«Unfathomable His ways!» — brief history of Ukrainian Church (with infographics)

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) is very close to its recognition as an autocephalous church. This is to be done by special «Tomos» (or «decree» in secular terms) issued by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, whose residence is in Istanbul. What exact text will be in Tomos is still unknown. But many observers tend to think that Constantinople will restore the «Metropolia» (Metropolitan Archdiocese) in Kyiv that had disappeared centuries ago after Hetmanshchina (the State of Cossack Hetmanate) had been annexed by Russian state. Here is a very brief history of Ukrainian Church.

Text by: Petro Bodnar, graphics by Nadya Kelm.


The official beginning of the Orthodox Church history in Ukraine is due to 988 — the year in which Kyiv Rus was baptized by Volodymyr the Great, prince of Kyiv. There were Christians in Kyiv Rus state before, but there is almost no information about them. The Christianity had two leaders at that time: the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople. Kyiv Rus was baptized by the priests from Constantinople so the newly established Church in Kyiv had become the part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

To enlarge the infographics — click on it

The metropolitan bishop (or metropolitan) in Kyiv was the local church leader. In the times of Kyiv Rus metropolitans used to be appointed by Constantinople. Later the practice had changed: metropolitan was elected by bishops and approved by Patriarch. In 1054 two Christian churches — in Constantinople and in Rome — did break up completely and Christians from Kyiv Rus had become Orthodox Christians all of a sudden.

As it turned out later the relationship was easier to break up than to restore. For the next 500 years Catholic and Orthodox churches were making the attempts to reunite. This was due to the attenuation of the Byzantine Empire (and the Ecumenical Patriarch accordingly) and its need for support and protection from the growing threat in the wars with Muslims.

Schismatics from Moscow

The leaders of two Christian branches did make another attempt to reunite and reached the agreement on the Union (meaning association or reunification) in Florence in 1439. The Florentine Union was recognized by bishops from Lithuanian-Ruthenian (Rus) state but not by the church leaders from Moscow. By that time the head of the church of the whole former Kyiv Rus territory was the metropolitan of Kyiv and all Rus. Despite the word «Kyiv» in their title the metropolitans used to live in Russia or in Lithuania.

On modern debates about granting the autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) Elpidofor, member of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Synode, says: «The church in Constantinople is the mother of the Ukrainian church, and the Ukrainian church in Kyiv is the mother of the Moscow church».

As the Florentine Union was rejected by Moscow, local priests had convened a council at which they had elected their own Moscow metropolitan. This newly elected metropolitan was not approved by the Ecumenical Patriarch but by the prince of Moscow — thus the new separate Orthodox Church had appeared. In those days that could have being considered as a schism.

Perhaps the Ecumenical Patriarch would have been able to curb his former subordinates, for example to impose an anathema on them, but in 1453 Constantinople was conquered by Turks. Very few people did see the future for the Ecumenical Patriarch and did take into the consideration his opinion. The idea of Christian reunification had failed with the fall of Constantinople.


But still Ukrainian church was very supportive of the idea to unite two Christianity branches. One of the reasons was that Orthodox bishops were aspiring to the same privileges from the state as those held by their Catholic colleagues.

In 1596 the Metropolitan of Kyiv and the six bishops, referring to the Florentine Union, had signed an agreement on association with Rome. Thus the modern Ukranian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) had appeared.

It could be considered weird nowadays but at the last moment in 1596 few bishops from the current bastion of Greek Catholics had refused to sign the Union: those were Balaban, the bishop of Lviv, and Kopystenskyy, the bishop of Przemysl. They were supported by Orthodox brotherhoods, Cossacks and by Ostrogski prince.

The defenders of the Orthodoxy, as they would have been called today, did try to preserve the national identity of Ukrainians and to resist the polonization. But only a few centuries later these were the «Uniates» from UGCC who would become the main guards of "the Ukrainianity" in the Western Ukraine. Even Stepan Bandera was born in the family of Greek Catholic priest.

Yet in 1596, after the Union, the Orthodox had found themselves in a deep crisis. They had been left without the metropolitan and without bishops. There was nobody anymore eligible to ordain new priests and without this the lifetime of a church could have shrunk to the lifetime of a priest.

The problem had been resolved by The Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophanes III who was traveling through Kyiv lands on his way to Moscow in 1620. He had ordained new bishops and the Metropolitan of Kyiv, Galychyna and all Rus Job (Iov) Boretsky.

The abolition of Kyiv Metropolitan Archdiocese

In1686 Kyiv and the whole Left-bank Ukraine became parts of the Russian state (then — the Tsardom of Moscow). Young tsar Petr I had persuaded Constantinople to pass Kyiv Metropolitan Archdiocese under the rule of the Moscow Patriarchate.

There is a legend about bribing Ecumenical Patriarch with gold and furs according to which 200 coins and 120 sables were presented to Dionysius IV of Constantinople by Russian ambassadors. Even if the story is true it is very doubtful that there was a real bribe — mutual presents were a norm during diplomatic visits at that time. And also the decision about the removal of Kyiv Metropolitan Archdiocese had not been made on Patriarch’s own — he was not an independent political figure at that time and lived under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. True decision had been made at the Sultan’s Court.

Thus a long period of Ukrainian Orthodox Church ruled by Moscow had begun.

In reality, the Moscow Patriarchs had not got a chance to give directions to their subordinates. Newly established Russian Empire had canceled Patriarch’s rank and had created a special governing body — Synod, or the Holy Synod, to rule the church. Peter I had appointed a former Dragoon regiment's commander as his special representative (chief procurator) to the Synod. In XIX century the Synod's chief procurators had become true heads and commanders of the Russian Church.

And once again the history had developed in an unexpected way. In XVIII century the Orthodox Church of Russian Empire was under the control of native Ukrainians. Having been educated at The Kyiv-Mohyla Academy they knew classic languages and did not have any connections among Moscow’s nobles.

The Kyiv-Mohyla Academy alumnus Symeon Polotsky had established the first educational institution in Russia — Moscow Theological Academy. Ukrainian born priests were the heads of Russian dioceses and the presidents of the Synod. They did colonize and baptize the indigenous peoples of Siberia. Ukrainians had ruled the church in Russia up to the beginning of XIX century.

This was the situation when, on the one hand, Ukrainians were among the higher hierarchs serving the Empire, and, on the other hand, Kyiv Metropolitan Archdiocese had ceased to exist and had dissolved in the Russian Church. In this state, the Ukrainian Orthodox church did remain until the revolution of 1918—1921.


When the Russian Empire went to pieces the Orthodox Church in Ukraine had faced a dilemma. Many ordinary priests and parishioners did want to see Ukrainian church independent, but traditionally there were no bishops to support them.

That’s why in 1920 priests and Ukrainian parish representatives gathered at Sobor (church council) in Kyiv and announced the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). Vasyl Lypkivsky was elected as the Metropolitan — with a title «the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine».

The time was not easy for UAOC — on the one hand, other Orthodox did not recognize new church and on the other, new soviet regime was very hostile toward it. By the end of 1930’s Lypkivsky and most of UAOC bishops had been repressed by soviets. Only Ivan Teodorovych, the bishop of Kamyanets survived — he managed to escape abroad and to become the head of the Ukranian Orthodox Church in USA.

Polish Orthodox Church

Meanwhile Ukrainian historical region Volyn and the West Belarus, where a lot of Orthodox Christians used to live, had become parts of newly emerged Poland. Among them there were enough former Russian Orthodox Church bishops supporting the idea of a new church for these regions — thus the Polish Orthodox Church (POC) was created.

The time was not easy for this branch of Orthodoxy as well because the Russian Orthodox Church did not want to lose its influence in former empire's territories. Heorhii Yaroshevsky, who was supposed to become a metropolitan, was shot by archimandrite Smaragd, ideologically opposed to the Polish Orthodox Church creation.

At a meeting with Yaroshevsky Smaragd pulled out a gun and began shooting with a cry «This is for you, executioner of Orthodoxy!» Smaragd expressed the opinion of the Moscow Patriarchate that was strongly opposed to splitting former Russian Orthodox and did not recognize the autocephaly of POC.

After the assassination of Yaroshevsky the Polish Orthodox Church was headed by Metropolitan Dionisii Valedynsky and got the recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople through Tomos.

Under German occupation

In 1942—1944 in Ukrainian territories occupied by Germany the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was restored. It was headed by Bishop Polikarp Sikorsky, who was appointed by Metropolitan Dionisii from the Polish Orthodox Church. This church had not gained a wide support of bishops and parishioners from occupied territory. But the small historical impact had been made — at Sobor (church council) in Kyiv UAOC had ordained Mstyslav Skrypnyk, nephew of Symon Petliura, as a bishop.

Soviet monopoly of Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)

After the World War 2 the Russian Orthodox Church was the only church allowed to function officially on the whole territory of Soviet Union. ROC took over all Orthodox and Greek-Catholic parishes and communities. Those who disagreed had to emigrate, and those who stayed have been repressed by soviets.

Most of Ukrainian Orthodox emigrants settled in USA and Canada. Mstyslav Skrypnyk also departed overseas, where he managed to agree with Metropolitan Teodorovych upon the Ukranian Orthodox Churches unity. After Teodorovych died Skrypnyk headed the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church of the USA. This Church is considered canonical.


Meanwhile Greek-Catholics continued to exist as a church underground in Ukrainian Galicia and legally abroad. They will have survived the soviet occupation and have recovered quickly at the beginning of 1990’s.

With the beginning of soviet "«Perestroka» period UAOC, headed by Mstyslav, began the attempts to return to Ukraine. Mstyslav, who was already 90 years old, visited Ukraine and began to create UAOC communities in Ukraine. But due to his health conditions he had to stay to live in the US.

To find first new priests UAOC was looking for political activists, especially The People’s Movement of Ukraine (In Ukrainian — RUKH) members. Then they were trained and ordained. And newly ordained priests did build the whole church network further on. As the national renaissance was on the rise there were enough activists and supporters willing to join the church restoration. Also newly established church communities were receiving some financial aid from diaspora and political support from RUKH. All these allowed to construct new churches and to create new parishes.

Ukrainian clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church was strongly opposed to the idea of Ukrainian church. But after Independence of Ukraine was declared, part of ROC bishops had understood the necessity of changes within the church. And the talks about the unification with UAOC began.

At that time RUKH members and UAOC believers saw Filaret, then the Metropolitan of Kyiv, as a Russian church representative typifying Russian chauvinism and corresponding policy. And once again church affairs had taken an unexpected turn.

Filaret has turned out to be a wise politician and one of the strongest statesmen. During the Independence years he has built an influential and widespread church — The Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP).

In 1991 he had realized that the time demanded changes and began the campaign among his colleagues in Moscow for granting an autocephaly for Kyiv Metropolitan Archdiocese. Filaret did have an influence inside the Russian Orthodox Church — there was even time when he was seriously pretending to a highest rank of ROC Patriarch.

But after he took Ukrainian autocephaly side he had lost all his power at ROC. Significant part of ROC clergy was still holding strong imperial positions. Furthermore — they did try to force Filaret to resign his title.

Some part of Filaret’s subordinates from ROC convoked Sobor (church council) in Kharkiv and dismissed him from the position of the Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine. Volodymyr Sabodan became new Metropolitan and Ukrainian part of ROC was left in subjection to the Moscow Patriarchate (common name is «Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate» or UOC-MP). For a long time Sabodan was seen as a supporter and defender of the «Russian world» in Ukraine.

Later, just a few years before his decease, it turned out that in fact he did pursue pro-Ukrainian policy and supported the pro-Ukrainian wing of UOC-MP. After his death in 2014 this wing was eradicated by the «Russian World» followers.

But let’s go back into 1992. The supporters of Ukrainian independent church from ROC and clergymen from UAOC gathered at another Sobor (church council) in Kyiv and had created The Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Kyiv Patriarchate. They elected Mstyslav (Skrypnyk), who was in the US at that time, as the Patriarch, and Filaret as his deputy. Suddenly Mstyslav disagreed with such unification. And by and large he did not trust Filaret. Before his death in 1993 he had ordained new bishops for UAOC in Ukraine and bequeathed to struggle for a united independent Ukrainian church.

And in this state all Ukrainian churches remain today.

Hierarchy in Christianity


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