Holy War: The Centuries-Old Battle for Ukraine’s Soul
Rebecca Batley 8 September 2022

Ever since Patriarch Kirill, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church and patriarch of Moscow threw his weight behind Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, by calling it essentially a holy war, questions have been raised as to what role exactly he, and the church, play in Russia. Many leaders from other churches, most notably Pope Francis, have recently called upon Kirill to withdraw his support from Putin stating that it should be impossible for any man of religion to support such a violent war, yet Kirill remains steadfastly supportive. A fact that should not come as surprising given that many see the war as an extension of the Russian Orthodox Church’s efforts in Ukraine, where ever since the dissolution of the USSR the Orthodox church has struggled, and fought, to maintain its influence and authority. Most recently Patriarch Kirill has stated that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will “return (orthodox) values to the world which it seeks in its madness to abandon.”

Today it is impossible to understand the invasion of Ukraine without placing it in its historical context and acknowledging that the relationship between Ukraine and the Russian church goes back hundreds of years.


After all Ukraine is where over a thousand years ago the warrior prince Vladimir adopted Christianity, and compelled his people to do so,  in order that he could marry the daughter of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The conversion of Saint Vladmir, as he is now known, has ever since been claimed as the foundation of Christianity in the region and the event to which Russian Orthodoxy, and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, trace their roots: making Ukraine sacred ground, that the Russian church has coveted it ever since.

When the Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century CE, moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople, and adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, he could have had no idea of the consequences. As Christianity flourished and evolved it left the head of the Christian Church there, the patriarch of Constantinople came in a position to challenge the growing authority of the Pope, an act that led to the official “Great Schism” of 1054 when the Christian church split into two factions; the Orthodox church in the East and the Catholic church in the West.

The church in Moscow dates its origins just prior to this schism, to Saint Vladimir’s conversion in 988 CE when the area that is now Ukraine was part of the Kievan Rus, which consisted of the lands that are now Ukraine, Belarus and some western parts of Russia. Kyiv was the centre of this state and the church of the Kievan Rus was part of it, and under the control of the patriarch of Constantinople. Traditionally of the 9 patriarchs the patriarch of Constantinople was regarded as the ‘first amongst equals’ given the long history of his office.

All seemed settled however when Kyiv in the 13th century found itself besieged by the Mongols. The seat of religious power was transferred north to Moscow by the patriarch of Constantinople for its own safety and as the Russian church grew in authority it was able to challenge the patriarch of Constantinople in terms of wealth, power and authority. All this meant that in 1686 a grant of authority was given by the ecumenical patriarch to the Moscow patriarch which essentially authorised Moscow’s claim to Ukraine on religious grounds, meaning that now Orthodox followers in the area owed allegiance to Moscow and not to Constantinople – an act that split the church and has been hotly debated ever since.


Following the Russian Revolution, the USSR suppressed all churches. Under Communism religion, was seen as something that would hinder the development of a Socialist state, with Karl Marx famously declaring that “Communism begins where atheism begins.” Churches were closed and boarded up, as were other religious buildings and church leaders and officials faced imprisonment and persecution. Stalin’s belief that the people of the ‘Russian world’ would, under communism, eventually disregard religion however proved not to be the case. Even in 1957, after years of persecution, at least half the population of the USSR still called themselves religious believers.

This continued belief meant that there was a religious resurgence following the fall of the USSR.

In Ukraine, upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the establishment of independence, religion quickly re-established itself in the country, but Ukrainians voted with their feet and showed their desire to worship in Ukrainian churches rather than those tied to Moscow, under the authority of the Moscow Patriarch, arguing that their loyalty lay west now rather than east. Ukrainian priests took over many Russian Orthodox churches and claimed them as Ukrainian.

In response the Russian Orthodox church under patriarch Alexey II sought to increase the Russian presence there and used state funds to found many new churches. Crucially, given the current situation, Patriarch Kirill served under Alexey III as his director of external relations – his history with Ukraine therefore goes a long way back, as does his adherence to his predecessor’s position. This increase in Russian Orthodox presence was not well received, so that prior to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine the Russian Orthodox church had a huge number of churches in Ukraine but few adherents, which led to 35 million Ukrainian Orthodox followers petitioning for the creation of a church: one that is independent of Russia.


Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea – an area where the Russian Orthodox Church remains strong, due to the relocation of many Russians during the soviet period – tensions increased. At the same time the Russian Orthodox church became increasingly concerned with what it viewed as western ties that were developing within Orthodoxy. In 2013 Patriarch Bartholomew attended Pope Francis’ inauguration and the two leaders began to work more closely together, notably on climate change. These western ties emboldened Patriarch Filaret of Kyiv in 2014 following the Euromaidan Revolution, to formally petition for autocephaly. This was denied but in 2016 patriarch Bartholomew claimed that he was considering granting independence to the church in Ukraine, something that patriarch Kirill, who succeeded as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church on the 1st February 2009, felt was a direct attack on his territory. He went so far as to call Bartholomew’s plan a “schism” and a “violation of canonical law.” Seeking support for his position he campaigned alongside many US Christian fundamentalists on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and female roles in the church, tying moral values into religious ones.

In protest Patriarch Kirill also withdrew Russia from the 2016 Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox church – a council that led to the issuing of a document that denounced nationalism and racism and spoke of liberty, freedom and equality. He denounced the document and refused to accept the authority of Constantinople.

Two years later the independent Ukrainian Orthodox church was finally established, centred on the St Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, by revoking the 1686 decision. The Patriarch of Constantinople gave the new Metropolitan of Ukraine a Tomos of autocephaly. Crucially, the ceremony was also attended by then president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, making clear the link between the state and its new church. Patriarch Kirill responded by calling it “illegitimate” and refusing to acknowledge its sanctity. The invasion of Ukraine to his mind is therefore redressing the ‘schism’ caused by this illegal act.

Patriarch Kirill had not wavered in his belief that such an act was unlawful and that the church of Ukraine, alongside its lands, are under canonical law part of the Russian Orthodox church. In support of this view, he cites the long history of Russian religious activity in Ukraine as well as the fact that historically the 2 countries have been united for long periods of time. Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile made clear his acceptance of this view, stating that “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space” and this is only the latest in a long line of statements in which Putin has created a narrative in which nationalism, faith and conservative values have been united. Both religion and state are one in the minds of Putin and Kirill.

A theme that Kirill wholeheartedly supports, most recently in his Forgiveness Sunday sermon on March 6th 2022, where he stated that the west had been “suppressing and exterminating the people of Donbas” when they rejected western values in favour of Russian ones – specifically when they refused to hold a Gay Pride parade.

However, since the invasion of Ukraine, the position of the Moscow patriarch in Ukraine has been eroding. Even Orthodox churches, allied to Moscow, across Ukraine have told their parishioners to omit Patriarch Kirill’s name from the liturgy and some have even announced that they will cut all ties. Metropolitan Onufry, head of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine has called for Putin to end the war and Kirill to condemn the violence. Meanwhile on the ground churches of all denominations have suffered heavy damage. Churches such as the 16th century monastery in Donetsk which was hit by fire, damaging the building and injuring those sheltering inside.


What does all this mean for the future of religion in Ukraine and Russia? The future is uncertain but it is becoming clear that the Ukrainian church and religion have increasingly become part of the national identity, and previous followers of the Russian Orthodox church are joining the Ukrainian church. This split in national identities has only intensified since June when the Ukrainian Parliament passed a series of laws to restrict Russian books, music and speech in Ukraine with the aim of further breaking cultural and religious ties with Russia.

In Russia, meanwhile, the Orthodox faithful have been told by their Patriarch that this war is a just and holy one, brought about for the sake of the restitution and preservation of their church and values. Loyalty to the Russian Orthodox church is now inseparable from loyalty to Mother Russia.

International human rights societies such as Human Rights Without Frontiers, on their own hand, are calling for Patriarch Kirill to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for “inspiring, inciting, justifying, aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity.” It is a damning indictment and one that, when the media blackout in Russia shall be lifted, will pose some difficult questions to those who support the Russian Orthodox church under the patriarch’s leadership.

The fear for many is that whoever emerges as the victor in the already 6-months old conflict, the defeated within Ukraine will be branded as traitors, given the role that the church is playing, and suffer religious persecution. It is increasingly clear that when the battle for Ukraine is over, the battle for her soul will rage on, as it has already done for hundreds of years.


Rebecca Batley is a British Historian, Writer and Educator.



Paper discussion by prof. José Casanova

The rich historical framework of the complex history of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches traced in the paper by Rebecca Batley shall be integrated, to fully grasp the challenges of today’s conflict, by taking further into account the history of Ukrainian orthodoxy well before Muscovy became Russia in the 16th century, the reformation of Ukrainian orthodoxy in the 17th century under Kyiv Metropolitan Petro Mohyla, parallel and in competition to the Protestant and Catholic reformations – the only Orthodox reformation in the world of Eastern orthodoxy – as well as the birth of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church during the Russian revolution and Civil War. The latter was first actually supported by the Bolsheviks but was later suppressed in the 1920’s and survived in the Polish Ukrainian lands of Volyn and Rivne, until these lands were annexed by the Soviets after World War II when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church were again destroyed by the Soviets (Stalin) with the connivance of the Russian Orthodox Church, forcing all Western Ukrainians to become Russian Orthodox, until glasnost arrived in Ukraine in 1989. Then, not so much the priests, but the parishioners decided to take back their churches away from Moscow and back to their reestablished historical Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, which had survived underground and in the diaspora.

Very soon, immediately after independence in 1991, there were three Orthodox churches in Ukraine: a) the historical Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church that emerged during the Russian revolution and survived in exile and in the Ukrainian diasporas; b) the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate under Filaret, which soon became the largest church in turn of parishioners, and c) the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which although the largest church in terms of buildings newly built by the Moscow Patriarchate with Russian state funds, had become by 2014, after the invasion of Crimea and the war in Donbas, a minority church in Ukraine.

But the two Ukrainian churches had no international legitimacy since they were not recognized by other Orthodox churches around the world. After 2014 there was a grassroots movement from below, in addition to the movement from above by Ukrainian ecclesiastical and state elites, to unify the three churches under a new Ukrainian Orthodox church that would be recognized as “canonical” by the Ecumenical Patriarch, thus reverting to the status of the Metropolitan of Kyiv under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch, which had lasted for over 7 centuries, until the Ecumenical Patriarch ceded his jurisdiction over the Ukrainian church to the Moscow Patriarchate temporarily and conditionally in 1686.  After the boycott of the 2016 Great and Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Crete by the Moscow Patriachate, Bartholomew made the decision to grant the Tomos of autocephaly to a new reunited Orthodox Church of Ukraine. With the Tomos Bartholomew claimed to have rightly regained jurisdiction over the newly established autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, out of the Union of the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches and important sectors of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate under Onufriy (several bishops, as well as leading priest and intellectuals such as Archpriest Georgiy Kovalenko and Konstantin Sigov, and leading laity such as Petro Poroshenko) out of the desire to worship in a canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow and in communion with global orthodoxy.

From a Russian historical perspective, they all may seem “small details”, but this is what Ukrainians are fighting for – for the right to have their own nation, their own language, their own culture and their own orthodox Church, something which the Russian empire denied them in the 19th century, the Soviet Union denied them in the 20th century and now the Russian Federation under Putin wants to deny them in the 21st century.

A day after Patriarch Bartholomew announced his intention to grant the Tomos to the new Ukrainian Church in October 2018, Putin called a meeting of the national security council of the Russian Federation, where one can assume the decision to begin to prepare for “the special military operation” was made.


José Casanova is a professor in the Departments of Sociology and Theology at Georgetown University, senior fellow at the Berkley Center, and president of ResetDOC’s Advisory Board.


Cover Photo: Head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill (C) blesses people congregated for mass in Donetsk on May 7, 2011 (Alexander Khudoteply / AFP).

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