Adapted from a speech of Professor Oleh
Turiy of the Institute of Church History of Lviv, Ukraine,
delivered at a conference in Freising, Germany on September
Ukraine has a long Christian tradition, dating from the 10th
century. Today there are over twenty-two thousand religious
communities in Ukraine from about eighty different Christian
denominations, as well as other religions. But the atheist
policy of the Soviets has left its mark: many Ukrainians
today are unchurched because of the great spiritual void
which the Bolshevik regime left in Eastern Europe.
The Conversion of Ukraine and Tensions Between East and
In 988 Prince Volodymyr the Great established Christianity
in its Byzantine-Slavic rite as the national religion of his
country, Kyivan-Rus. This happened before the Great Church
Schism of 1054 divided Christian East from West. The Kyivan
Church inherited the traditions of the Byzantine East and
was part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Yet this
Church also remained in full communion with the Latin West
and its patriarch, the Pope of Rome.
Though Constantinople and Rome had their disputes, the
Kyivan hierarchy tried to work for Christian unity.
Representatives from Rus participated in the Western
Councils of Lyon (1245) and Constance (1418). Isidore, the
Metropolitan of Kyiv, was himself one of the creators of the
Union of Florence (1439).
While the Kyivan metropolia was working towards reunion, a
new metropolia arose north of Kyiv, in Moscow. The Church of
Moscow refused to accept the Union of Florence and separated
from the ancient metropolia in Kyiv, announcing its
autocephaly (self-governing status) in 1448. In 1589, with
Greek Orthodoxy and Constantinople subject to Turkish
domination, the Church of Moscow became a patriarchate.
Union with Rome in 1596 and East/West Divisions in
The Kyivan Church was challenged by the Protestant
Reformation and the renewed Catholicism of that period and
was also suffering a serious internal crisis. The Synod
decided to pass under the jurisdiction of the see of Rome.
The traditional Eastern rite of the Kyivan Church was
preserved and its ethnic, cultural and ecclesial existence
was guaranteed. This was confirmed at the Council of Brest
in 1596, which is the beginning of the Ukrainian Greek
Catholic Church as an institution.
Some hierarchs and faithful of the Kyivan Church, however,
insisted on remaining under the jurisdiction of the
Patriarchate of Constantinople. Torn by internal division,
the Central and Eastern sections of Ukraine passed under the
control of the ruler of Moscow in 1654. Soon the Orthodox
Kyivan Metropolia was under the authority of the Moscow
Patriarchate (1686). As the Tsarist Empire grew, it
repressed the Greek Catholics and forced "conversions" to
Russian Orthodoxy (1772, 1795, 1839, 1876). The Pratulin
Martyrs died as a result of these repressions.
Orthodox clergy and laity in Ukraine were dissatisfied with
the close connections of the Russian Orthodox Church with
Russian national interests. "Ukrainophile" movements began
and after the Russian Revolution in 1917 a movement began to
gain autocephalous status for Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Attempts
to proclaim autocephaly in the 1920s and 1940s were,
however, repressed by the Soviet powers.
Polish and Austrian Rule in Western Ukraine
All of Ukraine had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian
Commonwealth at the time of the Council of Brest, and
western Ukraine remained so. The Church played a leading
role in preserving the cultural and religious independence
of the Ukrainian population there. As the Western Ukrainian
lands later passed into Austrian control, the imperial
government of the Hapsburgs supported and protected the
Greek Catholic hierarchy.
At the beginning of the 20th Century the Greek Catholic
Church in Halychyna was graced by the exemplary leadership
of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1901-1944). He was the
spiritual leader during two world wars and seven changes of
political regime, including Nazi and Soviet. His tireless
pastoral work, his defense of the rights of his people, his
charitable and ecumenical efforts made the Church an
influential social institution in Western Ukraine.
The Legacy of Totalitarianism-- Ukraine in the 20th
It is the tragedy of the 20th Century, the epoch of terror
and violence, which has most affected the development of
religious life in contemporary Ukraine. Approximately 17
million people are estimated to have died a violent death in
Ukraine in the 20th Century. It is even more tragic that
these losses were caused not just by war and conflict but by
utopian ideals of re-building the world.
The war on religion was the ideology of the Communist regime
and no effort was spared. Church buildings were ruined,
burnt down, profaned; priests and faithful, Orthodox,
Catholic and representatives of other religions were shot,
arrested and deported to the Siberian gulag; church
communities were persecuted, confined to underground
activities or entirely destroyed. Both the Ukrainian
Autocephalous Orthodox Church at the beginning of the 1930s
and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1946 in Halychyna
and in 1949 in Transcarpathia were liquidated. The Roman
Catholic Church and Protestant churches survived in only a
handful of carefully monitored churches.
Even the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church (which
functioned as a state church) were limited and it
furthermore suffered from infiltration by Soviet security
organs. There was a progressive spiritual vacuum and a
deepening demoralization of society.
With the crisis of Soviet power in the 1980s, the
suppression of churches ceased. The formerly forbidden
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church emerged from the underground
and communities of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox
Church were created in 1989. The declaration of Ukrainian
independence in 1991 created a new context for the
activities of all the churches in this territory. Thus,
official religious freedom in Ukraine opened the way for