The fate of Pechersk Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves, one of the most important sites of eastern Christianity, is heavily entangled in the history of Ukraine and Russia. The decision to return it to full Ukrainian-approved ownership was described by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on March 29 as, “strengthen[ing] the spiritual independence of our state, to protect our society from the old and cynical Moscow manipulation of religion.”
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was told to leave the site in Kyiv by March 29, although monks were still in place on March 30.
There are numerous reasons for Ukraine’s authorities to dislike a Russian Orthodox Church so tightly bound to the Kremlin that it’s difficult to separate the two, but the most important immediate cause is Russia’s bloody war. It offends many Ukrainians to see Moscow’s church sitting in one of the nation’s great spiritual homes, founded in 1051 and rekindles a sense that Ukrainian nationhood was crushed in part by the Russian church’s effective annexation of its older, Ukrainian, counterpart in the 17th century. More than 60% support the eviction, according to the polls. Some wryly refer to the “desatanization of Lavra” reversing Russian propaganda calls for the “desatanization of Ukraine.”
The legal situation is complicated. In July 2013, before Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych “leased” part of Lavra, including the monastery, to the Moscow Patriarchate for no charge and forever. That deal was finally scrapped by the government after an inquiry concluded the church was violating the agreement, with infringements including the illegal construction of 38 buildings. The minister of culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, stated that the church must leave all parts of the complex, not just the monastery.
Feelings are running high, and supporters of the Moscow Patriarchate have joined the monks in refusing to budge. The church argues it severed links to its mother church three months after Russia’s all-out invasion began in February 2022. It says its treatment amounts to religious persecution. And it has some popular support; a year after the full-scale invasion, 16% of worshippers express loyalty, compared to 39% attending the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and 43% who are Christian but have no church affiliation.
The Ukrainians say the church is the cat’s paw of the Russian Federation used to interfere in its internal affairs and that it provides aid and support to Russian intelligence operations in times of war.
So what’s the truth? Ukraine cites evidence uncovered by its security service linking clergymen to Russia and its intelligence agencies. Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Oleksiy Danylov, stated outright that the Moscow Patriarchate contained members of the “1st and 5th departments of the Federal Security Service,” the FSB.
Since the all-out invasion of February 24, 2022, Ukrainian authorities have arrested 30 clergymen on charges relating to support for the Kremlin. According to the head of the SBU, Vasily Malyuk, there are already 50 criminal proceedings underway and 19 continuing investigations. He said there have been five guilty verdicts against representatives of this church. The charges include treason.
This not simply the view of Ukrainian security services. According to a 29 March report from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, “The one body of ideologically committed agents supporting the invasion was the Russian Orthodox Church. Beyond its efforts to support Russian information operations, its priests were widely recruited and run by the Russian special services.”
Moscow Patriarchy priests — including some in Lavra — offered prayers to Russia and Russian soldiers, and refused to perform rituals at the funerals of Ukraine’s defenders. The clergymen repeated narratives about the unity of Russia and Ukraine. These may not be crimes in times of peace, but many Ukrainians find them intolerable in times of war.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has urged Russians to take up arms against Ukraine and assured them that death in battle “washes away all sins,” and the church has blessed its “angelic troops” fighting Satan’s representatives. Ukrainian hostility is further deepened by Kirill’s role as a KGB agent from the 1970s, something demonstrated by Russian and Swiss documents.
The Moscow Patriarchate’s attempts to distance itself from the Kremlin have been less than convincing. While it declared its disagreement with the position of Patriarch Kirill regarding the war and condemned the conflict as a violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, it failed to go any further. Russia’s open aggression against Ukraine was not mentioned. The Russian Orthodox Church states that the two institutions remain united.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has meanwhile complained to UN Secretary-General António Guterres about the alleged persecution of Moscow Patriarchate priests and “flagrant violations of the universal and constitutional rights of the Orthodox.”
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s battle to regain the status it lost in 1689 — when the Russian church took spiritual control — was finally won in 2018 when the Patriarch of Constantinople restored its autocephaly and its status of the sole canonical successor of the Kyiv Metropolitanate of the 10th-12th centuries, the church in Kyivan Rus.
It is a struggle reminiscent of religious battles through the ages. Zelenskky and his government’s concerns would be familiar to earlier generations of Europeans. England’s King Henry VIII, who saw the Roman Catholic church as a rival for power and eventually expelled it, told priests accused of sowing discord to: “Amend these crimes, I exhort you and set forth God’s word truly, both by true preaching and giving a good example, or else, I, whom God has appointed his vicar and high minister here, will see these divisions extinct, and these enormities corrected.”
This is a matter of spiritual dispute, but the real issue is a very temporal argument about power and loyalty.
Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is Associate Professor at Sumy State University.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.