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Kiev is a place whose buildings suggest that the time is out of joint. The decrepit concrete of the city’s massive housing blocks humbly admit the failure of communism. The cross-topped, golden onion domes of its monasteries and churches tell of ancient traditions and enduring strengths. And the city’s brassy new casinos and strip-bars boldly announce that the free market has liberated once-repressed vices. Today, more than five years after Ukraine declared independence from a splintering Soviet Union, Kiev is a cross between Chicago in the 1920s and Rome in the days of the Avignon Papacy––with scheming clergymen and angry churchgoers, ruthless gangsters and hard-eyed cops, corrupt officials, nouveau-riche businessmen, struggling workers, easy mores, and a sense that the future is up for grabs.

When the Parliament passed a new constitution last summer there were celebrations in the streets. But the day-to-day lot of most Ukrainians is a rough and tumble life in a country with rising inflation, high unemployment, and little security. Some ten million of Ukraine’s fifty-two million people are ethnic Russians and many of them, and even many full-blooded Ukrainians, miss the stability of the days when they were known as “Little Russians.” Others recall the horrors of Soviet oppression and mismanagement and look to the West and to the free market as the key to the future. Political leaders of both views claim that history is on their side. For many Ukrainians, national identity is inextricably linked with Kiev’s legacy as the birthplace of Slavic Christianity. But religion and nationalism are now joined in a fierce battle between three rival Patriarchs vying for the leadership of Ukraine’s perhaps thirty-five million Orthodox Christians.

This battle has already produced its own strange monument, a sarcophagus of fine marble that lies incongruously on the sidewalk just outside the entrance to St. Sofia, the ancient cathedral that has been a state museum since Soviet times. The sarcophagus marks what may be the final resting place of Volodymyr, Patriarch of Kiev, who was hastily buried under the cobblestones there on July 18, 1995, when his funeral erupted into a riot. The violence broke out after security police, acting on the orders of the government of President Leonid Kuchma, denied the mourners permission to inter the Patriarch on cathedral grounds. The government feared that if it permitted the mourners to enter the cathedral––as sacred to Orthodox believers as St. Peter’s is to Roman Catholics––that it would be accused of taking sides in the battle for church leadership. But the strategy backfired. At least two people were killed, dozens more injured, and videotapes of Orthodox clergymen and nationalist militia battling riot police were broadcast repeatedly on Ukrainian news programs.

In an attempt to calm the passions of “Black Tuesday,” as the riot came to be known, the government last July replaced the makeshift grave with a marble sarcophagus, even as it declared that it would uphold the new constitution––which guarantees the equality of all religions before the law.

Anatoly Koval, the head of a government commission charged with easing the frictions among the more than seventy religious sects that have sprouted in Ukraine since the collapse of communism, sees the sarcophagus as an ideal compromise. To Patriarch Filaret of Kiev, the successor to Volodymyr, it is a propaganda victory. But to his rivals, Patriarch Dimitri Jarema of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and Metropolitan Volodomyr Sabodan of Kiev, the representative of Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, the marble grave is an abomination.

Others see it as a tourist attraction. “Many medieval princes did not have such a fine tomb,” Archbishop Adrian of Noginsk, Russia, said recently after he led a brief prayer service for a group of more than a dozen people who had ridden all the way from their parish outside Moscow. It was a warm Sunday and, as usual when the weather is good, many people had gathered to pay their respects. As the people from Russia drove off in a rickety bus to continue their tour of the holy sites of Kiev, Zoya Gorpeniuk, the former secretary to Patriarch Volodymyr who tends the flowers brought by well-wishers, watched with disapproval as the archbishop and three other priests got into a four-door sedan. “That priest is just a businessman,” she said.

The suspicion of clergymen is not uncommon. During Soviet times many high-ranking priests provided information to the KGB. Today, critics of Patriarch Filaret accuse him of having been an informant during his days as a leading clergyman in the Russian Orthodox Church. They say he is an opportunist who left the Russian church when he saw the chance to become a leader in the breakaway Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, under Volodymyr.

After Volodymyr died from a heart attack, Filaret was named Patriarch of Kiev. But to the old babushkas gossiping around the grave of his predecessor, Filaret’s past is tainted. They say he kept women, and that the old Patriarch died under suspicious circumstances.

Mrs. Gorpeniuk scoffs at such gossip. She allows that many priests were tainted in Soviet times and that today many have become corrupted by the taste of power. But, she said, the Patriarch Volodymyr was not like that. As a young priest, Basil Romaniuk, the future Patriarch was an outspoken dissident, a man who spent twenty years in the Gulag and in exile in Canada. In 1990 he returned to Ukraine and in 1992, after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split with the Russian Orthodox Church, he became Patriarch of Kiev. “The material side didn’t interest him,” she said. “The spiritual side was more important.”

As she spoke an elderly man and three elderly woman were talking loudly. The thread of their argument was unclear, but the man was shouting about Moscow and about efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church to dominate the Ukrainian church.

One of the women, who declined to give her name, said they were angry over the Patriarch’s burial place. “It is unbelievable that they permit him to be buried here, especially such a high-ranking clergyman,” she said. “A lot of people in Ukraine do not want Ukraine to be independent,” she said, adding that the riot police had come “under the orders of those forces who want to put Ukraine on its knees.”

The word “Ukraine” means borderland, and for centuries Kiev was the capital of a buffer state on the edge of the Russian and Soviet empires. Long before the czars, it was the seat of a powerful empire. Legend says that the Apostle Andrew sailed up the Dnieper from the Black Sea and preached to the tribesmen who lived on the riverbank, predicting that one day they would build a powerful, holy city. Christianity did not come until 988, when Volodymyr the Great ordered a mass baptism of his people in the river. Within a century, the foundation of St. Sofia was laid, and the cathedral became the burial place of church leaders and saints.

The empire of Kievan Rus collapsed under the Mongol invasion, and in later centuries pieces of Ukraine were devoured by the Russian, Polish, and Austro-Hungarian empires. In the east, the Russian czars, jealous of the religious power of Kiev, made the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church the dominant force of eastern orthodoxy. The rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the nineteenth century coincided with the development of the Ukrainian Autocephalous (self-ruling) Orthodox Church. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ukraine won a brief independence and many believers abandoned the Russian Patriarchate for the Ukrainian church. But in 1924, Ukraine came once more under Russian rule. The Autocephalous Church was suppressed in the early 1930s, when Stalin engineered the famine and political repression that took the lives of millions of Ukrainians. “The death of one man is a tragedy,” Stalin is said to have remarked. “The death of millions is a statistic.” The precise figures remain elusive, but some scholars put the number of dead as high as ten million.

But the Kremlin permitted the Russian Orthodox Church to survive. The Soviets found it easier to control one state-sanctioned religion than to permit the existence of many. Besides, the Russian church proved useful in rallying people against the Nazis, and the power of Kiev’s religious heritage was impossible to deny. Even the upraised sword of the statue of victory on the monument to the dead of the Great Patriotic War could not be taller than the tallest tower of Percherska Lavra, the medieval monastery on the hills overlooking the Dnieper.

As the Soviet Union frayed, the force of religion strengthened. By the time Ukraine became independent in August 1991, many Ukrainian believers and even some ethnic Russians within the new country had abandoned the Russian church. In an attempt to stem the defections, the Moscow Patriarchate changed the status of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. It would now be known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the Kiev Metropolitan, while remaining under the broad authority of the Moscow Patriarchate, would have the power to make decisions on matters within Ukraine itself.

But amid the nation’s turbulent rebirth, this arrangement proved unsatisfactory. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke with Moscow and established its own Patriarchate in Kiev. Although its legitimacy was not universally recognized, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church drew many adherents, from traditional believers to hard-line nationalists. The Autocephalous Church, which had been kept alive by Ukrainian expatriates overseas, united briefly with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, then broke with it. Soon all three churches were competing for parishioners.

And Ukraine’s politicians, loosed in the strange new world of democracy, were competing for votes. Leonid Kravchuk, a Communist turned hard-line nationalist, became the country’s first president, drawing support from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Unlike Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, who won the presidency in 1994, was a strong opponent of establishing a state religion. He also took a more conciliatory approach to Russia and counted among his supporters many members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

When Patriarch Volodymyr died on July 14, 1995, the religious issue was put to the test. Under the guidance of Filaret, who would be named Patriarch that October, the church demanded that the Patriarch be buried within the grounds of St. Sofia. The government refused.

“St. Sofia is the ultimate prize when it comes to churches in the whole former Soviet Union,” said Serhii Plokhy, director of Ukrainian church studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “The Kiev Patriarchate wanted to use the funeral to establish itself in St. Sofia.”

Under canon law, the Patriarch had to be buried within four days, but church and state negotiators failed to agree on his burial place. On July 18, a funeral service at St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral was attended by some one thousand mourners, including parliamentary deputies and prominent politicians. Former President Kravchuk was in attendance, as were Peoples Deputies from the nationalist Ukrainian Republican Party, Ruk, the mainline nationalist, pro-European party in Parliament, and the Ukrainian National Assembly/Ukrainian National Self Defense Organization, the hardline nationalist militia known as Una-Unso.

After the service, the mourners took the coffin and marched toward St. Sofia Square. Along the way they were blocked by government riot police forces known as the Berkut, armed with plexiglass riot shields, helmets, and billy clubs, under the command of a general who was an ethnic Russian. There was a brief clash, but the mourners pressed on to St. Sofia Square, where they waited outside the cathedral gates as negotiations continued.

As the afternoon passed, Una-Unso militiamen and others who had come with pickaxes and shovels began to dig up the cobblestones. By 7 p.m., as dusk drew near, the coffin was lowered into the ground, but when the militiamen began to cover the grave, riot police burst through the gates, firing salvos of tear gas. The square erupted in chaos. Clergymen and mourners were beaten. Many fought back. One militiaman was beaten to death, another later died of his wounds. At least thirty were arrested. But the mourners held their ground, guarding the grave through the night. The government, horrified by the violence and the publicity, ordered the police to desist and opened an inquiry.

The Interior Ministry blamed the Una-Unso militiamen for provoking the violence. Many mourners blamed the police. “It is like an eternal question,” said Mr. Koval of the religious affairs commission. “It is not clear so far who started the disturbances, and we have agreed that both sides started it at the same time.”

In an interview, Patriarch Filaret distanced himself from Una-Unso, saying that any militiamen at the funeral were there on their own and that the organization was not officially invited. He added, however, that were it not for their support, the Patriarch would not have been buried on cathedral grounds. “The fighting was the fault of the state,” he said, asserting that the government funding for the sarcophagus was an admission of guilt. “The state has to do something not to look guilty.”

He also dismissed the complaints of those who claim that he wants to create a state church, but at the same time asserted that Ukraine needs an independent church, free from Moscow and Russian attempts to dominate Ukraine. “The church,” he said, “will educate the society in national patriotic spirit and in Christianity.”

Asked about the claims of his enemies that he had a mistress and had worked as a KGB informant, he said “these rumors are aimed to spoil my image in the eyes of society.” The talk of women is untrue, he said. “As to the KGB, all clergymen had such contacts during the times of Soviet power and I was not excluded. Nobody could become a bishop if he did not have contacts with this organization.” He asserted that Metropolitan Sabodon, Patriarch Aleksy of Moscow, and Patriarch Jarema all had such contacts.

Indeed, such accusations carry little weight in a society that has not forgotten that opposition to the old regime could mean death or imprisonment or the cutting off of one’s livelihood. “Everyone did it,” Victor Chudowsky, a visiting American scholar, said of life under the Soviets. “There was an understanding among people here that they believed what they believed privately, but that they would say and do what they had to say and do in order to get along.”

Perhaps because of this tradition, many believers are removed from the struggles of orthodox leadership. Precise statistics on the number of adherents within each church are difficult to come by. The Russian Orthodox Church has some 6,500 parishes, according to the State Committee on Religious Affairs. The Kiev Patriarchate claims 1,300, and the Autocephalous Church about 1,200. In recent months, however, the tide appears to have turned toward the Kiev Patriarchate, as many of the main parishes in western Ukraine that had followed Jarema have switched to Filaret.

While Patriarch Jarema of the Autocephalous Church speaks angrily about both his rivals, Metropolitan Sabodan of the Russian church is more conciliatory, noting that Christians have often been divided by factionalism and politics. “We should take the necessary steps to coexist peacefully,” he said in an interview. “We all live on the same land. We all have rights, and we all have to fulfill our social and religious duties.” He added that he has often given sermons on the need for reunification, even though his followers have had to contend with the aggressive tactics of Una-Unso. On some occasions, he added, his priests have gotten into shoving matches, and even brawls, with the militiamen.

Although the Autocephalous Church and the Kiev Patriarchate united briefly at one point, and there was later talk of a reconciliation with Moscow, Patriarch Jarema today remains hostile to Moscow as well as to Filaret. He says the Patriarch Volodymr was an old friend whose funeral was callously manipulated “at the orders of Filaret and Kravchuk to humiliate the new president.” He remains equally suspicious of the Russian Patriarchate. “The Russian church,” he said, “is one of the most efficient organizations of subordination.”

Although the antipathy among the three leaders remains virulent, the split may ultimately benefit Ukraine. After all, it has undercut efforts to establish a state religion that would play into the hands of the country’s hard-line nationalists. If all Orthodox Christians were to unite, the Orthodox Church would be easily the largest. But unification remains unlikely. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople––the first among equals among Orthodox patriarchates”will not recognize the legitimacy of the Kiev Patriarchate unless Moscow grants it freedom, something the Moscow Patriarchate is unlikely to do.

“There is a lot of historical irony given the fact that the Kiev Patriarchate was the mother church of the Moscow church,” says Serhil Plokhy of the Ukrainian church studies center in Edmonton. “Now Kiev is in the position of having to ask Moscow for independence.”

There are other ironies as well. The church that struggled to survive the Communists now has the freedom many of its people suffered and died for. Yet its leaders remain uncomfortable with that freedom. They say they are committed to religious pluralism, yet in interviews all three expressed reservations about allowing Mormons, Hari Krishnas, and missionaries of other alien faiths to enter Ukraine. At a time when many Ukrainians are trapped between the failed promises of Marxist utopianism and the often harsh realities of Western materialism, the Orthodox Church is in a position to offer the best aspects of tradition. But the church’s internal strife undermines faith in that tradition and undercuts its ability to help alleviate the spiritual anxiety and economic suffering brought on by the painful transition to a democratic, free-market society.

Joseph R. Gregory is a writer living in New York.

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