ISSN 2330-717X

Ukrainian Autocephaly ‘Beginning Of The End’ For Moscow Patriarchate – OpEd

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There is no question, Russian commentator Stanislav Belkovsky says, that the grant of the tomos of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is “the beginning of the end” of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, something all the more likely because Moscow didn’t think Ukrainian autocephaly would happen.

That is just one sign of how out of touch the church hierarchy is and how it failed to make an argument with the Universal Patriarch in religious terms but limited itself to politics alone, an approach, Belkovsky says, which almost certainly guaranteed its loss on Ukraine and more besides (afterempire.info/2019/01/05/belkovskiy-rpc/).

The hierarchy of the ROC MP around Patriarch Kirill thus has shown itself to be more an arm of the secular authorities than a religious organization, perhaps not surprising, the commentator says, because “faith in God is not an obligatory condition for membership in the Orthodox Church in present-day Russia.”

The ROC MP was set up “as is well known by Joseph Stalin in September 1943 as atype of ministry which should fulfill specific subfunctions in the general system of state power” in the USSR. Only at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s did it separate in fact from the state. But very rapidly, the ROC MP returned to being what it had been, an arm of the state.

That origin and that return, Belkovsky says, has played “a bad joke” on the ROC MP: its subordination to the Kremlin in all things including in particular the 2014 invasion of Ukraine has led “the inevitable recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly” first by the Universal Patriarch in Constantinople and soon by Orthodox churches throughout the world.

Before 2014, few considered Ukrainian autocephaly possible, “but everything changed after 2014 precisely because the ROC MP not only did not distance itself from the Putin state but demonstrably deepened its dependence on it.” The ROC MP has no right to complain about the OCU’s ties with Kyiv given that its own with the Kremlin are far tighter.

Now, if Putin wants to replace Kirill with Tikhon as patriarch, there is nothing standing in his way; and that shows to all the world that the ROC MP has lost the right to present itself as a religious organization. It is that only for some of its hierarchs, some of its priests and some of its laity. For most of all three, it is something else, a political body.

That condemns it to lose status at home and abroad and means that when the current Russian government passes from the scene, so too will the ROC MP. It has no basis for an existence independent of the state and so will live and die with it, Belkovsky suggests.

Many commentators in Ukraine and even in Russia have adopted an even more negative line about  the ROC MP. Perhaps the most damning are those who suggest that while the OCU received its tomos from the Universal Patriarch, the ROC MP received it not from a church official but from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (e.g., bitvazaurozay.livejournal.com/698691.html).

Such observations will do little to keep the ROC MP alive as a church, although they may lead the Kremlin and its security services to double down on their defense of their own ideological branch. 

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Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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