Letter from Pergamum-on-the-Potomac
On March 31 the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election was held. In line with all polls, the top spot (with about 30 percent of the vote) was taken by Volodymyr Zelensky, a comic actor who played President of Ukraine in a popular TV series, making him the leading candidate for the position he once spoofed. He was followed (with about 16 percent) by incumbent President President Poroshenko, known as the oligarchic “Chocolate King” because of his confectionary company, Roshen. Poroshenko has also sought to emulate another king, England’s Henry VIII, through creation of his own Ukrainian church, which late last year Poroshenko declared independent of the Russian Orthodox Church with assistance from an unlikely duo, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul and the US State Department.
(Trailing behind Poroshenko with about 13 percent was perennial candidate and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, also known as the “Gas Princess” (for her prominent role in the shady natural gas industry), “goddess of the Revolution” (for her firebrand image in Ukraine’s turbulent post-Soviet history), and the “Princess Leia of Ukrainian politics” (for her trademark folk-motif braids). Tymoshenko claims, quite plausibly, that Poroshenko stole the second spot from her but that Ukraine’s judicial system has been “privatized” by Poroshenko and it’s pointless to challenge the results in court.)
Zelensky and Poroshenko will now square off in an April 21 second round. The smart money favors Zelensky, given how badly he trounced Poroshenko in the first round. The smart money is probably wrong. Poroshenko—for whom the stakes are likely either self-imposed exile to avoid prosecution or continued slopping at a lucrative trough—has a lot of cards he can play, both what they call locally “administrative measures” to pad his vote and goodies to get former rivals to support him.
Most of all, he can count on western governments, notably that of the United States, and their hangers-on to not only turn a blind eye but to positively enthuse over Ukraine’s democratic vitality.
In world in which Washington routinely thunders from on high about other countries’ democratic legitimacy, the see-no-evil attitude toward Ukraine speaks volumes. (Imagine if, say, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had while in office racked up a 10,000 percent income increase, mainly from a shady Zurich-based fund.)
At this point it’s appropriate to stop and ask: why should anyone in the US care about Ukraine and its elections? Perhaps the more important question is, why does the State Department care so much? The answer has many facets: historical, geopolitical, ideological, ethnic, moral, and—perhaps surprisingly for some who may not think of “mere religion” as being particularly important in a postmodern Europe—spiritual.
In fact, upon examination Ukraine is a revealing showcase of all that’s wrong with American global policy, including a fanatical determination to impose a post-Christian moral order on what are still unexpectedly vibrant Christian societies rebounding from decades of communist repression. Sadly, this determination has not slackened under the Trump administration but has continued as though the previous administration had never left. In this regard, whatever his very public professions of his Christian faith, whited sepulchre Secretary Mike Pompeo and his State Department area at the forefront.
One of the major claimed accomplishments of incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s reelection campaign of “army, language, faith” is creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church (i.e., completely self-governing, with no tie at all to the Russian Orthodox Church). Western governments and media have uniformly—and inaccurately—hailed this as a reality already fulfilled with the awarding of a tomos (literally, a small book containing an authoritative pronouncement or declaration) from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to Poroshenko and religious figures in Ukraine who had up until then been universally shunned as schismatics by all Orthodox jurisdictions. As of this writing, no other autocephalous Church has endorsed Constantinople’s actions, and several, notably the Patriarchates of Belgrade and Antioch—and notably Church of Albania, which is largely Greek by ethnicity—have taken sharp exception to it.
The Ukrainian Church situation is complex and contentious. It will be months if not years before it works itself out. Indeed, it may lead to a permanent split within Orthodoxy, not only in Ukraine but worldwide. Also, despite Patriarch Bartholomew’s stated intention to foster accord and reconciliation in Ukraine, his actions clearly have aggravated already raw feelings among believers there. Far from creating a united Ukrainian autocephalous Church, he has only managed to cobble together a new body under the authority of Constantinople in opposition to the canonical Moscow-linked Church, which continues to exist under its primate Metropolitan Onufriy. Violence in various forms is inevitable as Ukrainian authorities harass the canonical Church and prepare to seize its parishes and monasteries, notably the historic Kiev Perchersk Lavra and the Pochaev Lavra in western Ukraine.
Conspicuously, Poroshenko’s blatant politicking in Church affairs—which has been criticized even from quarters favoring autocephaly—has been applauded by western governments, notably by American officials. Just a few days after a high State Department career officer commendably declared in September 2018 that “any decision on autocephaly is an internal [Orthodox] church matter” he was reversed by endorsements of autocephaly by Secretary Pompeo, US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, and US Ambassador in Kiev Marie Yovanovitch (an Obama appointee but still in place). Following the December Robber Council of Kiev on December 15, the US Embassy tweeted out its congratulations in English and in Ukrainian (not in Russian of course). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed a personal call to the “newly elected head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Metropolitan Epifaniy” (Dumenko). US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch extended her congratulations to Dumenko in person. It should also be noted that The Atlantic Council, an über-Establishment Washington-based think tank operating in close coordination with the US government (and heavily funded by US and allied government agencies and contractors), has been an active advocate for autocephaly in the policy community and media.
Moreover, there is reason to believe the US State Department’s involvement was not just hortatory. As reported by this analyst in October 2018, according to an unconfirmed report originating with the members of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (an autonomous New York-based part of the Moscow Patriarchate), in July 2018 State Department officials, possibly including Secretary Pompeo personally, warned the scandal–ridden and broke Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (also based in New York but under authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) that the US government was aware of the misappropriation of a large amount of money, about $10 million, from an estimated $37 million raised from believers for the (now stalled) construction of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine in New York (to replace the original St. Nicholas church destroyed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center). The State Department warning also reportedly noted that federal prosecutors have documentary evidence confirming the withdrawal of these funds abroad on the orders of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It was suggested that Secretary Pompeo would “close his eyes” to this theft in exchange for movement by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in favor of Ukrainian autocephaly, which helped set Patriarch Bartholomew on his current course. Moreover, the State Department’s direct hand in this sordid business may not have consisted solely of wielding the “stick” of legal threat: there’s reason to believe there was a “carrot” too. There are numerous unproven reports of a $25 million payoff to Constantinople from Poroshenko (although allegedly Poroshenko initially attempted to hold back $15 million for himself). Attributions of the original source of that money differ. Some claim it came from organized crime bosses in Dnipro. This analyst was told by an unsolicited, confidential informant in the Greek Archdiocese in New York that the funds came from the State Department.
We may never know the truth about any such payment. But whatever the details, one still has to ask why the US is so keenly committed to creating an autocephalous Church in Ukraine. Aside from the obvious impropriety of the United States’ taking sides in a question of the Orthodox Church’s internal governance, why is the State Department so committed to promoting a transparently political power grab by Poroshenko, the Ukrainian schismatics, and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople?
Given the various lobbies with a lot of influence in Washington, including those of foreign states and ethnic communities, it is natural to look in that direction to identify relevant actors and driving forces on the American side with respect to formulation of policy toward Ukraine. Among those that might come to mind are the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States (just under a million people), the Greek-American community (variously estimated at between one and three million, depending on self-identification), and so forth. There is precedent for such influences on US policy in Eastern Europe. One is reminded of the role the Croatian and Albanian diaspora communities played in the breakup of Yugoslavia. It should be noted that the Yugoslav conflicts took place as the post-Cold War drive for US global hegemony was only beginning to take form, and Bosnia and Kosovo were catalytic in its development.
It is true that some Ukrainian-Americans (heavily weighted by those with western Ukraine origins) have long taken part in activities of various “Captive Nations” and “ethnic heritage” groups operating after World War II, notably the CIA front “American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism” and the “Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations” (originally spun off by the United Kingdom’s MI6 from the earlier “British League for European Freedom”). Mainly though not exclusively oriented toward the Republican Party they operated under the banner of anti-communism but really (to an extent many non-“ethnic” Americans may not fully have understood) were vehicles for their various ethnic agendas. These agendas related less to communism than dissatisfaction with the territorial arrangements that existed after 1945, giving these groups the character of World War II losers’ associations. Russophobia (and with respect to the Balkans, Serbophobia) was a common point of agreement.
It should also be noted that while American Greeks were not notable in these activities the US government has valued the utility of the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate since at least the 1940s. Today, while his flock within Turkey dwindles to almost nil (in effect, it is what in English parliamentary context was known as a “rotten borough”), Patriarch Bartholomew has sought to expand his profile as a “player” on the world stage, exemplified by his demonstrative environmentalism as “the Green Patriarch” and, together with Pope Francis, welcoming Muslim migrants to Europe through Greece. Moreover, his actions in Ukraine are an expansion of Constantinople’s longstanding quasi-papal ambitions built on uncanonical claims to “universal” status as a kind of “Eastern Pope,” misuse of doctrinally troubling incarnational language, and adoption of a breathtakingly arrogant tone that would cause even the most ultramontane proponent of the Rome’s supremacy to blush. Given strong support for Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which now sees a new opportunity for it to be elevated to a patriarchate within Roman Catholicism, Ukraine also advances Constantinople’s warm ecumenical embrace aimed at reunion with the Roman Papacy, with a Ukrainian church in communion with both Rome and Constantinople as a possible catalyst. In short, whatever the carrots and sticks involved, the State Department was pushing on an open door at the Phanar.
However, as described below, by 2005 the ideological and methodological aspects of the US policymaking establishment’s aspirations for global hegemony were already fully formed. A key part of this was turning Ukraine into a forward salient against Russia, as attested to in the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-5 and the 2008 NATO Bucharest declaration regarding Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) destiny as part of NATO. Today, attacking the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is another logical—and well-targeted—element of that aggressive aim. While some elements in the Greek and (especially) Ukrainian communities no doubt had a hand in it, they don’t have the influence to set the agenda and should be regarded more as implementing a program thought up by others. I would compare the US apparat in this regard to that of the Soviet Union: the imperatives are ideological and bureaucratic; while ethnic lobbies (comparable in their day to pro-Soviet Third World “national liberation movements”) are useful, they are the tools of policy, not its masters.
The origin of the US focus on Ukraine and its religious issues must instead be sought within the larger perspective of American policy since the end of the first Cold War in 1991 and the development of the current one in the course of the 1990s: the American “unipolar moment,” as the bipartisan US policy establishment sought to consolidate and perpetuate its hegemonic control over the entire planet, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the demise of the USSR. Perhaps the fullest expression of this was a 1996 article by neoconservative ideologists William Kristol and Robert Kagan, misleadingly titled “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” in which they called for the US to establish and maintain indefinitely “benevolent global hegemony”—American world domination. As scrutinized by this analyst in Chronicles magazine the following year, Kristol and Kagan laid down virtually all of the elements that have guided US foreign policy during the ensuing years. It is no accident that GOP neoconservatives were enthusiastic supporters of Bill Clinton’s Balkan interventions of 1990s, under the guidance of people like then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who once opined regarding the sanctions-related deaths of a half million Iraqi children that “the price is worth it.” In the US establishment, there is little dissent on either side of the partisan aisle with Albright’s sincere conviction that a militant United States has a special wisdom: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future . . . ”
The result is a kind of neo-Bolshevism, where as the vanguard of all progressive humanity the United States sees itself as the midwife of history to advance the principles not of the USSR’s “peace, progress, and socialism” but of a similarly ideologized triad of “democracy, human rights, and free markets.”
Viewed this way, a revived, non-ideological, nationally minded Russia is an obstacle that must be overcome—one way or the other. (A similar attitude exists toward China and Iran.) Recently the administration of US President Donald Trump, who as a candidate repeatedly stated his desire to improve ties with Russia but has been prevented from doing so, has taken to describing the neoconservative program of previous administrations as (in Secretary Pompeo’s words) as reassertion of sovereignty (but only for the US and our allies!) and “reform” of “the liberal international order.” The rhetoric is new but the policies are the same as under Trump’s predecessors.
Sometimes we are told that the current Washington-Moscow standoff is just a turf war, that unlike the 1945-1991 rivalry it “lacks an ideological dimension” beyond the authoritarian determination to elevate “the Russian state, ruled by [Vladimir Putin] and his clan.” Such a view totally dismisses the fact that following the demise of communism as a global power bloc there has been an eerie spiritual role reversal between East and West. While it’s true that during original Cold War the nonreligious ruling cliques in Washington and Moscow held basically compatible progressive values, ordinary Christian Americans (mainly Protestants, with a large number of Roman Catholics) perceived communism as a murderous, godless machine of oppression (think of the Roman Catholic men’s organization Knights of Columbus’ campaign to insert “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance). Conversely, today it is western elites who rely upon an ideological imperative to justify a materialist global empire and endless wars, much like the old Soviet nomenklatura depended on Marxism-Leninism both as a working methodology and as a justification for their prerogatives and privileges. In that regard, promotion of nihilist, post-Christian morality—especially in sexual matters—under the guise of “democracy and human rights” has become a major item in the West’s toolkit.
This has a special importance with regard to Russia, where under Putin the Orthodox Church has largely resumed its pre-1917 role as the moral anchor of society. This elicits not only political opposition but a genuine and heartfelt hatred from the postmodern elites of an increasingly post-Christian West, not only for Putin personally and Russia generally but against the Russian Orthodox Church—and by extension against Orthodox Christianity itself.
This points to why, from the point of view of the State Department, the Russian Orthodox Church – and hence the canonical autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church—is nothing more than an instrument of the Kremlin’s soft power. According to one person rather new to the relevant issues but nonetheless considered authoritative by the State Department:
‘The Church, for its part, acts as the Russian state’s soft power arm, exerting its authority in ways that assist the Kremlin in spreading Russian influence both in Russia’s immediate neighborhood as well as around the globe. The Kremlin assists the Church, as well, working to increase its reach. Vladimir Yakunin, one of Putin’s inner circle and a devout member of the ROC, facilitated in 2007 the reconciliation of the ROC with the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile (which had separated itself from the Moscow Patriarchate early in the Soviet era so as not to be co-opted by the new Bolshevik state), which reconciliation greatly increased [Patriarch of Moscow] Kirill’s influence and authority outside of Russia. Putin, praising this event, noted the interrelation of the growth of ROC authority abroad with his own international goals: “The revival of the church unity is a crucial condition for revival of lost unity of the whole ‘Russian world’, which has always had the Orthodox faith as one of its foundations.”’
Hence, weaken “Russian state’s soft power arm,” weaken the Russian state.
But there is even more to it than that. The authors of the current US anti-Russia, anti-Orthodox Church policy know, or at least instinctively sense, that the revival of Russia’s Church-State symphonia after a hiatus of eight decades is not just a political alliance of convenience but is the source of deep spiritual, moral, and social strength. This is reflected, for example, in Putin’s warm remarks on the dedication of a Moscow monument to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the acknowledged godfather of Russia’s restoration as a Christian country, on the centenary of the writer’s birth.
In Russia’s reborn symphonia, President and Patriarch speak as one:
‘At the height of the Cold War, it was common for American conservatives to label the officially atheist Soviet Union a “godless nation.”
‘More than two decades on, history has come full circle, as the Kremlin and its allies in the Russian Orthodox Church hurl the same allegation at the West.
‘“Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a recent keynote speech. “Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.” [ . . . ]
‘Mr. Putin’s views of the West were echoed this month by Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church, who accused Western countries of engaging in the “spiritual disarmament” of their people.
‘In particular, Patriarch Kirill criticized laws in several European countries that prevent believers from displaying religious symbols, including crosses on necklaces, at work.
‘“The general political direction of the [Western political] elite bears, without doubt, an anti-Christian and anti-religious character,” the patriarch said in comments aired on state-controlled television.
‘“We have been through an epoch of atheism, and we know what it is to live without God,” Patriarch Kirill said. “We want to shout to the whole world, ‘Stop!’”’ [“Who’s ‘godless’ now? Russia says it’s U.S.: Putin seizes on issue of traditional values,” by Marc Bennetts, The Washington Times, January 28, 2014]
Such sentiments can hardly sit well with Western elites for whom celebration of the same-sex partnerships decried by Putin is a mark of social enlightenment. That’s why an inseparable part of the “European choice” the people of Ukraine supposedly made during the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” is wholesale acceptance of “European values,” including the kind of “Pride” symbolized by LGBT marches organized over Christian objections in Orthodox cities like Athens, Belgrade, Bucharest, Kiev, Odessa, Podgorica, Sofia, and Tbilisi. (Note that after the march in Odessa in August of this year a priest of the canonical Church targeted by Poroshenko cleansed the street with Holy Water.)
There is no doubt that the moral/sexual component of undermining Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine is a key factor in US policy. There is a curious consistency between advocacy for non-traditional, post-Christian sexual morality and support for the schismatics sponsored by Poroshenko and Patriarch Bartholomew. This is well understood by Constantinople’s pseudo-Church in Ukraine. In December, shortly after his “enthronement,” “Metropolitan Epifaniy” Dumenko responded to a phone caller claiming to be a western parliamentarian (but in fact was a Russian prankster), suggesting that “if the new church will soften its position regarding the LGBT community, the gays of Ukraine, and it will take liberal values, it will be a great stimulus to develop European values. We spoke with Secretary Pompeo and he agrees that you should the increase your LGBT and gay values in the future.” Taking the bait, Dumenko said that “because we are moving towards Europe . . . we should depart f