Killings in the Name of Ukrainian Land of Donbas
On March 22, in his Sunday sermon, the Patriarch Philaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate explained to his parishioners in Volodymyrsky cathedral in Kyiv that Ukrainian soldiers who are killing civilians and rebels in Donbas do not transgress God’s commandment “thou shalt not kill”.
Why? Because they are defending their own land against “separatists” who want to join Donbas to Russia. These separatists as well as their masters in Moscow carry inside themselves the root of evil. They do not want to recognize that Donbas is a Ukrainian land and has been for centuries. Donbas villagers speak Ukrainian, said Philaret. These people are the indigenous population of Donbas. Separatists are foreigners, strangers who came from Russia and other republics of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire over the decades and settled on Ukrainian land. Ukrainian land welcomed them gladly. But instead of being thankful for life, for refuge, for bread that the Ukrainian land provided them, these ungrateful separatists want to deliver the land to Russia, a land which does not belong to them. They want to betray Donbas, as Judas betrayed his master, Jesus Christ. Are their actions just? Any intelligent person will answer: “no”. They commit injustices, they go against their own conscience, stated Patriarch Philaret.
His argument is firmly grounded in the present nationalist rhetoric and vision of Ukraine and its history, which caused the conflict in Donbas in the first place. The anti-Maidan demonstrations in Luhansk and Donetsk erupted precisely because Donbas rejected the Ukrainian nationalism which was marching in Kyiv with Bandera portraits and whose adherents were jumping up and down on Maidan Square shouting “Ukraine above all” and “Russians to the knives”.
Philaret claims that Donbas villagers speak Ukrainian. However, from the latest data available on the linguistic portrait of the population of Donetsk region, from the 2001 Ukrainian census, roughly three quarters of the population (74.9%) considered Russian as their native language. One quarter (24.1%) named Ukrainian. The historical trend in dynamics of the linguistic situation in Donetsk region is the gradual increase of Russian as the native language (from 25% in 1898), and the decrease of Ukrainian (from 53% in 1898). Russian constitutes the majority language in all cities of Donetsk region except in the city of Krasnyi Lyman.
As for the ethnic composition of the Donetsk region, Ukrainians constituted almost 57% of the population, while Russians constituted 38%. Among the rural population, over 73% were Ukrainians while Russians constituted around 19%. According to the latest Ukrainian official statistics, dated 2014, out of the total population of 4,343,882 people in the Donetsk region, 3,937,732, or 90.6%, live in cities and 406,150, or 9.4%, live in the countryside.
These data reflect the socio-economic processes of the industrialization of Donbas, which was conducted by the Russian-speaking political and industrial elites of the Russian Empire and of the Soviet Union, and of the Russian workers who migrated massively from Russian cities during the period of intensive industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and during the period of Soviet industrialization boom of the late 1920 and 1930s.
The Ukrainian rural population of Donbas, to which Patriarch Philaret refers as “indigenous” residents of Donbas, are descendants of Zaporizzhia Cossacks and peasants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and of Russia who were fleeing from serfdom in the 16th and 17th centuries into the Donetsk steppes–the huge territory known as the Dyke Pole (Wild Steppes). The Dyke Pole abounded in game and fish. Being under the control of Crimean Khanate, it was a frontier, a buffer zone between nomadic cultures of Tatars, Nogai, Krymchaks and other tribes and agricultural settlements of the Dnieper regions to the west of Donbas.
There were also other Cossacks, the Don ones, who belonged to the Don Cossack Host, established in the 16th century and allied with Russia (while the Zaporizzhia Cossacks were subordinated to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth). In 1648, the Zaporizzhia Cossacks, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, launched a massive rebellion against their Polish overlords which was supported by the peasants of the region. They declared an independent Cossack Hetmanate. The rebellion led to the Treaty of Pereyaslav of 1654 which brought most of the Ukrainian Cossack state under Russian rule.
In modern Ukraine, the Zaporizzhia Cossacks became one of the stepping stones of Ukrainian national identity. Meanwhile, the Don Cossacks preserved their separate regional and cultural identity within contemporary Russia and Ukraine. Their historical area of settlement (part of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine, and in Rostov and Volgodrad regions in Russia) cut across borders between Russia and Ukraine.
This short excursion into history shows how problematic is the depiction of Donbas as a “Ukrainian land” in nationalistic, fundamentalist terms. Throughout Soviet times, Donetsk region remained a region in which Russian language and culture predominated. In independent Ukraine, Donbas has always been known for its orientation towards Russia and the use of Russian language in all spheres of public life. Ukrainian essentialist nationalism inspired by the legacy of Stepan Bandera and the OUN-UPA (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, and Ukrainian Insurgent Army) has never been mainstream in Donbas. In fact, not even Russian nationalism was accepted. If there is an “ism” that can describe Donbas identity, it is “regionalism” and “internationalism”. Kiev’s criminal reluctance to recognize this is at the root of the current civil conflict in Ukraine.
Patriarch Philaret’s categorizations of Donbas residents as “indigenous” Ukrainians and alien “Russians” is racist and dangerous. Who will decide who is “indigenous” and who is not? If you were born on this land, are you “indigenous”, even though your parents come, say, from Voronezh or Moscow? How many generations of “pure” Ukrainians are required in the ancestry line of Donbas people before they may claim their land to be theirs? And who will consider those claims and grant them legitimacy?
All the tragedies of ethnic cleansings through history stem from the fatal, reductionist link between nation and land. The Donbas conflict is but one of them. Ukrainians from all over Ukraine, including residents of Donbas, are fighting other Ukrainians, so-called pro-Russian separatists, because these “separatists” do not want to define themselves in exclusive terms as belonging to a glorious Ukrainian nation. These “pro-Russian” Ukrainians want to retain their economic, cultural and family ties with Russia, and they want to be able to speak Russian in all spheres of life. Patriarch Philaret used to be one of those Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Philaret’s secular name is Mykailo (or Mikhail) Denysenko. He was born in 1929 in the village of Blagodatnoye, Amvrosievskiy district, Donetsk region in Ukraine. Denysenko studied at the Odessa Orthodox Seminary and later at the Moscow Theological Academy. In his second year at the Academy, in 1950, he took monastic vows under the name of Philaret and was appointed the warden of Patriarchal Chambers of the Trinity Sergius Lavra, the most important Russian monastery and the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church. Philaret’s clerical career was quite rapid and successful. After holding “executive” positions such as archbishop Luzhsky and Dmitrovsky and rector of the Moscow Theological Academy, Philaret was elevated to the rank of archbishop of Kyiv and Halych, Exarch of Ukraine (in simple secular terms, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate). That also made him a permanent member of the Holy Synod, the highest governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1968, he became a metropolitan (a rank above archbishop and below patriarch, having authority over the the bishops of a province).
In May-June of 1990, after the death of Patriarch Pimen, Philaret became the locum tenens of the Patriarchal throne during the preparations of the Council of Bishops to elect a new Patriarch. Philaret himself was one of the three candidates to the Patriarchy. According to several bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Philaret had high hopes to become the head of the Russian Orthodoxy because he had long-standing and close connections in the Central Committee of the Communist Party and in the KGB, which controlled to a large extent the activities of the Orthodox Church, as it controlled the whole society. However, the times had changed. Perestroika and glasnost destroyed the power of the Communist Party and Philaret’s hopes were not realized. On June 7, 1990, The Council of Bishops elected Alexy II (Rideger), the metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod, as the new patriarch. He was the first patriarch in Soviet history to be chosen in a democratic vote: by secret ballot, without government pressure and candidates being nominated from the floor.
According to Metropolitan Onufriy, Archbishop Ionaphan and other members of the high clergy of the The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOCH), Philaret loves power and the money that comes with it. He is also a vainglorious person. His defeat in the election to the Patriarch offended his pride and he decided to try and withdraw the Ukrainian Church from the jurisdiction of Moscow, although until that time he had always been an ardent advocate of one, undivided church.
Upon his return to Kyiv from Moscow in June of 1990, Philaret called an assembly of Ukrainian bishops which under his close control and authority elected him as the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. No alternate to him was presented. The assembly of Bishops also sent an address to Patriarch Alexy II asking him to grant the Ukrainian Church independence and autonomy in governance, which Alexy II accepted in October of 1990.
Patriarch Alexy II also sent a letter to the Ukrainian government announcing that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROCH) henceforth waived its right to property and assets which it possessed in Ukraine or which had been confiscated by the Soviet regime. The UOCH was declared the successor of the ROCH.
On November 2, 1990 in Kyiv, the first assembly of the UOCH convened to adopt a new Statute of the Church. Philaret, having taken as the basis the Statute of the ROCH, made several amendments in order to solidify his personal power: henceforth, the primate of the church was elected for life, and nominees for the post could only come from among Ukrainian bishops. The Holy Synod, consisting of permanent members, was abolished.
The Patriarchate in Moscow received numerous complaints about Philaret’s unholy style of life. According to these complaints, Philaret broke his monastic vow by living with a wife and children. His wife was not shy, standing beside his husband during masses in the Volodymyrsky Cathedral in Kyiv and intervening directly in the everyday matters of the church.
Philaret knew that he could be excommunicated. Only by leaving the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church could his position be saved. So he made a final decision to create an autocephalous (independent) Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The time was propitious. After the adoption of the “Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine” by the Verkhovna Rada on August 24, 1991, Ukraine was preparing for a referendum on independence on December 1, 1991. The head of the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada, communist Leonid Kravchuk, who would become the first president of Ukraine, formulated the idea of an “independent church for an independent state”. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church which was still affiliated with the ROCH, was the “hand of Moscow” in Ukraine and could not fulfill this role. Philaret found a powerful, loyal ally in his campaign to separate Kyiv from Moscow.
On November 1, 1991, Philaret convened the Council of Ukrainian Bishops at which he declared that since Ukraine now was now an independent state, it needed an independent church. Kyiv should therefore demand complete independence from Moscow and accept the creation of a Kyiv Patriarchate.
By threats and pressure, Philaret pressed forward in order to obtain a complete independence from Moscow. However, the majority of priests and parishioners were against the separation from the Moscow Patriarchate. In many parishes, monasteries and theological schools, committees in defense of canonical orthodoxy were created.
On January 23, 1992 at the Council of Ukrainian bishops, a new address to the Holiest Patriarch was adopted which stated that the ROCH was deliberately delaying the question of the autocephaly and that the examination of the “calumnies” directed at Philaret by the Synod of the ROCH was an attack on Ukrainian independence.
The Holy Synod requested that Philaret and the episcopacy of the UOCH reconsider the demand for autocephaly as it had provoked deep schisms among parishioners. The question of the full canonic independence of the UOCH was submitted to the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church for their consideration.
The Council took place in Moscow from March 31 to April 5, 1992. Ninety seven bishops were present, including 20 from Ukraine. Metropolitan Philaret gave a speech in which he again requested independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox church. A discussion followed, the results of which were surprising: the Russian bishops as well as a majority of the Ukrainian bishops spoke against the full autonomy of the UOCH, mainly because in this case it would be left alone in the struggle against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (Uniates) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOCH). The majority of Ukrainian bishops disavowed their signatures on the address of January 23, explaining that they were coerced to sign, fearing retaliation from Philaret and Ukrainian government authorities. Only six out of 20 Ukrainian bishops voted in favor of autocephaly.
It was noted during the deliberations that the granting of autonomy and independence in governance to the UOCH in 1990 had only produced negative results. It did not heal the schism in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Metropolitan Philaret had used the granted autonomy to consolidate his own personal power and to intimidate those who did not agree with him. It was also proposed that Philaret be replaced as the primate of the Church since there were few supporters of the independence of the UOCH and the campaign for its independence was based exclusively on Metropolitan Philaret’s personal ambitions.
The Council of Bishops sent an epistle to pastors and parishioners in Ukraine, explaining to them the Council’s vision of how the question of autocephaly should be resolved: through a peaceful, measured, competent, and pious discussion, without violence, extremism or political pressure.
Philaret said he agreed. He promised in front of the whole Council to resign upon his return to Kyiv. He also asked the Council to let the Ukrainian episcopacy hold an election for a new primate. The Council thanked Philaret for his long-standing service at Kyiv chair and wished him success at another chair.
The Council also noted that the clergy and the faithful in Ukraine were split in the question of autocephaly: the idea was popular in the West but not supported in the East. The whole issue would therefore be discussed at the next Сouncil of the ROCH.
Upon his return to Kyiv, Philaret declared that he had suffered persecution at the hands of the Council of Bishops. He said he was forced to give the oath to resign, and because it was forced it was not valid. He refused to resign and declared he would lead the Ukrainian Church until the end of his days. He declared he “was given by God to the Ukrainian Orthodoxy”.
After several vain attempts to admonish Philaret, the Synod of the ROCH appointed the eldest in ordination, Metropolitan Nikodim Rusnak, to convene the Council of Ukranian Bishops in order to accept Philaret’s resignation and to elect a new primate.
Nikodim wrote a letter to Philaret, asking him to call the Council and not to split the church. Philaret did not answer.
Instead, Philaret gathered in Kyiv his few supporters for a conference. It declared bishops who did not ally with him to be traitors of the people of Ukraine. He asked Kravchuk and the Ukrainian state to support Philaret’s UOCH at that historic moment when the Moscow Patriarchate was threatening and committing noncanonical actions against Philaret. Not a single bishop of the UOCH was present at the Kyiv conference.
On May 27, 1991, 17 out of 20 Ukrainian bishops gathered in Kharkiv. They changed the Statute of the UOCH by removing two amendments made by Philaret – namely, the provision that the primate is elected for life and is selected exclusively from Ukrainian bishops. After that, they proceeded to elect a new primate. During the deliberations, Metropolitan Nikodim, who was presiding, was called several times to the phone. As he said later, on the line were people from the entourage of President Kravchuk, asking him not to go against Philaret. If he did, the UOCH would be deprived of state support.
The Council of Bishops elected Volodymyr (Sabodan) as Metropolitan of Kyiv and of all Ukraine.
Philaret declared the Kharkiv Council noncanonical and stated that bishops had seceded from the church and could not speak in its name.
On June 11, 1992 in Moscow, a council of bishops of the ROCH was called expressly to examine the case of Philaret. HeHe was invited three times to be present but he never showed up. A statement, signed by 16 Ukrainian bishops, was presented to the council. In the process of examination, all the accusations against Philaret were confirmed. The Council decreed the defrocking of Mykhailo Denysenko (Philaret) and stripped him of all the degrees of priesthood.
On June 15, 1992, ignoring the fact that the state has no right to intervene in church internal affairs, the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada declared that the decision of the Khakriv council was illegal and noncanonical.
The ROCH informed all the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches of what had happened. Philaret also addressed the churches, stating that he did not consider himself guilty in absentia of the accusations by the Kharkiv and Moscow councils of bishops. Heads of all Eastern Orthodox Churches congratulated Volodymyr as the new Metropolitan of the UOCH and supported the expulsion of Philaret.
The latter found himself in complete isolation on behalf of the canonic Orthodoxy. He decided to ally with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOCH), which until then he had denounced as sectarian and schismatic. On June 25-26, 1992 at a “unifying” council in Philaret’s office, where several bishops of the UAOCH, deputies of Verkhovna Rada, and service staff of the office were present, a decision was made to dissolve the UOCH and UAOCH and to fuse its real estate, finances, and assets into one property of a newly created Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate. Patriarch Mstyslav of the UAOCH, who was living in the United States at that time, did not even know that the UAOCH was declared dissolved by the decision of Philaret and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk.
Patriarch Dymytriy of the UAOCH, who had worked during his entire life for the creation of a Ukrainian autocephalous orthodox church, wrote later that Philaret caused a tragic schism in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. He had allied with Kravchuk, an ideologist of atheism who was afraid that the UAOCH would dominate in Ukraine. Together, the two created a so-called “church” to suffocate the faith of the Ukrainian people, as they had worked together before to kill the faith of the “Soviet people”. Patriarch Dimitry stated that Philaret only pretended to be a believer, driven in reality by money and glory.
Patriarch Philaret managed to create a “pocket”, official church that would cater to the needs of the Ukrainian State. Patriarch Philaret, a fervent patriot, is preaching in Volodymyrskyi Cathedral, the heart of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, which he took away from the UOCH. He preaches to his parishioners, Ukrainians, that to kill is not a sin when you kill a “separatist”, a fellow Ukrainian who does not share your vision of Ukraine. But when a citizen is blinded by a powerful and all-encompassing, official propaganda machine, of which Patriarch Philaret is an integral part, how can he or she see a Ukrainian in that Donetsk or Luhansk “separatist”? If that “good” Ukrainian is hesitating to kill, it is because he/she has a weak soul and does not understand that killing in defense of “your” land is not killing at all. Donetsk and Luhanks insurgents are claiming just that: they are defending their land from a Kyiv army that came uninvited and with arms.
Patriarch Philaret is well known for his militaristic statements and actions. In early February 2015, he visited Washington DC to lobby the US government to send arms and troops to Ukraine. In cooperation with the UOCH, headed by Philaret, in October of 2014 in Dnipropetrovsk, two local organizations opened a ‘Christian school of snipers and fire training of patriots’, in which atheist military instructors are teaching the believers of various confessions– kids and adults–how to use an air gun. In January 2015, he proclaimed that those who are avoiding conscription to the Ukrainian army are committing a sin and are not patriots of Ukraine.
Neither is the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, Patriarch Onufriy, a patriot, stated Patriarch Philaret in October of 2014. Why? Because Patriarch Onufriy and his church are calling on all sides of the conflict to stop fighting and conclude peace in Ukraine. Patriarch Onufriy states that it is not the Church’s role to designate who is responsible for killings, it is the courts’ role. Patriarch Onufriy refuses to collect funds for the Ukrainian army. His church works for Moscow, retorts Patriarch Philaret.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, headed by Philaret, is not recognized by other canonical Eastern Orthodox churches, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). It is strongest in the centre and in the west of Ukraine and has but a weak presence in the east and in the south of the country. According to the 2011 data of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) remains the biggest in Ukraine. It has 12,340 parishes, 191 monasteries and employs 9,922 clerics. By contrast, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate has 4,482 parishes, 49 monasteries and 3,088 clerics.
During the Euromaidan movement and in its aftermath, there have been numerous attacks on the orthodox churches of Moscow Patriarchate by supporters of the Kyiv Patriarchate, including armed ones. These attacks follow the sermons of the schismatic Patriarch Philaret, who preaches that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is the servant of Moscow, non-patriotic, which in the logic of war means it is an enemy. Forget that this “enemy” shares the same faith and country with you. Your spiritual guide has already forgiven you the sin of killing.
To be continued.
Halyna Mokrushyna is currently enrolled in the PhD program in Sociology at the University of Ottawa and a part-time professor. She holds a doctorate in linguistics and MA degree in communication. Her academic interests include: transitional justice; collective memory; ethnic studies; dissent movement in Ukraine; history of Ukraine; sociological thought. Her doctoral project deals with the memory of Stalinist purges in Ukraine. In the summer of 2013 she travelled to Lviv, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk to conduct her field research. She is currently working on completing her thesis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.