04 December 2018

A war on monks – Kerch Strait, martial law, church politics

Satellite image of the Kerch Strait

The situation has been getting worse and worse for the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine, particularly since the Kerch Strait affaire last week off the shores of the Russian provinces of Krasnodar and the Crimea, and the subsequent imposition of martial law by the current government. It is a particularly interesting question why, if indeed the Russian state has been waging war against them all this time, the government would choose to use the Kerch Strait incident as a pretext for imposing military rule on the east and south of the country. However, for giving the government greater licence to crack down on religious expression for those Ukrainians who are still members of the sole legitimate Orthodox Church in the country (or, indeed, on other forms of internal opposition) the prospect of martial law presents a tempting opportunity.

Since the Kerch Strait incident, the Sluzhba Bezpeki (the Ukrainian Security Service) have been harassing Orthodox monks and priests with random detentions, surveillance, warrantless searches, property seizures and house raids. A number of Orthodox monks, including Metropolitan Onufriy and Metropolitan Pavel (head of the Kiev Caves Lavra Monastery) have been placed on a list of state enemies by the Security Service-curated website Mirotvorets (alongside such people as, uh, former Pink Floyd vocalist Roger Waters). This is a clear campaign of religious suppression by the right-wing neoliberal Ukrainian government led by Poroshenko. As Fr Steven (Clark) at Ancient Traditional Fish adroitly put it in a comment on Facebook: ‘This is what persecution of the Orthodox Church looks like.

But why? And why now? These, I believe, are indeed the operative questions here.

I think that the standard response from those hostile to the Moscow Patriarchate, that the government is acting, in good Rousseauian fashion, according to a legitimate aspiration of the Ukrainian people for ecclesiastical independence, simply doesn’t cut it from a factual perspective. (It is also very dangerous from a moral perspective, for reasons which seem rather obvious to me as an American of Jewish descent, but which don’t seem to be obvious to the defenders of Ukrainian honour and glory.) The standard response to these questions from Orthodox quarters sympathetic to the Moscow Patriarchate, at least from what I have seen, seems to be (roughly) fascists gonna be fascist. As my own gentle readers will be aware, I demur a bit from this standard line, and I think it is important to make the distinction particularly in this case. What we are witnessing is not necessarily a particularity of fascist violence per se. It is careening dangerously close to fascism, particularly with the involvement of the security services and police against monks. But I would argue instead, argue that it is a particularity of sæcular power seeking to subvert ecclesiastical prerogatives. Here is where I am going to start sounding a little bit like my old Radox-tinged pre-chrismation Episcopalian self, so bear with me a bit.

The current leadership of the Ukraine have (at, it seems, the insistence of American and Western European governments) adopted a zero-sum political stance which regards Russian interests as diametrically opposed to Ukrainian ones. The solution, in the eyes of the post-Maidan government, has been to ideologically attack any semblance of likeness or commonality between the two countries, unless that commonality could somehow be weaponised against the Russian people. The resurgence of the 19th century nationalist myths of Hrushevsky, the racialist attacks on the Asiatic characteristics of Russians, even the heightened physical attacks on Jews and Romani, are linked back to this ideological stance.

The substance of the attacks themselves gives us a hint of their sæcular nature and origins. The historiographical mythmaking of Mikhail Hrushevsky which underlies the current ideological formations in the post-Maidan era, was indeed a sæcular enterprise which took the Ukrainian nationality, as defined by blood-kinship, as primary, and the religious characteristics of the Ukrainian people as incidental. This division of the Kievan Rus’ into a racially-pure Ukrainian core and an Asiatic Russian periphery allowed him to mythologise a rupture in the history of the church, between the Kiev and the Vladimir-Rostov-Moscow periods of the church. The logic of the faith, for Hrushevsky, is subsumed in an ontology of violence that pits various racial interests against each other: in this, his thought is thoroughly of a piece with that of his Western European sæcularist contemporaries.

Gyorgi Fedotov, on the other hand, is a religious historian and thus more Orthodox in his perspective, his own liberal-socialist politics notwithstanding. Though he is a careful historian and thus loath to manufacture agreement or rupture where none exists, he nonetheless begins from the standpoint of religious psychology, and attempts to sketch for us the religious life of Kievan Rus’ from the inside. His historiography is not naïve; he is more open than the Slavophils to considering that religious forms even within Orthodoxy may have been subject to dramatic change. Indeed, this is one central point of his thesis, which he aims squarely against both Ukrainian and Great-Russian nationalist mythmaking. The inward character of Kievan spirituality was altered: in Kiev herself, by an infusion of Western rationalism and warrior-spirituality; and in Vladimir (and subsequently Moscow), by a spirit of cynicism in the face of political manipulation. Only in Old Novgorod did the traces of the old radical caritative heart of Kievan spirituality linger. Thus, when he argues against Hrushevsky and attacks the history of ecclesial rupture as a fantasy, he does so from an internal perspective that looks not only for outward signs (like a siege or the movement of a bishop), but for inward changes in the religious consciousness.

This dispute between two historians allows us to trace the roots of the current problem, but it is not identical to the problem itself. The problem really rests in the historical expectation by Maidanists that the Church-state relationship will remain, as it was under the Tsarist government and as was attempted by the Soviet, cæsaropapist in orientation, with the sæcular authority (whether Tsar or chairman or president) directly governing and managing a church which is essentially a state bureau. In reality, however, the Russian Church, both in the recent past and in the present, has bespoken a degree of independence from the government that would have been preposterous to conceive under Alexander III or Khrushchev, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has (for the present) an even greater degree. Nonetheless, this is the relationship the Maidanists imagine, and which propaganda tells them is the case, between the Danilov and the Kremlin.

Once thus imagined, this cæsaropapist phantasm becomes both something to be feared and something to be envied. Feared, both because it represents something foreign, eastern and menacing, and because it already exists within the borders, and its membership thus possibly constitutes a disloyal fifth column. (Note the similarity to, and commensurability with, the dual loyalty canard against Jews.) And envied, because the cæsaropapist model is seen as an effective way to keep the Church on a tight leash and under direct control. Hence the desire for a united anti-church, cobbled together from various existing nationalist anti-churches – with the impending blessing from la Rome deuxième, caught up as she is in her own imperial hangover.

Thus, the real problem is this: merely by existing, the Church presents an unanswerable challenge to this comprehensively sæcular account of reality, just as it would to any such comprehensive account across the political spectrum. Monastic communities, which themselves first arose as a form of social protest against sæcular life, doubly so. The Church operates according to a logic that takes the Resurrection, the Paschal overturn, as the central fact of our shared, political life. Such an orientation cannot help pointing to our essential similarities, over the foci of any more selective forms of belonging.

Thus, when their highest hierarch Metropolitan Onufriy makes a peaceful protest against state violence in the East of the country, both literally and figuratively saying that ‘Black Lives Matter’, he is behaving in a way that the same Ukrainian state, which demands loyalty to itself precede any other, cannot tolerate. And that is why the Soviet-legacy surveillance and security apparatus has mobilised against him. Not because he, or any of his monastic brothers, is a Russian agent, but on the contrary, merely because he refuses to be anyone’s agent but Christ’s. May our same Saviour and lover of mankind keep and protect His Beatitude and his monastic brethren in this time of crisis for their Church.


  1. Please post specific instances of harassing and increased surveillance of UOC-MP monastics by Ukraine's government.
    Several cases of fear mongering erupted from Moscow's sources such as the false claim of removal of monks from Pochayiv.

    To say that the clergy of the UOC-MP in Ukraine have not been directed by the Kremlin is an incredible fantasy.

    1. In May 2014 in Konstantinovka, Donbas region the priest UOC-MP priest encouraged his Ukrainian faithful to join the DNR revolt vs Ukraine.

    2. In May 2014 the Spasso-Hirska Monastery in the Donbas was used as a site to assemble Russian paid warriors who then attacked Ukraine in the Russian initiated and militarily supplied war. The local Bishop's involvement is such action was necessary.

    1. Tymofiy, can true Ukrainian Slavs be identified by their skull shapes, which share no Asiatic or Finno-Uguric traits common among Russian skulls?

    2. Mr Hawrish, it seems you can't bother to click through to the links I have posted in the body of the piece from Western news sources like Reuters and the Columbus Republic regarding specific incidences of the police harassment and detention I allude to here. I also strongly suspect that nothing I excerpt from them and repost here is likely to convince you.