UKRAINIANS in the Moscow region have, or rather had, their own church in the town of Noginsk, subject to the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Kyiv (or Kiev). In Ukraine, by contrast, there are hundreds of Orthodox churches under the jurisdiction of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
On 3 October, the Moscow Regional Court confirmed its earlier ruling that this one Ukrainian church was to be demolished. The Russian nationalists have done their work.
I first encountered the Russian Orthodox Church face to face 57 years ago, when I went to Moscow as a member of the first-ever student exchange between the UK and the Soviet Union. At that point, in 1959, believers were beginning to feel that there was lasting substance in their improved destiny since Stalin had back-tracked on his policy of eliminating Christianity during the purges.
But everything was about to change. Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, began a new period
of religious persecution, total in
its scope, brutal in its execution. Khrushchev boasted that he would live to see the last old woman lock the door of the last church on his territory.
Khrushchev had form. Before coming to Moscow to take over the top position in the Communist government, he had, 13 years earlier, in 1946, presided over a brutal attempt to subdue Western Ukraine, which the Red Army’s victory had just incorporated into the Soviet empire.
The institution most openly supportive of Ukrainian identity was the Greek-Catholic Church, that branch of the Catholic Church subject to the Pope but honouring the liturgy and practices of the Orthodox Church.
The new Soviet policy was absolute: suppression of the Greek-Catholic Church, leading to imprisonment and soon the death of many clergy and all but one of the bishops: Cardinal Slipyi alone survived, to be exiled to the Vatican in 1963.
Some clergy saved themselves and their families (the Church accepts married priests) by becoming Orthodox and making a submission to the Moscow Patriarchate, whose leaders, to this day, continue to justify their complicity in Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s actions. There were secret consecrations of bishops in the gulag.
After years of underground activity, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church regained its legal status in 1989, and eventually most — though not all — of its stolen property.
IS ALL this relevant to last week’s visit to London by Patriarch Kirill? Very much so. The Putin regime is implacably hostile to Ukraine. As well as its illegal seizure of Crimea two years ago, it is engaged in fomenting strife in the eastern part
of the country, which is Russian-speaking, but far from universally wishing to secede from the Kyiv government. Putin at first denied Russian involvement in the territory-snatch, but has since admitted it.
After a meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk on the one hand, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London on the other, a press statement noted their “shared compassion for Christian and other minorities in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, where they have been systematically targeted and persecuted and their communities decimated”.
There was no mention of Ukraine.
The Eastern Ukrainians are a majority — not a minority — subjected to a foreign power in a conflict that has recently been almost totally absent from the news, despite the death of about 10,000 Ukrainians in this war.
The Patriarch’s visit has clearly improved official relations between the two Churches, and perhaps paved the way for a formal visit
by Archbishop Welby to Russia, something that Archbishop Rowan Williams never managed to achieve, despite his deep insight into the Orthodox Church.
Patriarch Kirill imparted, through his official press service, a lively impression of his visit to Buckingham Palace: “I saw the Queen in good health, [I saw] her bright luminous eyes. She showed wonderful reaction to my words, she said many proper things and the conversation left me with a pleasant intellectual and emotional impression.”
The official Russian spokesman for the Patriarchate’s press service, Fr Alexander Volkov, was less positive. He repeated the tiresome mantra that the Lambeth talks had included criticism of the Church of England for “the liberalisation of its teachings, particularly on the ordination of women as priests and bishops and on morals and family issues”, The Times reported.
The way would now seem to be open, however, for honest and frank conversations between Anglican and Russian Orthodox leaders. Although Patriarch Kirill’s visit was clearly announced as “pastoral”, i.e. to his own flock in London, its status was enhanced by his invitation to visit the Queen and her Archbishop.
Such diplomacy is reciprocal; so the day may perhaps come when Archbishop Welby finds President Putin awaiting him in the Kremlin. If this meeting ever comes about, it will be a chance to raise the issue of Ukraine directly with its scourge, as well as tackle him about the endless sufferings of people in Syria.
Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the founder and president of the Keston Institute, Oxford.