The current crucifixion of the peoples of Ukraine suffering from an invasion is undoubtedly a global tragedy. But alas it is a very old story. Like the Holy Land, Alsace-Lorraine and Poland, Ukraine is a place that has suffered repeated invasions and wars over the centuries. And today, as in the past, the question of religion occupies an important place in the struggles.
Today, around 71% of Ukraine’s population identifies as Christian, with small minorities of Jews, Muslims and other faiths. The vast majority of these Christians are Eastern Orthodox, that venerable faith which considers the Byzantine and Roman empires as its heritage. The Orthodox are known for their icons, black-robed priests, traditional doctrine and hauntingly beautiful music. But unlike the Catholic Church which is international in structure, the Orthodox world is divided along national lines, 17 in number. For example, the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches might be one in doctrine and practice, but the Patriarchs Athens and Moscow are independent of each other. The political problem comes from places like the United States or Ukraine where, due to their history, they have different nationalities.
At present, more than a quarter of the Ukrainian population belongs to parishes placed under the authority of the Patriarch of Kiev. While 12% of the faithful belong to the diocese governed by the Patriarch of Moscow, an additional 23% define themselves as “Orthodox” but refuse to give a definition of what form. About 10% of the population is Catholic, most of whom belong to the Byzantine Rite, whose worship resembles Orthodoxy but remains in communion with Rome.
Religion and nationalism have gone hand in hand in this part of the world for over a thousand years. Local legends say that the Apostle Andrew visited the territory that would become the city of Kiev. In the 10th century AD we find the consolidation of the peoples known as the Rus, who are descended from the Viking invaders from the north. Kyiv would be their first center of culture and government. In the middle of the 10th century, a Russian princess, Saint Olga, visited Constantinople and joined the Orthodox Church there. His grandson, Prince Vladimir, converted and had his people baptized in the Dnieper, and Orthodoxy would remain tied to the peoples of the land.
In the 13th century, Slavic peoples and nations were subjugated and became tributary states of the Mongols, or the “Golden Hoard”. The Mongols, or Tatars, were nominal Muslims and so for the Slavs, Orthodox Christianity became a hotbed of resistance. The many local Slavic tribes included Rus, Armenians, Georgians, Circassians, Alans, Crimean Greeks, Crimean Goths, Bulgarians, and Vlachs. But it would not be the southern nobles of Kiev who would end up breaking the grip of the Tatars, but the princes of Moscow. In 1380, Prince Dimitri of Moscow, supported by the Orthodox, defeated the Tatars at Kulikovo. One of his descendants, Ivan III of Moscow, finally defeated the Tatars once and for all and, after succeeding his father Vasili II, took the title of “Grand Prince of Moscow” and “Grand Prince of all the Rus”.
The impact of Ivan III is hard to underestimate. He began progressive military campaigns to unify the other Slavic tribes and strongly supported the Russian Orthodox faith as a means of cultural unification. He married Princess Sophia, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI. Constantine’s death during the fall of Constantinople made the Russian prince technically the heir to the imperial throne. His adoption of the now familiar Byzantine symbol, the double-headed eagle, made it the symbol of the Russian state to this day.
It was Ivan III who developed the theory of Moscow as the “Third Rome”. The Rome of the Caesars was the first Rome and was replaced by Byzantine Rome in the 5th century AD. Ivan and his court argued that the right to universal rule now rested with Moscow, and to clarify matters he took the title of Tsar, or “Caesar”. It should be borne in mind that in the Byzantine Empire, which Ivan imitated, the emperor was superior to any member of the clergy and they owed their positions to him alone. Successive tsars continued and developed Ivan’s program.
This brings us back to Ukraine. The Kievan Rus’ empire had collapsed as a result of the Golden Treasury. Ukraine was then under the rule of Lithuania and Poland, but rebellions by a semi-nomadic group called the Cossacks led to the division of northern Ukraine into a regime known as Cossack Hetmanate. But the expansion of the Russian state increased the influence of Moscow, which presented itself as the protector of the tribes of present-day Ukraine. In 1686, the office and functions of the Patriarch of Kiev were officially annexed to the Moscow Patriarchate. Empress Catherine the Great annexed Ukraine in 1793 as part of her general expansionist policy. Ukraine will remain a province of the Russian Empire until the 20th century.
To bring the question back to our days, we could ask ourselves who has the prerogative to govern in Ukraine? Historically it is older than Russia and was the first home of people who identified as Russian. But does that mean it’s Russian territory? Are ethnic Russians citizens of Ukraine or Russia? If Russian-speaking Ukrainians are indeed Russians, does Moscow have the right to “liberate” them? Many tensions hang over these questions, but invasion and war are certainly not the best answer.
Vladimir Putin identifies strongly with the Russian Orthodox Church, he is keen to have his picture taken with senior members of the clergy and participate in various devotional rituals. His inaugurations took place in St. George’s Hall in the Grand Kremlin, the reception hall of the tsars, under the double-headed eagle of the Romanovs. After the most recent ceremony, Putin went to the Cathedral of the Annunciation, where the Patriarch of Moscow blessed him and then held a prayer service for the new president. We are a long way from the communist Lenin who said: “Religion is a kind of spiritual alcohol, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.
In 2014, Putin himself commented on the legacy he thinks Russia has with Ukraine. “Everything in Crimea speaks of our common history and pride,” he said. “It is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the general basis of culture, civilization and human values that unite peoples from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.