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Ukraine: no orthodox solution

Paul Vallely

A couple of years ago an image went viral on the internet. It was a video of a Russian Orthodox priest stooping to kiss the hand of Vladimir Putin. The Russian President pulled his hand back disdainfully and waved the cleric away, as if shooing away a fly. It was difficult to decide whether it was priest or president who came across as more distasteful. The video has been circulating again in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Ukraine is a country deeply divided by history, language and culture. The immediate roots of the current crisis were political. The street protests which began in the capital, Kiev, came about after the then President, Viktor Yanukovych, changed his mind, under pressure from Russia, about signing a deal with the European Union of which he had previously approved.

But religion is a key component in the clash of identities which goes back centuries. It is through that lens that it is necessary to read the appeal to Ukraine's clergy by Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus', and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. He urged them to work for peace. Nothing odd about that, you might think. But his comments were greeted as 'evil' by the Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Here's why.

Kiev was the cradle of Christianity among the Russian peoples. It was there in 988AD that another Vladimir, who bore the encomium The Great, converted from paganism in the formularies which came to Russia via Byzantium. But it was a tradition of schism. In the 16th century some Christians broke with Constantinople and, under the banner of Ukrainian Greek Catholics, entered into communion with Rome. Tensions turned to violence and a pattern of Muscovite persecution of the Ukrainian people began. At one point Tsar Peter the Great ordered an entire town to be destroyed: every living creature in Baturyn was killed, with graves desecrated, women raped on altars, churches razed and their bells blown up, and even, it was claimed, children crucified on the doors of their homes.

It continued under Communism with the deliberate starvation by Stalin, in the 1930s, of seven million people in eastern Ukraine in what became known as the Holodomor. Soviet Communism saw the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as the biggest threat to its hegemony. When German forces invaded western Ukraine in 1941 they were welcomed by the population as liberators from the Russian yoke. Many Ukrainians joined the SS. This is why propaganda posters in the Crimea referendum depicted a choice between Russia and Nazism.

Today the Greek Catholics constitute about 15 per cent of the country's believers. Most of the rest are Orthodox - but those are divided between those who belong to the Kiev Patriarchate and those whose allegiance is to the Moscow Patriarchate. That explains why the Patriarch Kirill's peace plea included the high octane words: 'The blood of our brothers shed in Kiev is the fruit of hatred that members of the opposition from various quarters have allowed the enemy of the human race to grow in their hearts'.

The situation in Ukraine is far from black and white, despite the caricatures in the Western press which depict Putin as a swaggering bully or an apocalyptic nationalist. Putin is a deeply unpleasant and untrustworthy man. But sermons about the immorality of a mighty super-power invading a sovereign country in pursuit of self-interest sound hollow coming from the nations who invaded Iraq.

The truth is that any settlement in Ukraine must include guarantees for the rights of all sections of the population, including the Russian-speaking minority. Putin's refusal to allow his biggest neighbour to secede to the West may be unjust but it has a realpolitik; their economic ties are massive, Crimea is home to Russia's only warm water naval base, and the fear of anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism settling old scores is real.

One of the first moves by the new Ukrainian parliament after the ousting of Yanukovych was to remove Russian as an official language. And the spokesperson for one of the Ukrainian nationalist groups has defined their enemy as 'Russians, Communists and Jews'. Threats by the West of sanctions only reinforce Putin's fears that the Ukrainian insurrection was all part of some dark Western anti-Russian conspiracy.

Putin has behaved badly and should not be allowed to bully his weaker neighbour into total submission. But equally Putin must be allowed to ensure that some form of power-sharing formula, with guarantees, is put in place to protect Ukraine's Russian-speaking minority. What is needed is a win-win formula which, instead of polarising Ukraine's choice as East or West, uses closer relations between Ukraine and the EU to create a conduit for closer mutually-beneficial integration between the Russian and European economies.

The churches ought to be acting as a bridge to pioneer such a rapprochement. Instead, they are taking sides, and helping to entrench intransigence. Patriarch Kirill's statement, the Ukrainians complained, did not contain 'a single word condemning the flagrant interference of Russia in Ukraine's internal affairs, military aggression, or inciting separatist sentiment'.

We should not be surprised. As the video of the hand-kissing reminds us, the Moscow Patriarchate is as in thrall to Putin as it was to the Kremlin in the Communist era. Kirill, a former KGB agent, has in the past called Putin a 'miracle from God' and pronounced that proper Orthodox Christians do not attend political rallies. It was in protest against such linkages that Pussy Riot chose the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow as the venue for their anti-Putin protest two years ago.

Religion should be part of the solution. But it just looks part of the problem. We should not be surprised. But we should be saddened.