Contesting Reunification:
Autocephaly and Sovereignty in Ukraine

Kathryn David

Peace sign in Ukraine by Jack White on Unsplash.

This article is part of our “Russia/Ukraine: Law and Religion Perspectives” series.
If you’d like to check out other articles in this series, click here.

When Russia’s war against Ukraine began, journalists in Russia were instructed to call it a “special operation,” not a “war.” Soon, draconian fines were introduced to penalize those who dared to call a war a war. In 2014, a similar obsession with terminology surfaced in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Crimea: what transpired was not to be called an “annexation” but a “reunification.” 

“Reunification” as a term emphasizes not only what Russia views as its rightful claim to the land, but also draws on a long history of using this term to describe the absorption of Ukrainian lands into Russian imperial structures. Catherine the II described imperial Russia’s annexation of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as “reunification” at the end of the 18th century. In 1939, Soviet newspapers proclaimed the annexation of eastern Poland to the Ukrainian and Belarussian SSRs under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to be a “reunification” of the Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples with each other and with their Russian “brothers”. In each of these cases, using the term “reunification” justifies a land grab as a restoration of an imagined unified past. These past unities were comprised not of territorial borders, but spiritual ones, meant to demonstrate the enduring relationship between Orthodoxy and empire in the region. The political order that “reunification” supposedly restores is the unity of an Orthodox world, encompassing Orthodox populations who trace their Orthodoxy to medieval Kyiv and accept Moscow as the inheritor of this religious tradition.

In the current moment, “reunification” looms large as Russia’s ultimate goal for Ukraine. In the months preceding the war, Vladimir Putin released an essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which put forward a version of history in which Ukrainians and Russians have always been united. The essay characterizes Ukrainian attempts to insist on a history separate from Russia as the result of foreign interventions or machinations by ultra-nationalists or utopian Bolsheviks. Sovereignty is never portrayed as something the Ukrainian people have genuinely attempted to assert. In the speech Putin delivered on the eve of the invasion, he repeated these historical falsehoods but added something new: Not only was Russian and Ukrainian unity under attack, but Russia was prepared to send in its military to defend it. 

Understanding Russia’s current goals for Ukraine with “reunification” in mind reveals the Janus-faced nature of the concept, one side looking toward the past and the other toward the future. Critics accuse Russia of upending the postwar order in Europe through their invasion of Ukraine, but the lens of reunification allows Russia to claim that it is restoring a past spiritually-based framework, righting what Russia views as the historical wrongs that have been built into post-Soviet borders.

To understand this Russian perspective, it is key to go back to the event considered the first Ukrainian-Russian “reunification.” In 1654, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the leader of the steppe settlers known as the Cossacks, signed the Treaty of Pereiaslav, certifying an arrangement that was supposed to assure Cossack autonomy in the Ukrainian lands under the protection of Moscow after a Cossack rebellion against their Polish overlords. Instead, the growing Russian Empire asserted control over the Ukrainian lands, ending an arrangement that had allowed for Cossack sovereignty in favor of full integration into the Russian imperial state. 

Patriarch Bartholomew signing the tomos of autocephaly. Wiki Commons. January 15, 2019. (CC BY 4.0)

As Serhii Plokhy and other historians have pointed out, Orthodox clergy, not the imperial Russian state, first framed the Pereiaslav treaty as a “reunification”. Calling Pereiaslav a “reunification” was a strategy by Orthodox clergy in the Ukrainian lands to get much-needed support from Moscow. Polish rule had weakened Orthodox institutions in Ukraine, and claiming a religious affinity with Moscow might strengthen them. Plokhy argues that at the time, the Moscow clergy found these claims of Ukrainian affinity with Moscow suspect, requiring clergy from the lands of present-day Ukraine to undergo a rebaptism when they became part of Moscow’s spiritual realm.

In later years, however, this idea was promoted by the Russian state. Near the end of the 18th century, under the rule of Catherine the II, “reunification” became a political slogan. Indeed, for the occasion of the annexation of Polish lands to the Russian Empire after the partitions of Poland, Catherine had medals commissioned which read: “I have returned that which was torn asunder.”

Along with this territorial “return” came what Catherine would deem a religious “return”: the forced transfer of members of the Greek Catholic Church to the Russian Orthodox Church. This religious policy stood in stark contrast to Catherine’s previous commitment to religious tolerance. Catherine defended the transfer by arguing that because the Greek Catholic Church was created to place Orthodox under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church when Orthodox lands became part of Catholic Poland in 1596, her forced transfer and repression of the Greek Catholic Church righted a historical wrong — “returning” these Greek Catholics to the Orthodox realm.

Given the importance of Orthodoxy as the foundation for imperial Russia, this imposition of Orthodoxy in the name of a “return” should not be surprising. But what does come as a surprise is the precedent this set not just for imperial Russia but for the Soviet Union as well. The “reunification” of the Ukrainian lands that began with the annexation of eastern Poland in 1939 also necessitated, in the view of Stalin, a religious reunification. Tellingly, this was not an initiative of the Orthodox clergy but of the Soviet state. In 1946, at a sobor planned and orchestrated by Soviet state officials and the secret police, the Greek Catholic Church that had existed in Austria-Hungary and then-interwar Poland was forcibly transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, newly legalized by Stalin during WWII. 

What these examples demonstrate is a throughline spanning nearly 300 years of history: the notion of a religiously-based reunification that justifies territorial acquisition. Even in the officially atheist Soviet Union, this spiritual justification remained. But there are key differences in what reunification means in terms of sovereignty for Russia 300 years ago as compared to today. In 1654, the Treaty of Pereiaslav was supposed to guarantee a degree of autonomy for the lands of present-day Ukraine that had become part of imperial Russia. The foundations for the treaty may have been a shared Orthodox faith, but that did not mean (at least initially) full absorption into a shared political structure. The same can be said for later “reunifications.” As Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper have argued, imperial Russia, like other empires, deployed a system of layered sovereignty that allowed room for variations as suited to its growing realm. 

The political order that “reunification” supposedly restores is the unity of an Orthodox world, encompassing Orthodox populations who trace their Orthodoxy to medieval Kyiv and accept Moscow as the inheritor of this religious tradition.

In its policies toward Ukraine, contemporary Russia has also allowed for a diverse array of occupying regimes — from full annexation in Crimea to “unofficial” support for separatist republics. But in contrast to this flexibility in political arrangements, for the Orthodox populations in these regions, Moscow has insisted on full spiritual unity.

The religious foundations of reunification and the weaponization of these foundations to assert control over Ukrainian territory help to explain why Church autocephaly has been important for Ukrainian independence movements throughout history. Just as reunification has been the dominant paradigm for imperial control of Ukraine by Russia, autocephaly has been what emerged in opposition. In the aftermath of the collapse of imperial Russia, an autonomous Ukrainian government based in Kyiv had been founded in 1917. One of the first acts of this state was the declaration of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. When the Bolsheviks defeated this independent government and established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as one of many national republics of the Soviet Union, they permitted this (non-canonically recognized) autocephalous Church to remain in Ukraine. But in the 1930s, as the Soviet state grew stronger and the institutions that had allowed for some autonomy for the national republics began to be shuttered, Soviet Ukraine’s autocephalous Church was repressed and its leadership arrested. When religious life was allowed to return to the Soviet Union during WWII, it was the Russian Orthodox Church that the state re-established on Ukrainian lands in the name of yet another reunification. 

The annexation of Crimea and the backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 was a key post-Soviet moment in reframing the legacy of reunification. The next came in 2018 with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s pursuit of canonical recognition for an autocephalous Ukrainian church. While the campaign for Constantinople to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as autocephalous was not new, the level of support from the Ukrainian state under Poroshenko was unprecedented. In 2018, Poroshenko made Ukrainian church autocephaly a central aspect of his re-election platform. In 2019, he introduced the campaign slogan “Army, language, faith.” When autocephaly was granted in 2019, not only did Poroshenko take credit for autocephaly as an accomplishment of his administration, he also connected the recognition of autocephaly with other policy goals he hoped to achieve, including membership in the EU. In an October 2018 tweet, Poroshenko stated:

Autocephaly — it is a meaningful step in the same category as expressing our desire to join the EU and NATO, our Association Agreement, the no-visa regime with the EU, our exit from the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], and our refusal to participate in a “friendship” agreement with Russia as well. All of these provide a foundation for our path toward the development of Ukraine.

Autocephaly would, in Poroshenko’s view, allow Ukraine to break ties with Russia in the economic and political realms and instead join with Europe. When the Patriarch of Constantinople officially approved Ukraine’s declaration of autocephaly, Poroshenko tweeted the following:

Finally we have gained spiritual independence. We have broken the chains that have tied us to the empire. We have returned to our determined path to God and are moving in our own direction. I am grateful to all the Ukrainians who believed in autocephaly from the very beginning.

For Poroshenko, spiritual independence was part of territorial independence. 

And yet, it was not lost on Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians that Ukraine’s Orthodox Church’s autocephaly came about at the very moment when the Ukrainian state could not extricate itself from a relationship with Russia. In 2022, while the Orthodox Church of Ukraine may now be autocephalous, large swaths of Ukrainian land have been annexed by Russia and are occupied by Russian soldiers. 

When Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, Russian officials drew upon the history of referring to territorial expansion into Ukraine as “reunification” not only as a justification for the war, but as a narrative they hoped would be adopted by the Ukrainian people. In historical accounts of past reunifications, from the 17th century to 2014, there were prominent examples of clergy, elites, and ordinary citizens who embraced reunification, whether out of sincere conviction or cynical calculation. 

Yet in 2022, the recognition of Ukraine’s Orthodox autocephaly by Eastern Orthodox authorities has presented a powerful alternative. Just like reunification, autocephaly is about reframing the past and imagining a new future. And in the wake of a brutal war and occupation by Russia, a future for Ukraine which promises spiritual and territorial sovereignty is quite a compelling one. ♦

Kathryn David is the Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and East European Studies at Vanderbilt University and a current Title VIII Summer Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute.

Recommended Citation

David, Kathryn. “Contesting Reunification: Autocephaly and Sovereignty in Ukraine.” Canopy Forum, June 30, 2022.