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 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.
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 all the church paraphernalia used by orthodox priests and even the onion domes to put on the church roofs.
So apart from a religious disconnect there are probably financial implications too.