How presidents “commit suicide” with repression against the Church
History of the Church in Ukraine shows that politicians who initiate or support persecutions against the UOC lose people's trust and leave disgracefully.
Almost all Ukrainian presidents, despite their pre-election pledges, sooner or later tried to control the "church issue." Many politicians and public figures followed their example. But what happened to these people next? Let's recall the key moments in the forgotten political destinies of those who meddled in Church affairs.
Let's start with the first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk (presidential years 1991–1994). He ascended to the presidency from the position of the chief ideologist of the Communist Party of the USSR. As we remember, the attitude toward the Church in the Soviet country was sharply negative. However, Leonid Kravchuk stated the following in an interview with the "Novyi region" publication: "Today I declare that any support for representatives of one or another branch of Orthodoxy by the authorities harms Ukraine. Because both the UOC-MP and the UOC-KP have millions of believers standing behind them. My position is unequivocal: the state should not interfere in church affairs and should not rush events."
These are the right words, but they were spoken 20 years after Leonid Makarovych ceased to be the head of the Ukrainian state – in 2005. In 1992, he said something completely different. It is attributed to him, not Filaret Denisenko, that "an independent state needs an independent Church." This formula emerged because the Church could be used as significant support for political ambitions. At the time, Kravchuk understood that neither the UGCC nor the UAOC could secure popular support due to their localization in western Ukraine and lack of popularity among the country's population. Therefore, Kravchuk, along with his long-time acquaintance from the religious sector (remember that he was the ideologist of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine) Filaret Denisenko, created the UOC-KP, effectively splitting Orthodoxy in Ukraine. Did this help him?
No. In 1994, after mass riots and public pressure, he called early elections and... lost to Leonid Kuchma.
The second president, Leonid Kuchma (1994–2005), is the only one among all heads of our state who served two consecutive terms at Bankova. Initially, he did not interfere in Church affairs. Thanks to this, he won his first election, relying on the support from the eastern part of Ukraine, whose population categorically did not support the Filaret structure. During his first term, he indeed distanced himself from the "church issue." However, when Kuchma became the country's president for the second time, his attitude toward the Church changed. It is known that in the early 2000s, he visited Patriarch Bartholomew to negotiate the creation of a "unified local Church" and the granting of a Tomos.
In 2001, he demonstratively celebrated the Assumption of the Virgin not in the Kyiv Lavra, which marked its 950th anniversary, but in the St. Andrew Church, where the head of the UAOC, Mefodiy Kudryakov, served. On the same day, August 28, 2001, Kuchma essentially laid the "theoretical groundwork" for the subsequent state intervention in Church affairs. He stated, "The unity of the Church, its active and responsible position, cements the nation, strengthens the state and political stability, contributes to the spiritual development of society. From this point of view, we all should consider the highly relevant issue of uniting Ukrainian Orthodoxy. The creation of a local Orthodox Church is not an end in itself. It is the only way to enhance the role that faith and religion play and should play in our existence."
However, neither the trips to Bartholomew nor speculations on the topic of religion extended Kuchma's "reign." The Kuchma era ended with accusations of his involvement in the murder of Gongadze, mass protests, and the "Orange Revolution."
Viktor Yushchenko (2005–2010) at the beginning of his tenure as the head of the state carefully avoided the Church issue. However, certain hints that this topic was close to him were already present in his pre-election campaign videos. Remember how he broke bread and distributed it to the people, clearly alluding to the story of the multiplication of loaves from the Gospel?
But a few years later, as the prospect of the next elections loomed, Yushchenko sharply changed his rhetoric and attitude toward the Church. In fact, he became the first to almost implement the project of the "Unified Local Church," making it almost his main political achievement.
In 2008, Yushchenko invited Patriarch Bartholomew to Ukraine, attempting to persuade him to grant the Tomos. Before the head of the Phanar left Kyiv, Yushchenko had a five-hour conversation with him, the results of which he described as follows: "This, our last and practically working conversation, was dedicated to the ways of uniting Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and it will be the beginning of processes that will be of great importance to our believers."
According to him, "the very historical visit of Patriarch Bartholomew to Ukraine is the beginning and an important impetus for the unity of Ukrainian churches and believers. I am glad that the patriarch supports the desire of our people to have their own national local Church. Such a desire corresponds to all the principles of national, state, and undoubtedly, church life."
Yushchenko undoubtedly became one of the main ideologists and drivers of the "national church," but did this help him gain political bonuses? In other words, did the Ukrainian people support the state's intervention in Church affairs?
The 2010 elections showed that they did not: Yushchenko garnered just over 5% of all votes. It was a failure and a political catastrophe.
The fourth president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych (2010–2014). Many believe that he was entirely on the side of the UOC, and therefore, if he intervened in Church affairs, it was only in favor of the Church.
But let's disappoint you – that's not the case. The "Orthodox" Yanukovych did not even attempt to return the Church's property seized by the Bolsheviks. He constantly justified it, saying that it is difficult and impossible to do (while returning several major enterprises to state ownership). As a result, today we see the abuse of power in the "return to the state" of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and all the other absurd monasteries created by the Soviet regime on the property seized from the Church in different regions of the country.
In fact, Yanukovych lacked the political will to try to address the "church issue" in a genuinely democratic and civilized manner, as is done in most developed countries in Europe and the world. We do not know what or who prevented him from doing so. However, we do know how his presidency ended – with Euromaidan, a shameful escape from the country, and a change of power.
Poroshenko (2014–2019), like Yanukovych, at the beginning of his political career, called himself a parishioner of the UOC, had excellent relations with the then Metropolitan of Vinnytsia Simeon, and served as a subdeacon in the Ioninsky Monastery. During the election campaign, Poroshenko promised not to interfere in Church affairs, and he reiterated this after becoming president. Here are his words spoken in 2015 at the meeting of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations on Vladimir Hill in Kyiv: "I, as the president and head of the state, assure that the state will not resort to any violent steps or pressure. We must preserve interfaith peace as the apple of our eye."
He kept this promise for a couple of years. But before the next elections, Poroshenko began to say directly opposite things, insulting the believers of the UOC and the Church itself, calling the clergy enemies and "agents" of the Kremlin. In fact, he became the creator of all those narratives that today abundantly vomit enemies of the Church.
"We are determined to stop the unnatural and uncanonical stay of a significant part of our Orthodox society in dependence on the Russian Church. The Church that sanctifies Putin's hybrid war against Ukraine, which prays day and night for the Russian authorities and the army – is also Russian," is just one of Poroshenko's many "pearls." He made the "church issue" part of his election campaign, obtained the Tomos from Patriarch Bartholomew, shouted "army, language, faith" on every corner, and ultimately, he lost the election to Volodymyr Zelensky with a crash and disgrace, receiving only 24% of the votes against 76%.
As we can see, almost all presidents of Ukraine tried to interfere in Church affairs. Each of them contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves now. And each of them, trying to pressure the Church, committed political suicide. It would seem that Kuchma should have understood that the "church issue" is a kind of "black mark" for a politician, that by dealing with it, he will inevitably, completely, and disastrously lose. But no. Neither Kuchma, nor Yushchenko, nor Poroshenko understood this.
Zelensky also went down this path, who, like all previous presidents, promised not to interfere in church matters before the elections. He promised – and deceived. Therefore, we will witness another political suicide.