Media resources run by the Russian Orthodox Church are once again bringing up the issue of granting “autocephaly” to its branch in Ukraine. Why would the Moscow Patriarchate go for such step? What preceded these statements? What is the role assigned in this game to Honorary Patriarch Filaret? What could happen is the ROCinU is granted the “autocephaly” by Moscow? This piece by the Spiritual Front of Ukraine aims to address all these questions.
“Moscow’s First Hierarch”
The Moscow Patriarchate has long been developing plans to snatch leadership in Ecumenical Orthodoxy and gain the top spot in the Diptych. In mid-20th century, the ROC was actively preparing to convene the All-Orthodox Council.
In the letter penned in July 1947 to ROC Patriarch Alexy by Father Havryil Kostelnyk, who flipped to the ROC from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, not without some help from the NKVD security service, said the ROC was in the worst possible state due to a low number of bishops. “The Russian Orthodox Church has been nominated by history to rule over the entire Orthodox Church. The ROC won’t be able to fulfill this mission if it remains small in terms of the number of clerics,” the letter said. Father Garviil advised that the ROC patriarch increase the number of hierarchs to boost authority and have the whole world “reckon with this authority”. Kostelnyk was confident that in such way, the ROC could steal leadership from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Diptych of Orthodox churches, “so that the most powerful center gained a canonical sanction for its mission, for which history has nominated it”. Also, he suggested that Alexy should create patriarchates in Kyiv and Leningrad (now St Petersburg), while a Moscow Patriarch should be assigned a title “First Hierarch of Moscow and All Rus”. This title was supposed to be immediately approved by clerics across the Soviet Union, while eastern, as the letter put it, would accept it in about 100-150 years. Therefore, the “Moscow patriarch will find himself, canonically, at the top spot in the entire Orthodox Church,” Gavriil Kostelnyk assured.
ROC Patriarch Alexy (Simanski). A Church Council of the Orthodox Russian Church in Moscow. Source: Wikipedia
He was assuring Patriarch Alexy that promoting Kyiv and Leningrad to a patriarchate status will have a purely internal significance for the church and in no way contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And if it even happens, then Kyiv could be offered autocephaly, as it had been the case with the Polish Orthodox Church. “I believe that the future of the ROC and the whole Orthodox Church will not be ensured until the ROC is promoted hierarchically,” Kostelnyk summed up.
NKVD operative Grigoriy Karpov, with whom ROC Patriarch Alexy communicated. Photo: Wikipedia
Alexy quite liked the plans to snatch primacy. On January 13, 1947, ROC Patriarch Alexy was already writing a letter to NKVD Major General G.G. Karpov on convening the Ecumenical All-Orthodox Council in Moscow, asking him to fix hotel accommodation for patriarchs and clergy accompanying them (nearly 50 people). They intended to hold the Council in early September of that year. And then, on July 15, Alexy wrote NKVD’s Karpov that the Council should be postponed until the spring of 1948 over the fact the primates of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Cyprus “will not make it” to the event. Alexy was asking Karpov to help him set up an “organizational committee”.
Besides, Alexy had much respect for NKVD’s Karpov, and whenever he received letters from other patriarchs, he would ask to be received for a “private conversation,” signing his note at the bottom: “Your truly devoted P[atriarch] Alexy”.
Photo: Metropolitan Oleksandr (Drabynko)
A new “tomost” for the ROC branch in Ukraine
Back then, the ROC failed in taking over supremacy in global Orthodoxy. Another attempt, made in 21st century, was a failure as well. Brightly testifying to this fact was the Council held in Amman, following which the Kremlin realized that the ROC has no support on the part of other Orthodox churches, as the event was attended by ROC satellites only.
In a situation where already four Local Churchers have recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Moscow clerics have no other option at hand but to go for a step that would inevitably hurt their own reputation – to provide autocephaly to their church’s branch in Ukraine
Recently, an ROC-controlled outlet Pravoblog stated the following: “one of Pravoblog authors just yesterday talked with a respected priest re autocephaly for the UOC [МP]. The latter is a supporter of this idea, and he expressed confidence that at the ROC’s Bishop Council set to be held in the second half of this year, a decision will be made to grant full independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [of the Moscow Patriarchate].” As per the Moscow cleric, for Moscow to grant autocephaly, a right historical moment is required, so it’s just a matter of time for this to happen. Allegedly, all it takes is for “the political situation to settle and nationalist sentiments subside” before “everything is all set.”
The platform’s authors note that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will not recognize autocephaly granted by the ROC. The ROCinU will “remain for him an ‘alien element’, and the Patriarchate in Constantinople іwill either force it to go for unification with the OCU with the latter’s leading role, or make every effort to ensure its full liquidation.” Moreover, without the ROCinU’s link with the ROC, justifying in the eyes of other Churches any steps the Phanar could take as regards the ROCinU would be a lot easier, Russian pundits emphasize. Besides, they believe, plenty of clerics and parishioners with the ROCinU will not even accept “autocephaly” from Moscow. “As a result, we will get another massive schism”, while the ROCinU “will remain in an ‘one on one’ format with the Ukrainian authorities”, “which is a path to sustaining eve more painful blows from two directions – internal and external ones,” the outlet sums up.
The ROC has already dons something similar with the ROCinU. However, tomos of autocephaly was off the table back then. Today though, the idea of a sham “tomos” that could be issued by a Moscow patriarch is being actively circulated by Vladimir Putin crony Viktor Medvedchuk’s media resources as an alternative to the real and valid tomos of autocephaly earlier provided to the OCU. The certificate by Alexy II is not seen in global Orthodoxy as a tomos of autocephaly. This is purely an internal document of the ROC, and it’s only applied to the ROC and its satellites.
In global Orthodoxy, the tomoses of autocephaly, issued by the ROC, were never taken seriously and neither were they recognized as Church history and its canonical law states that it’s only the Ecumenical Patriarch who is entitled to grant autocephaly. Even the very Moscow Church received the document confirming its patriarchate status (not the autocephaly) from the Ecumenical Patriarch.
On a separate note, there is no such status in church law that the ROC granted in 1990’s to its Ukrainian branch. This is about the ROCinU status of a “self-governed church with the right to wide autonomy”. One time, masterminds in Moscow came up with a transitional form, which they intended to use to calm down the Ukrainians who sought to get autocephaly, that is, church independence, from Moscow. This entity today is neither an autocephalous church nor even an autonomous one. From the local autocephalous churches’ perspective, the so-called UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is a composition of ROC’s dioceses on the territory of Ukraine. This status comes from the ROCinU Charter. A similar status the Ukrainian Republic once had as part of the Soviet Union.
FSB and Filaret
A peculiar fact: Alexy II’s certificate was issued in the name of Filaret (Denysenko), who at that time was the ROC’s exarch in Ukraine. And now, the honorary patriarch could play a role in this new game called “autocephaly”.
At the end of 2019, Russian intelligence set up paid rallies on Kyiv’s Mykhailivska Square in support of Filaret, where people hired by Putin crony Viktor Medvedchuk carried posters with slogans on them, written in Russian.
Meanwhile, people who have little to nothing to do with church affairs have suddenly started to visit the honorary patriarch and ask him about the fate of the Kyiv Patriarchate. Among them was Andriy Telizhenko, who along with Andriy Derkach and a number of other actors was recently sanctioned by the U.S. At the same time, the U.S. labeled Derkach an “active Russian agent for more than a decade.” In 2020, Derkach presided over the XVIII Pokrov International Orthodox Film Festival held at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra premises. In the past, the politician was a member of the ROC’s inter-council convention. That is, he is an FSB agent with extensive connections in and knowledge of church, primarily the Russian one. And this agent coordinated other people and instructed them on contacts with Filaret.
As a result of such meetings with FSB henchmen, Filaret entered into unification talks with the Moscow Patriarchate, expecting to get a tomos from the latter. Having failed to become an OCU chief, Filaret, who has already turned 90, quit it altogether and convened along with the two bishops from Russia a “Council” where he declared the restoration of the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate he had just liquidated. Russians took advantage of Filaret’s craving for power as he most of all sought to prove to everyone that he would be elected Patriarch even if he had failed to reach such heights with the ROC. «I am Patriarch, I will be Patriarch, and I will die Patriarch,” he once said.
Following a little bit of “advice” on the part of the Russian special services, Filaret started publicly claiming that the OCU had received “not the right kind” of the tomos of autocephaly. Naturally, in the wake of such statements, he turned into an ally for Moscow, a “foe of their foe.” Russia’s fringe media stopped referring to him as a “schismatic and renegade priest Mykhailo Antonovych”. Instead, they actively spun all his statements to th detriment of the OCU unity. A lame duck Filaret, as per Russia’s plans, was supposed to tear the OCU apart and compromise it in the eyes of believers.
There’s another interesting nuance here. A large number of OCU priests originally come from the already-liquidated UOC-KP. At the same time, Filaret surely still has own leverage over the formet bishops of the Kyiv Patriarchate. And these levers he is yet to take out of his archive of tools.
But the Ukrainian Church prevailed. “We have saved our unity,” chief of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Metropolitan Epifaniy of Kyiv and All Ukraine said late 2019, as only several parishes and a dozen priests stuck with Filaret. Most of those priests, incidentally, are part of St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv.
The only option left available for Moscow is the boldest and at the same time the most inconvenient one reputation-wise. This is about granting the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine a sham version of “autocephaly”. Religion observers both in Ukraine and Greece have earlier dwelled on the issue deep enough. If ROC’s top leaders dare to make such step, this will inevitably lead to serious reputational losses, comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union, as they would have to voluntarily opt for break up the “Orthodox” unity of the ROC, while many in the ROCinU oppose the idea of independence from Moscow.
Options for further developments
If the ROC actually dares to provide “autocephaly” to the ROCinU, then its satellites are most likely to recognize it right away. This would create in Ukraine a protracted church conflict that would be simmering for years. The ROC realizes that while they can’t stop or hinder the process of creation and recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, trying at least to put the ongoing processes on a freeze and provide “autocephaly” to its own branch, then set up a church that would offer an alternative to the OCU. If they proceed with such plan, how will the ROCinU explain Alexy ІІ’s certificate which they consider as a “tomos of autocephaly,” while posing as the “world’s most independent church?” Will this mean that they will have two tomoses at the same time?
Now, through public freaks such as Telizhenko and the like, Moscow launched efforts to influence Filaret, who is now being led on a Russian leash, contributing to their plans to break the OCU apart. This union of the UOC-KP and ROCinU in case the latter is granted autocephaly by Moscow could deliver a blow at the OCU. In this way, Moscow hopes to suspend further recognition of the OCU worldwide and freeze the transition of parishes. The ROCinU will in turn be immediately recognized by the Serbian Church and other Moscow satellites.
The plan has long been in the works of ROC’s top leadership. The plan provided for a fragmentation of their territories and confirmation of a large number of bishops. The Moscow Patriarchate was supposed to gain supremacy in global Orthodoxy.
In 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church had on its board no more than nearly 7,000 priests. As of the start of Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s rein, the number was already 30,000, and growing.
Photo: ROC episcopate of 364 bishops. 2016. Source: muamuk.livejournal.com
The ROC’s administrative vertical is built differently than it is in Ukraine. Their dioceses are united in metropolises led by metropolitans, while these metropolises, in turn, comprise the ROC. So the system in Russia is highly fragmented, and they will maintain the trend toward further fragmentation and setting up new fake “autocephalous” churches to gain a majority. In Ukraine, the ROC will provide its “tomos of autocephaly” to the ROCinU and restructure it, only to claim it is an autocephalous church alternative to the OCU. To be able to compete with the latter, they must engage Filaret who still enjoys bits of former authority and positions in certain circles and movements, including radical ones sponsored by Russia. That’s exactly what Filaret will try to take control of and Russia will therefore be able to further hamper the development of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Filaret could take part in uniting the UOC-KP and the ROCinU. And after that, the ROC could provide its “tomos of autocephaly,” with FIlaret (Denysenko) bound to become Patriarch. “These are the promises Moscow has been luring Filaret with, while Filaret in turn demands from the ROC some kind of guarantees,” the religious scholar notes.
Another scenario is also possible here: the ROC at its Council approves “autocephaly” for the ROCinU, which for its part will convene a constituent assembly of the new «pseudo-autocephalous” UOC and somewhere at this stage, Filaret will also join the process.
Filaret and Onufriy are attending a festive event. Photo: Apostrophe
The third option is where the ROCinU is provided a “tomos” without Honorary Patriarch Filaret’s participation.
It should be recalled that on January 20, 2020, Honorary Patriarch Filaret said that if the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine was getting a tomos of autocephaly, he would be ready to unite with them. Commenting on the statement, the ROCinU responded that Filaret must plead guilty and repent for his actions, while the very offer was met with no enthusiasm. They claimed such statements “should have been made before December 15, 2018, when a Unification Council was held and the OCU was founded.” “Today, such statements have no sense,” the Moscow-controlled church said back then.
Well, now it turns out Moscow has actually found a new sense to these statements, as we see.