On Sept. 24, 1949, Georgii Karpov, chairman of the agency that provided “liaison” to the Russian Orthodox Church for the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, wrote Josef Stalin and his chief henchmen a confidential letter reeking with self-congratulation. The “government’s instruction on the liquidation of….the Greek Catholic Church [in Ukraine],” Karpov crowed, “has been carried out.” The “Uniate Church” that “was subordinated to the Roman pope was liquidated by August of this year through its reunion with the Russian Orthodox Church.”
The crucial moment in this calculated aggression, in which Russian Orthodoxy acted as a front for the brutal assault on a sister Church by an atheistic regime, came 70 years ago, on March 8-10, 1946, in Lviv, Ukraine. There, after more than a year of secret police coercion, a non-canonical “council” (or “Sobor”) of Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy “voted” (without discussion and by a “spontaneous” show of hands) to abrogate the 1596 Union of Brest that had brought their Church into full communion with Rome. Not a single Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop was present; all were under arrest or en route to the Gulag.
In the years between this notorious “Lviv Sobor” and Karpov’s letter, Soviet authorities completed the task of “liquidating” the institutions of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, destroying those churches, seminaries and monasteries that were not “reunited” with Russian Orthodoxy. By the early 1950s, Ukrainian Greek Catholics were the largest underground religious community in the world. They survived through extraordinary courage and fidelity until their Church re-emerged publicly in 1989.
The “Lviv Sobor” was not an ecclesial act; it was a farce state-managed by Soviet authorities, who saw in Ukraine’s Greek Catholics a major obstacle to implementing two communist policies: state-sponsored atheism and the Russification of Ukraine. In the early 20th century, under the leadership of an extraordinary archbishop, the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the engine – and later safe-deposit box – of Ukrainian culture, identity and aspiration.
Stalin was having none of this: Ukrainian national aspirations (like other such ambitions in the multinational prison of the USSR) would be ground into dust, and one step toward accomplishing that was the eradication of the Greek Catholic Church. So as World War II was winding down, the Stalinist regime began a campaign of calumny – nicely described by historian Bohdan Bociurkiw as a “falsification industry” – that painted Ukraine’s Greek Catholics as treasonous “bandits” and “criminals” who worked hand-in-glove with the “German-fascist occupiers,” and who were sabotaging “the socialist transformation in western Ukraine.”
The vilification of the Greek Catholic Church and the “Lviv Sobor” were integral parts of the Soviet attempt to eviscerate Ukrainian nationalism. And if “reuniting” Ukrainian Greek Catholics with Russian Orthodoxy helped strengthen the Soviet regime’s control over the Russian Church, so that it became an even more pliable instrument of Soviet power, so much the better. There were ironies in the fire here: In its efforts to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and accelerate the Russification of Ukraine, the Stalinists were mimicking the 18th-century behavior of the czarist regime the Bolshevik revolution had displaced. In both instances, the Russian Orthodox tendency to act as chaplain to the regime, whatever its nature or character, was on display.
Why is this anniversary worth noting? First, Catholics have a fraternal obligation to honor the Greek Catholic martyrs who refused to accept the “Lviv Sobor,” and consequently paid the ultimate price.
Second, remembering the past should make us alert to the lies of the present, which are omnipresent in the Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine’s efforts to build a future.
And third, because there will be no progress on the path opened by Pope Francis in his meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill unless the Church Patriarch Kirill leads acknowledges its role in the “Lviv Sobor” of 1946, thereby taking a step in liberating itself from the embrace of Russian state power.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.