As the intense fighting continues between Ukrainian and Russian forces around Bakhmut and Vuhledar, Kyiv continues to take steps to limit elements of Moscow’s influence within Ukraine, including placing restraints on the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). In truth, the ROC has provided support to more radical groups as another means of subverting Ukraine’s domestic situation.
In this regard, the “Faithful Cossacks” organization should be mentioned (see EDM, June 25, 2019). The group was originally created and led by Aleksey Selivanov, who was appointed by the occupiers as the “deputy head” of the so-called “Ministry of Internal Affairs of Zaporizhzhia region.” He was later removed from this position on pedophilia charges (Obozrevatel, August 11, 2022).
A graduate of the Ioninsky monastery in Kyiv, Selivanov spawned countless cells of his aggressive pro-Russian organization. As secretary of the Co-ordinating Council for the Development of Ukrainian Cossacks, he took part in various meetings and visits, including as a participant in the event that Cossack circles characterize as “the visit of the first Cossack metropolitan to Ukraine.” This is in reference to the trip that the Cossack chairman of the Synodal Committee for Interactions with the Cossacks, Metropolitan Kirill of Stavropol and Nevinnomyssk, took to Ukraine in August 2021 (Kazak-center.ru, September 8, 2012).
Furthermore, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate systematically implemented a plan for the development of the joint “Cadet Commonwealth” network of Russian and Ukrainian military recruits. The commonwealth’s publication, the Cadet Journal, characterizes this organization’s purpose: “The role, place and tasks of the Cadet movement—in promoting the creation and development of a unified system of secondary educational institutions of a closed type with separate (but parallel) education, pre-vocational training, professional orientation of training and education, which form the readiness of young people to public service, both military and civilian areas, as well as in the military-patriotic education of youth and in the formation of the organizational and spiritual foundations of the cadet movement in Ukraine” (Cadet.org.ua, March 29, 2016).
Publicly, the Cadet Commonwealth portrays itself to be pro-Ukrainian. However, this is exceedingly difficult to believe when comparing the Cadet Journal’s initial and latest front covers (Cadet.org.ua, accessed March 3). This can be seen in the way the tone and design of the magazine has changed over the years. Until 2014, the Russian language and Russian symbols has appeared on the magazine’s cover. Then, starting with the annexation of Crimea, the publication tried to switch to the Ukrainian language and mimic Ukrainian publications, while its content remained quite pro-Russian.
The indisputable achievement of this club was the formation of its cadet class, in 2004, from the high school in Bila Tserkva. And in 2013, the organization included the Bila Tserkva Military Corps as part of its Honor Officers Club. This includes a company (170 cadets) from Bila Tserkva and an aviation platoon from the high school in the Uzin, Belotserkovsky district (30 cadets) (Cluboficerovchest,org, accessed March 4)
Gatherings of the cadets at the high school in Bila Tserkva were organized by Valery Zabarsky and were held at the training ground of the 72nd Mechanized Brigade stationed in Bila Tserkva. Interestingly, Metropolitan Augustine (Markevich) of Bila Tserkva and Bohuslav often visited the units training there (Orthodox.org.ua, November 25, 2012). In 2011, Zabarsky remarked on this saying, “They are going to come to visit us soon. … We will definitely bring them to the military training ground, where they, together with our cadets, will be able to shoot combat weapons.”
On that matter, the head of the Defense Committee of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, Serhiy Pashynskyi, stated: “In parallel [in February 2014], we raised the 72nd brigade of the city of Bila Tserkva on combat alert (Ru.bcavia.com, April 26, 2017) Thus, it is clear that the patriotic education of youth in Bila Tserkva was carried out on a grand scale, which is indicative of Moscow’s “religious-patriotic” approach to mobilizing youth.
Beyond this, the “re-registration” of religions in Ukraine’s occupied territories underscore Moscow’s growing influence in repressing other churches. Although there are slight differences in how the the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (“DPR/LPR”) implement such measures, the basic mechanism is identical. The “laws on freedom of religion” adopted in 2016, though not widely implemented until 2018, required all religious organizations to “re-register” under the unrecognized “republics” (Risu.ua, February 27, 2018). This parrots the demand imposed by the Kremlin on religious organizations in occupied Crimea, with the requirement posing difficult ethical and legal problems for communities that are part of larger Ukrainian religious organizations.
The law, however, was even used as a weapon against those religious communities who decided, perhaps for the sake of survival, to submit documents for “re-registration.” Many were turned down and effectively outlawed. In 2018, at least two communities—the New Life Church in Makiyivka and the Church of the Holy Spirit in Donetsk, which, at the time, was under what was still officially the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate—suffered attacks.
By October 2018, the Religious Freedom Institute reported that, at least in “LPR,” all Baptist, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist and Evangelical Christian communities had been refused re-registration, meaning a total ban on any group activities for these denominations on territory under the militants’ control (Religiousfreedominstitute.org, October 31, 2018).
Ultimately, religious persecutions appear to be part of Moscow’s well-coordinated policy to expand its influence through Russian Orthodoxy. The believers of the Moscow Patriarchy’s Orthodoxy are largely free from persecution and able to practice their religion freely. Moreover, Russian Orthodoxy is being used as an ideological foundation for “state building” by rebel groups, as anything that is not Russian Orthodox is seen as alien. The essence of this project can be summarized in one paragraph, taken from the end of the preamble to the “constitution” of the “DPR”: namely, the “establishment of a sovereign independent state, based on the restoration of a unified cultural and civilizational space of Russian World, on the basis of its traditional religious, social, cultural and moral values, with the prospect of becoming a part of ‘Greater Russia’ as halo territories of the ‘Russian World’” (Ukrainesolidaritycampaign.org, March 14, 2015). Thus, Russian nationalism is indicated to form the foundation of the new state—and with it, the almost compulsory acceptance of Moscow’s brand of Orthodoxy.