Russian, Ukrainian, or Kyivan?

20 Jule 2013, 17:38 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Andrew SOROKOWSKI

The Russian Orthodox Church Department of External Affairs has announced that the cross of St. Andrew from Patras, Greece will travel to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus this summer on the occasion of the 1025th anniversary of the “Baptism of Russia.” The X-shaped cross will be in Russia (St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the Moscow region) for two weeks. It will be in Minsk, Belarus for four days. In Kyiv, the cradle of Rus’ Christianity, it will remain for only three. From the perspective of the Moscow Patriarchate, these proportions evidently reflect a certain hierarchy of importance.

Those who were around for the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’in 1988 will experience a sense of déjà vu. In the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church had the task of unifying the peoples of Ukraine and Belarus with the Russians into a single Russian-speaking community. In today’s Russia, the task remains the same. Thus, every anniversary of the baptism of Rus’ is an opportunity to interpret this event as the Christianization of the Russian people, who today lead a singleOrthodox community, Russian in language, culture, and mentality, in which the Belarusians and the Ukrainians play a subordinate role. The difference is that in 1988, it was a matter of Soviet internal policy. Today, it is a matter of Russian foreign policy. But the Moscow Patriarchate is well prepared for this task, particularly under the rather cosmopolitan Patriarch Kirill, for it has long played a supporting role in the country’s international relations.

In 1988, there was no independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The Orthodox Metropolitan of Kyiv held the title of exarch – that is, a representative of the Patriarch of Moscow. So it was up to the Ukrainian diaspora to defend the Ukrainian church heritage. This it did by pointing out the obvious fact that Kyiv, where the Baptism of 988 occurred, is in Ukraine. Émigré scholars argued that Russia’s claim to the Kyivan tradition was indirect at best. It would be anachronistic, they pointed out, to telescope today’s Soviet Russia back through imperial Russia and medieval Muscovy to tenth-centuryRus’.

The problem was that it was also anachronistic to telescope today’s Ukraine back through the short-lived Republic, the Hetmanate and the Cossack state to the tenth century, especially considering the various interruptions in the checkered history of the Ukrainian Church and state. If there was no “Russia” and no “Russian Church” in 988, critics argued, there was also no “Ukraine” and no “Ukrainian Church.”

Thus, the polemics ended up as a sort of historical shouting match, with neither side being able to persuade the other of the truth of its cause. Observers must have been amused to see two nations fighting like savages over a thousand-year-old bone of contention. But due to Russia’s far greater influence, world opinion has generally favored its view. And that is where, twenty-five years later, we still find ourselves.

To be sure, thoughtful historians took a more nuanced approach. Russia might well have an indirect claim to the heritage of Rus’, citing the transfer of the Kyivanmetropolitanate to the north at the end of the thirteenth century. But the Kyivan heritage had remained largely in the south, and subsequent church structures in southern Rus’ preserved it right up to the present. Even the Greek-Catholic Church that arose from the 1596 Union of Brest, and certainly the independent Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church of the 1920s, had cultivated the Kyivan tradition. In other words, Ukraine’s claim to the Baptism of Rus’ might not be exclusive, but it was genuine and direct.

How can today’s Ukrainians best present their claim to the heritage of KyivanRus’? Should they simply continue to insist that the 1025th anniversary is Ukrainian, not Russian – and be dismissed as wild-eyed nationalists bent on twisting history to their political agenda?

There might be a more effective approach. When speaking of the Christianization of a modern nation over a thousand years ago, the key element is tradition. That is, the chief argument for a modern claim to the Baptism of Rus’ is that there has been an uninterrupted Christian tradition from that event to the present day. Such traditions are normally associated with cities. Thus, we speak of an Antiochian, Alexandrian, or Byzantine tradition. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine all look to the Byzantine tradition (that of Constantinople) as it was developed in Kyiv. Thus, it is the Kyivan tradition that goes back to the baptism of 988. And it is Kyivan Christianity that celebrates its 1025th birthday this year. This tradition, like Kyiv itself, remains firmly planted in Ukraine.

There is, of course, a Muscovite tradition too – a younger one, beginning in the 12th century or so. It has its anniversaries too: its church autonomy in 1448, its autocephaly in 1589, and the restoration of its patriarchate (abolished in 1721) in 1918. This tradition obviously grew out of the Kyivan tradition, and was heavily influenced by it in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

But it is equally obvious that the principal heir of the Kyivan tradition is none other than Kyiv. It was at the site of Kyiv, after all, that (according to legend) Saint Andrew predicted the rise of a great Christian city. And so it is in Kyiv, above all, that his cross should be venerated this year.

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