Kirill's Visit Exposes Dangers In Moscow-Kiev Ties

MOSCOW, Russia -- Wittingly or not, a just-completed 10-day visit to Ukraine by Kirill I, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has exposed the dangers lurking in relations between Russia and Ukraine, the two most populous nations to emerge from the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev talks to Orthodox Patriarch Kirill after his return from Ukraine at the presidential residence Gorki outside Moscow, August 6, 2009.

It was Kirill’s first trip to Ukraine since he was elected patriarch in January. The visit opened on July 27 with an affirmation of Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood in Kiev, regarded as the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy. Prince Vladimir adopted Orthodoxy from Byzantium for himself and his subjects, who were baptized en masse in the Dnieper River in 988.

“If you will, Kiev is our common Jerusalem, from which our Orthodox faith came,” Kirill said after a service dedicated to the prince, St. Vladimir. “Praying here, we, the heirs of Vladimir’s baptism, living in different states, inviolately preserve the spiritual unity bestowed by him upon us.”

But if the call to unity was a constant theme, and Kirill even offered to take out Ukrainian citizenship, it was clouded both by demonstrators hostile to a visit they saw as an attempt to assert Russian domination, and by political, religious and military tensions that have festered and in some ways grown since the Soviet collapse in 1991.

Top church officials at a news conference in Moscow on Thursday depicted the trip as a triumph that strengthened the transnational character of the Russian Orthodox Church. Protesters represented marginal, isolated groups “that dislike the patriarch simply because of their anti-Russian sentiments,” said Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk. “There is no real opposition to the Russian church today,” he said of Ukraine.

The Reverend Vsevolod Chaplin said that what he called Kirill’s pilgrimage underscored that the church extended far beyond geopolitical borders or terminology. “We are not the church only of the Russian Federation , nor only, as sometimes said, of the Russian people,” he said. “‘Russian’ in the name of the church refers not to the ethnic definition ‘Russian,’ but to the concept ‘Rus,’ which is not political but rather spiritual.”

He said Russia and Ukraine were vital parts of Europe but should not compromise their values and identities to integrate into the modern European system.

By contrast, Mykola Tomenko, vice chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament, said in a statement Thursday that Kirill was hijacking the idea of Rus and that he had used his to “test out the idea of a new ideological doctrine of Russia.”

Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, has yet to visit Ukraine since he took office 15 months ago. Most pointedly, Mr. Medvedev refused an invitation last year from Ukraine’s president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, to the unveiling of a monument to the millions who died in mass famine under Stalin in the 1930s, which Ukrainians call Holodomor and often regard as genocide inflicted by Russia.

Mr. Medvedev railed against the use of distortions of history to cast Russia in a bad light. Kirill, however, visited the monument with Mr. Yushchenko, and used pastoral intonations and personal history — he told of his family’s suffering under Stalin — to cast Stalin’s crimes in a larger context, speaking of famine killing millions across the Soviet Union.

“This is the common tragedy of our entire people, who lived in that time in one country,” Kirill said at the monument, according to the Patriarchate Web site. “That’s why there’s nothing surprising in the fact that we are praying for innocent victims, that we are remembering those who died.”

Underscoring the importance of Kirill’s trip, Mr. Medvedev received the patriarch Thursday to discuss it.

“We’ve had rather complicated relations recently, and we are not happy about this,” Mr. Medvedev said of Ukraine. “That’s why I’m interested in your evaluation.”

Mr. Yushchenko has irked Russians by seeking support from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, with which the Russian church jockeys for power, for a unified Ukrainian Orthodox church free of Moscow’s control.

Traditionally, religious conflict between Russia and Ukraine has centered on the Uniates in Ukraine, especially its western region, who observe the Byzantine rite but are loyal to Rome. Those tensions have abated but have flared between the rival Orthodox churches. During his tour, Kirill rejected demands for formal independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which accounts for over one third of the Russian Orthodox Church, noting it has near total autonomy.

The “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 and its turn toward Europe have alarmed the Russian church and the Kremlin. Speaking at a monastery near the border with European Union member Poland, Kirill took care to address Europe, warning it against repeating the Soviet experiment of living without God.

His trip took him right across Ukraine, a country of some 46 million roughly the size of France, traveling from Kiev to Donetsk, a mining hub in the east, where many Russian speakers live, to Crimea and to western Ukraine.

Perhaps the greatest Russian-Ukrainian tension centers on Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based at Sevastopol. There, laying a wreath at a war memorial, Kirill struck a slightly more ominous tone.

Crimea was part of Russia until the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bestowed it on Ukraine in 1954. When the Soviet Union crumbled, this left Russia’s Black Sea fleet in a different country. Ukraine would like it out after its lease expires in 2017; just days before Kirill’s visit, Russia acknowledged that it had violated treaty stipulations by transporting cruise missiles near the base.

At the war monument, as Russian and Ukrainian naval officials listened, Kirill spoke of the potential for escalation and commonalities that might prevent it.

“As a result of historical events about which we know and remember, it turned out that there are two fleets here, and not one,” he said. “But in these two fleets serve brothers — brothers in faith, heirs of the Holy Equal-to-the Apostles Prince Vladimir. And today it is my fervent prayer that never and under no circumstances should brothers take aim at each other, because nothing divides brothers so much as spilled blood.”

Source: The New York Times