First things first, full disclosure: I am not a religious person myself, I am pretty much an atheist, and I rarely write about religion. I was born without that “religion gene” in my body, I have no personal experience with that sense of awe and spirituality, a personal connection to a higher power, about which people write so eloquently. My idea of a “higher power” is the time-travelling Lord Rassilon from Doctor Who. In other words, I don’t get it. I only see the material world around me. The only God I would accept as real is a sci-fi entity. Maybe I am missing out on something, I could be like the person born blind who doesn’t know what the color blue actually looks like, or feels like. Therefore, on the rare occasions I write about religion, I, autistically, can only grasp my mind around such entities as politics and geo-politics. To me, everything else, including the content of religion, just seems like some kind of scam for the unwary. And there you have my bias, before you start to read what I write below.
So, with that said, Ukraine celebrated July 27 (yesterday) as the “Day of Christening of Russia”. According to the classic story, as told in the Old Chronicles, Prince Vladimir (988 A.D.) decided to institute a state religion, preferably a monotheistic one, in order to consolidate the Russian lands around a single ruler. As early as the 950’s, Vladimir’s grandmother, Olga, had become a Christian, and had asked the German King Otto I to send missionaries to Russia.
Vladimir himself practiced the traditional Russian pagan religion. Not very much is known about the old religion, since the alphabet and writing itself were introduced along with Christianity. We do know that Prince Vladimir worshipped a pantheon of gods with such traditional Indo-European names as Perun, Hors, Dažbog, Stribog, Simargl, and Mokosh.
Stribog, for example, is a straightforward (etymologically) dialectal variation of Indo-European “Father-God” (from *pHter-boghas, through a series of non-obvious but completely regular sound changes). Prince Vladimir was a happy pagan, allegedly he had several wives and the traditional number of 800 concubines. (Or, as schoolchildren like to say, “800 porcupines”.)
Eventually, however, the time came when, for reasons of state, Vladimir had to give up his porcupines and his pantheon, and convert to a monotheistic religion. His three major options were: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. According to legend, Vladimir rejected Judaism because he was a man who liked his pork sausage and the dietary restrictions were too strict; Islam was out of the question, because of the ban against alcohol (“And we Russians like our drink,” Vladimir was alleged to have told the Muslim envoy). Which left Christianity as the best option for Russia.
Fast forward a millenium and a few more decades. To Kiev, “the Mother of all Russian cities” in the year 2016.
According to observers, as many as 80,000 people took part in the annual pilgrimage, which consisted of a vast procession through the streets of Kiev. According to the Navigator piece, the clergy leading the various flanks of the procession carried with them two miraculous (“wonder-working”) ikons: the image of the Sviatogorsk Mother of God; and the Pochaevsky ikon of the Mother of God. These, along with many other ikons were carried by the processioners up to Vladimir Hill, the site of Prince Vladimir’s baptizing.
And the Ukrainian government, which prides itself on being the heir and continuation of Kievan Rus, was delighted at the scale of this religious outpouring – yes? No! The Kiev government was unhappy at the large turnout. Some of the news accounts even claim that the government in the person of Arsen Avakov, attempted to disrupt the events, although I haven’t seen any concrete proof of this allegation. Avakov, in fact, was out of the country on vacation all week, as was Poroshenko. (And all those internet rumors about them fleeing a possible coup, were probably just them avoiding this inconvenient Christian procession.)
Be that as it may, official Ukrainian media played down the procession, grudgingly claiming that only 5,000 pilgrims were out on the streets. But the videos and other accounts tell otherwise.
So, what’s up with this? Why the unhappiness of the authorities?
It’s simple, actually. The clergy involved are officials of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose headquarters are in Moscow. The head of the Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, is a man named Kirill, and his title is “Patriarch of Moscow and of ALL Russia“. In other words, in Western terms, he is like the Pope. He is the big boss.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is headed by a Primate named Metropolitan Onuphrios. Being just a lowly Metropolitan, Onuphrios reports to Kirill. Who lives in Moscow.
Does one see the problem here? Technically speaking, all those 80K people who went out onto the streets of Kiev to celebrate Vladimir’s christening, are all under the (religious) chain of command from their local or regional clergy up through Metropolitan Onuphrios and continuing up the chain which leads to the big spiritual boss in Moscow. Moscow being the blood enemy of the current Ukrainian government.
Now, Ukrainian nationalists have chafed at this arrangement for a very long time. In the past there were many attempts to break away from the Moscow Patriarchate; to form their own center of power independent of Moscow; and the official church continues to label such attempts as heresy, and their proponents as schismatics.
And there is also an element of “sauce for the gander”. For example, when Poland was a Communist state, vast amounts of Polish people demonstratively showed off their Catholic faith partly as a way of irritating the (atheistic) authorities. Could there be a similar phenomenon going on in modern Ukraine? Namely, people demonstratively showing off their allegiance to the Moscovite Church in order to express their contempt for the sitting government, which is formed of Ukrainian nationalists?
I think there might be something like that going on. In addition to genuine expressions of spirituality and faith, of course.