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An overview of Christian Orthodoxy in Ukraine


Andriy Vlasenko, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest


The Ukrainians is a nation that has been Christian in the past thousand years. But the roots of Christianity in Ukraine go much deeper in time, to the emergence of Kyiv as a major city and capital of a mighty state. The evidence of it is ample and compelling  early chronicles, ancient churches to be found across the length and breadth of Ukraine, and the Christian spirit that the Ukrainians have been adhering firmly and devotedly to through the ages.


The early Ukrainian chronicle, Povist vremennykh lit (Story of the Bygone Years), says that it was the Apostle Andrew, St Peters brother, who was the first to bring the glad news of Christian faith to the Ukrainian lands. And it happened as long ago as in the middle of the first century AD. St Andrew is said to have first arrived in the Crimea, whence he proceeded along the river Dnipro all the way to the place where now the city of Kyiv stands. Once there, he climbed one of the hills facing the river, and on the top of it he erected a wooden cross, blessed the surrounding hills and predicted that a great city would spring up there and the state of which it was to be a capital, would be loyally Christian.

This story had lived in the memory of the Ukrainian people for centuries before it was accepted by the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1621 as an article of faith. The Councils resolution read in part: The Saint Apostle Andrew was the first archbishop of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch and Apostle of Ukraine. On the Kyivan Hills stood his feet, and the eyes of his beheld Rus-Ukraine, and the lips of his blessed the land, and the seeds of [Christian] faith he sowed. In verity, Ukraine is not lesser in importance than other Eastern nations for an apostle preached in this country.

The Church of St Andrew now graces the hill where the Apostle once stood, erecting a cross and prophesizing.

It was in the Crimea that Christianity in the lands of Ukraine initially got a firm foothold. According to tradition, Saint Clement the Roman pope from 88 to 97 [Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea dates his pontificate from 92 to 101; according to the early Christian writer Tertullian, he was consecrated by Peter; Bishop St Irenaeus of Lyon lists him as a contemporary of the Apostles and witness of their preaching  tr.], and the supposed third successor of St Peter, was exiled by the Roman authorities to the Crimea where, at a place now known as Inkerman, he was forced to work in a quarry. For his attempts to Christianize the local pagans, he was cast into the sea with an anchor around his neck.

The authorship of the Letter to the Church of Corinth has been traditionally ascribed to Clement. His Letter achieved almost canonical status and was regarded as Scripture by many 3rd- and 4th-century Christians. Numerous Clementine writings show the high regard for Clement in the early church. He is credited with transmitting to the church the Ordinances of the Holy Apostles Through Clement (Apostolic Constitutions), which, reputedly drafted by the Apostles, is the largest collection of early Christian ecclesiastical law.

The body of Clement was said to have been recovered from the sea by the faithful and his relics were kept in the city of Chersonesus until the 9th century when they were transferred to Rome. Later, St Clements relics found their way to Kyiv.

Evidently, St Clements preaching did not go unnoticed and the numbers of Christians in some cities of the Crimean Kingdom of Bosporus grew considerably in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In the kingdoms major city, Panticapaeum (modern Kerch) a grave stone was unearthed during archaeological excavations with one of the earliest known representations of the Christian cross whose date has been reliably established  the cross dates to the Year 304.

In the succeeding centuries, Christianization of the Crimean peninsula continued unabated. Gradually, it spread over the southern areas of modern Ukraine and later spread further north. It is known that the head of the Scythian Bishopric (Scythian was the word used then to refer to the Ukrainian lands) and Bishop Cadmus of Bosporus, Bishop Phillip of Chersonesus, and Bishop of Goths took part in the Ecumenical Council of 325 [for about two hundred years, the Goths had their kingdom in the territory of the present-day Ukraine  tr.]. It testifies to the fact that Christianity was spread far and wide across Ukraine as early as in the fourth century. The early Slavic system of writing, known as the Glagolitsa alphabet, or Rus letters, is believed by some scholars to have been borrowed from the Goths.

With the Crimea firmly Christian under Byzantium, churches began to be built, the earliest of which date from the fifth century. Christianity must have become known among the Slavic tribes much further to the north, and one of the converted Slavs from the tribe of the Polyany, known under the Christian name of Dionysius the Small One, travelled to Greece and from there to Rome where he became widely known for his wisdom and promoted to head of a monastery. Paschal cycles from the year 437 to the year 531, and the canon law compilation known as Dionysiana are attributed to him.

It is not known for sure whether the founders of Kyiv, brothers Kiy, Shchek, Khoryv, and their sister Lybid, were Christians but the Byzantine historian John claims that Kiy, who was referred to in Byzantium as Kuvrat, was baptized and was educated in Constantinople, in the very heart of Christianity.

There is enough evidence though that suggests that conversion to Christianity in Ukraine even before this religion became widely adhered to in the tenth century, was a wide-spread phenomenon, though in most instances it was kept secret in order to prevent the negative reaction on the part of the pagans who were in the majority. When the rulers became Christians, they wanted their kin to undergo conversion as well and they encouraged wider sections of their subjects to be converted. In the eighth century the Christian community of Kyiv grew to be so large that they were no longer satisfied with having little chapels in their homes and had a church, St Illyas (Elijahs), built in the part of town called Podil. A little later, another church, St Michaels, was erected at the place which came to be known as Ascolds Grave.

The ninth century proved to be particularly important for the development of Christianity in Rus-Ukraine [the word Rus originally refers to the Slavic people who lived in the heart of the present-day Ukraine in the basin of the river Ros, a tributary of the river Dnipro; in a wider meaning, Rus refers loosely to the Slavic tribes who made up the population of what became known in history as Kyivan Rus which stretched all the way to the Baltic Sea in the North, the Black Sea in the south and the Carpathians in the west; the eastern border was much less definite and could have reached as far as the river Volga; Rus is also used as reference to the people of Kyivan Rus  tr.]. The Byzantine Patriarch Photius wrote that not only the Bulgarians adopted Christianity but also the people known as Rus who show such a great enthusiasm for the [Christian] faith and such zealousness that they have accepted a spiritual shepherd and devoutly fulfill all the rites.

At the end of the ninth century a metropolitan diocese, an established church structure in the lands of the Rus, was formed. The direct evidence of this can be found in the church ordinance of Patriarch Leo IX, in which the Metropolitan Sea in Rus-Ukraine is listed as the 61st among other seas.

The western Ukrainian lands at that time were under a heavy influence of the Roman Church which was counteracted to a certain extent by Cyril and Methodius, Greek brothers who for Christianizing the Danubian Slavs and for influencing the religious and cultural development of all Slavic peoples received the title the apostles of the Slavs. Both were outstanding scholars, theologians, and linguists. In 863, they started their work among the Slavs, using Slavonic in the liturgy. They translated the Holy Scriptures into the language later known as Old Church Slavonic (or Old Bulgarian) and invented a Slavic alphabet based on Greek characters that in its final Cyrillic form is still in use as the alphabet for modern Ukraine and a number of other Slavic languages. Their influence spread across the Slavic lands and their contribution to the Christianization of Kyivan Rus can hardly be overestimated. In fact, by the end of the ninth century, Christianity had become so firmly established in Kyivan Rus that Christian tradition in Ukraine has not been broken ever since. When at the end of the ninth century the Christian ruler of Kyiv Prince Ascold was murdered by the invading Vikings headed by Prince Oleg, paganism was re-established for some time but Christianity was not wiped out. Its spread was slowed down only to pick up again in the early tenth century when Princess Olga, after conversion, became an active exponent of Christianity.

Princess Olga (ca 910969) became the sole ruler of Kyiv after the death of her husband Prince Igor when in 944 he was murdered by the Drevlyany tribe for attempting to impose too heavy taxes on them. Earlier this same year he had concluded a peace treaty with Byzantium and from the extant text of the treaty it is evident that there were Christians among his troops. His wife Olga paid a visit to Constantinople in 957 where she was well received and converted to Christianity. Returning to Kyiv, she made an attempt to convert her subjects to the Christian faith but she failed to make the then population of Kyivan Rus discard paganism and adopt the new faith. She had a wooden church dedicated to Sophia, Holy Wisdom, built in Kyiv, but Svyatoslav, her son, who came of age in 964 and became the ruler of Kyiv, did not follow in his mothers footsteps and rejected baptism. He pursued a rashly belligerent and improvident policy engaging in many wars which at first were victorious but eventually led to his own ruin.

The seeds of Christian faith that had been sown by Olga, fully sprouted during the reign of her grandson, Grand Duke Vladimir who in Ukrainian tradition is referred to as Volodymyr the Great, Equal to the Apostles.

Like his father Svyatoslav, he began his reign as a pagan, but later realizing the necessity of having a consolidating faith for all of his vast domains, he began looking for a religion to adopt. He chose Christianity in its eastern version and was baptized by a Byzantine priest in the Crimean town of Chersonesus in 987. Returning to Kyiv, he destroyed the images of pagan gods and had the Kyivans baptized in the waters of the Dnipro river. Gradually, Christianity spread across his lands.

The new faith was accepted by most of the population without resistance and became an organic, integral part of the national psyche. Some of the pagan beliefs and traditions merged with the Christian faith and acquired the Christian content, becoming part and parcel of the Ukrainian version of Christianity.

There was no metropolitan sea in Kyiv for quite some time after the adoption of Christianity as an official religion, but there was a bishopric in Tmutorokan in the south and another one in Peremyshl in the west of the country. The metropolitan sea was established in Kyiv during the reign of Volodymyrs son, Yaroslav the Wise. It was a Ukrainian, Ilarion, who was elected in 1050 to be the first metropolitan rather than a Greek. Ilarion authored Slovo pro zakon i blahodat (Reflections on Gods Law and Gods Grace), a sermon of high spiritual intensity which asserted the steadfastness of Christianity in Ukraine and proclaimed the close affinity between Christianity and the Slavic spirit.

The spread of Christianity was boosted by Grand Duke Yaroslavs successful policy which allowed him to extend his state over a vast territory of Eastern Europe. Kyivan Rus stretched from the White Sea in the north and to the Black Sea in the south, from the Carpathians in the west and almost to the Urals in the east. The fact that he married his daughters to mighty rulers of Western Europe pointed to his prestige. He promoted learning and the arts, and championed the cause of Christianity. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the construction of the Holy Sophia Cathedral and the Mykhailivsky Zolotoverkhy Cathedral (St Michaels Golden-Domed) adorned with marvellous murals, many monasteries, the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery among them, churches in many cities, with Chernihiv, Pereyaslav, and Vasylkiv boasting particularly beautiful ones.

In the eleventh century the Ukrainian church was still linked to the Byzantine church but this linkage did not prevent the Ukrainian church from developing along its own national lines. The relations of these two churches could be described as those of mother and daughter. Though formally remaining under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was, for all intents and purposes, an autocephalous church, that is practically autonomous. The Ukrainian Church knew no divisions and little internal strife until after the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century when, in 1240, Kyiv was captured and destroyed by the hordes of the Mongolian commander Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan.

The Mongol rule proved to be not too hard on the Christians. Credit must be given to the Mongols for not interfering too much with the spiritual life of the conquered lands of Kyivan Rus. Neither did they constrain the life of the church though on several occasions Christians were punished by death for not fulfilling certain demands of the Mongol rulers. Thus Prince Mykhailo from Chernihiv and his Boyarin (courtier) Fedor were tortured to death for refusing to prostrate before the pagan idols.

But foreign occupation brought the church and the people closer together. The people saw a spiritual support in the church, and Christianization in the Ukrainian lands went deeper than elsewhere. Unfortunately, some of the church leaders preferred to leave Kyiv for more secure places. The Metropolitan Kyryl, for example, who hailed from the Western Ukrainian land of Halychyna, was appointed to head the Kyiv Metropolitan Sea in 1243, but soon he left for Vladimir, a Russian town east of Moscow. In 1300, Metropolitan Maximus, a Greek by birth, transferred the Metropolitan Sea to Vladimir altogether, and this move prepared the ground for a separate Metropolitanate to develop. At first it was the Moscow Metropolitanate which later was raised in status to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the Western Ukrainian lands, in the Halytsko-Volynske Principality, the Halytska Metropolitanate was created to last until 1391.

The union of Ukraine with Lithuania put an end to the Mongolian rule through a concerted effort. In spite of the fact that the Kyivan Metropolitan stayed mostly outside Ukraine to the north of it, the religious life continued. Church schools and monasteries in particular, promoted education. In the fourteenth century most of the churches and monasteries completely revived after the difficult years of the Mongol rule. In 1376, the Lithuanian grand dukes had the Lithuanian-Rus Metropolitanate established, with the centre in Kyiv. A change to the worse for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church came in 1385 when, under pressure from the hostile Teutonic Knights, the Grand Duke Jogaila (reigned 13771434) concluded a pact with Poland, known as the Union of Krewo, agreeing to accept the Roman Catholic faith, marry the Polish queen, become king of Poland, and unite Poland and Lithuania under a single ruler. Jogaila took the Polish name Wladyslaw II Jagiello. The Catholic Church thus gained a leading position.

In 1448, the Moscow Church created its own metropolitan without approval from the Patriarch of Constantinople and it meant that de facto it separated itself from the Kyiv Church. It led to the final division of the Orthodox church into the Ukrainian Church that functioned in the Polish-Lithuanian state of which Ukraine had become a part, and the Moscow Church. Until 1569 the union of Lithuania and Poland remained a loose alliance by virtue of a common ruler. On July 1, 1569, a common Polish-Lithuanian parliament meeting in Lublin transformed the loose personal union of the two states into a Commonwealth of Two Peoples. The basic dual state structure was retained and each continued to be administered separately and had its own law codes and armed forces. The joint commonwealth, however, provided an impetus for cultural Polonization of the Lithuanian and Ukrainian nobility. The Catholic Church increased its pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with the Orthodox Christians being encouraged or even forced to embrace Catholicism. But the majority of the Ukrainian population remained staunchly adherent to the Orthodox Church which became a rallying force upholding the national traditions and fostering the national awareness.

Among the Ukrainian nobles who distinguished themselves in the defence of Orthodoxy, Prince Kostyantyn from Otsroh in the Land of Volyn was particularly prominent. In the end of the 1570s he founded a school of higher learning in Ostroh which became a spiritual centre of all Ukraine. In 1581, a number of copies of the Bible in the Old Slavonic translation was printed in Ostroh under the auspices of the prince and it became the first print edition of the Slavonic Bible.

It was the time when a union of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic Church was an issue widely discussed. The idea was to have the Orthodox Church submitting to the papal authority, retaining at the same time the Eastern rite, the Slavic language in liturgy and in education of the clergy. Most of the Orthodox bishops supported such a union; Metropolitan Mykhailo (Rohoza) also favoured the union because he found it humiliating to be treated by the authorities as junior to the Roman Catholic priests.

The Union was adopted in 1596 at a council held in Berestya in the Land of Volyn. Another council which brought together many of the Orthodox clergy, condemned the Union but was powerless to prevent it from taking effect. Thus at the end of the sixteenth century the religious unity of the Ukrainian people was put an end to. The Union proved strong enough to last for centuries, and though the Uniate Church was banned by the Soviet authorities, it had survived underground to be given back its official status in 1990. The Uniate Church declares its intention to become a bridge between the eastern and western church but it does not seem to succeed so far.

In the early seventeenth century, another force emerged to rise to the defence of the Orthodox Church  the Ukrainian Cossacks. In spite of the fact that the Uniate Church was the official church in the Polish state and Ukraine was under Polish domination, Patriarch of Jerusalem Photius during his visit to Kyiv in 1620 re-established the bishopric of the Metropolitanate of Kyiv.

Kyiv Metropolitan Petro Mohyla (15961646) played a significant role in Orthodoxy and contributed much to raising its importance in Ukraine. Petro Mohyla was the author of the Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church. He reformed Slavic theological scholarship and generally set doctrinal standards for Eastern Orthodoxy that endured until the 19th century.

Mohyla was educated in Jesuit schools in Poland and became proficient in classical languages and Latin Scholastic theology. He entered the famous Pechersk Lavra Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv in 1625 and was made its superior in 1627. In 1633 he was elected metropolitan of Kyiv. As metropolitan, Mohyla made great efforts to improve the education of his clergy and laity at a time when both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries were very active among the Orthodox population of Poland and Ukraine. In 1633 he transformed the theological college of the Kyiv monastery into a school of humanities and theology and enlisted a Western-trained faculty for it. The academy (now called the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy) became the source of a theological revival in the entire Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and its influence was felt in Ukraine until the end of the 19th century. Petro Mohyla also obtained the Polish monarchs acknowledgment of the rights of the Orthodox church in Polish territory, and he restored to Orthodox control the churches and properties that had been expropriated by Roman Catholics. His contribution to the development of culture is also highly significant.

After the Ukrainian lands to the east of the Dnipro river came under the domination of Russia in the mid-seventeenth century, the pressure on the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church increased. In 1686, after three decades of struggle in which the last Metropolitan of Kyiv Yosyf (Nelyubovych-Tukalsky) was particularly active, Moscow succeeded in overcoming resistance of the Ukrainian clergy and got the Kyivan Metropolitanate incorporated into the Moscow Patriarchate. In the Ukrainian lands to the west of the Dnipro river which remained under Polish domination, Polonization continued coupled with the pressure on the population to convert to Catholicism.

Those were very hard times for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Moscow sent gifts to the patriarch of Constantinople Dionysius (these gifts, incidentally, were not too lavish  a few sables and a weight of gold) to secure his approval of the incorporation of the Kyivan Metropolitanate into the Moscow Patriarchate. He sanctioned the move but a year later was removed from his office. Unfortunately, what was done could not be undone and for the next 335 years the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was denied an independent status. Moscow religious authorities did their worst in suppressing the national feelings and drive for independence. There was only a handful of prominent Ukrainian political and religious figures in the centuries that followed up to the early twentieth, who benefited the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in some way. But even they restricted themselves mostly to promoting the arts and education or donating to the construction of churches and other architectural landmarks. Probably the only exception was the time in the early eighteenth century when Ivan Mazepa was hetman of Ukraine. He was the last one to make an attempt to break free from Moscows clutches.


From the early eighteenth century we shall make a jump to the year 1917 (the intervening time was too sad for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to dwell upon it in length) when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was called back to life, re-emerging like the phoenix from the fire. After the revolution and collapse of the Russian empire, Ukraine went independent. The first independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church community was set up at the Svyatomykolayivsky Cathedral in Kyiv in the Pechersk part of town, and on May 22 1918 priest Vasyl Lypkivsky and several other priests held a religious service, the first one in a long time, in the Ukrainian language. Several more steps were taken and the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was virtually secured. In 1921 an old tradition of establishing the church hierarchy was reintroduced. Vasyl Lypkivsky was elected the first metropolitan of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). Tragically, most of all the UAOC leaders, most of the priests and millions of UAOC lay members were liquidated by the Soviet secret police or died in famines in the 1920s and 1930s. But the Church itself did not die and went on living abroad. During the Second World War it reappeared in Ukraine for some time only to be suppressed again after the war. It was on August 19 1989 that UAOC was officially reinstated in its rights, and one hopes it has returned to stay for all time to come.


Despite the existence of several Christian confessions in Ukraine and their relations not always being of the most friendly nature, there still lives a hope in Ukraine that one day the United Ukrainian Orthodox Church will emerge and unite all the faithful. It cannot fail to happen since St Andrews prophesies are bound to come true.


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