Moscow Church Faces New and Greater Threat in Lithuania, Belarus and Russia Itself

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 61

(Source: Orthodox Times)

The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin behind it, now faces a far more serious threat to Russia’s position in the post-Soviet space and the Christian Orthodox world than even that posed by the achievement of autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. That threat, based on the possible restoration of the medieval map of Orthodox church organization that Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I is promoting, directly challenges Moscow’s pretensions of directing religious life not only in Ukraine but also in Belarus, the last majority Orthodox country outside of Russia. The Kremlin’s position will even be challenged in those portions of Russia that were subordinate in religious terms to Kyiv and Constantinople rather than Moscow until the 17th century. Lithuanian leaders, the Ukrainian diaspora in Lithuania and Belarus, as well as Belarusian religious activists and opposition politicians are enthusiastic about Bartholomew’s ideas, at least in part because they question the religious component of Putin’s much-ballyhooed “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) concept (, September 10, 2019).

Following Bartholomew’s visit to Vilnius last month, Lithuanian officials expressed confidence that Constantinople will soon establish an exarchate there to support those Orthodox members who want to break with Moscow. That would create a situation in which Lithuania, similar to Estonia, would have both a national Orthodox church and a Russian one. Perhaps even more consequential, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė says that this move would cement ties between her country and Ukraine and help restore historical justice in her country. Until the 17th century, Lithuania’s Orthodox community was part of the Metropolitanate of Kyiv; then, the Moscow Patriarchate, “in the best imperial traditions,” took direct control of both (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 4). The ecumenical patriarch’s ideas would reverse that, effectively ending Russian dominance of Orthodox life in Lithuania and calling into question the current affiliations in neighboring Belarus and in parts of what is now the Russian Federation that earlier were part of the combined Lithuanian-Belarusian state.

At least initially, the impact of this shift inside Lithuania itself would be relatively small given that its population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and the Orthodox church there is small. Additionally, only five priests and no bishops from the Moscow church have signaled that they will subordinate themselves to the Lithuanian Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, it will certainly have larger consequences for Vilnius’ relationship with Ukraine and for the more than 70,000 Ukrainian refugees now in Lithuania as a result of Putin’s war against Ukraine who want nothing to do with a Moscow church that backs the Kremlin leader’s invasion. And it may very well have far larger consequences in Belarus and possibly in the western regions of what is now the Russian Federation.

Since the Orthodox Church of Ukraine gained autocephaly, Moscow church spokesmen have regularly expressed three fears about Christian Orthodoxy in Belarus: that the Orthodox church in Belarus may follow the Ukrainian example and gain autocephaly under Minsk’s control; that the faithful in Belarus may leave the church entirely and join the Roman Catholics, thus becoming an outpost of the West; or that it may dissolve with priests and laity deserting the Moscow church and Minsk’s control all at once. The first two fears have now been eclipsed by the third due to what is happening in Lithuania. That could prove a fatal threat to the Russian Orthodox component of Putin’s “Russian world” concept (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 25, 2020; see EDM, August 12, 2021, December 8, 2022)

Moscow commentators are already worrying about these dangers. Russia’s “Christian Vision” Telegram channel says that Constantinople’s involvement in Lithuania is important not only for that country but also for Belarusians and Orthodoxy elsewhere because it will allow the faithful to follow their consciences and their church to develop naturally rather than on orders from abroad (, March 23). And in confirmation of that general hope has come the acceptance of two Belarusian priests, Georgy Roy and Aleksandr Kukhta, who have been forced to flee their country, going to Lithuania and having now been taken under the wing of Bartholomew I (, April 6). While only two Belarusian priests have completed this move so far, they form the nucleus of a Belarusian Orthodox Church that would be independent of Moscow and loyal to Constantinople.

According to a second Moscow commentator, Bartholomew’s ideological moves leave Moscow Patriarch Kirill in a position similar to Mikhail Gorbachev during the parade of sovereignties at the end of Soviet times: “He formally rules but already has little influence” (The Moscow Times, March 23). And the editors of Moscow’s Nezavisimaya gazeta are, if anything, even more alarmist: They argue in a lead article that what Constantinople is doing could end not only with Moscow losing control over all Orthodox churches in the former Soviet republics but also in losing control over the churches in Russia itself (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 22). That could happen, the editors suggest, if the Constantinople church in Lithuania promotes the restoration of Lithuanian Rus, which was subordinate to Constantinople and controlled much of Orthodoxy in what is now Russia up through the 16th century.

In such a scenario, the Moscow Patriarchate could find itself isolated both in its own country and in the wider Orthodox world, with Russia entering a period in which other faiths would grow at the expense of Orthodoxy. Furthermore, the outbreak of a new great schism in Eastern Orthodoxy is becoming more likely, this time between the Greeks and the Russians, with the Greeks, through Bartholomew I, controlling far more of the eastern church than the Russians and making Constantinople, not Moscow, the center of global Orthodoxy. The failure of the Moscow Patriarchate to respond forcefully to what is transpiring and the fact that the Orthodox world today, as well as the geopolitical world, have been upended by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrate that the old rules no longer apply and that new ones have yet to be established. At the very least, pressure for autocephaly in Belarus will increase, forcing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to tack between an autocephaly he controls and one that Moscow does—no easy task as recent history has shown and one that may collapse in disastrous ways (, August 15, 2020; Window on Eurasia, June 11, 2021).