The physical landscape of Ukraine isn’t the only battle space Russian invaders hope to dominate. For the past decade, the two countries have fought another battle — not over territory but the religious orientation of Ukraine.
The world's worst kept secret- Putin is trying to reassemble the USSR territory under his direction. While at this point there is not doubt in anyone’s mind that Putin is determined to reconstitute the old Soviet Union as a sphere of unchallenged Russian influence, Russian imperialism has a history that long antedates Mr. Putin.
Czarist Russia was an expansive imperial power, extending its hegemony over the Eurasian landmass to the Pacific Ocean. Lenin, Stalin and their other communist leaders, despite their ideological rejection of czarism, acted as de facto Great Russian imperialists in assembling the Soviet Union and maintaining it by brute force. The reason being is that Imperial Russia was a collection of groups of people not a solid group of ethnic Russian people.
In lamenting the demise of that prison house of nations as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, Mr. Putin was in part mourning the failure of the imperial project begun by Peter the Great. As a collection of people, Peter the Great thought that he would create a greater Russia that would last for a long period of time. This massive country was more of a ticking time bomb than a real real nation. To create this nation, there must be a creative narrative constructed to meld the groups of people together even when or if in fact a current narrative was either different or did not exist. Yet Russian imperialism has even deeper cultural roots that influence Mr. Putin’s assault on Ukrainian sovereignty Feb. 24, 2022.
When Russia occupied the country, religious freedom was one of the many casualties.
Ukraine is actually an ancient nation, dating back to at least the 9th century, with an eastern Christian identity at its root. Founded at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Ukraine is the second-largest European country, second only to Russia. While many faiths now operate freely in Ukraine, such as Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Muslims and Jews, the country’s population of 43 million is overwhelmingly Christian and predominantly identifies with Orthodoxy.
But the question is: Which Orthodoxy?
This is the story of the creative narrative. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the common Orthodox character of Russia and Ukraine in his arguments for closer alignment. However, at the beginning of 2019 the Orthodox Church of Ukraine had even broken their ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. So, the claims made late in the day of Feb. 23, 2022 by Putin were not correct.
Ukraine is unique in that several expressions of eastern Christianity are practiced there. On one side is the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian denomination, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. On the other is the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Kyiv Patriarchate.
Putin’s efforts to restore Russian prestige have included elevating the Russian Orthodox Church to the center of Russian identity while also undermining the independence of the Moscow Patriarch. Putin’s Ukraine scheme included leveraging the potential religious soft power of the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate.According to the Orthodox Times, Russia used disinformation campaigns to stir conflict between the churches.
These efforts came to a head in late 2018, when the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Kyiv Patriarchate sought from the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church autocephaly. Afraid of Russian interference, the Kyiv Patriarchate believed attaining independence through autocephalous status would allow the OCU-KP to break free from the Moscow Patriarchate, removing itself from under its authority. Now enters Putin. He is trying to put everything back together in his narrative again.
The Russian Narrative
The crucial moment in the lengthy process of the Christianization of the eastern Slavic peoples was the Baptism of Rus’ in 988. Then, the baptized Kyivan Prince Vladimir returned to his capital after a military victory in Crimea and urged his people to follow his example by being baptized en masse in the Dnieper River. They did, and others in the region followed. More than a millennium later, the meaning of the Baptism of Rus’ for Christianity in that part of the world remains sharply contested—and relevant to contemporary geopolitics. In this narrative St. Vladimir (of Kiev) was not Ukrainian but actually Russian. Russia got its name from the Rus (Kiev) so therefore Ukrainians would be Russians correct? This is how Vladimir Putin (a man who is no saint) tried to frame it. To many people they do not see the difference, but the difference does exist whether you see it or you do not.
Rewriting history to absorb the past and roll it into a new truth is a common practice even by the United States. Rewriting the Dixiecrat Democratic Party into a role of diversity and support of rights for all people has ingrained several generations of American students with the idea that Democratic party had always supported these issues and the Republican party had always been against them.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s insistence on being the sole heir of the Baptism of Rus’ is an integral part of the longstanding Russian claim, now is being deployed by Mr. Putin. Under this narrative Ukraine is not a real nation with its own culture and history. One could conclude that it was Russia not Ukraine that was the cultural center for the Kievan Rus. If this was the case, why were the Russian’s baptized in Kiev and not Moscow? Why was St. Vladimir living and ruling his people in Kiev and not Moscow or Novograd?
Under this false narrative, Putin has at best, made Ukraine a “little brother” to the Russian hegemony. Yet the various Ukrainian Orthodox Churches and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church have claims to the heritage of 988 at least as strong as the Russians’. The Baptism of Rus’, after all, took place in Kyiv and its environs when Moscow was a thick forest inhabited by wolves and bears.
While the ethnographic, cultural and ecclesiastical history that unfolded between 988 and today is complex, one modern incident illustrates the nexus of Russian imperialism, Soviet power, the Russian Church’s proprietary claim to the Baptism of Rus’ and Mr. Putin’s Ukraine policy.
During Hitler’s onslaught on the Soviet Union, Stalin cynically decided that Russian Orthodoxy, whose clergy he had killed in the tens of thousands, could be a useful tool in the “Great Patriotic War” against his erstwhile German allies. Stalin restored the Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow, and the Russian church gave legitimacy to the Soviet regime by blessing sacrifices of life, liberty and treasure on behalf of the Motherland. The imperial instinct remained, however, as did the state-controlled Russian church’s determination to own and control the heritage of 988.
Thus in 1946, Russian Orthodoxy’s leadership, working with the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, engineered a contrived Sobor, or church council, to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which had become a safe-deposit box of Ukrainian cultural identity and national aspiration. Note that Stalin never had any strong ties to Ukraine. In fact, his collectivization of farms of Ukraine created the Holomdor (Winter 1932/1933) that starved 7-12 million Ukrainians. So killing more Ukrainians was not a problem.
The previous year, the Ukrainian church’s leadership had been arrested. Those who weren’t murdered were condemned to Gulag camps. The coerced “council,” virtually at gunpoint, acquiesced to an ecclesiastical variation on classic imperialism, as the Russian Orthodox Church absorbed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which ceased to exist legally. That dissidents among the Ukrainian clergy and faithful, without parish churches or other institutions, maintained the world’s largest underground religious community for the next 45 years was little less than miraculous. Today, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is playing a significant role in building a religiously tolerant, democratic Ukraine. What will happen to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church under Putin’s rule?
Pray for Ukraine and may God bless this precious land. The land of St. Vladimir shall not go down under this new Vladimir. To paraphrase the late Texas Senator Bentsen, “I know St. Vladimir and Putin is no Vladimir.”
The Ukrainian Narrative
Vladimir summoned together his vassals and the city elders, and said to them: "Behold, the Bulgars came before me urging me to accept their religion. Then came the Germans and praised their own faith; and after them came the Jews. Finally the Greeks appeared, criticising all other faiths but commanding their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them. They preach the existence of another world. 'Whoever adopts our religion and then dies shall arise and live forever. But whosoever embraces another faith, shall be consumed with fire in the next world.' What is your opinion on this subject, and what do you answer?" The vassals and the elders replied: "You know, O Prince, that no man condemns his own possessions, but praises them instead. If you desire to make certain, you have servants at your disposal. Send them to inquire about the ritual of each and how he worships God. " Their counsel pleased the prince and all the people, so that they chose good and wise men to the number of ten, and directed them to go first among the Bulgars and inspect their faith. The emissaries went their way, and when they arrived at their destination they beheld the disgraceful actions of the Bulgars and their worship in the mosque; then they returned to their own country. Vladimir then instructed them to go likewise among the Germans, and examine their faith, and finally to visit the Greeks. They thus went into Germany, and after viewing the German ceremonial, they proceeded to Constantinople where they appeared before the emperor. He inquired on what mission they had come, and they reported to him all that had occurred.. When the emperor heard their words, he rejoiced, and did them great honour on that very day.
On the morrow, the emperor sent a message to the patriarch to inform him that a Russian delegation had arrived to examine the Greek faith, and directed him to prepare the church and the clergy, and to array himself in his sacerdotal robes, so that the Russians might behold the glory of the God of the Greeks. When the patriarch received these commands, he bade the clergy assemble, and they performed the customary rites. They burned incense, and the choirs sang hymns. The emperor accompanied the Russians to the church, and placed them in a wide space, calling their attention to the beauty of the edifice, the chanting, and the offices of the archpriest and the ministry of the deacons, while he explained to them the worship of his God. The Russians were astonished, and in their wonder praised the Greek ceremonial. Then the Emperors Basil and Constantine invited the envoys to their presence, and said, "Go hence to your native country," and thus dismissed them with valuable presents and great honour. Thus they returned to their own country, and the prince called together his vassals and the elders. Vladimir then announced the return of the envoys who had been sent out, and suggested that their report be heard. He thus commanded them to speak out before his vassals. The envoys reported: "When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here." Then the vassals spoke and said, "If the Greek faith were evil, it would not have been adopted by your grandmother Olga, who was wiser than all other men." Vladimir then inquired where they should all accept baptism, and they replied that the decision rested with him.
After a year had passed, in 988 (6496), Vladimir marched with an armed force against Kherson, a Greek city, and the people of Kherson barricaded themselves therein. Vladimir halted at the farther side of the city beside the bay, a bowshot from the town, and the inhabitants resisted energetically while Vladimir besieged the town. Eventually, however, they became exhausted, and Vladimir warned them that if they did not surrender, he would remain on the spot for three years. When they failed to heed this threat, Vladimir marshalled his troops and ordered the construction of an earthwork in the direction of the city. While this work was under construction, the inhabitants dug a tunnel under the city wall, stole the heaped-up earth, and carried it into the city, where they piled it up in the centre of the town. But the soldiers kept on building, and Vladimir persisted. Then a man of Kherson, Anastasius by name, shot into the Russian camp an arrow on which he had written: "There are springs behind you to the east, from which water flows in pipes. Dig down and cut them off." When Vladimir received this information, he raised his eyes to heaven and vowed that if this hope was realised, he would be baptised. He gave orders straightway to dig down above the pipes, and the water supply was thus cut off. The inhabitants were accordingly overcome by thirst, and surrendered.
Vladimir and his retinue entered the city, and he sent messages to the Emperors Basil and Constantine, saying: "Behold, I have captured your glorious city. I have also heard that you have an unwed sister. Unless you give her to me to wife, I shall deal with your own city as I have with Kherson." When the emperors heard this message, they were troubled, and replied: "It is not meet for Christians to give in marriage to pagans. If you are baptised, you shall have her to wife, inherit the kingdom of God, and be our companion in the faith. Unless you do so, however, we cannot give you our sister in marriage." When Vladimir learned their response, he directed the envoys of the emperors to report to the latter that he was willing to accept baptism, having already given some study to their religion, and that the Greek faith and ritual, as described by the emissaries sent to examine it, had pleased him well. When the emperors heard this report, they rejoiced, and persuaded their sister Anna to consent to the match. They then requested Vladimir to submit to baptism before they should send their sister to him, but Vladimir desired that the princess should herself bring priests to baptise him. The emperors complied with his request, and sent forth their sister, accompanied by some dignitaries and priests. Anna, however, departed with reluctance. "It is as if I were setting out into captivity," she lamented; "better were it for me to die here." But her brothers protested: "Through your agency God turns the Russian land to repentance, and you will relieve Greece from the danger of grievous war. Do you not see how much evil the Russians have already brought upon the Greeks? If you do not set out, they may bring on us the same misfortunes." It was thus that they overcame her hesitation only with great difficulty. The princess embarked upon a ship, and after tearfully embracing her kinfolk, she set forth across the sea and arrived at Kherson. The natives came forth to greet her, and conducted her into the city, where they settled her in the palace.
By divine agency, Vladimir was suffering at that moment from a disease of the eyes, and could see nothing, being in great distress. The princess declared to him that if he desired to be relieved of this disease, he should be baptised with all speed, otherwise it could not be cured. When Vladimir heard her message, he said, "If this proves true, then of a surety is the God of the Christians great," and gave order that he should be baptised. The Bishop of Kherson, together with the princess's priests, after announcing the tidings, baptised Vladimir, and as the bishop laid his hand upon him, he straightway received his sight. Upon experiencing this miraculous cure, Vladimir glorified God, saying, "I have now perceived the one true God." When his followers beheld this miracle, many of them were also baptised.
Vladimir was baptised in the Church of St. Basil, which stands at Kherson upon a square in the centre of the city, where the Khersonians trade. The palace of Vladimir stands beside this church to this day, and the palace of the princess is behind the altar. After his baptism, Vladimir took the princess in marriage. Those who do not know the truth say he was baptised in Kiev, while others assert this event took place in Vasiliev, while still others mention other places.
Hereupon Vladimir took the princess and Anastasius and the priests of Kherson, together with the relics of St. Clement and of Phoebus his disciple, and selected also sacred vessels and images for the service. In Kherson he thus founded a church on the mound which had been heaped up in the midst of the city with the earth removed from his embankment; this church is standing at the present day. Vladimir also found and appropriated two bronze statues and four bronze horses, which now stand behind the Church of the Holy Virgin, and which the ignorant think are made of marble. As a wedding present for the princess, he gave Kherson over to the Greeks again, and then departed for Kiev.
When the prince arrived at his capital, he directed that the idols should be overthrown and that some should be cut to pieces and others burned with fire. He thus ordered that Perun should be bound to a horse's tail and dragged along Borichev to the river. He appointed twelve men to beat the idol with sticks, not because he thought the wood was sensitive, but to affront the demon who had deceived man in this guise, that he might receive chastisement at the hands of men. Great art thou, O Lord, and marvellous are thy works! Yesterday he was honoured of men, but today held in derision. While the idol was being dragged along the stream to the Dnepr, the unbelievers wept over it, for they had not yet received holy baptism. After they had thus dragged the idol along, they cast it into the Dnepr. But Vladimir had given this injunction: "If it halts anywhere, then push it out from the bank, until it goes over the falls. Then let it loose." His command was duly obeyed. When the men let the idol go, and it passed through the falls, the wind cast it out on the bank, which since that time has been called Perun's Shore, a name that it bears to this very day.
Thereafter Vladimir sent heralds throughout the whole city to proclaim that if any inhabitant, rich or poor, did not betake himself to the river, he would risk the prince's displeasure. Men the people heard these words, they wept for joy, and exclaimed in their enthusiasm, "If this were not good, the prince and his boyars would not have accepted it." On the morrow the prince went forth to the Dnepr with the priests of the princess and those from Kherson, and a countless multitude assembled. They all went into the water: some stood up to their necks, others to their breasts, the younger near the bank, some of them holding children in their arms, while the adults waded farther out. The priests stood by and offered prayers. There was joy in heaven and upon earth to behold so many souls saved. But the devil groaned, lamenting: "Woe is me! how am I driven out hence! For I thought to have my dwelling place here, since the apostolic teachings do not abide in this land. Nor did this people know God, but I rejoiced in the service they rendered unto me. But now I am vanquished by the ignorant, not by apostles and martyrs, and my reign in these regions is at an end."
When the people were baptised, they returned each to his own abode. Vladimir, rejoicing that he and his subjects now knew God himself, looked up to heaven and said: "O God, who hast created heaven and earth, look down, I beseech thee, on this thy new people, and grant them, O Lord, to know thee as the true God, even as the other Christian nations have known thee. Confirm in them the true and unalterable faith, and aid me, O Lord, against the hostile adversary, so that, hoping in thee and in thy might, I may overcome his malice." Having spoken thus, he ordained that churches should be built and established where pagan idols had previously stood. He thus founded the Church of St. Basil on the hill where the idol of Perun and the other images had been set, and where the prince and the people had offered their sacrifices. He began to found churches and to assign priests throughout the cities, and to invite the people to accept baptism in all the cities and towns. He took the children of the best families, and sent them to schools for instruction in book learning. The mothers of these children wept bitterly over them, for they were not yet strong in faith, but mourned as for the dead. When these children were assigned for study, there was thus fulfilled in the Russian land the prophecy which says, "In those days, the deaf shall hear words of Scripture, and the voice of the stammerers shall be made plain" (Isaiah, xxix, 18). For these persons had not ere this heard words of Scripture, and now heard them only by the act of God, for in his mercy the Lord took pity upon them, even as the Prophet said, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious" (Exodus, xxxiii, 19).