ZOiS Spotlight 29/2021

Never-ending Competition: Orthodox Celebrations in Ukraine

by Andriy Fert 28/07/2021
Celebrations of the Baptism of Rus’ in Kyiv in 2019. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

For several hot days in July 2008, Ukraine was in the spotlight of the Orthodox world. Church leaders and statesmen went to Kyiv to celebrate the 1,020th anniversary of the Christianisation of Kyivan Rus’. The slightly unusual jubilee was meant to show how religious life had changed since the fall of communism. The Ukrainian president and many church leaders hoped that the festivities would help the country’s rival Orthodox communities unite into a Ukrainian national church. But it never happened. And on 27–28 July every year since, celebrations of the Baptism of Rus’, which marked the arrival of Christianity in 988, have highlighted the cleavages in the country’s religious landscape.

Today, two big Orthodox churches operate side by side in Ukraine. They have the same theology but appeal to different national and cultural sentiments. The largest in terms of parishes, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), remains under the authority of the Moscow patriarchate. Many find this alarming at a time of conflict with Russia and accuse this church of pro-Russian propaganda. With fewer parishes but more followers is the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was established almost two years ago and has been recognised by few other world churches so far.

Unity and alleged persecutions

The UOC’s spokesmen claim the Baptism of Rus’ as one of their parishioners’ favourite holidays. In 2008, it was the UOC that campaigned for a widescale celebration of the event’s 1,020th anniversary. For the church’s then leader, Metropolitan Volodymyr, this was the first step towards independence from Moscow. But he died in 2014, and his successor, Onufriy, has never seemed interested in this undertaking.

Under Onufriy, the church has become much more pro-Russian and, as a consequence, more marginal. During Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, only pro-Russian politicians and media have embraced his church. Soon, Onufriy and his subordinates took advantage of the Baptism of Rus’ to speak of fratricide in war-torn eastern Ukraine, echoing statements of Russian officials.

But the real topic the UOC has been pushing over the last couple of years is so-called persecution. In 2018, then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko started a campaign for Tomos, a decree that grants independence from the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. Within this framework, the Ukrainian parliament adopted two laws: one required the UOC to add the word ‘Russia’ to its official name, while the other regulated the process for parishes switching jurisdiction, which allowed more than 500 parishes to flee the UOC. Onufriy called these steps persecutions.

In response, the UOC has used the Baptism of Rus’ to demonstrate its power by bringing thousands of people onto the streets. The church also aims to present role models of resistance for believers by creating new saints, particularly those who were executed by state authorities. ‘We are the church of martyrs,’ Onufriy repeatedly says. ‘Veneration of these saints will encourage our faithful to be as firm in their Orthodoxy as they have been in previous years,’ a church spokesman added.

The OCU as an open church

The OCU’s festivities, meanwhile, usually make the news across the Ukrainian media. Unlike those of UOC, these celebrations feature revellers waving Ukrainian flags and shouting ‘Glory to Ukraine’. Prominent public figures and many pro-European politicians come out to join the procession of the cross.

But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the OCU held just one in-person celebration in 2019, which took place against the backdrop of a huge crisis the new church was going through. Poroshenko, an active supporter of the OCU, lost the 2019 presidential election to the religiously indifferent Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Former UOC parishes stopped switching to the OCU—and as if that were not enough, one of the church’s founding fathers, patriarch Filaret, accused the OCU and Poroshenko of a conspiracy against him. That is not to mention the damage inflicted by Poroshenko’s use of the church’s name in his political campaign.

The head of the OCU, Metropolitan Epiphany, therefore saw in the Baptism of Rus’ a chance to demonstrate that his church could be a unifying national institution, open to everyone, and a guardian of Ukrainian national traditions. He pushed the idea of Orthodox unity around the ‘Holy See of Kyiv’ and urged everyone to ‘know our past’ to build the future.

Competition without end

Ever since 2008, the Baptism of Rus’ has been about competition—between different visions of history and between the two churches in terms of how many participants each can bring to its celebrations. The 2018 and 2019 festivities were typical of that never-ending contest, with mutual accusations of nationalism or a lack of patriotism amplified by rival media and politicians. For an instant, in 2020, it seemed that the competition was over: the churches cancelled their processions and went online to pray against the pestilence of the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, the OCU also decided not to hold a procession and encouraged believers to celebrate in their local parishes.

But then the UOC issued a statement that it would organise traditional celebrations in Kyiv. Despite the changes in president and parliament in 2019 and a new policy on religion, the UOC still mobilises its followers around the narrative of persecutions. The church refuses to acknowledge the transition of 500 parishes to the OCU, claiming they were ‘taken over’ by ‘raiders’, and demands the annulment of the law allowing parishes to switch jurisdiction. The UOC files lawsuits and organises prayer meetings in front of the parliament and the president’s office. The Baptism of Rus’ would be a perfect occasion for the church to demonstrate its power once again and put the government under pressure.

In 2008, UOC leaders offered to enter into dialogue with the two other Ukrainian Orthodox churches that later merged into the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Thirteen years later, against the background of the war in eastern Ukraine and a new Ukrainian church recognised by the Orthodox world, no one seems ready for dialogue. The OCU represents itself as an open church, but society in general is quite hostile towards the UOC. Meanwhile, the UOC has lost its common touch and is drifting towards the pro-Russian domain, accusing its opponents of nationalism and persecutions. The 2021 celebration of the Baptism of Rus’ will again be a divided holiday, and the competition between Ukraine’s two churches seems to be here to stay.


Andriy Fert is a historian working on his PhD at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine.