Moscow Church Losing Ground Throughout Post-Soviet Space, Including in Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 48


Executive Summary:

  • No Russian institution has lost more ground since President Vladimir Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine than the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP)—a development that undermines Putin’s “Russian world” vision.
  •  These self-inflicted losses are disrupting the Moscow church’s position in Ukraine and the Baltic countries, as well as other parts of the post-Soviet space, including Russia itself.
  • This trend is reducing Patriarch Kirill’s power and reach, raising the question of whether the ROC MP will remain united within Russia and capable of preventing its own institutional demise.

The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) is the largest Eastern Orthodox church and still views most of the post-Soviet space as its canonical territory while seeking to expand elsewhere. The church’s influence, nevertheless, has declined outside the borders of the Russian Federation since the disintegration of the Soviet Union (see EDM, June 2, December 8, 2022; Re: Russia, January 9). The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s grant of autocephaly to Ukraine in 2018 and Kyiv’s expulsion of the Moscow church’s priests from the country are perhaps the most visible aspects of this trend (see EDM, January 25, March 7, 2023). They are far from the only ones, however. More believers throughout the post-Soviet space, including Russia itself, are increasingly rejecting the ROC MP’s authority, seeking to go their own way. This process accelerated after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his expanded war in Ukraine in February 2022 and rose to an unprecedented level this month (see EDM, February 13).

Patriarch Kirill, head of the ROC MP, is fully aware that his church’s actions in one place will echo in others. The Russian Orthodox leader hopes that he can save his own position and his church by tackling one problem at a time. Until recently, the ROC MP had traditionally avoided dealing with multiple challenges simultaneously. Now, as Russia’s war against Ukraine enters its third year, events are moving so quickly that the Moscow church and its leader no longer have that luxury. At a synod earlier this month, the ROC MP, all at once, took up issues involving the status of the Russian Orthodox church in three former Soviet republics—Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan. The council was convened as questions about the status of Orthodoxy in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia in Georgia came to a boil (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 19 [1], [2]). The Moscow church’s moves in these three countries reflect its waning influence. The problems it faces in Abkhazia, however, could prove the most fateful.

In the case of Ukraine, the ROC MP denounced Kyiv’s support for the autocephalous church and its moves against the Moscow church’s branch there. It welcomed ongoing efforts to subordinate the Orthodox parishes on the occupied territories to itself (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 5).

In Moldova, the ROC MP named a pro-Moscow figure to head the bishopric in Gagauzia. The Moscow church also denounced the Romanian Orthodox Church for setting up a bishopric in Ukraine and for accepting men as priests in Moldova who the ROC MP had earlier stripped of that status. These actions have angered Chisinau and Kyiv, reducing the chances for compromise on further moves to separate Orthodoxy in Moldova from Russia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 31, 2023).

In Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country, Orthodox Christians are a politically influential minority. Here, the Moscow synod failed to promote a Russian churchman to the status of ruling bishop, though he had earlier been named acting head of that church. Neither did the council appoint the man many Azerbaijani Orthodox believers preferred because of his closeness to their community. Instead, in what NG-Religii described as “a Solomon-like decision,” Moscow sent the priest who was supposed to become head of the Baku church to Tomsk and the priest favored by Azerbaijanis to serve on the staff of the Patriarchal Exarchate in Western Europe (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 19). Consequently, the synod left the Baku seat vacant, satisfying no one and ensuring the issue would continue festering. (For background on this dispute and its echoes elsewhere in the South Caucasus, see Window on Eurasia, March 10.)

All these moves are infuriating Orthodox believers across the region, including within the Russian Federation. The Moscow church’s support for Putin’s war has further enflamed these sentiments. The situation in Abkhazia is especially explosive because it raises questions about how canonical territories are defined and how the borders of such territories can be changed. The ROC MP, with good reason, fears such notions could be directed against itself in the future. Abkhazia has been at the center of similar discussions for 30 years, and the Kremlin’s recent acquisition of property in Pitsunda has only intensified the Moscow church’s fears (The Moscow Times, December 27, 2023).

The Ecumenical Patriarch’s recognition of the Ukrainian church as autocephalous set off talk that Constantinople might even strip the ROC MP of autocephaly, which would call into question the church’s very existence (, November 2, 2018). The Ecumenical Patriarch has been increasingly critical of the ROC MP and its position on the war in Ukraine. Yet, so far, it has not denounced the Moscow church for heresy, an action that would precede stripping the ROC MP of autocephaly (Public Orthodoxy, March 13, 2022;, December 11. 2022).

Even so, rumblings of that outcome are beginning to spread within Russia. Sergey Chapnin, former deputy editor of the Moscow church’s publishing house, has been closely following such talk. Chapnin broke with the ROC MP and is now a senior fellow at Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center. He describes the current developments within the ROC MP as something that “most clearly resembles” an act of suicide (The Insider, December 23, 2022). According to Chapnin, many Russian believers, horrified by Kirill’s promotion of the war, have left the church. Others, perhaps equally horrified, passively remain members as they feel they have nowhere else to go. Perhaps the most interesting believers are those seeking to “distinguish between the Church that has servilely bowed down to state power and the Church that seeks to promote evangelical truth.”

These Russians, Chapnin says, already form what might be called “the second Church” in Russia. As of now, this church “is neither seen nor heard” and may not include more than 20 percent of all Russian Orthodox faithful. While few are currently speaking out, Chapnin argues, “it is possible that we should describe their silence as a variant of resistance [as] it turns out that there are two kinds of silence”—the silence of consent and the silence of protest. Under Russian conditions, silent protest may be far more important than many imagine and could end the ROC MP that Stalin set up during World War II, transforming Orthodox Christianity in Russia and beyond.