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A historical overview of Christianity in Ukraine


This year the 1020th anniversary of the conversion of Kyivan Rus to Christianity by Grand Duke Volodymyr was celebrated in Ukraine. Thus, since the early medieval times of Kyivan Rus, the state that later has come to be known as Ukraine, has always been a predominantly Christian land.


Although separated into various denominations, most Ukrainian Christians share a common faith, a unique blend of ancient Byzantine practices and pagan Slavic mythology. These Eastern Christian traditions have been at various historic times closely aligned with Ukrainian national self-identity.


The beginnings

Eastern Orthodox Church tradition attributes the first contact of early Ukrainians with Christianity through a proselytizing mission of St Andrew, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. He, accompanied by Saint Titus, and three disciples, Saints Ina, Pina and Rima, is believed to have traveled up the Dnipro River from the shores of the Black Sea, to the area of present-day southern Ukraine, while preaching in the lands of Scythia. Legend has it that he traveled further still until he came to the location of present-day Kyiv in 55 AD, where he erected a cross on one of the hills facing the Dnipro, and prophesied the foundation of a great Christian city. The eighteenth-century Church of St Andrew (and an earlier structure from 1086 it replaced) were purportedly built on the very location of the apostles cross.

Too little is known about the legendary founders of Kyiv  Khiy, Shchek and Khoriv  to make any guesses about their possible conversion to Christianity. Kyiv is believed to have been founded in about the fifth century AD.

The first state in Eastern Slavic lands, Kyivan Rus, was established in the ninth century.

Following the 860th assault on Constantinople by Kyivan Rus forces under the command of Askold and Dir, the two princes of Kyiv, are believed to have been baptized in that holy city. Returning to Kyiv, the two actively championed Christianity for a period of 20 years, until they were murdered by the pagan Viking Prince Oleg in the rivalry for the Kyiv throne. Patriarch Photios purportedly provided a bishop and priests from Constantinople to help in the Christianization of the Slavs. By 900, a church had been already established in Kyiv, St. Elijahs. This gradual acceptance of Christianity is most notable, according to the text included in the Primary Chronicle, in the Rus-Byzantine Treaty of 945, which was signed by both baptized and unbaptized Rus.

Acceptance of Christianity among the Rus nobility gained a vital proponent in Princess Olga.

Saint Olga was born of Varangian (Viking) extraction and married Igor, the ruler of Kyiv. After Igors death, she ruled Kyivan Rus as regent (945-c. 963) for their son, Svyatoslav.

She was converted to Christianity, either in 945 or in 957. She went to Constantinople, Byzantium. The ceremonies of her formal reception were described in detail by Emperor Constantine VII in his book De Ceremoniis. Following her baptism she took the Christian name Yelena, after the reigning Empress Helena Lekapena.

Seven Latin sources document Olgas embassy to Emperor Otto I in 959. There is some evidence that the envoys requested the Emperor to appoint a bishop and priests for her nation. Thietmar of Merseburg says that the first archbishop of Magdeburg, before being promoted to this high rank, was sent by Emperor Otto to the country of the Rus (Rusciae) as a simple bishop but was expelled by pagans. The same data is mentioned in the annals of Quedlinburg and Hildesheim, among others.

Olga was one of the first people of Rus to be proclaimed a saint, for her efforts to spread the Christian religion in the country. Because of her proselytizing, the Orthodox Church calls St. Olga by the honorific Isapostolos, Equal to the Apostles. However, although she converted a certain number of her subjects to Christianity, she failed to convert her son Svyatoslav who lived and died pagan.

It was her grandson Volodymyr who made Christianity the lasting state religion.

Volodymyr was the youngest son of Svyatoslav I of Kyiv by his housekeeper Malusha (in the Norse sagas she was described as a prophetess who lived to the age of 100 and was brought from her cave to the palace to predict the future). Volodymyr spent many years establishing himself as the sole ruler of Kyivan Rus, fighting against his brothers and expanding his fathers already extensive domain.

Though Christianity had won many converts since Olgas rule, Vladimir had remained a thorough going pagan, taking eight hundred concubines (besides numerous wives) and erecting pagan statues and shrines to gods.

The Primary Chronicle reports that in the year 987, Volodymyr sent envoys to study the religions of the various neighboring nations whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths. The result is amusingly described by the chronicler Nestor. Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no gladness among them; only sorrow and a great stench, and that their religion was undesirable due to its taboo against alcoholic beverages and pork. Volodymyr said that drinking was a joy and habit among the Rus who would not be prepared to surrender it. Some sources also describe Volodymyr consulting with Jewish envoys, and questioning them about their religion but ultimately rejecting it, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God. Ultimately Volodymyr settled on Christianity. In the churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Constantinople, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal. Describing a majestic Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, they said, We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, it was such beauty that we know not how to tell of it. Volodymyr must have been impressed by this account of his envoys, but he also could have been very interested in getting political gains from the Byzantine alliance.

In 988, having taken the town of Chersonesos (Korsun, for Slavs) in the Crimea after a siege, he boldly negotiated for the hand of the Emperor Basil IIs sister, 27-year-old princess Anna. Never had a Greek imperial princess, and one born-in-the-purple at that, married a barbarian before (matrimonial offers of French kings and German emperors had been peremptorily rejected). Volodymyr got himself baptized at Chersonesos, taking the Christian name of Basil out of compliment to his imperial brother-in-law. The sacrament was followed by his wedding with Anna. Returning to Kyiv baptized, married and in triumph, he mended his ways, dismissed his harem, destroyed pagan monuments and idols, and established many churches, starting with the splendid Desyatynna Tserkva (Church of the Tithes) in 989 (the church was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, rebuilt centuries later, and then again destroyed in the 1930s by the militantly atheistic Bolsheviks).

Volodymyrs son, Yaroslav the Wise, contributed a lot to firmly establishing Christianity in the lands he ruled  he initiated construction of churches and translation of religious books and establishing Kyivan Rus as a state of a solid cultural and political reputation. It was during his reign that, the first Kyivan metropolitan, Ilarion, was elected in 1050, and the establishment of the metropolitan see further strengthened the position of the Christian Church in Kyivan Rus.


Crimean connection

It is interesting to note here that the Crimea had had Christian connections much earlier than the tenth century, the time of Volodymyrs baptism in the Crimean town of Chersonesos.

Pope Clement I (ruled 8898, or from 92 to 101) was exiled to Chersonesos on the Crimean peninsula in 102 (as was Pope Martin I in 655). Clement, who has been hypothetically identified with the Clement mentioned in Phil. 4:3, was the third successor of St. Peter. 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. He died as martyr  he was tied to an anchor and cast into the sea.

The relics of Pope St. Martin were allegedly retrieved by the Equal-to-apostles brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius, who passed through present-day Ukraine on their way to preach to the Khazars. Sent from Constantinople at the request of the ruler of Great Moravia, these brothers added to foundation of Christianity in Ukraine by translating the Bible into the Old Slavonic and the Slavonic script (Cyrillic script), which enabled the local population to worship God in Old Church Slavonic, a language close to the old Ukrainian.


Orthodoxy versus Catholicism

Following the Great Schism in 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches parted ways, and Kyivan Rus that incorporated most of modern Ukraine ended up on the Eastern Orthodox side of the divided Christian world.

The Mongol invasion resulted in the complete breakup of the Kyivan Rus state but the religion of the principalities emerged from the ruins remained steadfastly Christian.

In the 1400s, the primacy over the Ukrainian church was restored to Kyiv, under the title Metropolitan of Kyiv and Halych.

The main threat to Ukrainian Orthodoxy came from Catholicism rather than from pagan Mongolian. Catholicism became preponderant, when Hedwig, Queen of Poland, married Jagiello, Prince of Lithuania, and the two states were united into a single kingdom. Vilnus became the see of a Latin bishop. By that time, a considerable part of Ukraine had been incorporated into Rzecz Pospolita  the state of Poland and Lithuania. Many Ukrainians were forcefully converted to Catholicism.

In 1448, a Russian patriarch was enthroned in Muscovy without any agreement requested from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. It was a step that lacked in legality and that led to the further separation of the Russian Church and the Orthodox Church in Ukraine that was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian state.

Following the Union of Lublin, the Polonization of the Ukrainian church was accelerated. Unlike the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox church in Ukraine was liable to various taxes and legal obligations. The building of new Orthodox churches was strongly discouraged. The Roman Catholics were strictly forbidden to convert to Orthodoxy, and the marriages between Catholics and Orthodox were frowned upon. Orthodox subjects had been increasingly barred from high offices of state.

In order to oppose such restrictions and to reverse cultural Polonization of Orthodox bishops, the Ecumenical Patriarch encouraged the activity of the Orthodox urban communities called the brotherhoods (bratstvo). In 1589 Hedeon Balaban, the bishop of Lviv, asked the Pope to take him under his protection, because he was exasperated by the struggle with urban communities and the Ecumenical Patriarch. In the Union of Brest of 1596 (known in Ukraine as Unia), a part of the Ukrainian Church was accepted under the jurisdiction of the Roman Pope, becoming a Byzantine Rite Catholic Church, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, colloquially known as Uniate Church. While the new church gained many faithful among the Ukrainians in Halychyna, the majority of Ukrainians in the rest of the lands firmly remained within Eastern Orthodoxy with the church affairs ruled from Kyiv under the metropolitan Petro Mohyla.

As the Unia continued its expansion into Ukraine, its unpopularity grew, particularly in the southern steppes where Dnipro Cossacks lived. The Cossacks who valued and actively supported their Orthodox traditions and culture, saw the Unia as a final step of Polonization. As a result they reacted by becoming fierce proponents of Orthodoxy and opponents of Poland. Such feelings played a role in the mass uprising against Polish rule.

In 1620, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, during his visit to Ukraine, reestablished the bishopric of the Kyiv metropolitan see. During this time the Kyivan Metropolitan Mohyla took full advantage of the moment to restore the Orthodox faith in Ukraine. Among other things, he founded the first religious academy in Ukraine (which now is the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy).

In 1686, after Mohylas death, the Ottomans, bribed by the Russians, pressured the Patriarch of Constantinople into transferring the Orthodox Church of Kyiv from the jurisdiction of Constantinople to the Patriarch of Moscow. The legality of this step is questioned to this day along with the fact that the transfer was accompanied by graft and bribery, which in church affairs amounts to an ecclesiastical crime.

The War of Independence in Ukraine in the seventeenth century ended in a large part of Ukraine being freed from Polish domination but true independence was not established  Ukraine came under increasing pressure from Muscovy and succumbed to this pressure completely in the eighteenth century. But Orthodox Christianity remained the dominant religion of eastern Ukraine.

In the eighteenth century Poland became less and less influential and finally partitioned by neighboring empires. The western parts of Ukraine found themselves within the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the eastern parts stayed under Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church with its intolerant attitudes to any dissent completely dominated the Ukrainian religious scene until the twentieth century (in some parts of western Ukraine Catholic and Uniate influences were rather strong).


Ukraines Christians under the Bolsheviks

After the collapse of tsarism in 1917, Ukraine was controlled by several short-lived yet independent governments which revived the Ukrainian national idea. Ukraine declared its political independence following the fall of the Provisional Government in 1918. Unfortunately, the independence of Ukraine proved to be short-lived.

The moment the Bolsheviks consolidated their power over what used to be the Russian Empire (with the exception of the Baltic states, Poland and Finland), they proclaimed war on religion, Christianity being the main target. Mass closures and destruction of churches began, accompanied by executions of clergy and Christian followers.

The Russian Orthodox Church strongly opposed the formation of the Ukrainian autocephaly and not a single ordained bishop was willing or able to ordain the hierarchy for a new Church. Therefore, the clergy ordained its own hierarchy. In 1921, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) was established and its first metropolitan was Vasyl Lypkivsky. Despite the canon law controversy, the new church was recognized in 1924 by the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory VII. The Church re-established itself in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation in World War II, and was again driven underground after the War.

In the early-1930s the Soviet government abruptly reversed the policies in the national republics and mass arrests of UAOCs hierarchy and clergy culminated in the liquidation of the church in 1930. Most of the property was officially transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, with some churches closed for good and destroyed.

After WWII, the communist authorities stopped destroying churches and shooting clergy and the faithful, but continued to frown upon religion and arrest and imprison religious activists.

Following Ukraines independence in 1991, persecutions stopped, many churches were returned to the religious communities, a number of destroyed churches were rebuilt and a considerable number of new churches began to be built.

The head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine Filaret made a bid to achieve total autocephaly (independence) of his metropolitan seat with or without the approval of the mother (Russian Orthodox) church which is required by the canon law. These events followed Filarets own unsuccessful attempt to gain a seat of the Moscow Patriarch to himself in 1990. In November 1991, Metropolitan Filaret requested the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephalous status but his request was denied. Filaret, using his support from the old friendship ties with the then newly elected President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk, convinced Kravchuk that a new independent government should have its own independent church.

The Hierarchical Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was conducted in the eastern city of Kharkiv in May 1992 where the majority of the bishops elected a new leader Metropolitan Volodymyr (Viktor Sabodan), native of the Khmelnytsky Oblast and a former Patriarchal Exarch to Western Europe.

Filaret initiated the unification with the UAOC, and in June 1992 a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) was created with 94-year-old Patriarch Mstyslav as a leader. Mstyslav died a year later, leaving Filaret, his assistant, in charge. A few of the Autocephalous bishops and clergy who opposed such situation refused to join the new Christian Church, and the church was once again ripped apart by a schism when the churches re-separated in July 1993.


Current situation

Currently, two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches primarily compete to represent an all-Ukrainian local church. The events of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election and the Orange Revolution affected the religious affairs in the nation as well. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate actively supported the former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, while members of the UOC-KP, UAOC, and UGCC supported the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who was running against him.

To date the issue between rivalries of different churches remains politicized. It is a sensitive and controversial issue.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church or UOC operates as an autonomous church under the Moscow Patriarchate and is also the only Orthodox denomination canonically recognized within the Eastern Orthodox Communion. The head of the church remains the aging Metropolitan Volodymyr who was enthroned in spring 1992 as the Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine. The UOC (MP) is currently the largest religious body in Ukraine with the greatest number of parishes, churches and communities. The number of parishes may not necessarily reflect the actual numbers of adherents.

Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was established and re-established several times in Ukraine. The church re-gained official recognition in 1989, and was initially ruled from abroad by Patriarch Mstyslav. It is now firmly established as one of the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) was originally formed from the Union of Brest in 1596. The Church was outlawed by the Soviet regime in 1948 but continued to exist in the Ukrainian underground and in the Western Ukrainian diaspora. It was officially re-established in Ukraine in 1989. In 1991, Cardinal Lubachivsky returned to Lviv from emigration. Since 2001 UGCC has been headed by Major Archbishop and Cardinal Lubomyr Husar.


Monument to St Princess Olha, St Andrew, Saints

Cyril and Methodius in Kyiv.


St Volodymyrs Cathedral in Chersonesos

(suburb of the town of Sevastopol, the Crimea).


The festive liturgy, celebrating 1020th anniversary

of baptism of Kyivan Rus, was conducted by

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at Holy

Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.


St Michaels Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv.


Interior of St Volodymyrs Cathedral in Kyiv.


St Andrews church in Kyiv.


The Uspensky Cathedral (founded in the 11th

century, destroyed in 1941 and recently rebuilt)

of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery.


St Georges Greek Catholic Cathedral in Lviv.


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