In January 2014, I was sitting in the lobby of the Patriarch of Kiev along with other bishops, waiting for the Synod to end so that I could meet with Patriarch Filaret. It was snowing and freezing outside and the revolution was well underway in the country!
It was 2011 when I last met Patriarch Filaret, I was accompanying a delegation of the Anglican Church on a visit to Kiev. The delegation included the Bishop of Wakefield, Stephen Platten, the Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jonathan Goodall, and a renowned Anglican canonist and expert of orthodox liturgy, Hugh Wybrew. The Patriarch was very pleased about our visit. He treated us well. He awarded me and the Rt Revd Stephen Platten with the Order of Saint Vladimir, whilst Jonathan Goodall and Hugh Wybrew received the Order of Saint George. He also gave Panagias to me and Stephen Platten. When handing a Panagia to me he turned to the other attendees and, with sparkling eyes, told them: "the Rt Revd Malkhaz Songulashvili is the Orthodox Baptist." Back then, the Patriarch was in high spirits.That visit to Kiev drove the Moscow Patriarchate mad. Letters of condemnation were immediately sent to Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. One letter was written by Metropolitan Hilarion, the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, whilst another was authored by a British Orthodox Christian Metropolitan who falls under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Both metropolitans did not mince their words in criticizing the Church of England and its leader, rebuking the Archbishop for daring to send a delegation to Ukraine without first seeking the consent of the Patriarchate of Moscow. Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, sent the irritated metropolitans a stern response, doing so calmly, without emotion. After this incident, Bishop of Wakefield Stephen Platten continued his relations with the head of the Ukrainian Church as usual, as well as with his representative to Great Britain, Abbot Kirion Inasaridze.
Patriarch Filaret is an exceptional person. I first met him during the Orange Revolution, together with Deacon Basil Kobakhidze and Father Zaza Tevzadze. We three arrived in Kiev to express our Christian solidarity with Ukraine's religious communities, which each supported the revolution to a greater or lesser extent. The three of us were thus walking about Kiev's streets, each sporting orange shawls around our necks. Father Zaza Tevsadze was holding a Georgian flag fixed to the top of a rod. Father Basil Kobakhidze was wearing his cap and any time he wanted to smoke, he folded up his vestment to hide it under his coat. I was wearing a black cape and sandals on bare feet. I am sure it was quite a scene, these three eccentric Georgians on the streets of Kiev. At times, all three of us got very cold. Father Zaza Tevzadze even turned blue from the cold, but he did not let go of the Georgian flag atop of the rod in his hand.If memory serves me well, we were on our way to a meeting with Filaret when a passer-by asked in surprise: "Why is this Armenian priest holding a Georgian flag?" This provoked heavy laugher among us.
This year, Patriarch Filaret turned 85 years old and I scheduled my visit to Kiev to coincide with this anniversary. Before the recent revolution in Kiev started, the Church of Ukraine drew up a plan for holding large-scale festivities to mark the birthday of the Patriarch, but because of the ongoing revolution, Filaret cancelled all festive events and also refused to receive an award dedicated to the date from the country's president.
In the past, Filaret was one of the most influential hierarchs in the Patriarchate of Moscow, he was in charge of the Ukrainian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. After the death of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus' Pimen, Filaret became the patriarchal locum tenens until the election of the new Patriarch, Alexius II. After that, Filaret continued his work as the Exarch subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate.
The creation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate very much resembles the story of the Georgian Orthodox Church regaining its autocephaly in 1917. The Georgian Orthodox Church restored its autocephaly thanks to the fall of Tsarist Russia, whilst the Ukrainian Orthodox Church restored its autocephaly thanks to the demise of the Soviet Union.
From 1 to 3 November 1991, the Ukrainian Exarchate held an absolutely legitimate assembly which declared the autocephaly of the Church of Ukraine. The same assembly expressed its desire to have Filaret as the future patriarch of the Church. Participants in the meeting hoped that the Moscow Patriarchate would recognize the canonical decision of the Church, but they proved to be utterly wrong. The Moscow Patriarchate called a special meeting of the Synod to discuss the decision of the Ukrainian Church. The Synod demanded that Filaret step down in the "name of peace." Whilst in Moscow Filaret gave his consent to step down, but when he returned to Kiev he refused to resign. He called a press conference in Kiev to declare that he had come under pressure in Moscow from both clerical circles and employees of the federal security service of Russia, who also attended the meeting of the Synod. The decision of the Ukrainian Church on maintaining its autocephaly was firm. In response, in May 1992, the Moscow Patriarchate called an assembly of bishops loyal to it in Kharkiv, thus creating a rift in the unity of Ukrainian Orthodox believers. Moscow appointed Metropolitan Volodymyr Slobodan as the head of a pro-Moscow team and announced the establishment of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.
"If one were to collect all the Holy Nails, those which were used to crucify Christ, that are stored in churches, they would, perhaps, make up some 10 tons. Hundreds of thousands of nails alleged to be such are kept in churches."
In response to that move, the bishops supporting Filaret and the bishops of the Autocephalous Church of Ukraine, which had already been established by that time, held an assembly on 25 June 1992 and established the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate. Mstyslav Skrypnyk (1898–1993) was elected as its first Patriarch, but he was already quite old at that time and died after a year. His successor, Patriarch Volodymyr Romaniuk (1925–1995), also died soon after his election. From 1995 to date, the head of the Kiev Patriarchate has been Filaret, who also played a serious role in the life of newly-organized Patriarchate during the rule of his two predecessors.
Today, the Kiev Patriarchate is in a similar state as the Georgian Orthodox Church was in the period between 1917 and 1943, before Joseph Stalin came to its defense and forced the Russian Church to recognize its autocephaly. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church had no such defender to help restore its autocephaly. The former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, tried to defend it and turned to the Patriarchate of Constantinople for help. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople subsequently arrived in Kiev and was ready to conduct negotiations with the Kiev Patriarchate, but the Kremlin got involved and, by means of the Turkish government, dissuaded the Patriarch of Constantinople, whose residence is located in Istanbul, from assisting the Kiev Patriarchate.For almost 20 years now, the Moscow Patriarchate has successfully blocked the foreign relations of the Kiev Patriarchate. It wants the Kiev Patriarchate to be isolated from any Orthodox Christian Church and from the Christian world in general.
The Kiev Patriarchate has been trying to become a member of the Conference of European Churches for many years. So far, every such attempt it has made has ended without result. Its membership is blocked because of the efforts of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Kiev Patriarchate is neither directly denied membership to that organization, nor is it explicitly given consent. One cannot help but draw parallels here: the Kremlin blocks the attempts of Ukraine to become a fully-fledged member of the European community and, being loyal to the Kremlin, the Moscow Patriarchate thwarts the desire of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to become part of the community of European churches.
Despite all this, Patriarch Filaret proved to be a hard nut to crack. No one could scare him, nothing could break him. To this very day, he diligently works to strengthen the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He personally translated and published, in the shortest possible time, the Bible in the Ukrainian language. He also had all liturgical books translated in Ukrainian and distributed them to the Ukrainian clergy.
Regardless of his old age, Patriarch Filaret often travels to Europe and America to lobby for the integration of Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. He views this as a matter of the restoration of historical justice. Last year, Ukraine celebrated the 1025th anniversary of the Christianization of Kievan Rus'. With regard to this celebration, Patriarch Filaret declared that the Ukrainian people made their choice in favor of Europe when they adopted Christianity 1,025 years ago. This issue might be debatable, but it is clear cut that the Christianization of the Kievan Rus' was a huge historical event. Here one may place emphasis on the fact that the initiator of the adoption of Christianity was Vladimir the Great, the grand prince of Kiev, a representative of the Rurik dynasty which was of North European, i.e. Scandinavian, decent. The Rurik dynasty had run Kiev since 862.Vladimir's search for a new religion ended in 988, when, after rejecting Judaism due to the Jews not having their own state, Islam due to its taboo against pork and alcoholic beverages, and Catholicism due to the absence of grandeur in its rituals, he adopted Byzantine-rite Christianity as the state religion. According to chronicles, he made this decision on the basis of the accounts of his emissaries who described a liturgy in the Byzantine Church as being divine, more beautiful than a liturgy of any other religion. It would, of course, be naïve to think that Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity just because of its esthetic value. A religious alliance with the Byzantine Empire was an important political decision.
Today, Patriarch Filaret provides a modern and relevant re-interpretation of this event. He considers it in the context of integration with Europe. Every year, Kiev marks the adoption of Christianity by Vladimir the Great, which laid the foundations of a new identity for Eastern Slavs, with festive events.
Filaret knows that Ukraine can only develop and prosper thanks to integration with Europe. Therefore, he does not want his homeland to spend its entire life enslaved by Russian imperialism. European integration is important for him because, apart from guarantees of economic and political security, it may facilitate the establishment of a united national Church in Ukraine. By escaping Russia's claws, the chance will emerge for the Church of Ukraine to unite and for its autocephaly to be recognized.
I will now go back to my visit to Kiev this January: the Synod ended and the bishops of Synod (the Ukrainian Synod comprises 10 bishops out of a total 30) went out of the room. The Patriarch met me with the same warmth as before, but it was easy to discern that he was worried. On that day, government forces had killed three demonstrators and used tear-gas against the protestors. Among the injured in Kiev's central square, the Maidan, was a Crimean bishop who, along with us, was also waiting for the end of the Synod.
Both Synodals (that's how the bishops in the synod are called) and those who were waiting in the lobby were hungry, so we moved straight to a dining hall. A modest but delicious dinner awaited us there: hot borscht, fish and fruit. The Patriarch blessed the food and we sat at the table. The dinner of the Patriarch was quite a scene. Once we sat at the table, the bishops and metropolitans immediately took out their iPads and iPhones – all of them were rushing to learn about what was happening on the barricades. One after another, they read out the news while having dinner.
"Look! The Moscow Patriarchate is now trying to lure our people using relics," one bishop exclaimed, holding the iPhone close to his eyes and busily reading the information appearing on its screen.
"What relics?" asked the Patriarch, taking a spoonful of borscht."The Gifts of the Magi, which the Magi brought to the newborn Jesus; the Russians brought them to Lavra," the bishop replied.
"The Gifts of the Magi? But they are not relics at all. How do we know that they are those very gifts?" said Metropolitan Epiphany, the patriarchal locum tenens, indignantly. This piece of news made everyone upset – they all started to express their dissatisfaction.
"Let me recount a story about relics," said one chubby and pleasant bishop. "I sent one lower rank religious servant to Greece. He made a pilgrimage to a church. He was shown numerous skulls there – all of them of John the Baptist; moreover, he was told that only two of them really belonged to John the Baptist." This joke amused us all.
"If one were to collect all the Holy Nails, those which were used to crucify Christ, that are stored in churches, they would, perhaps, make up some 10 tons. Hundreds of thousands of nails alleged to be such are kept in churches," Bishop Evstratiy said... The Patriarch then decided to intervene in order to prevent too much joking about relics. He started speaking calmly:
"There are genuine relics and there are fake relics. There are the relics of St. Barbara in our St. Volodymyr's Cathedral that we know are genuine... As for the gifts of the Magi, I do not know whether they are true," said the Patriarch, trying to calm down the bishops. With this remark, the conversation on relics stopped and bishops turned back to their iPhones and iPads.
I was observing this milieu in amazement, thinking to myself that these people definitely deserve to be free and to live in the European environment.
What has been happening over the past three months or so in the capital city of Ukraine is a clear expression of the will of the freedom-loving Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian people wish to link their fate not only to the European Union and the West, but also to those values which Western civilization is built upon.Every civilization has its positive and negative sides, and the West is no exception. The virtue of the West is that human beings and the universe they live in are considered the most important phenomena.
Western civilization is the most progressive of the existing civilizations. This is not surprising because it rests on the centuries-long experience of Western Europe in the domains of politics, economics, philosophy and religion. In terms of its spirituality, Christianity, Judaism and Islam all played a decisive role in the creation and formation of this civilization, as well as the various philosophical and scientific schools of thought that sprang up from these three monotheistic religions.
Such a legacy has turned the West into the most multicultural and economically revived society.
That is why numerous inhabitants of our planet strive towards life in the West: some go there to receive education or conduct scientific work, others in search of qualified medical assistance or even their fate.
Eastern European nations, especially the smaller nations, face two alternatives: either we give our countries the possibility of free economic and political development and create favorable conditions for that, or we lose the best of our sons through the brain drain.
The will of the Ukrainian people is to develop and build their society on European values, but this has not yet escaped the claws of Soviet legacy. It is regretful that this desire is opposed by a neighboring country that itself should be striving for integration with the Western world. This state (which in recent times is referred to in the same manner as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter – "you know who") is a rancorous and ambitious country that predominantly harms itself with its rancor and arrogance.
In evangelical circles it is customary, as a sign of intercommunion, to ask foreign guests: how can we pray for your country? I have often joked, especially after the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 that one does not need to pray for Georgia; it is Russia that badly needs to be prayed for today. It needs prayers to be freed from that rancor that chokes it and makes it hostile, not only towards the Western Christian civilization, but also towards its co-religionists of Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and Moldova. Co-religionism is both a noose and a stick in its hands. This clearly has nothing in common with either Christianity or love towards Jesus. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church is a steadfast implementer of the Kremlin's politics in this area. It seems that the hierarchs of the Russian Church are not concerned about the fate of their people and country. The only thing they are concerned about is maintaining the "superpower." This is very regretful, but that is how it is.
The religious situation in Ukraine is different. In this country, religions are not the slaves of the government. The Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret not only supports the country's integration into the European Union, but is actively involved in this process. He visits Brussels, the United States and, wherever he goes, declares that the place of Ukraine is in Europe and that there is no alternative to that. In addition to Patriarch Filaret, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, a legendary leader of the Byzantine-rite Catholics of Ukraine, also openly supports Ukraine's pro-European orientation and those demonstrators who have been fighting for the freedom of their country in the freezing winter conditions. We should also bear in mind that Ukraine's freedom determines the fate of many other countries too. Who knows, perhaps this will have a positive effect on Russia. Perhaps a miracle will happen and, on one fine day, Russia will also be able to break free from the bondage of its imperial past.
During his recent visit to Yerevan, Putin declared that Russia does not intend to leave the South Caucasus at all. It means nothing to him that there are three sovereign states in the Caucasus and that if he wants to be on friendly terms with these countries, he must cooperate with them based on principles of parity. Only in such conditions can Russia make true friends in its neighborhood. But Russia is not capable of friendship with other states. Empires are not capable of friendship. Russia needs slavish states in the South Caucasus.
Here, in the South Caucasus, Georgia and partially Azerbaijan are oriented towards the West, but the empire considers this to be a temporary phenomenon. The empire does not intend to pull out of the South Caucasus. "Russia shall not leave the South Caucasus!" says the dictator. He made this declaration in Yerevan with such effrontery that he obviously did not feel any unease about trampling upon the sovereignty and dignity of the state that was hosting him. He believes that he has a firm hold over Azerbaijan and Armenia because of the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, and over Georgia because of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It is true that Russia holds its grip on Ukraine by means of the economy, rather than the fear of territorial disintegration, but, if Russia deems it necessary, it can apply that mechanism too (in the Crimea and eastern regions of Ukraine). Nevertheless, time is not in Russia's favor and this is something that the inhabitants of the Kremlin also understand.
Three main factors are decisive for the establishment of European values in the post-Soviet space: experiential, linguistic and religious.
The experiential factor implies people traveling to the Western world and acquainting themselves with the values and rules of societies there, becoming convinced that our compatriots in the post-Soviet space are much more oppressed than in the West. People in the West are much freer, have opportunities to receive good education, quality medical care and social services. They also see that a westerner has same abilities as an easterner. The difference, however, is that the easterner does not have the possibility to fully realize his/her abilities, whereas the westerner does. This happens because an individual person and his/her welfare has superior value in the West. The more intensively people travel to the West, the clearer they will understand Western values if, of course, they want to – I have seen many Eastern Europeans in the West who have failed to understand why Western values are so different from Soviet ones. The state of affairs in this regard is much better among Ukrainians. Ukrainians can cross over into Western Europe in the morning and be back in Ukraine the same evening. They can use cheap transportation to travel to the West and can easily familiarize themselves with Western culture and values.The linguistic factor means that a large segment of our youth studies Western languages, mainly English, which enables the younger generation, in the virtual space, to learn about those values that have been established in the West. This is a process which cannot be stopped by anyone or anything. I spent many years of my life in a totalitarian society and know perfectly well that the thirst for freedom cannot be contained. God himself granted freedom to human beings and who has the right to deprive them of that? True, everyone tries to seize that freedom granted by God. State, public, social, cultural and religious institutions all compete with one another in this endeavor, but all these are transient efforts. Nothing can stand in the way of the drive towards liberty. The walls and barbed wire fences erected by people are not eternal. Linguistically, Ukrainians are way ahead of us, a large segment of the youth are eloquent in Western languages and are receiving education in Western countries.
The third factor is religious. We know that after the fall of the Soviet Union, religion has replaced irreligiosity in almost the entire post-Soviet space, which was the dominant ideology before. Where statehood was strong, religion started serving either the state or the local culture. Where the sense of statehood was weak, religion clung to the government as a leech. In the Baltic States, religion played a positive role in the integration of these countries into the European Union and the establishment of European values. In contrast to that, the Russian Orthodox Church, assumedly with encouragement from the government, soon took an anti-Western position. The state actually launched a new Cold War against the West, exploiting Orthodox Christianity as an anti-Western ideology. In political terms, it was an astute tactic. The state used religion. For its part, religion, in trading with the state, exchanged its values and practices into money, privileges and power. This proved beneficial for both the empire and the Church, the only loser was Christ. Christ was betrayed once again, but for more than 30 pieces of silver this time. Long ago, Patriarch Gundyaev, before becoming Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus' Kirill, and his young apprentice Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, were distinguished Ecumenical activists – until that played into their hands. They never missed Ecumenical and pan-Ecumenical meetings and forums. They were much respected in the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. Now they have put themselves in the service of the empire and their stay in the Ecumenical movement is only nominal. However, they still retain sufficient influence in these organizations to obstruct membership for those churches which they dislike: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, the Estonian Orthodox Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. (Unfortunately, the World Council of Churches is today only a shadow of what it used to be. This organization is now basically in the hands of heartless bureaucrats and I think it will not last long. Instead, new alternative organizations have emerged that carry out those activities that, as a rule, must be performed by the World Council of Churches).
Taking into account these three factors, things are not bad in Ukraine. No one can stand up to its integration into Europe. And when this happens, it will give other post-Soviet countries, including Russia, a chance to better consider the need and necessity for European values.
I had finished writing this article when, while on a visit to Qatar, I received a letter from one brilliant young person that contained a difficult rhetorical question.
"Terrible things are happening in Kiev, it's a disaster there..," the letter read, "I have no idea when this will end... But, guess what I am thinking about? What would we have done had we been in place of the Ukrainians? Would we have been able to fight for our freedom?"
This question threw me into a strange disarray and made me feel anxious. I opened a window in my hotel room. Warm air came into the room. I heard a muezzin's voice from a nearby mosque that stood against the background of skyscrapers in Doha. The muezzin was calling believers to prayers:
"... Ash-hadu al-la ilaha illa-llah!..." (I witness that there is no god but God).
It was pleasant to hear the muezzin's call, I felt a sort of relief.
"I have no idea what we would have done were we in the place of the Ukrainians," I said aloud, as if my friend was sitting in the room.
Since then, I have often mulled over this question. Sometimes I think that we would not be able to conduct such resistance, other times I think it would be possible for the drive for freedom, which is still contained inside us, to burst out so that we would be able to conduct non-violent resistance to our offenders. Perhaps it is not worth making any such guesses about that. Time will tell. Let us wait!