Staunton, July 7 – The death on July 5 of Metropolitan Vladimir, the longtime head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, simultaneously highlights the failure of Moscow Patriarch Kirill in Ukraine, Russian commentators say, and likely accelerates a wholesale re-alignment of Orthodox bishoprics and congregations in Ukraine.
Vladimir, who died at the age of 79 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease which in fact forced him to give up his day-to-day management of his church earlier this year after serving as its metropolitan since 1992, was a major figure not only in Ukraine but in Russian Orthodoxy more generally.
In 1990, he finished a close second to Metropolitan Aleksii in the voting for a new Moscow patriarch, and in the two decades since that time, he has played a key role not only in the expansion of the bishoprics of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine but also in the retention of its congregations, which otherwise might have left that hierarchy.
While many Ukrainians viewed Vladimir as little more than Moscow’s man in their country, Russian commentators remember him as something more than that and at least some are worried that his death will lead to the further decline in the position of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.
In a comment on Forum-MSK.org, that site’s editor, Anatoly Baranov said that Vladimir “was one of the most interesting officials of the Russian Orthodox Church” and almost became its patriarch on two occasions, first in 1990 when he lost to Aleksii and then in 2009 when he was nominated but withdrew.
Vladimir’s withdrawal allowed Kirill to be elected, a misfortune, Baranov says, because “if the intelligent and experienced Kyiv metropolitan had become head of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is likely that the events in Ukraine would have developed in an entirely different way.”
“The aggressive and often stupid foreign policy of Patriarch Kirill is far from the least important factor underlying the Ukrainian crisis,” the editor says. What happened was this: “the Kremlin began to openly define the policy of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Patriarch Kirill did not find in himself the courage to conduct his own.”
Metropolitan Vladimir was “another man” entirely, Baranov continues, especially with regard to the level of his authority in society outside of Russia. And he concludes: “the tragic events in Ukraine not by accident coincided with the deterioration of the health of the Kyiv metropolitan, and his life ended along with the disappearance of that Ukraine which he knew.”
Vladimir’s authority was truly enormous, and with his passing, Moscow and the Moscow Patriarchate are going to find it ever more difficult to retain their positions among the Orthodox in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill implicitly recognized this in their message of sympathy on Vladimir’s death.
But their words are unlikely to slow the process of the Ukrainianization of Orthodoxy in Ukraine at an organizational level, and with that process accelerating, both the Kremlin and especially Patriarch Kirill are going to see their leverage religious and political decline there, in the post-Soviet states, and internationally as well.
Some Orthodox writers have been referring to Vladimir as “a Soviet church functionary,” one of the last of a generation that will inevitably disappear. But unlike Kirill, who remains very much what he was, the late Vladimir was someone who made an attempt to change. That gave him an authority Kirill very much lacks.