Church alleged to be arm of the Kremlin – disguising Russian propaganda as religious teachings
25 Apr 2023
Father Mykola Danylevych, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church, answered the phone before quickly hanging up. “I told you to call me on an encrypted line!” Danylevych, like his fellow high-ranking clergymen at the church, are in a state of paranoia and panic – their church, the biggest in Ukraine, is under threat. “We are not holier than thou; we admit that there are some unresolved matters on our side, but we are for individual responsibility, not collective,” said Danylevych.
Since November, the Ukrainian state has been investigating the Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church – alleging it is an arm of the Kremlin, disguising Russian propaganda as religious teachings.
Some of the top leaders of the church, along with several key monasteries, have been subject to searches, and several high-profile priests have been charged with treason and inciting religious hatred.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in December that any religious organisation found to be working for Russia would be banned, a move he explained was designed to prevent Russia from weakening Ukraine from within.
The Moscow-affiliated church has been told to leave its headquarters after its lease expired at the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery, the most important home of eastern Orthodoxy. In the walled Lavra monastery on the riverbank in central Kyiv stand dozens of golden domed churches connected by winding cobbled streets. Since the eviction notice, priests, monks and seminarians dressed in the traditional long black Orthodox robes have been seen loading icons and items of furniture onto trucks.
The Ukrainian state’s investigation into the church – prompted by an undated video of congregants at the Lavra praying for “Mother Russia” – has sunk its already dwindling reputation. In wartime Ukraine, where at least 100 soldiers are injured or killed on the frontlines each day, collaboration with Russia is viewed as the ultimate sin. But the Moscow-affiliated church rejects the charges. It says it broke its ties with Moscow after the February 2022 invasion and vehemently denies being influenced, controlled or financed by Russia. Instead, it insists that even before February 2022 the only connection had been its spiritual recognition of the Moscow Patriarch as the mother Orthodox church and the church had administered itself and received no money from Moscow.
In an interview, the Metropolitan (bishop) Clement, the head of information policy at the Moscow-affiliated church in Ukraine, claimed the Ukrainian state’s investigation is a plot to sow disunity among Ukrainians by Russian agents in the Ukrainian presidential administration.
Metropolitan Clement also claimed that the video filmed at the Lavra had been doctored, and the singing was added over it. “Did you see anyone singing in the video?” Clement asked. “We have, are and will continue to help the country in the time of war; there are many [Ukrainian Orthodox] believers fighting in the army.”
Yet there are many examples of high-ranking priests in his church propagating the Kremlin’s narratives before the 2022 invasion – such as saying in televised interviews that Crimea was Russian or that the war in the Donbas was a civil war, as well as refusing to criticise Russia or Vladimir Putin. Russia occupied Crimea and engineered a pro-Russian armed conflict in the Donbas in 2014. The raids on the church by Ukraine’s security services since November have unearthed pro-Russian literature and flags, and even Russian passports. Ukraine’s security services have also published wiretapped conversations allegedly featuring the church’s second most senior priest, Metropolitan Pavlo, celebrating the occupation of Kherson by Russia and discussing the Russian conspiracy theory that Russia was targeting US biolabs in Ukraine.
So, the question is not whether there are members of the Moscow-affiliated church who did, or still do, hold pro-Russian beliefs – or may even be on the Kremlin’s payroll – but more how widespread it is, and whether it warrants the Ukrainian authorities’ crackdown.
The UN’s human rights office (OHCHR) has expressed concern that the Ukrainian government’s actions against the church could be discriminatory. “The FSB [Russian state security services] tries to act, not through the organisation, but through certain active members of the organisation,” said Sergei Chapnin, a senior fellow of Orthodox studies at Fordham University in New York. “But again, this is not the whole church.” According to Chapnin, most of those with pro-Russian sympathies exist among the higher levels of the church. He described how there had been several attempts to unify the non-Moscow Orthodox church and the Moscow-affiliated church starting in the 1990s but “Moscow agents” had worked to block the dialogue.
Cyril Hovorun, a theologian who used to be a senior member of the Moscow-affiliated church and then switched allegiance, compared the issue of pro-Russian infiltration in the church with the paedophile scandal in the Roman Catholic church – the leadership knows who is a Russian collaborator but turn a blind eye, or even defend the bishop in question, in order to protect the church. “Some of those bishops are like FSB agents. Some of them are not, but they are still in parts of the same ‘corporation’,” said Hovorun. “They lie to protect not themselves personally, but the corporation. The Kremlin quite early realised that in order to control the church, it’s enough to control its bishops. That’s why the Kremlin invested a lot into buying the loyalty of the Ukrainian bishops. And therefore, there is, I think, a disproportionate sympathy with the Russian cause among the bishops; a lot of people on the grassroots level, they are very dissatisfied with what the bishops say and do.”
Hovorun described how the grassroots clergymen are so disconnected from the leadership that, two months ago, they posed questions publicly about whether the church was now really independent or “just pretending to be”. The head of the church, Metropolitan Onufriy, insists he has cut ties with Russia and used the term “Russian aggression” for the first time in February. In May 2022, the top priest met and removed all the references to the Russian Orthodox church from the church’s equivalent of its founding documents.
But Hovorun said that although they eliminated all explicit references to their relationship with the Moscow patriarchy, they introduced some implicit ones, which seem to leave the door open for the future. “The Ukrainian society, because of that, doesn’t trust them,” said Hovorun.
Part of the problem is that the idea of Ukraine being part of the Russian world is ingrained in their religious education. Onufriy has a romanticised idea of Russia and “truly believes in his soul that there is a deep spiritual connection between Ukraine, Russia and Belarus”.
The Kremlin exploits the Russian world idea to get the priests to support it, said Hovorun. “It’s impossible to say what came first, the idea or the Russian state’s exploitation of the idea,” said Hovorun, noting that the idea has existed since tsarist times. “It’s like the chicken and the egg.”
Russian-Ukrainian oligarch turned deacon of the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian church, Vadim Novinsky, for instance, denied in an interview that Russia’s Patriarch Kirill supports the war in Ukraine and that the Russian Orthodox Church is used as an instrument of influence by the Kremlin – despite Kirill’s own proclamations. “I haven’t heard that he’s pro-war,” said Novinsky, who also insists he supports Ukraine. Novinsky, who has Ukrainian citizenship, was sanctioned by the Ukrainian state in December for supporting Russia – a move he said is illegal because of his citizenship. “Onufriy knows that there are collaborators but doesn’t want to deal with them and that’s a big problem,” said Hovorun.
As the security services continue their public investigation, believers and grassroots level priests of the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been increasingly switching their allegiance to the very similarly named Orthodox Church of Ukraine – which is around half the size of the Moscow-affiliated rival.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which comprises almost exactly the same religious traditions but is not spiritually subordinate to Russia, was only recognised internationally in 2019.
Both the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church believe its proclamation of independence is schismatic – creating division.
Ukraine’s military intelligence, which is in charge of prisoner swaps, has suggested exchanging some of the 12,000 priests for Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia.
Despite them being Ukrainian citizens, Ukraine has already exchanged some of the charged Moscow-affiliated priests for Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Vasyl Malyuk, told Interfax News on Sunday – in some cases stripping them of their citizenship. “The enemy highly values its agents in cassocks – yes, one such person was exchanged for 28 Ukrainian servicemen,” said Malyuk.
Hovorun and Chapnin argue that the current policy is a mistake and will not eradicate pro-Russian ideas. This week, the police stationed themselves at the Lavra, prompting a heated response from the church and its believers. Congregants that the Guardian met at the Lavra shortly after the nationwide searches began, also said they believed the searches were a punishment from God, 100 years after Russian Tsar Nicholas II was murdered by the Bolsheviks in St Petersburg. However the investigation progresses, the future of the Moscow-affiliated church, like all pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, is far from assured.
Isobel Koshiw is a correspondent for the Guardian covering Ukraine. She is a British journalist currently based in Kyiv. She has previously worked on investigations into transnational crime and corruption at NGOs and for international publications. Her investigations have appeared in OCCRP, The Verge, The New York Times, The Financial Times and The Times and Kyiv Post.