patriarch is also no longer mentioned even at the monastery of the Kyiv Caves, the cradle of Russian monasticism and spirituality, which has always been faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate.
To assert its supremacy, Russian Orthodoxy now risks almost irreparably losing its unity and identity, even its relationship with the rest of the universal Church.
It is not unclear what the pro-Moscow dioceses in Ukraine will do, whether they’ll merge with the autocephalous Church or set up another separate entity, but the war will certainly force all the other national Orthodox Churches to take a more explicit position. So far only Alexandria and Athens have sided with Constantinople and recognised Ukrainian autocephaly, while only Antioch and Serbia have stood with Moscow.
The other eight Churches (Jerusalem, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Cyprus, Poland, Moldavia, Georgia) appear to be increasingly leaning away from Russia, who will find itself more and more isolated.
Some Orthodox theologians are even arguing that the Russian Church is not only canonically “pushy” and its support for the war unacceptable, but even heretical since it backs the political notion of a “Russian World” (see here).
The latter is a heresy that develops an extreme version of the so-called phyletism or ethnophyletism – the principle of nationalism applied in the ecclesiastical domain conflating Church and nation – which was condemned in the past because it went against the “ecumenical” or universal nature of the Church, i.e., the “catholic” vision that prevails in the West.
According to many theologians in the Orthodox diaspora, the new “ethno-imperialism” is nothing more than the “putinisation” of the Russian Church and Russian society. While the war began with the call for the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, today Eastern and Western Christians all over the world are demanding the “de-putinisation” of Orthodoxy.