‘Russia’s church’ is about to be banned as art and religion also come into conflict in Ukraine.
By Andriy Kurkov
October 29, 2023
While the Russian command is licking its wounds after its failed assault on Avdiivka, the Ukrainian parliament has launched an offensive against the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.
For many months now, despite court and parliamentary decisions, the Moscow Patriarchate has refused to vacate the premises of Ukraine’s most important monastery – the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. Some of the buildings in the monastery complex have long been a state-run museum, but the monks and priests of the Moscow Patriarchate continue to hold out in other buildings, not allowing the police or the bailiffs to evict them.
To everyone’s surprise, the Ukrainian parliament has voted on a bill that will ban religious organizations with centers in Russia or that are affiliated with that country. The Ukrainian authorities were clearly in no hurry to introduce this bill, but a group of 240 deputies gave their signatures to force the bill into parliament, and then 267 deputies voted in favor of it.
Before the vote, a tempestuous conflict arose within the largest parliamentary faction – President Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party. Its deputy head, Artem Kultenko, turned out to be a key defender of the Moscow Patriarchate. Kultenko sent out text messages to deputies who supported the bill with the words “I want to save your soul!” Many deputies perceived these messages as a threat.
The infamous Bishop of the Moscow Patriarchate Church, Abbot of the Ionin Monastery, Ion Cherepanov, sent similar messages to deputies: “Save your souls! We will all perish!”.
The priest is thought to be behind planned construction of the so-called Museum of Christianity, a controversial development that threatens to destroy a World Heritage ancient Greek city in Crimea.
Artem Kultenko assured fellow party members that more than 80 deputies from the Servant of the People party would vote against this bill. The Speaker of the Parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk, stated that there would not be a vote on the bill against the Moscow Patriarchate. The Head of the presidential party faction, David Arakhamia, said that such a bill would distract parliament from voting on the key issue of the budget.
Despite all this, the bill has passed its first reading. After some editing and a second vote, the president is expected to sign it into law. It is not clear how long these procedures will take, but Ukrainian society has welcomed the initial moves enthusiastically.
Liquidating religious organizations associated with Russia will be very complicated for one simple reason: the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is not legally registered in Ukraine as one integral organization. There is the Kyiv metropolis, several episcopates, and more than 9,000 church communities, each of which is registered separately.
According to the new law, each case must be investigated to prove a connection with Russia. Each legal entity must then be given time to correct the situation, i.e., to bring an end to its connection with Russia.
Long court procedures can be expected, and the Moscow Patriarchate has already begun a defense campaign, using international platforms to make declarations about the persecution of religious communities in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, they do not mention any of the priests who collaborated with Russian forces during the invasion and helped the Russian army to occupy Ukrainian territories. Nor do they mention the rapid re-registration of church communities in the occupied territories, where Ukrainian churches of the Moscow Patriarchate automatically became churches of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The same thing happened in Crimea after the annexation in 2014, but many Ukrainian politicians preferred not to talk about how quickly the Ukrainian Crimean churches of the Moscow Patriarchate transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Music video scandal
While deputies in Kyiv debate about the Moscow Patriarchate, a scandal with a religious connection has broken out in Lviv in the west of Ukraine. The rector of one of Lviv’s ancient churches – the Church of St. Andrew the First-Called – allowed cult poet and rock singer Sergei Zhadan to film a music video inside the church.
The well-known Lviv singer Khristina Solovey also sang in the video, and it is rumored that Zhadan, who recently filed for a divorce from his wife, is in a romantic relationship with Solovey.
The video shows same-sex couples kissing. Although those scenes were not shot in the church, when the video was released, the rector declared it immoral and demanded that it be removed from public access. The scandal means that a huge number of people have watched the video and the noisy discussion it has generated has quite drowned out the controversy over the Moscow Patriarchate.
The video is still available online, but Solovey expressed fears that if she returned to her native Lviv, she would be publicly burned.
There have been pleas from other priests that everyone forget about this clip so as not to turn glorious Lviv into the center of some kind of Ukrainian inquisition. However, the rector of St Andrew The First-Called has canceled all non-liturgical events that were to take place in the building, including a charity auction for the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU).
A logical continuation of this story would be the ritual of cleansing the temple from the defilement of the video clip, which might be amusing had it not harmed fundraising efforts for the AFU.
Meanwhile, Moscow has come out with something else to bemuse Ukrainians. During one of his speeches, the main voice of the Moscow Church – Putin’s closest ally, Patriarch Kirill – stated that Soviet scientists had created atomic weapons with the help and protection of 18th century Russian Orthodox Saint, Seraphim of Sarov, and that it is only thanks to these atomic weapons that Russia still exists.
Andriy Kurkov is an internationally acclaimed novelist and cultural activist whose widely published articles provide a personal view of the situation in his home country, Ukraine.