Baltics and Ukraine Move to Reduce Russian Orthodoxy to Smaller National Church

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 22

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Executive Summary:

  • The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is gradually losing its position at home–and more rapidly in some post-Soviet states–due to its slavish support of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
  • While Kyiv is about to ban its branch, Tallinn is demolishing a compromise in which two Orthodox churches coexisted, and Vilnius is welcoming a branch of the anti-Moscow Ecumenical Patriarch.
  • These developments further question the meaning and utility of Putin’s “Russian world” and its “traditional values.” They may presage Moscow lashing out to try to limit the damage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expanded war in Ukraine and his increasing repression at home are claiming another victim: the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP). This is occurring both within the Russian Federation and in the former Soviet space, where the Moscow church formerly ruled in an unchallenged way. The process within Russia is one where urbanization and the Patriarchate’s unqualified support for Putin are reducing the already much-diminished number of Russians active in the church. It is also sparking divisions some see as the basis for the disintegration of the ROC MP within the Russian Federation (see EDM, December 8, 2022; Re: Russia, January 9; Window on Eurasia, January 10, January 14, January 28). The latter, however, is happening now, undermining both Patriarch Kirill’s aspiration to make his church into “an Orthodox Vatican” that could dominate Eastern Christianity as well as call into question Putin’s proclaimed goal of solidifying a Russian world based on both language and culture (see EDM; July 9, 2019).

The Orthodox church as a whole still plays a significant role in the politics of the post-Soviet space. Almost every former Soviet republic, regardless of whether its Orthodox believers constitute a large portion of the population or a microscopically small one, has church activists and their allies in the political regimes seeking independence (autocephaly) for all or part of their churches. Some have succeeded, others are still struggling toward that end, and some have adopted compromises in which there are two or even more Orthodox hierarchies on their territories, some loyal to Moscow and others independent. The overall trend is clear: Moscow is rapidly losing its position to the national hierarchies and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, which supports them (For surveys of this landscape, see EDM, October 17, 2019, August 12, 2021, and January 25, 2023).

In the last week alone, there have been significant developments in Ukraine, Estonia, and Lithuania. These developments are already echoing not only in other former Soviet republics, which view these three as models for possible emulation, but also within the Russian Federation where an increasing number of Orthodox think that breaking with the Moscow Patriarchate is their Christian duty and the only way that Russia’s Orthodox tradition can be saved (Window on Eurasia, January 8, January 10, January 28). Perhaps, to no one’s surprise, the most dramatic of these moves occurred in Ukraine. Still, developments in Estonia and Lithuania, although less radical and affecting fewer believers, will almost certainly have a more significant impact across the former Soviet space.

At the beginning of February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for the Verkhovna Rada to adopt a law banning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) (as the hierarchy and laity that did not join the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) when it achieved autocephaly in 2019). Ukrainian parliamentarians say such a measure is already being prepared in committee and will be sent to the whole body in the near future. If the measure passes—and there are good reasons to think it will—Zelensky will be able to ban the UOC. This action could lead more of its followers to shift to the autocephalies OCU, but one that will undoubtedly spark outrage in Moscow and also among some conservative churchmen and human rights activists (see Hromadske, February 6;, February 8).

Ukraine already has a law that bans churches administered abroad. The UOC sought to escape that ban by declaring itself independent of Moscow. Still, despite its claims, there is mounting evidence that the UOC is closely tied to the ROC MP, which violates existing law. The new measure, however, would leave no doubt that Kyiv could issue a ban (Window on Eurasia, December 4, 2022, March 12, 2023). At least some of the UOC churches would shift to the OCU, but not all, likely depriving the ROC MP of its current status as the largest Orthodox church in the world (, June 17, 2022).

In the Baltic countries, the situation is more fraught and likely more fateful for others. Almost two years ago, the Latvian government ordered the Orthodox church to separate itself from Moscow (see EDM, September 13, 2022). Tallinn and Vilnius are moving to reduce or even eliminate Moscow’s influence on Orthodox church affairs in their respective countries, albeit in different ways and paces.

Many in the West and even in Russia have long viewed Estonia as a model for other post-Soviet states. Since the 1990s, there has been both an independent ROC subordinate to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople and a second ROC subordinate to Moscow, the kind of peaceful coexistence among churches that appeared to be the best way out of the current problems (Window on Eurasia, October 21, 2018). The Moscow Patriarchate’s support for Putin’s war in Ukraine and rising anger in Estonia about Russian aggression, however, have made that unsustainable. Tallinn now has rescinded the residence permit of the head of the Moscow church in Estonia, Metropolitan Yevgeny, something that he is required to have as a citizen of the Russian Federation (, January 18; Window on Eurasia, January 21; TASS, February 1). The Russian metropolitan has denounced the move as a violation of his rights, notes that he has criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and appointed two men to act in his stead in the hopes of keeping the Moscow church there functioning. The collapse of the compromise in Estonia means the church is unlikely to be sustainable anywhere else in the post-Soviet space (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 6; RITM Eurasia, February 9).

Meanwhile, on the very same day that Metropolitan Yevgeny was compelled to leave Estonia, Vilnius officially recognized the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s exarchate in Lithuania as a legal person and, thus, an institution able to supervise about a dozen dissident Orthodox congregations and, more importantly, to receive state funding. On the surface, this looks like a move toward the Estonian situation prior to the metropolitan’s expulsion. In the current environment, however, it almost certainly is a significant defeat for Moscow and the basis for more challenges to ROC MP churches there and in other post-Soviet states (Charter ’97, February 7;, February 8; Planeta Press, February 9). Moscow has been put on the defensive in church affairs, and it is a near certainty that the Kremlin will strike back to limit its losses. How and where, however, remains uncertain.