Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?

Ukrainian Orthodox Church wanted to break ties with Russia – updated 12 October 2018


Ukraine secured approval yesterday to establish an independent church in what Kiev says is a vital step against Russian meddling in its affairs, but the Russian clergy fiercely opposes as the biggest split in Christianity for a thousand years.

A three-day synod presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, seat of the global spiritual leader of roughly 300 million Orthodox Christians, endorsed Ukraine’s request for an “autocephalous” (independent) church.

The synod will “proceed to the granting of Autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine,” a statement said.

The synod took several decisions to pave the way for Ukraine to set up its church, including rehabilitating a Ukrainian patriarch excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church for leading a breakaway church in the early 1990s. (source Reuters)


People can’t fail to have noticed  that President Vladimir Putin has found God. For a former KGB chief and a presumably a hard-line communist back in the day this is truly his road to Damascus. Or is it?

Like the Tsars he has used religion as a “soft power” approach to influence all the orthodox followers in the former Soviet Union using Patriarch Krill as his go-to church man. He is said to have his own confessor (that must be an interesting experience) and was recently seen wading in ice-cold water at Epiphany (but then he’s always bearing his chest isn’t he?).

But the Ukrainians have had enough and want to break from Moscow. They accuse the Russians of hacking and even an assassination attempt on Patriarch Filaret who has been particularly critical of Putin using the church for political advantage.

He accused him of using the church to spread “propaganda that defends Russia and Putin” on a visit to America last week. After Russia invaded eastern Ukraine he called Putin a “cynical liar” who would suffer “eternal damnation in hell“. In return his superiors in Moscow excommunicated him in 1997.

Sunday Times picture

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the head of the orthodox church is expected to grant the Ukrainians self-governance (autocephaly) at next month’s synod. He too has been the subject of the hacking of his e-mails.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is very pleased about the chance of freedom from the Moscow and said he hoped that “no-one will try to turn it back”.

Moscow is understandably very unhappy, furious in fact, promising to cut off links with Constantinople (Istanbul) the heart of the orthodox faith for over a thousand years when it was capital of the Byzantine empire.

Patriarch Krill has suspended communications with Constantinople and has said he will no longer mention Patriarch Bartholomew in his prayers.

But that would be cutting off his nose to spite his face. Half of the orthodox followers – 100 million – are in Russia. Perhaps more worrying is that Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk ((similar to an arch-bishop) who is in charge of external relations in the Russian church has warned that “bloodshed would follow. Very christian!

But the former American Ambassador to Kiev, John Herbst, said that there are legitimate fears about how Russia would react as it would reduce Moscow’s “soft power”. And Moscow hasn’t just got Ukraine to worry about. Similar moves have been started in Belarus with the risk of it spreading to other former republics like Moldova and the Caucasus region. Archbishop Sviatoslav of Belarus said “Moscow has been doing everything to prevent the Ukrainian and Belorussian churches form receiving autocephaly“.

One of the reasons Moscow is worried that Ukraine will block access to Moscow’s control of holy sites including the monasteries in Kiev, the birthplace of Russian orthodoxy. There are many beautiful churches in Kiev – St Andrew’s, St Michael and Saint Sophia cathedral among others.

But the heart of it all is in the “Cave monastery” or the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. 

The Greek St Antony founded this lavrain 1051, after Orthodoxy was adopted as Kyivan Rus’ official religion.

It contains numerous architectural monuments, ranging from bell towers to cathedrals to the catacombs which St Antony and his follower Feodosy progressively dug out  and  where they and other reclusive monks worshipped, studied and lived.

When they died their bodies were naturally preserved, without embalming, by the caves’ cool temperature and dry atmosphere. The mummies survive even today, confirmation for believers that these were true holy men.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a guided tour of it with pilgrims from all over the world. Walking through narrow corridors hewed from the rock with only candles to light the way is not for the claustrophobic. You can see boxes and earthenware pots (marked with a stick-man symbol with upraised arms) of relics behind grilled alcoves as you walk along and hear monks chanting from somewhere in the depths – where only priests are allowed to go.

The main attractions of the Lavra include the Great Lavra Belltower, and the Dormition Cathedral, destroyed in World War II, and fully reconstructed in recent years. 

Other churches and cathedrals of the Lavra include: the Refectory Church, the Church of All Saints, the Church of the Saviour at Berestove, the Church of the Exaltation of Cross, the Church of the Trinity, the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, the Church of the Conception of St. Anne, and the Church of the Life-Giving Spring. The Lavra also contains the St. Nicholas Monastery, and the Kiev Theological Academy and Seminary andstrong stone fortification walls..

When I visited Kiev and toured this 28 hectare site I was intrigued to learn that all the revenue from tourists goes to the Russian church not to the Ukrainian one.

And it is big business. Apart from the usual tourist memorabilia (I bought a “Keep me safe ring”) they sell bibles, priests’ robes and all the paraphernalia used by orthodox priest. They even sell the onion domes to put on the church roofs.

So apart from a religious disconnect there are probably financial implications too.

Chernobyl was 25 years ago

The first time I went to Ukraine in 2003 friends took me to the Chernobyl Museum.

I can’t say I really knew a lot about what happened 130 km north of Kyiv, now Ukraine’s capital city, in April 1986.

But walking round the museum, seeing the remnants of everyday village life that survived – broken window frames, crucifixes, wall paintings, and then the hundreds of photos of children from the villages – some of whom seemed to be recognised by groups of school children also visiting the museum – it struck home what a human disaster this was.

Photos of the ill-equipped medical staff and rescue workers, helicopter rotors hanging from the ceiling, a cosmonaut style suit, rescue workers wearing just overalls and face masks. A reminder of a disaster which produced individual acts of heroism. And on the way out seeing the names of all the villages which had been evacuated and no longer existed.

In those days the Russians were able to keep it quiet and children continued their preparations for the May Day parade and it wasn’t until radiation was picked up outside the soviet union that the truth came out. Villages were evacuated, 30 high-rise blocks of flats in Pripyat abandoned. Exclusion zones were set up – zone 4, the most contaminated, stretched 30 km from the site and became known as the zone of alienation. A similar zone was established in neighbouring Belarus.

People were forbidden to live or work there unless dealing with the contaminated site when they worked in shifts. Gradually some people moved back in as the rural life was all they knew. Also many people who felt marginalised by society, squatters or self-settlers, moved there. Police had to clamp down on looters who were removing goods from the abandoned flats, ignoring the radiation levels – hot goods indeed.

Lithuania has a sister reactor to Chernobyl at the Ignalina plant in Visaginas, up near the borders with Latvia and Belarus. It was a condition of their entry to the EU that they decommissioned it – something many Lithuanians resented as the Russians who built it told them it was safe. Now Lithuanian is more dependent on buying energy from Russia which is also building a new nuclear facility in its Kaliningrad enclave in the Baltics.

Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident to date with imprecise numbers of dead and the resultant fatalities. It rates as 7 on a scale of 0 – 7 in terms of how bad a nuclear accident can be. Thirty two years ago the Three Mile Island accident in America was rated as a 5, similar to the rating for the accident in Japan at Fukushima.

This week (13 April 2011) Fukushima accident has been upgraded to a 7. This is the highest level but experts say, because of the early action taken which prevented exposure for the local population and the fact that there was no fire as at Chernobyl, the impact will not be as serious as at Chernobyl.

I heard today that a farmer in Japan had committed suicide because he could see no future now that radiation had contaminated the ground where he and his neighbours grew organic vegetables. Reflecting on what happened at Chernobyl you can perhaps understand why. As if the earthquake and the tsunami had not wreaked enough damage, the nuclear accident will probably have more far-reaching effects.

Greenpeace say that milk and mushrooms are amongst foods still contaminated in Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster. Ukraine also needs over £500 M to build a new concrete shell over the plant as the existing one is leaking (Reuters 4 April 2011).

News today (20/4/2011) that donors have pledged half a billion euros to help construct a shield to cover the damaged reactor. It will be the biggest moveable structure ever built – over 100m high and 257m long x 164m wide.

Updated 24 May 2011: Ukrainian officials in Chernobyl have opened up the site and the 18 mile exclusion zone to tourists! After the tragedy 50,000 people were evacuated, although some have  returned illegally, but there is little left of value after 25 years of scavenging.

Visitors have to follow a specific route and strict guidelines but they can wander around the playground planned for the May Day celebrations and explore the ghost town of Pripyat and some of the tourists take their own geiger counters – just in case.