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Soviet-Era Documents Shed Light On Suppression Of Ukrainian Catholic Church

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill blesses believers during a service in Kyiv on July 27.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill blesses believers during a service in Kyiv on July 27.
Patriarch Kirill's recent high-profile visit to Ukraine was interrupted by an unwanted visitor from the past: Josef Stalin's ghost.

A five-decade-old letter from the Soviet Communist Party archives, made available to RFE/RL's Russian Service this week as Kirill was wrapping up his 10-day visit to Ukraine, illustrates the extent to which the patriarch's predecessors were involved in Stalin's efforts to wipe out the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in the 1940s.

The letter, from then-Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy I to the head of the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs, Georgy Karpov, was dated December 7, 1945, when the Kremlin was consolidating control over territories in heavily Catholic western Ukraine after World War II. Karpov was a colonel in the NKVD, a predecessor to the Soviet KGB.

In the letter, Aleksy informs Karpov of an "initiative group" that was being formed in Greek-Catholic dioceses in western Ukraine that would pressure clergy to agree to disband their church and convert to Orthodoxy.

"More than 800 priests have already joined the initiative group, and it is expected that by the New Year the entire clergy will have done so with the exception of a small number of diehards," Aleksy wrote.

At the time of the letter, all of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church's bishops had been either imprisoned or exiled, making the clergy especially vulnerable to pressure as Stalin sought to eradicate the Vatican's influence.

"What strikes me most about that letter is that, within the context of the particular power relationships that were in place, [Patriarch Aleksei I] really sounds like he was trying to give a semblance of ecclesiastical credibility to what was otherwise clearly a blatant act of state intervention in Church affairs," says Andrii Krawchuk, the former president of the University of Sudbury in Ontario, Canada and the author of the book "Christian Social Ethics in Ukraine."

In another letter, published this week by the Austrian Catholic news agency Kathpress, Nikita Khrushchev, then a member of the Soviet Politburo and a high-ranking Ukrainian Communist Party official, informed Stalin of "work undertaken to dismember the [Ukrainian Greek-Catholic] church and transfer the...clergy to the Orthodox Church." That letter was dated December 17, 1945, just 10 days after Aleksy's correspondence.

Father Ihor Yatsyv, press secretary for the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Lubomyr Huzar, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that the documents shed important light on efforts by Soviet authorities to liquidate Catholicism in western Ukraine.

"The most important thing this letter illustrates is that these initiative groups were not established by the Greek-Catholic dioceses themselves, as had been previously claimed, but rather that they were inspired by the Soviet authorities," Yatsyv says.

Echoes Of The Past

Stalin allowed the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been suppressed following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to operate officially again from 1943 -- albeit under tight Soviet supervision -- in an effort to intensify patriotic support for the authorities during World War II and after.

"In Stalin's regime the idea was to subsume everything into one centralized aegis, namely the Russian Orthodox Church, which itself was subject to strict controls and even repression by the state," Krawchuk says.

The letters came to light as Patriarch Kirill was completing a visit to Ukraine amid criticism that the Russian Orthodox leader was carrying out the Kremlin's political agenda to bring Russia's southern neighbor back under Moscow's control.

In controversial remarks on Ukrainian television on July 28, Kirill said Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people. He also called on Ukrainians not to forsake their values in the pursuit of closer ties with Europe.

Yatsyv was critical of Kirill's conduct during his visit, which took place from July 12-August 5, which he said "was more political than religious," and suggested that he saw echoes of Moscow's past attempts to dominate Ukraine.

"One would expect a politician from Russia or some other country that wants to establish a sphere of influence in Ukraine to use such a tone. If it is a spiritual person, the head of a church, he should be addressing spiritual and moral issues," Yatsyv says.

Yatsyv says the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church had no role in leaking the Stalin-Khrushchev letter to Kathpress. He says, however, that after the publication the church discovered that it had a copy of the letter, which it has since posted on its website.

In a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev upon returning to Moscow, Kirill called his visit to Ukraine "one of the most striking memories of my patriarchal service" and appealed for closer ties between Moscow and Kyiv.

"We must do everything we can to ensure that our people always feel a mutual closeness, while respecting the sovereignty of nations and taking into account the reality of modern politics," Kirill said.

"The people of Russia and Ukraine should feel comfortable in this common spiritual space, being a part of different nations and being the citizens of different states, but still being the sons and daughters of the Russian Orthodox Church."

Medvedev responded that "in spite of what has happened and in spite of our division into separate states, the special brotherly relations between our peoples must remain, regardless of who is in power."

Underground Seminaries

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which was formed by the Union of Brest in 1596, is under the authority of the Vatican but observes Byzantine rites similar to those of the Eastern Orthodox Church . It is considered an important component of national identity in western Ukraine.

According to documents from Ukrainian archives, obtained by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Stalin's security chief Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD, approved the decision to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in January 1941.

Those plans, however, were delayed when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The Soviet Union regained control over western Ukraine in the summer of 1944.

Initially, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishops were asked by Soviet authorities to endorse a union with the Russian Orthodox Church, but all of them refused -- and were subsequently arrested and sent into internal exile.

Under the supervision of Soviet authorities, new, more pliant, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishops were ordained, but this was never recognized by the Vatican.

In March 1946, just three months after the Aleksy-Karpov and Khrushchev-Stalin letters, the clergy who had joined the initiative group convened in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv to annul the Union of Brest, dissolve the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, merge its clergy with the Russian Orthodox Church, and turn its property over to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Some clergy, however, went underground to keep the faith alive, conducting services in forests and in homes.

"The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church ceased to [officially] function in the Soviet Union, but it continued illegally, in the catacombs as we say," Yatsyv says. "There were new bishops and underground seminaries."

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church remained underground until for more than four decades until December 1989, during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalization, when it was allowed again to function officially.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Vladimir Tolz of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report