FEMEN, a scandal-ridden Ukrainian “feminist” organization, which stood behind the action and which is known all over Europe for its protests featuring nude activists, only now released the name of the protesting woman – Yana Zhdanova.
The Western media hastily linked the protest to the trial of the Pussy Riot, a like-minded group of Russian protesters, now facing charges of hooliganism in Moscow. But the local analysts say the PR actions against the Orthodox Church and against government officials could have a much stronger “domestic” stimulant. Ukraine is going to hold parliamentary elections on October 28. Meanwhile, the current Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, is often accused by the nationalist opposition of “selling out” Ukrainian independence to Russia; Patriarch Kirill also irritates the Ukrainian nationalists by promoting ties between Russia and Ukraine. So, it is no wonder that Zhdanova (who will no doubt be presented as an “peaceful protester” by the world’s mainstream media) had the inscription “Kill Kirill” on her body.
“In the run-up to elections, the pro-Western opposition is aggressively attacking all the major institutions that still link Russia and Ukraine – the Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, the anti-nationalist state officials, everyone who does not agree with the “orange” policy of the former president Viktor Yushchenko,” said Kirill Frolov, the head of the Ukrainian Studies department at Moscow-based Institute of CIS Countries.
Why is Patriarch Kirill such an irritant for the Ukrainian nationalists? Since the beginning of his tenure in 2009 Kirill has been positioning himself as the patriarch of not just Russia, but also of the whole “Russian world.” Unlike the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, the pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church never collapsed and never never officially left its flock all over the old Russian Empire to its own devices. In fact, after 1991 the church remained the only official structure that tied together the Russian nation, divided by the new post-Soviet borders. Kirill put even more emphasis on this mission of the church than did his predecessor, late Patriarch Alexey II. This made Kirill a sort of “anathema” to Ukrainian nationalists, who want to severe all of their country’s links to Russia. The nationalists, however, were ill-served by the church’s recent history.
“In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church proved to be much more cunning in its efforts to keep the old country together than the Soviet leadership,” notes Andrei Zolotov, a commentator on religious issues at RIA Novosti news agency. “The Ukrainian branch of the church, called Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, got a lot of autonomy even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It had its own financial structure, and this saved the church from a lot of conflicts that ultimately ruined the state.”
Besides the aforementioned “majority” Orthodox Church, Ukrainian believers have two other Orthodox churches – the Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate (not recognized by Kirill) and the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Add to them the Greek-Catholic church, founded back in the middle ages as a reflection of the Pope’s effort to integrate Ukraine into the Roman Catholic world, a somewhat smaller local branch of Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations. Then the setting for a religious conflict would be complete.
But is conflict indeed inevitable?
“The Russian Orthodox Church, contrary to somewhat simplified reports in the Western press, has a very diverse set of believers, who actually cover the whole spectrum of political convictions in Russia – from left to right,” said Alexander Shchipkov, a Moscow-based historian of religion covering faith-related issues for the online resource Religare. “This church revealed itself to be rather moderate and accommodating in its foreign ties. Good personal chemistry between the Patriarch and the Pope is just one more indication of this state of affairs.”
Yes, some clashes did happen in Ukraine (the ones between the supporters of Moscow Patriarchate and Kyiv Patriarchate were sometimes even violent, but luckily never crossed the line of hand-to-hand skirmishes). But the general picture remained stable – most of Ukrainians remained Orthodox. After all, it was in Kyiv that ancient Rus (the proto-state of the modern Russia and Ukraine) was baptized according to the Orthodox Christian ritual in 988. In fact, the Patriarch’s visit was dedicated to a holiday celebrating this occasion and feted every year on July 28. Unfortunately, the pre-electoral campaign for October parliamentary elections kicks off on July 30 – two days later.
As the parliamentary elections near, pressure on the Ukrainian president grows, and the Russian Patriarch could feel the heat of the battle from a protest by several who staged a protest on his way in Kyiv.
“Kirill, you bring Ukrainian people schism and division!” one of the nationalists’ slogans said. Obviously, the Patriarch has a different idea of his mission – he wants to remove the barriers between Russians and Ukrainians, not to construct new walls among Ukrainians themselves. Probably, the true “ferments of division” should be sought among the Ukrainian nationalists who want to separate Russia and Ukraine. Or among Western politicians who put Ukraine before a choice between Russia and the EU which it hates to make.
On the eve of Kirill’s visit President Yanukovich presented to the Ukrainian parliament (Rada) a bill on the creation of a free trade zone between Ukraine and Russia – a document that will certainly set off debates in Rada. There is an interesting distinction between the position of Russia and the EU on the issue of free trade. Russia says integration into the Customs Union and the perspective of Kyiv’s membership in the Eurasian Union does not exclude Ukraine’s membership in the EU. And the EU demands from Ukraine total submission, saying that EU membership presupposes the country’s leaving all the post-Soviet integration structures. So, whose love for Ukraine is more jealous?