On October 15, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate officially broke with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Russian Orthodox priests are now prohibited from joint prayers with clerics of the Constantinople Patriarchate, Patriarch Bartholomew I will no longer be commemorated during religious services, and the Russians refuse to participate in all theological and administrative bodies under his chairmanship.
These démarches came as retaliation for Constantinople’s decision to annul its 1686 ruling that placed Ukraine under the jurisdiction of the Muscovite Church. Bartholomew’s own remarks made the reasons for that decision plain. Sketching the history of the dispute, Bartholomew spoke of a long-suffering Ukrainian Church that had yearned for centuries to remove itself from Moscow’s yoke, but was stymied by geopolitical bullying and the “obstinacy” of the Moscow Patriarchate. “Thus, since Russia, as the one responsible for the current painful situation in Ukraine, is unable to solve the problem,” he went on, “the Ecumenical Patriarchate assumed the initiative of resolving the problem.” It is easy to see why the move angered Russia: In one fell swoop, Bartholomew rejected any pretense of neutrality on the canonical affiliation of Ukrainian parishes and decided the issue unilaterally, by granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Russian Patriarch Kirill has compared Bartholomew’s attack on the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate to the events of the 1920s, when Constantinople meddled in a dispute between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet government. But the present situation has a better and more recent historical parallel. In 2014, the Russian state humiliated Ukraine by annexing Crimea and starting a hybrid war in Donbass. Now the Russian Orthodox Church is experiencing an ironic reversal of this history upon itself, humiliated as an “external enemy” (to use the language of Russian propaganda) attacks its sovereignty and violates its supposed historic right to Ukrainian territory.
As ever in Putin’s Russia, the fates of the Orthodox Church and the Russian state continue to be deeply intertwined. Yet the current church crisis is one that the state has only compounded, triggering a process that could result in a loss of important income for the Church and degrade its international influence. The crisis could severely damage the harmony of the Church and the Russian state, even if it is unlikely to bring a much-needed separation between secular and spiritual authorities.
The Russian Orthodox Church refuses to recognize the Kremlin’s foreign policy as the origin of its current problems. This is perfectly understandable, since the Kremlin is the ultimate guarantor of the Church’s well-being as well as its preferential treatment from tax authorities. Like all religious institutions officially recognized by the state, the Church enjoys tax-exempt status on its income, which has been estimated at $500 million annually. But its privileged relationship with the state goes much further. The Church has vast, secretive commercial interests and enjoys the preferential patronage of the Central Bank, which periodically props up the Church by injecting capital to Peresvet, the near-bankrupt bank that holds its accounts. According to the Deposit Insurance Statistics, the bank’s restructuring cost the Central Bank almost 100 billion rubles ($1.5 billion).
Whatever the constitution may say, the Russian Orthodox Church is a de facto state church. The state helps out in property disputes with other denominations; the Catholic church of Arnau in the Kaliningrad region, for instance, was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2010 with the help of local legislators (and consequently damaged during a botched restoration). In the Church’s interest, the state also bans or severely restricts the activity of rival religious sects that might lead people away from the Church: Jehovah’s Witnesses were effectively outlawed in 2017, while stringent regulations limit the evangelizing activity of Protestants. The Orthodox Church even feels emboldened enough by state support to steal masterpieces from museums. The 14th-century icon of the Holy Mother of Toropets, one of the oldest in Russia, was “temporarily” removed from Saint Petersburg’s Russian Museum in 2009 and placed in a privately built Orthodox cathedral in a suburb of Moscow. Two years later, the Ministry of Culture issued an order to remove it from the museum’s inventory; the icon still remains in the cathedral today. The Church also started a war with the Saint Petersburg intelligentsia for ownership of the landmark St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a rare commercially successful public museum.
The Russian state, of course, also cultivates the support of the Church. For one, the Kremlin needs an acquiescent population, which dovetails nicely with the Church’s calls for obedience, endurance, and deference to authority. The Church also had a role to play in crushing the 2011-2012 opposition protests. The authorities exploited the Church’s social conservatism and sensitivity to religious slights during the infamous Pussy Riot trial, when the two participants of the “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral were sentenced to a two-year prison term for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The secular authorities not only supported the verdict, but also used it as a pretext for toughening the law: On June 29, 2013, Vladimir Putin signed a federal law prescribing up to three years of imprisonment for anyone whose “public actions” demonstrate obvious disrespect for the community or “insult the feelings of religious believers.” Finally, the Church is an ideal place for Russian rulers to publicly demonstrate their adherence to old Russian moral values. Appearing at church services on big religious holidays is a much easier form of political theater than organizing “direct lines with the President,” for instance.
It’s clear enough, then, why church and state continue to reinforce each other in Putin’s Russia. But the Ukrainian schism now finds the Church unmistakably caught up in the Kremlin’s geopolitical intrigue in a way that threatens negative consequences for all parties involved.
Until now, the Russian Orthodox Church has kept studiously silent about the annexation of Crimea and the war for the independence of Donbass. In Ukraine that silence has been understood as a clear sign of support for both measures. As a result, many Ukrainians have lost confidence in the Russian Orthodox Church and have sought schismatic alternatives, like the unrecognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. The further alienation of Ukraine’s Orthodox community will be a huge blow to Church interests. Ukrainian parishes account for more than a third of all its parishes, and they generate significant cash flow. Exact contributions of diocesan fees to the budget of the Church are unknown, though it is well-documented that Orthodox priests posted in Ukraine regularly travel with bags full of cash across the border.
The decoupling of Ukraine from the Moscow Patriarchate will also be a powerful blow for the Kremlin. The schism calls into question the very idea of the “Russky Mir” (“Russian World”), a vague imperial concept that helps Russia’s leaders to justify interference into the affairs of neighboring states. Orthodox faith is a powerful constituent of the “Russky Mir” ideology, along with special appeals to Russian speakers in breakaway regions of Georgia and Moldova, and EU citizens of Russian origin in the Baltics. The splintering of the Church will undermine the spiritual pretenses of this ideology, with the Russian Orthodox Church becoming less credible in its claims to speak for the Orthodox population in many post-Soviet countries.
Can the Russian Orthodox Church reverse the situation? In the past, it might have done so by breaking its silence and voicing its attitude toward the war in Donbas, the legitimacy of the return of Crimea, and finally the rights of Ukrainians to a separate identity and statehood. But its clear deference to Kremlin prerogatives is now more obvious than ever, and the chance of a reconciliation seems to be lost. A Church in decline will unite ever more closely with the state of which it is the biggest institutional victim so far.