The Orthodox Schism in the Shadow of Empire

On October 15, the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow announced that that it was breaking communion with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate, which had earlier announced that it would recognize the autocephaly (independence) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had been canonically subject to Moscow. The row between Moscow and Constantinople (as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch is still styled) was sparked by the conflict in Ukraine but is also rooted in two much older disputes—one about where primacy in the Orthodox world lays since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, and the other about whether Russia or Ukraine can lay claim to the inheritance of Kyivan Rus, the first Orthodox East Slavic state, which both claim as their progenitor.

When the Catholic and Orthodox churches split (the date is usually given as 1054, but the schism was a protracted affair), the Patriarch of Constantinople, then the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was recognized as the head of the Orthodox community, which at the time encompassed patriarchates in Jerusalem, Antioch (Antakya, Turkey), and Alexandria. Unlike the Catholic Church though, the Orthodox was not organized as a single hierarchy; the Patriarch of Constantinople was the primus inter pares among the Orthodox prelates, with authority to resolve disputes and appoint clerics in areas outside the other patriarchates’ jurisdiction, but the other sees did not answer to him.

After Grand Prince Vladimir the Great of Kyiv adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988, Kyivan Rus was granted a metropolitanate (one rank lower than a patriarchate) subject to Constantinople. The head of the church in Kyivan Rus was titled Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Rus (the term Rus implied, effectively, all the East Slavs who inhabited what is now Belarus, Ukraine, and southwestern Russia). Kyiv fell to the Mongols in 1241, and the Kyivan Rus state was destroyed.

One of the most lasting consequences of the Mongol conquest was the split within the East Slavic world between what would become Russia in the north and what would become Ukraine and Belarus to the west and south. Kyiv remained the spiritual center of the East Slavs, even as political and economic powers were shifting to Moscow. After the fall of Kyiv to the Mongols, the metropolitan relocated first to Vladimir in western Russia, and later, to Moscow. His official title though remained Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Rus.

The emergence of Moscow as the dominant player in Rus coincided with the fall of Byzantium to the Ottomans. Under Ottoman rule, Constantinople (now Istanbul), became an Islamic city. The Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the spiritual center of the Orthodox Christendom, was turned into a mosque. Clerics in Moscow argued that the fall of Byzantium signified that the center of the Orthodox world had passed from Constantinople to Moscow, which was proclaimed the “Third Rome.” As the monk Filofey famously wrote “Two Romes (i.e., Rome and Constantinople) have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth.”

Yet Moscow’s claim to have replaced Constantinople did not translate into actual primacy in the Orthodox world. Now an Ottoman subject, the Patriarch of Constantinople was still recognized by the other Orthodox prelates as the leading authority, which included mentioning his name first in the divine liturgy. Equally important, he continued to appoint metropolitans for the territory of modern Ukraine and Belarus (then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), implying that Moscow’s claim to jurisdiction over “all Rus” was empty.

In 1589, the Russian church declared its independence from Constantinople, and its head adopted the title Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus. This step signified both that the Russian church was now on an equal level with the other patriarchates and that Moscow was seeking to displace Kyiv as the center of the East Slavic Orthodox world. The status of the metropolitanate in Kyiv, which was then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, became the subject of a bitter struggle between Moscow and Constantinople. In 1685, the Russian church and Peter the Great asserted authority over Kyiv without the approval of Constantinople. The following year, with war between the Russians and Ottomans looming, Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysus reluctantly issued a statement approving the transfer.

The incorporation of Kyiv into the Russian Orthodox Church was connected to Russia’s territorial expansion, the “gathering the lands of Rus” that led to the establishment of the Russian Empire under Peter. This expansion included the incorporation of Kyiv and the eastern part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the old Grand Duchy of Lithuania) into Russia. Rus had been reunified, but Kyiv was no longer at its center. The transfer of the Rus patriarchate to Moscow (where it remained even when Peter shifted his capital to St. Petersburg) would long be a sore point for both the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which saw it as a challenge to its authority in the Orthodox world, and, later, for Ukrainian nationalists, who saw it in the context of Russian imperialism and subjugation of a distinctive Ukrainian identity.

Ukraine’s independence in 1991 re-configured the triangular relationship between Constantinople, Kyiv, and Moscow. Soon after independence, Ukrainian clergy, with the support of then-president Leonid Kuchma, established a new church hierarchy, whose head adopted the title Patriarch of Kyiv and All Rus. The new Kyiv Patriarchate was not recognized by Moscow—or by the wider Orthodox community, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The officially recognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church remained a self-governing branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The dispute between the Moscow and Kyiv patriarchates became acute in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which increasingly politicized religious identities, leading to an upsurge in the number of Ukrainians who identified with the Kyiv Patriarchate, as well as struggles over church property that occasionally turned violent. The Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian government pressed the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, in its role as the head of the worldwide Orthodox community, to recognize the Ukrainian church as autocephalous.

Ukraine’s independence in 1991 re-configured the triangular relationship between Constantinople, Kyiv, and Moscow.

This past week, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I finally agreed. His decision annulled the 1686 agreement recognizing the transfer of Kyiv to the jurisdiction of the Russian church. Bartholomew’s decision has implications that go beyond Ukraine, and that reflect the historical struggle for status and influence among the different Orthodox patriarchates. Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church argue that Bartholomew exceeded his authority by interfering in the internal affairs of the Russian church. Of course, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has granted autocephaly to numerous other churches in the past, including those in Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia, which broke away from the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century.

Bartholomew’s decision has implications that go beyond Ukraine, and that reflect the historical struggle for status and influence among the different Orthodox patriarchates.

An important subtext to the Russian argument though, is that today, the Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest and wealthiest member of the worldwide Orthodox community, which subsidizes the operations of some of the smaller and poorer churches in the Balkans and the Middle East. In comparison, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has just several thousand parishioners in its recognized canonical territory (Turkey and some regions of Greece—though most Orthodox in North America are also subject to its jurisdiction), is short of funds, and often in conflict with the Turkish government, which has over time whittled away its authority and property. In calling on other churches to ignore Bartholomew’s ruling, Moscow is in effect reviving the claim made by the monk Filofey, that Moscow, not Constantinople, is the center of the Orthodox world.

For Ukraine, the decision is an important step toward asserting an identity independent of Russia, which has dominated it for the past 350 years. Just as the establishment of autocephalous churches in the Balkans was instrumental in consolidating independence from the Ottomans, an autocephalous Ukrainian church will likely become a rallying point for Ukrainian culture and identity.

Russia has long seen Ukraine and Ukrainians as an extension of Russia. (The tsarist government preferred the term “Little Russia” to “Ukraine.”) The Russian narrative emphasizes that Moscow’s success in “gathering the lands of Rus” after the Mongol conquest means that Russia is the legitimate successor to Kyivan Rus, with a right to control the lands of “all Rus”—which today effectively means Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Many Ukrainians, conversely, see themselves as the true descendants of Kyivan Rus—not as “Little Russians,” but as a nation with its own history that has been subsumed and appropriated by Russia since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Bartholomew’s decision to annul the 1686 transfer of the Kyiv metropolitanate to Moscow’s jurisdiction provides an important fillip for this narrative. It suggests that the division of Rus during the period of Mongol domination is real and lasting.

For Ukraine, the decision is an important step toward asserting an identity independent of Russia, which has dominated it for the past 350 years.

The annulment also restores to Kyiv jurisdiction over the canonical territories it controlled before 1686—some of which happen to be in modern-day Belarus and Lithuania. This is the territory of the old Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a state that is often written out of the historical narrative because its existence challenges the nationalist claims of all the states that inherited its territory—Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine. The Ukrainian church’s ability to assuage the concerns of ecclesiastic and political authorities in Minsk and, to a lesser degree, in Vilnius will be an important factor in whether or not Ukrainian autocephaly gains wider support.

The consequences of the split between Moscow and Constantinople are hard to predict.

Assessments already vary, with some observers calling it the largest schism in Christendom in centuries, and others pointing to earlier examples of the Russian church breaking relations with other members of the Orthodox community only to eventually patch up relations. Clearly, the Moscow-Constantinople standoff is not a Reformation-level split: there’s no underlying theological or doctrinal issue at stake, and for most ordinary believers outside of Ukraine, the effect is likely to be limited. The conflict is, in any case, an important development in longstanding historical disputes about primacy in the Orthodox world and about the nature of Ukrainian identity vis-à-vis Russia. Whatever other consequences it has, neither the granting of Ukrainian autocephaly nor the break between Moscow and Constantinople is likely to resolve disputes whose roots go back hundreds of years.

Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program