East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 5, No. 3, Summer 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


Jurisdictional Conflicts Among Orthodox and Eastern-Rite Catholics in Russia and Ukraine

Janice Broun

Jurisdictions in Conflict with the Moscow Patriarchate
About 40 parishes in Russia and russified regions of Ukraine expressed dissatisfaction with the Moscow Patriarchate by joining the True Russian Orthodox Church (TROC), formally established in May 1990--in some cases entering the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA), which now has three diocesan bishops in Russia.  ROCA, originally founded by emigres in Yugoslavia in 1923, has its headquarters in New York.  It is implacably opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate, which, it alleges, sold out to Communism and is "weaponless in the war for men's souls." Church historian Sabrina Ramet, however, emphasizes that the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCA have much in common; both are characterized by extreme ecclesiastical nationalism and theological and liturgical conservatism.  ROCA, which idolizes the prerevolutionary Orthodox Church and the autocratic tsars, canonized Tsar Nicholas II in 1982, a politically charged move, which, in the face of considerable internal pressure, the Moscow Patriarch managed to avoid in February 1997.

Despite the above, True Orthodox, led by Bishop Valentin of Suzdal, now consider the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad too ecumenical.  Its members have emerged from the catacombs--bishops and priests, as well as simple lay people, such as the 40 families in Starya Tishanka village who have maintained their worship deprived of priests for 60 years.  Because of their steadfast refusal to have anything to do with the government, to join collective farms, to pay taxes, to carry passports, or to answer questions under investigation, they suffered appallingly in Soviet labor camps and are still marginalized.  True Orthodoxy, which now numbers some 100 parishes, presents itself as the only pure, untainted Orthodox Church and is often extremely nationalistic.  Most members boycotted the 1996 presidential elections in protest over state partiality toward the Moscow Patriarchate

Although in 1996 True Orthodox at long last received official recognition from the Ministry of Justice, and the number of registered parishes continues to grow, it finds itself blocked by the Moscow Patriarchate, which appears to consider the True Orthodox a genuine threat to its authority.  True Orthodox representative Father Alexander Sergiev maintains that the majority of its believers can hardly leave the catacombs:  True Orthodox unsuccessfully petitioned Yeltsin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov for four churches or church sites in Moscow.  Luzhkov even refused them two empty churches donated by Old Believers.  In desperation, clergy appealed in 1996 to join the jurisdictions of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Estonian Orthodox Apostolic Church, both of which were sympathetic.

Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of the Interior in October 1996 branded True Orthodoxy as an antisocial group posing a danger to citizens' moral, physical, and psychological health.  Presumably because of its past ties with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, it also is grouped with foreign religious sects.  Russian security services regularly harass True Orthodox.  TROC Bishop Amvrosi holds the security organs responsible for threats on his life and for the murder of three TROC bishops and five other members in recent years.

According to Dr. Larisa Skuratovskaya, 98 additional parishes have left the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate to form the Russian Orthodox Free Church (ROFC).  The 1997 Law on Religion, which severely restricts religious groups which were not registered by the Soviet authorities in 1982, threatens the very existence of breakaway Orthodox churches.  Fr. Mikhail Makeyev, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Free Church's only Moscow parish, fears that he may lose the lease to a worship site and may be forced to meet in members' flats.

Old Believers, who objected to changes in the liturgy accepted by a Russian Orthodox Church council and the tsar in 1666-67, also pose a challenge to the Moscow Patriarchate.  Though they legitimately can claim to be more "Russian" and "traditional" than the Russian Orthodox Church, they nevertheless suffer discrimination at the hands of officials unwilling to risk antagonizing the Moscow Patriarchate.  With perhaps 250 parishes in 43 provinces, Old Believers have opposed changes in the 1990 law on religion partly because, with a presence in less than half of Russian provinces, they stand to lose their "all-Russian" status under the 1997 law.  In recent years the Moscow Patriarchate has taken custody of Old Believer icons and bells returned by the state, and the state sometimes refuses the return of Old Believer churches.  In 1997 authorities interrogated German Lavrentiev, head of the Ostozhenskaya congregation, for hours, alleging that his church was a totalitarian sect.

Orthodox and Eastern-Rite Catholic Disputes in Ukraine
The original heartland of Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy lies in Ukraine.  Kyiv was its center a thousand years ago, long before the Moscow Patriarchate asserted control in 1686 and permitted the church to become an agent of state russification.  Moscow appointees in Ukraine insisted on using Old Church Slavonic in the liturgy, not vernacular Ukrainian.  A quarter of the Moscow Patriarchate's parishes and two-thirds of its clergy are Ukrainian, hence its reluctance to concede the autocephaly many Ukrainians looked for after independence in 1991. This dream has been rudely shattered by a schism which has had deleterious effects on the rehabilitation of religious life.  At least two-thirds of Ukraine's 35 million declared believers are involved.

Ukrainians are most secure in their identity in the West, in Galicia, which was a province of Poland from 1919 to 1939.  The population there belongs mainly to the Ukrainian Eastern-Rite Catholic Church.  Eastwards, in more industrialized and russified regions, religious allegiance is lower. Between 1948 and 1989 the only surviving Orthodox Church in Ukraine was the Moscow Patriarchate, which suffered severe persecution as well. Communists abolished the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in 1930, and the Ukrainian Eastern-Rite Catholic Church in Galicia  in 1946 and in Transcarpathia  in 1948.  The Autocephalous Church had been created uncanonically by priests and laity, not bishops, in a fleeting moment of Ukrainian independence in 1921.  It has never been recognized by other Orthodox patriarchates.  Both churches managed to survive through the Soviet era in the diaspora and underground--Eastern-Rite Catholics in a more active form--from which members emerged in 1989.

Protestants and new religious movements aside, at present, three Orthodox Churches and the Eastern-Rite Catholic Church (which uses an Orthodox liturgy) compete for the allegiance of Ukrainian believers, 72 percent of which identify themselves as Orthodox.  In general, believers, particularly the intelligentsia, do not trust any of the hierarchies involved.  Many church leaders were compromised and corrupted under Communism and now blacken the reputation of their churches through an unseemly jockeying for power.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP)
Despite defections, the UOC-MP remains the largest church in Ukraine, with the most resources, 34 bishops, and 6,500 parishes.  To its advantage, it is the only Orthodox church in Ukraine recognized by the rest of the Orthodox world.  The Moscow Patriarchate, bowing to demands, conceded Ukrainian Orthodox a semiautonomous status in 1991, but stopped short of granting autocephalous (self-ruling) status, which no one in Moscow, nor most of the bishops within the church, seems prepared to consider to this day.  In 1992 the Moscow Patriarchate excommunicated Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko) of Kyiv, for many years the dominant personality in Ukrainian church life.  He lost favor with Moscow ultimately because, after losing the Moscow Patriarch election to Alexei II, he appealed for the restoration of an independent Kyivan Patriarchate.  Revelations of his KGB past, particularly in suppressing religious dissent, and his personal failure to maintain monastic celibacy--he had a mistress and family--made it easier to demote him, but did not cause his fall.  His replacement as head of Ukrainian Orthodox faithful to Moscow, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, another ethnic Ukrainian, insists that the UOC-MP enjoys the prerogatives allowed to autocephalous churches, including control over its finances and the choosing of its bishops, its clergy, and its own council; it also now allows Ukrainian liturgies.  He has repeatedly called for reconciliation with parishes which left the Moscow Patriarchate, but will have no dealings with Filaret.

Five monks from Pochaev Monastery in West Ukraine threatened self immolation if their premises were removed from UOC-MP jurisdiction by local authorities. In response to massive believers' demonstrations in the fall of 1996, protesting the use of part of Kyiv's Monastery of the Caves for a foreign embassy and commercial firms, President Leonid Kuchma decreed its transfer from state control to the UOC-MP.  The UOC-MP, like most of the competing jurisdictions, is scattered irregularly throughout Ukraine, but is strongest in the west and south.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP)
The UOC-KP, the second largest Orthodox church with 1300 parishes and 1600 priests, is rooted in the eastern and central Ukraine and in the region of Volhynia.  Enjoying considerable popular support, it emerged in 1992 when the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) joined a breakaway faction of the Moscow Patriarch Church under recently ousted Metropolitan Filaret.  (Overnight he metamorphosed from an anti-Ukrainian, Soviet church bureaucrat into a militant nationalist, following the vote of 90 percent of Ukrainians for independence.)  Church historian Bohdan Bociurkiw terms the UOC-KP "a quasi-state church."  Staunchly patriotic in its use of Ukrainian and in its unequivocal support of independent Ukrainian statehood, it was actively protected by Filaret's political ally, former President Leonid Kravchuk.

From the start the UOC-KP has been riddled by scandal.  Its first two Patriarchs, aged Mstyslav (Skrypnik) of the U.S. UAOC diaspora, who died in 1993, and Volodymyr, formerly Vasyl Romanyuk, who had spent 19 years in prison as a religious dissident, were both deeply disillusioned by Filaret's shortcomings.  Filaret has failed to obtain coveted canonical recognition, and he has developed ties with dubious ultranationalist elements, such as the Ukrainian National Self-Defense Organization (UNSO), set on exploiting the church for political ends.  As a result, five UOC-KP bishops reestablished the UAOC in 1993, and five more UOC-KP bishops returned to the UOC-MP fold in 1994.

When Patriarch Volodymyr tried to dismiss Filaret for insubordination and for his involvement in the disappearance of three million rubles from diocesan coffers, Filaret threatened his titular superior.  Before the issue could be resolved, Patriarch Volodymyr died on 14 July 1995, apparently of a heart attack.  Police and UNSO members in military uniforms intervened in his funeral on 18 July, injuring 70 participants and suffering two fatalities in a clash over his final resting place (St. Sophia Cathedral ultimately, or under a nearby sidewalk just outside the cathedral wall where the body presently is interred?).  When Filaret was elected, unopposed, as Volodymyr's successor in October 1995, five more bishops and 20 lay electors revolted  and joined the UAOC. Filaret's latest strategy has been to seek reapproachment with the Ukrainian Eastern-Rite Catholic Church.  He was the only Orthodox hierarch present at the consecration of the new head of that church, Exarch Lubomir Husar of Kyiv, on 3 June 1996.  Ukrainian Catholics have come under criticism for welcoming him, given his rabidly hostile attitude towards Catholics in Communist days.

The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
In the last decade Communist officials still powerful in West Ukraine have promoted the strongly ethnic Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church to prevent the revival of the equally nationalistic Ukrainian Catholics. The UAOC, which has no canonical recognition in the Orthodox world, claims some 1,200 parishes and many defections from the UOC-KP, but other sources estimate 550 parishes and 220 priests.  Under Patriarch Dymitri Jarema of Lviv it has entered into discussions with the UOC-MP and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartolemaos of Constantinople.  However, Jarema insists the UOC-MP must leave the Moscow Patriarchate for there to be reconciliation between the two Ukrainian churches.   In 1996 the UAOC split into two factions, the breakaway portion being led by Metropolitan Vasili Bodnarshchuk.  Factors behind the schism include the likelihood of security police plants within the hierarchy bent upon destabilization, disputes over finances and the reclamation of church property from the state, personality clashes among leaders, and simply too many bishops for the number of UAOC faithful. Ukrainian authorities still refuse Bodnarschuk's faction legal recognition.

In November 1996 UAOC bishops dismissed Patriarch Dymitri on fraud and embezzlement charges.  His successor, Bishop John (Boichuk), subsequently transferred his allegiance to the Ukrainian Orthodox-Kyiv Patriarchate, taking UAOC archives with him.  In March 1997 UOC-KP seminarians used force to remove Dymitri and five other people from the UAOC chancery. Armed militia had to be brought in to restore order.  Of the four liturgical churches in Ukraine, the UAOC may have the most difficulty surviving because of its much smaller popular support and its internal schisms.

The Ukrainian Eastern-Rite Catholic Church
Ukrainian Catholicism reemerged from the catacombs in 1989-91, and now accounts for 17.5 percent of Ukrainians who identify themselves as believers.  It includes approximately five million members in some 3,000 parishes served by 1,700 priests.  Its primary concern is restructuring its institutional and spiritual life.  In 1990-91 the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet permitted churches to choose the confession preferred by the majority in a given parish.  As a result, hundreds of parishes found themselves plunged into bitter disputes over the issue of original ownership.  The UAOC and UOC-KP currently assert that anti-Russian  local authorities in Western Ukraine wrongly accuse them of being Russian and simultaneously favor Ukrainian Catholic claims in property disputes.  In 1997 Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholics made serious efforts to settle outstanding property issues.

Tensions also exist between former catacomb priests and priests trained in Russian Orthodox seminaries who returned to their traditional Eastern-Rite Catholic faith for reasons of conscience, and between indigenous and incoming diaspora priests who occupy leading administrative positions.  But Ukrainian Eastern-Rite Catholic morale, and pastoral and spiritual standards, are higher than among Orthodox clergy.  Due to long-standing national antagonisms, relations with the smaller Western Rite (largely Polish) Catholic Church in Ukraine (650 parishes) leave a lot to be desired.

Nineteen ninety-six marked the 400th anniversary of the Union of Brest when the Kyiv Patriarchate united with Rome.  However, although Pope John Paul II created an Eastern-Rite Exarchate of Galicia, Transcarpathia, and Kyiv in 1996, he still refuses to grant Patriarchal status to the head of this church, for fear of further damage to relations with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Meanwhile, UOC-KP Patriarch Volodymyr's remains still lie in a grave under sidewalk pavement until President Kuchma considers the time is right for them to be laid to rest in Saint Sophia Cathedral.  That could be a long wait. 

Janice Broun is a free-lance writer from Allness, Scotland.


Janice Broun, "Jurisdictional Conflicts Among Orthodox and Eastern-Rite Catholics in Russia and Ukraine," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Summer 1997), 7-9.

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1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664


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