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A clergyman in the Orthodox Church of Ukraine stands with pro-Ukrainian activists during a prayer and demonstration against Russian aggression in front of the White House, on Feb. 6, 2022Samuel Corum/Getty Images
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A Church Divided

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine reach Orthodox churches in the United States

Maggie Phillips
February 18, 2022
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Samuel Corum/Getty Images
A clergyman in the Orthodox Church of Ukraine stands with pro-Ukrainian activists during a prayer and demonstration against Russian aggression in front of the White House, on Feb. 6, 2022Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Although Ukraine and Russia share deep Orthodox Christian roots, fissures have emerged between the two countries’ branches of the Orthodox Church, with implications for Orthodox churches here in the United States. The effects are especially noticeable in Pittsburgh, home to a large Orthodox Christian population. The crisis comes amid an appreciable increase of converts in the U.S., creating complex problems for both clergy and laity.

Current discourse about staving off a Russian invasion of Ukraine is mostly centered around natural gas and money—and whether stanching the flow of either will be sufficient to deter Vladimir Putin’s revanchist ambitions. However, it is the flow of the Dnieper River that directs the student of history to the ancient origins of this conflict. It was in the current of these waters that another Vladimir had his people baptized over a millennium ago, and the effects of that decision have continued to extend through the centuries to the present day.

Recognized as a saint in the Orthodox faith, Vladimir—or Volodymyr, in Ukrainian—was a prince of the Eastern Slavic peoples, who was baptized in 988 CE in what is now Crimea. It was the seminal founding of Orthodoxy in what was then called Kievan Rus, often evoked as the cultural and historical place of origin of the Russian people. “In those days, the people took the same religion as their prince, so Vladimir had his people baptized en masse,” said John Burgess, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who specializes in post-Soviet Orthodox Christianity, and who has been studying the area for almost two decades. “He had most of his warriors and people baptized in the Dnieper River that flows through Kyiv.”

Both Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Christians view this event as their spiritual origin. “You have sort of dueling histories,” Burgess said. “You have Moscow who says we’re the legitimate heirs of 988, we’re the ones who maintain that tradition through the centuries, and now you have the Kievan Orthodox in Ukraine say no, actually we’re the legitimate heirs.”

As is often the case with Ukrainian and Russian relations, the relationship between the two churches is complicated. For one thing, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in question dates back only to 2019, the culmination of decades of a cultural identity crisis in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also one of two Orthodox churches in Ukraine.

Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence in 1991, a split emerged. Some Ukrainian Orthodox leaders wanted to be independent, while others wanted to remain loyal to Moscow. In 2019, the faction favoring independence received permission from the Patriarch of Constantinople to form a Ukrainian Orthodox Church with its head (called a metropolitan) in Kyiv. While the new Ukrainian Orthodox church is autonomous, the imprimatur of the Patriarch of Constantinople confers legitimacy upon it, since the Patriarch’s authority traces its own origins back to the Emperor Constantine, and the establishment of a Christian capital in Byzantium in the fourth century.

Once it broke away, the independent Ukrainian church united existing Ukrainian Orthodox churches in the country to form one unified national Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), under a single metropolitan.

The Patriarchate’s decision to back the creation of the OCU was the catalyst for a formal split, wherein the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow broke Eucharistic communion with Constantinople. As the word “communion” suggests, this is a fracturing wherein adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church may not partake, at OCU churches, in the bread and wine that are believed to be the genuine body and blood of Christ, a practice meant to unify believers with God and with each other. Likewise, neither may members of the new OCU partake at Russian churches.

The current intermingling of nationalism and religion overseas has practical effects for American Orthodox Christians. This is especially true in Pittsburgh, which has multiple Orthodox churches falling under various jurisdictions with ties to different countries of origin.

While the Orthodox presence in the U.S. dates back to the 18th century with Russian missionaries in Alaska, its presence in Pittsburgh begins with immigrants to the city from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, arriving in the 19th and early 20th centuries seeking steel jobs. While they would build ethnic churches as their respective communities took hold in their new country, they built them close to each other out of a sense of spiritual kinship, and they all recognized the authority of the Orthodox Church in Moscow. Ties to ethnic churches and national jurisdictions in their countries of origin became more important after 1917 and the weakening of the Orthodox Church in Russia under the Bolsheviks.

Russian Orthodox Church, Pittsburgh, 1938
Russian Orthodox Church, Pittsburgh, 1938Library of Congress

“The irony is that the consequences [of the schism between Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches] in the United States are much greater than they are in Moscow,” said Father Thomas Soroka, an Orthodox Priest in Pittsburgh, “because we have these parallel jurisdictions.” He describes attending a meeting of Greek, Ukrainian, Antiochian, and Serbian Orthodox clergy in Pittsburgh. “In America, unlike in Russia, unlike in Turkey, unlike in Greece, our friends, our relatives go to the Russian church or the Greek church or the Serbian church or the Antiochian church or the OCA [Orthodox Church in America] church. When there is a schism like this, it causes tremendous practical difficulties for us in America.” Whereas in Russia, he said, while “it’s a very serious matter to break communion with another church, there are no practical consequences ultimately, because there are no Greek churches in Russia.”

“Here in America, there are Greek Orthodox churches just down the road from a Russian Orthodox church, which is just down the road from a Serbian church, which is just down the road from a Ukrainian church,” said Soroka. “So all of a sudden, we priests find ourselves not being able necessarily to commune with one another and serve with one another.”

Soroka identifies two practical effects: scandalizing converts and complicating pastoral relations between clergy.

While Orthodoxy in the U.S. is declining as a whole, as older members pass away and younger immigrant members disaffiliate, various Orthodox jurisdictions are enjoying an influx of members. In a shift Soroka called “almost unprecedented,” he said, “We have churches that have 40, 50, 60 people that are entering the faith.” The uptick is “really quite remarkable,” Soroka said, appreciable because “these aren’t churches of two, three thousand people. These are churches of 150, 200 people that have 60 people in the wings, waiting to come in.”

According to Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University who specializes in the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, many American converts are former evangelicals and others from largely Protestant Christian denominations who are drawn to the history, tradition, and what they view as the authenticity of the faith. “For them,” she said, “it’s a community that could withstand, at least in the diaspora, socialism, and somehow come back in the post-Soviet period. At least that’s what they see in Russia right now, they see a revival of Orthodoxy, from their viewpoint.” Despite being “dormant for a good part of the 20th century in Russia,” said Riccardi-Swartz, “it still had that flame and was able to return somewhat emboldened.” Soroka says the reasons for the rise in converts are complicated, but he points to COVID-19 as one of them. He also says part of Orthodoxy’s appeal to converts comes from the sense of retreat it gives them from a society adrift in ideological confusion, creating a “haven” of moral clarity through its more traditional values. “We’re not here to simply be a temporary holding space,” he said.

Riccardi-Swartz describes the typical convert to Orthodoxy as a white male anywhere between 20 and 60 years of age, often with a B.A. or an M.A., “very well-read, very intelligent, and articulate.” They are often predisposed to learn about subjects like philosophy and theology, and come to the faith by reading about church history, either through either autodidactic or institutional learning. “And,” she said, “through finding each other online.”

It’s the online interaction that poses a problem from Soroka’s point of view, as he sees internet discussions between converts about the current Ukrainian-Russian split becoming yet another form of online tribal politics. “It’s kind of like a family airing their dirty laundry,” he said. “It’s extremely uncomfortable, and it’s extremely disheartening, and it also can be a little bit, I think, confusing for converts. They don’t necessarily understand that this is a family matter, that this is a temporary matter. If church history proves anything, this is not going to be long-lived. It will be resolved.”

Soroka said that while converts may home in on intra-Orthodox divisions and feel compelled to pick a side, this online tribalism can exacerbate division: “It actually becomes worse.” Riccardi-Swartz’s work takes place with more far-right Orthodox converts across various jurisdictions, although still broadly within the Russian Orthodox tradition. “They are really adamant online that Russia is in the right,” she said. “And that the autocephaly granted to Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarch was a massive theological error, and that the potential for Russian invasion of Ukraine right now is spurred on by the secular U.S. government that sees Russia as a threat, because Russia is trying to revitalize traditional social values and Christianity.”

When it comes to the day-to-day impacts of the split between Moscow and the Patriarchate in Constantinople over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Soroka says he thinks that on the pastoral level “priests have been very good about saying look, we’re all Orthodox and you should come to our church.” While he doesn’t think most priests are making a distinction, “I do think that it becomes difficult, because in the United States what we call here in Pittsburgh the Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood, which simply means once a year or twice a year, we all get together and serve services together. Now it’s like, well, this bishop is really not in communion with that bishop, and this priest is not really in communion with that priest, can they serve together, and can they have [communion] together?”

Contra Marx, at least with regard to Ukraine and Russia, religion is far from an opiate. It is a stimulant, with religious politics clearly tied to international politics. Prior to the creation of the OCU, Ukrainian police raided the buildings and homes of priests affiliated with Orthodox churches favoring Moscow, to search for evidence of inciting hatred and violence. And it was former Ukrainian Petro Poroshenko who hosted the 2018 stakeholders’ meetings of Ukrainian Orhtodox religious leaders around the same time, to discuss breaking away from Moscow. Poroshenko called the 2019 inauguration of the OCU a historic moment, when Ukraine “finally received its independence from Russia.”

Current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky struck a more conciliatory tone shortly after the institution of the independent Ukrainian church, urging unity. More recently, given that Constantinople is now Istanbul, it is significant that Zelensky has signaled support for the Constantinople-backed church (and vice-versa), in light of Turkey’s support for Ukraine during its ongoing tensions with Russia. The U.S. State Department, in turn, publicly voiced support for the institution of the OCU in 2018, and backs the Constantinople Patriarchate over the issue of religious freedom in Turkey.

Ultimately, Soroka worries about the effect of this muddying of statecraft and religion on the faithful. “It hurts our witness,” he said. “It becomes a reminder of our failure to really overcome these differences in a Christian manner.”

Editors note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The autocephalous OCU is distinct from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, also called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which remains affiliated with Moscow.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.