Malkhaz Songulashvili – Ukraine in Europe – 3. An Historical Excursus

Vladimir the Great, the grand prince of Kiev

Today, the Kiev Patriarchate is in a similar state as the Georgian Orthodox Church was in the period between 1917 and 1943, before Joseph Stalin came to its defense and forced the Russian Church to recognize its autocephaly. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church had no such defender to help restore its autocephaly. The former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, tried to defend it and turned to the Patriarchate of Constantinople for help. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople subsequently arrived in Kiev and was ready to conduct negotiations with the Kiev Patriarchate, but the Kremlin got involved and, by means of the Turkish government, dissuaded the Patriarch of Constantinople, whose residence is located in Istanbul, from assisting the Kiev Patriarchate.

For almost 20 years now, the Moscow Patriarchate has successfully blocked the foreign relations of the Kiev Patriarchate. It wants the Kiev Patriarchate to be isolated from any Orthodox Christian Church and from the Christian world in general.

The Kiev Patriarchate has been trying to become a member of the Conference of European Churches for many years. So far, every such attempt it has made has ended without result. Its membership is blocked because of the efforts of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Kiev Patriarchate is neither directly denied membership to that organization, nor is it explicitly given consent. One cannot help but draw parallels here: the Kremlin blocks the attempts of Ukraine to become a fully-fledged member of the European community and, being loyal to the Kremlin, the Moscow Patriarchate thwarts the desire of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to become part of the community of European churches.

Despite all this, Patriarch Filaret proved to be a hard nut to crack. No one could scare him, nothing could break him. To this very day, he diligently works to strengthen the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He personally translated and published, in the shortest possible time, the Bible in the Ukrainian language. He also had all liturgical books translated in Ukrainian and distributed them to the Ukrainian clergy.

Regardless of his old age, Patriarch Filaret often travels to Europe and America to lobby for the integration of Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. He views this as a matter of the restoration of historical justice. Last year, Ukraine celebrated the 1025th anniversary of the Christianization of Kievan Rus’. With regard to this celebration, Patriarch Filaret declared that the Ukrainian people made their choice in favor of Europe when they adopted Christianity 1,025 years ago. This issue might be debatable, but it is clear cut that the Christianization of the Kievan Rus’ was a huge historical event. Here one may place emphasis on the fact that the initiator of the adoption of Christianity was Vladimir the Great, the grand prince of Kiev, a representative of the Rurik dynasty which was of North European, i.e. Scandinavian, decent. The Rurik dynasty had run Kiev since 862.

Vladimir’s search for a new religion ended in 988, when, after rejecting Judaism due to the Jews not having their own state, Islam due to its taboo against pork and alcoholic beverages, and Catholicism due to the absence of grandeur in its rituals, he adopted Byzantine-rite Christianity as the state religion. According to chronicles, he made this decision on the basis of the accounts of his emissaries who described a liturgy in the Byzantine Church as being divine, more beautiful than a liturgy of any other religion. It would, of course, be naïve to think that Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity just because of its esthetic value. A religious alliance with the Byzantine Empire was an important political decision.

Today, Patriarch Filaret provides a modern and relevant re-interpretation of this event. He considers it in the context of integration with Europe. Every year, Kiev marks the adoption of Christianity by Vladimir the Great, which laid the foundations of a new identity for Eastern Slavs, with festive events.

Filaret knows that Ukraine can only develop and prosper thanks to integration with Europe. Therefore, he does not want his homeland to spend its entire life enslaved by Russian imperialism. European integration is important for him because, apart from guarantees of economic and political security, it may facilitate the establishment of a united national Church in Ukraine. By escaping Russia’s claws, the chance will emerge for the Church of Ukraine to unite and for its autocephaly to be recognized.


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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