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Clerics, Cossacks, and Kleptocrats: Journalist Exposes Moscow’s Fifth Column in Ukraine

11.01.2020, 16:53
It is generally accepted that the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is closely tied to the Russian government and, in exchange for its support, fulfills a range of tasks for its benefit.

Tetyana Derkatch, Russian Church in Hybrid War against Ukraine (Kyiv: Cerkvarium, 2019). 232 pp.

It is generally accepted that the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is closely tied to the Russian government and, in exchange for its support, fulfills a range of tasks for its benefit. What is less widely known is that many of this Church’s hierarchs, clergy, and faithful in Ukraine work in the interests of Russia and thus threaten the integrity of the Ukrainian state. That, at any rate, is the thesis of Tetyana Derkach’s new book.

The somewhat awkward title spells out the author’s chief contention: that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), whether as the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” (UOC) or under a more appropriate name, has been aiding Russia’s multi-vector war against Ukraine. Derkatch exposes a broad web of connections among the Kremlin, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Moscow Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” and various civic, military, political, business, and governmental organizations, as well as the Russian puppet regimes known as the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) and “Donetsk People’s Republic” on the occupied territory of Ukraine’s Donbas.

Organized by eparchy (diocese), the book supplies ample internet references and QR bar codes which permit the reader equipped with a smart phone and QR reader app to access the cited sources. It contains plentiful data in summary form, such as lists of Russian organizations active in Kyiv (pp. 12-13) and of UOC hierarchs in Ukraine closely linked to the ROC (p. 81). Charts illustrate, for example, the Bila Tserkva military school cadet network (p. 28), and the connections of Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeev (p. 149). According to the Sofia Globe, Malofeev is wanted by Ukraine for financing illegal military groups in eastern Ukraine, was placed on an EU sanctions list in 2014, and according the US Treasury Department was one of the main sources of funds for Russians promoting separatism in the Crimea and the Donbas. Malofeev has also been banned from Bulgaria for ten years (Sofia Globe, 11 September 2019). His connections stretch from the occupied Donbas to the United States, including such respected American organizations as the Heritage Foundation, Freedom House, and the World Council of Families. A particularly interesting document, dated July 11, 2013, lists Russian Federation honors awarded by President Putin’s office to ROC churchmen in Ukraine and Belarus (p. 73).

Non-specialists will benefit from Derkatch’s explanations of the Romanov cult (p. 52), the ideology of the Pochaiv monastic community (pp. 74-78), and the term titushky (p. 97). But they would also have benefited from definitions of key terms like “Cossack,” “Black Hundreds,” or “vatnik.” The term “Cossacks” is especially important. While Ukraine looks to the tradition of the Zaporozhian Cossacks as a symbol of freedom, democracy and independence, Russia has been propagating a very different concept of Cossackdom, reaching back to its own military formations that served the imperial state. These “Cossacks,” with their strong Russian Orthodox ties, are adamantly opposed to the very existence of Ukraine.  

Separate chapters are devoted to Transcarpathia, where Russia has been attempting to exploit the Ruthenian (Rusyn) movement for its own geopolitical aims, and to occupied Crimea and Donbas.  To be sure, bishops and pastors in occupied lands face a difficult situation. One need only recall the dilemmas faced by churchmen in Nazi-occupied countries during World War II. The author does not pay much attention to a priest’s duty to provide spiritual care for anyone who seeks it, regardless of his political orientation. True, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish normal pastoral care from moral support for militants.

The psychology of the pro-Russian activists merits attention. Their religious and national allegiance combine naturally enough. As can be seen in the experience of other cultures, including our own, the combination of religious and military habits and commitments is also common enough. But the gamut of their activities goes beyond the religious, political, and military, and raises questions about the mindset of this sociotype. What are we to make, for example, of the late DNR militant Mykola Leonov, killed in the battle for Donetsk airport in 2014, described as a “kick-boxer, Orthodox rapper, graduate of the Poltava seminary, and reader of the UOC-MP” (p. 116)? Then there is the Orthodox priest Fr. Oleg Trofimov, rector of St. Nicholas church in Pryvillia near Lysychansk, who joined the anti-Maidan in Severo-Donetsk in 2014 and supported Novorossiya (the “New Russia” concept). Eventually moving to Russia, he cheerfully describes himself as “the priest for vatniks, Colorados, Titushky, lowlifes, Sovoks, fried Berkuts, katsaps, ‘drunkard’ coal miners, moskals, separatists…” (pp. 189-91).

The book has several flaws. There is no index, which would have been useful for looking up individual names. Perhaps unavoidably, the photographs are blurry – though the shots of the activists seem to provide insight into their personalities. Moreover, while the translation is certainly adequate, with appropriate use of English colloquialisms, the unnamed translator faces the unenviable task of rendering the peculiarities of the typically breezy Ukrainian journalistic style, with its self-conscious cleverness, strained irony, and cute metaphors, into acceptable English. The names of churches should be translated, not transliterated: the non-Ukrainian reader is likely to find it easier to say (and understand) “Transfiguration of the Savior” than “Spaso-Preobrazhensky.” The text illustrates the principle that it is unwise for an author to act as her own editor. While the design is adequate, it hardly comes up to what have become the high aesthetic standards of Ukrainian book publishing. The layout has one flaw: the width of the inside margins does not allow for the effect of binding, resulting in a narrow gutter that makes reading awkward.

But these are merely technical faults. What makes this book important and well worth reading is its thorough documentation of the role of the Moscow Patriarchate in Russia’s multi-vectored war against Ukraine. This is not a scholarly study that tries to present various points of view in a balanced discussion. It is, rather, an indictment – but one painstakingly researched and meticulously documented.

Would it persuade a non-Ukrainian Christian reader, especially one who sympathizes with conservative political values? Would it persuade an impartial observer? Its polemical tone might forestall such a result. But pro-Russian Evangelical Christians might have second thoughts after reading about the successive ROC takeovers of the Evangelical Christian-Baptist church in Antratsyt with the help of militants in 2014 and 2015 (p. 203), not to mention the murders of Pentecostals during the military action in Sloviansk (p. 211).

It is often stated that Russian leaders such as Vladimir Putin, as well as lesser political actors, use religion to further purely political interests, and lack genuine spiritual motives. The data on individual pro-Russian lay activists in this book suggest that this is a simplistic and often inaccurate view. In fact, there exists a widespread mindset in which genuine piety is fused with Russian nationalism. This should not surprise us; after all, many Ukrainians follow slogans like “For God and Fatherland” and “for the unity of Church and people.” The powerful combination of piety and patriotism has inspired men and women around the world for centuries.  The problem in this case is that Russian activists working for God and country, but operating in Ukraine, conceive of their country as including Ukraine – not as a separate nation, but as a historical region of Russia. They thus seek to undermine what they regard as a fictional state. Consequently, they pose a national security risk for Ukraine.

What will happen to them if the Donbas is returned to Ukraine? One is reminded of the Russian occupation of western Ukraine in 1914-15, in which Russophile clergy and laity collaborated with the invaders. After the return of Austro-Hungarian troops, many fled to Russia or faced prosecution for treason, internment camps, and in some cases the gallows. Today, however, one can expect more lenient treatment.  

The conduct on the part of both churchmen and laity described in this book hardly reflects the best traditions of Orthodox Christianity, which speak truth to power rather than speaking untruth in pursuit of power.  What, then, is to be done? One would think that Russia, a country where only a few percent of the population follow even the most basic obligatory practices of the Orthodox Christian, could benefit from the services of these zealous, energetic and patriotic bishops, pastors, and laymen. Ukraine would surely facilitate their departure for their beloved motherland. Alas, they imagine that they are already there – or perhaps that it is still 1917, and Ukraine is part of Russia. When the parties do not share a common view of reality, how is dialogue possible? 

As a compilation of hard facts and sources, Russian Church in Hybrid War against Ukraine is an essential handbook for anyone dealing with contemporary Ukraine, the Orthodox Churches, and Russian nationalism. For the non-specialist, it is offers striking documentation of the unholy alliance between the Moscow Patriarchate and Russia’s subversion of a neighboring Christian nation.

By Andrew Sorokowski

www.ukrainianweekly.com, #1, 2020