Two weeks ago the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople announced that His All Holiness Bartholomew had received an invitation from the Russian Patriarch Cyril to participate in the celebrations of the 1030th Anniversary since the Christianization of Russia, to be held in Moscow. The Ecumenical Patriarchate responded, to the effect that Moscow has no reason to celebrate this anniversary as it is related to the adoption of Christianity in Kievan Rus and not in the Principate of Moscow. According to the statement of the Patriarchate made in July, its representatives will visit Kiev but not Moscow.
This brief message went largely unnoticed in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, it contains the core of the dispute about the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Russian position in this debate is well known to the Bulgarian public and to Western audiences, as in the last two centuries Russia has been promoting the idea that from a historical perspective, Kiev and Ukraine as a whole, are part of Russia. The same is allegedly true of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, as since the very beginning it was part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Even in the common Western guides of Church History this thesis is widely accepted, the main reason being that the history of the Orthodox Church on the territory of the Russian Empire has been perceived as an integral process with not too many details. Most historical researches do not consider the theological and canonical dimensions of the Ecclesiastical dioceses, during the centuries of political development in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russian Empire.
Now I will try and analyze briefly the Russian perspective and its alternative. On the territory of modern Ukraine and mostly in its southern and south-western regions, Christianity came during Late Antiquity. There is a local belief that the apostle Andrew, the founder of the Church of Constantinople, himself preached in these lands while travelling along the Black sea coast. From historical sources we know that even in the middle of the 10th century in Kiev there was a Christian population and some kind of an ecclesiastical building. These lands were dominated by the military aristocracy of the Varangian tribe (Scandinavian Germans), who were gradually intensifying their connections with the Eastern Roman Empire. In 988 their leader Valdemar (in Slavic “Vladimir”) adopted Christianity from Constantinople and married the sister of Emperor Basil the Second. In medieval accounts the event is enchantingly represented as a nationwide baptism in the Dnieper River. Until the 12th century Kiev was the undisputed leader of the Eastern Slavic tribes. Metropolitans of Kiev were members of the Holy Synod in Constantinople and were appointed as such by the Patriarchate in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
In 1169 Prince Andrew of Vladimir (in the north of the newly founded Moscow) conquered Kiev and the old Varangian dynasty ceased to exist. In 1299 Kiev was devastated by the Tatars and only restored in the 15th century but already under the domination of the Lithuanian kingdom. Precisely from the time of the Tatars’ conquest the Metropolitan of Vladimir started naming himself “Metropolitan of Kiev”. Nevertheless, after the restoration of the town of Kiev, another Metropolitan of Kiev was appointed by Constantinople. In 1328 the Metropolitan of Vladimir moved to Moscow, as it was already capital of the Great Prince of Russia and there the former continued to bear the title probably because of the historical significance and the authority of Kiev as a significant part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In 1459, already under Ottoman rule, a local council in Constantinople granted autocephaly to the Church of Moscow. The new Metropolitan was then given the title “Metropolitan of Moscow and all the Rus”. The title “Metropolitan of Kiev” was omitted.
In 1667 Kiev and the territories east of Dnieper were conquered by Russia and in 1685 Kiev Metropolis was attached to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). It was after heavy discussions with Constantinople that the Ecumenical Patriarchate made this concession. Correspondence on this topic between ROC and Constantinople is preserved until the present day and is kept in Kiev. According to this correspondence, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was temporally submitting the control over these territories to the ROC under certain conditions. Perhaps, Russian rulers were insisting on keeping Kiev, because it was the main mediator and meeting point for ideas, scientific achievements and educational practices between Moscow and the West, and between Moscow and Constantinople. Collegium Kioviense was very influential for ROC. It was a high school founded in 1632 by clerics from Constantinople and the forerunner of the Ecclesiastical Academy of Kiev, which has been and continues to be an extremely important theological school of ROC. It was founded by clerics of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its most important functionary at the time was Peter Mogila – an enlightened Moldavian and bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The Russian interpretation of these historical events aims at finding continuity in the tradition of power. Therefore it assumes the idea of translatio imperii, i.e. from the moment when Prince Andrew took over Kiev, “transmission of power” started from Kiev towards Vladimir, to Moscow, to Saint Petersburg and again to Moscow. And this occurring, despite the breakdown of the dynastic tradition of the Varangians in Kiev. The same is valid about the Church. After 1299, Kiev had no Metropolitan for a while and his title was adopted by the Bishop of Vladimir and later on by the Bishop of Moscow.
Although the Russian thesis is popular in contemporary history books, it has no particular value from a theological point of view. The reason is that according to the Orthodox concept of the Church, the latter can only be local and not “national”, “people’s”, “royal” or “imperial”. As long as it is a local Church, it cannot be moved from place to place, from town to town, from state to state. In other words, an episcopal center cannot move from Kiev to Vladimir or somewhere else. The problem is that in this case, after the throne of Kiev Metropolis remained empty for a while, another Bishop adopted this title for purely pragmatic reasons. Although it was an anti-canonical act, it was temporarily accepted by Constantinople due to the complicated circumstances, namely the Tatar invasion. This fact was reflected in the correspondence between the ROC and Constantinople from the 17th century.
The Ukrainian stance strives to keep closer to the theological argumentation, relying on the canonical status of the Metropolitan of Kiev since the 10th century. He was the 60th Metropolitan in the order of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The two-fold interruption of his status for non-canonical reasons does not hinder his right. On the contrary, it justifies restoration by the Church to which he belonged. In this case, this Mother-Church does not need to seek consent from other local Orthodox Churches. The Russian thesis, on the other hand, relies rather on the historical-political continuity associated with the history of the Russian Empire, which, as a state, did not take particular account of the Orthodox canon and exploited the Church as a political tool. Nevertheless, in the late 18th century Empress Ekaterina the Great managed to obtain an internationally recognized status of Protector of Christians and, above all, Orthodox Christians in the vast territory of the Ottoman Empire. This image has favored the Russian thesis in literature during the last two centuries. However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with its response to the Russian invitation for celebrating 1030 years since the Christianization of Kievan Rus, advocates the Ukrainian thesis. This is easy to explain. Through its Patriarchs and its Holy Synod, this leading Orthodox Church has always kept the canon and Orthodox faith. Especially now, it cannot be otherwise, since His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is a Doctor of Canon law from one of the most prominent Universities in the world.