The Hagia Sophia: Moscow’s Struggle For Power And The Decline Of Constantinople

By Theodore Shoebat

My thoughts on the recent shift of statues for the Hagia Sophia:


“Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me,

that they may be one as We are.” (John 17:11)

The making of Hagia Sophia into an official mosque, again, is a sign of Turkey’s aspirations to return to her glory days, when the Church that so symbolized the glory of Christendom, was taken by Islamic hands. With the rise of Turkey comes also the rise of Russia, Istanbul’s biggest enemy. The tension between Turkey and Russia is not at just the governmental level, but at the ecclesiastical level as well. 

There is a rivalry between Russia and Constantinople over who is going to be the head of the Orthodox Church. This is a rivalry that has been going on for decades. In order to have a better understanding of this, its essential to know how Russia sees herself within the Orthodox world. The Russian Orthodox Church sees Moscow as the “third Rome”. In fact, the Russian church believes that Moscow has been the third Rome since 1453 when the Ottomans invades Constantinople. We find this belief held in Russia going as far back as 1491. For example,  Metropolitan of Moscow, Zosima, in a foreword to his 1492 Presentation of the Paschalion, praises Ivan III as: “the new Tsar Constantine of the new city of Constantine — Moscow.” In the 16th century the monk, Philotheus, wrote to the king as such:

“So know, pious king, that all the Christian kingdoms came to an end and came together in a single kingdom of yours, two Romes  have fallen, the third stands, and there will be no fourth.”

They see the Vatican and Constantinople as the two Romes that have fallen, and Moscow as the third and perpetual Rome. It is of no surprise, then, to see that for a long time Moscow and Constantinople have been in a continuous war over influence and authority. A clear demonstration of this rivalry was what happened last year when the Constantinople Patriarchate announced that the Ukrainians would be allowed to have an Orthodox Church independent of the Moscow Patriarchate, after which the Russian Orthodox Church did a schism from Constantinople in 2018. For four centuries the Ukrainian church had been under Moscow, but then — under Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople — it was allowed to sever from the Russians. As we read in the New York Times:

“The spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in a four-hour ceremony in Istanbul on Sunday, formalizing a split with the Russian church to which it had been tied for more than four centuries.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader, handed a Tomos of Autocephaly containing a decree of independence to the newly appointed Metropolitan Epiphanius of Ukraine, cleaving millions of Ukrainians from the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The Ukrainians enthusiastically accepted the permission given to them by Constantinople, because it was truly a political decision that gave them a sense of national empowerment and liberation from Russian influence. The nationalism of the Ukrainians’ was made evident when the Ukrainian parliament — not too long after the Ukrainian church broke away from Moscow — voted in favor of the government to force the Russian Orthodox parishes that are located in Ukraine to be under the title of “Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.” The vote was done with nationalist declarations of “Glory to Ukraine!” by parliamentarians. What was not widely reported was how the forming of an independent Ukrainian church was not something that simply came from Bartholomew’s own accord, but was the result of massive pressure on the Constantinople Patriarchate from the Turks who pressured the Orthodox Church at the request of the Americans as part of a negotiation to end the sanctions that the US was imposing on Ankara.  According to a report from Modern Diplomacy:

“One of Washington’s main conditions for lifting the sanctions is Brunson’s release. However, there is another one – the autocephaly [independence] for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the author states.

In April, Kyiv, which strives to break away from the Russian Orthodox Church and create an independent Ukrainian Church, addressed the Ecumenical Patriarchate with an appeal to grant the autocephaly. According to Patriarch Bartholomew, who delivered a speech after the recent Sunday service, the still-ongoing official process is to yield the results shortly.

The previous week, in an interview to BBC Ukraine, the leader of Crimean Tatars and a member of the Ukrainian Parliament Mustafa Dzhemilev said that President Erdogan had confirmed his support in the process of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. “I told him that today Moscow is like a Mecca for the Orthodox but after the UOC becomes independent Istanbul will take the place of Moscow,” Dzhemilev noticed. According to him, when he and Ukrainian president Poroshenko met with Erdogan on July 12, the Turkish leader assured that he would do “everything possible” for the Ukrainian autocephaly and said that he understood the importance of this issue for the Crimean Tatars.”

In other words, Erdogan was acting as pope over Bartholomew himself, taking control of the church to exasperate tensions with the Russians. What we were seeing at that time was an intense rivalry between Istanbul and Moscow through the competition between two Orthodox Patriarchates. It was a manifestation of the clear deterioration of the relationship between Moscow and Constantinople, which was truly seen in the previous year, October of 2018, when the Moscow Patriarchate did a literal schism from Constantinople. Russia decided to break communion with Constantinople after the latter announced that it was going to give independence (autocephaly) to the Ukrainians, allow the Ukrainian church to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev (instead of Moscow, which is how it was for centuries), and to lift the excommunications of two Ukrainian churches which were operating independent of Moscow and considered schismatics by the Moscow Patriarchates.

When Russia made its decision in the 15th of October, 2018, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church banned all members of the Moscow Patriarchate from partaking in communion, baptism,  and marriage in any churches under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. The Russian Orthodox Church threatened to break off from any Orthodox church that recognized the Ukrainian church. In October of 2019, the Greek Orthodox Church’s Archbishop Leronymos II of Athens, wrote a letter declaring his recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In November 2019, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow did not say the name of the primate of the Church of Greece in the liturgy, thus removing him from the diptych. In December of that year, the Russians severed ties with the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Egypt, after it also recognized the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

And who caused all of this schism? Erdogan and his American backers.

The anger over an independent Ukrainian church is understandable given the past history of Ukraine as the spiritual head of all Russia. In January of 2019, Patriarch Kirill explained: “Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kiev ‘the mother of all Russian cities.’ For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so under no circumstances can we abandon this historical and spiritual relationship. The whole unity of our Local Church is based on these spiritual ties.” When Russia lost control over Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church began to promote the idea of Russkiy mir (“Russian world”), or the unity of all peoples descended from the Kievan Rus. As one Orthodox site explains:

“In addressing the ongoing political and ecclesiastical conflict in Ukraine, many have rightly brought up the Russkiy Mir (“Russian world”) ideology promoted by many in the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. This ideology, concocted as a reaction to the loss of Russian control over Ukraine and Belarus after the fall of the Soviet Union, seeks to assert a spiritual and cultural unity of the peoples descended from the Kievan Rus, presumably under Russian leadership.”

So, the Russian struggle to control the Ukrainian church is about fulfilling an ideological goal of Russian unity and also to maintain Russian hegemony. The Turks and Americans, through the Constantinople Patriarchate, split the Ukrainian church from the Moscow Patriarchate, thus fragmenting the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church and accelerating tensions between Russians and Ukrainians. What has been occurring between Russia and Istanbul in the struggle over the Ukrainian church has occurred similarly before, only except with Estonia.

The Russian Orthodox Church wanted to maintain control over the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC), which was under the authority of the Constantinople Patriarchate. In 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Estonia and after1944 the EAOC went into exile to Sweden. In 1945, the Russian Orthodox Church abolished the autonomy of the EAOC which recounted: “[t]he autonomy of the Orthodox Church of Estonia, accorded in 1923 by the Oecumenical Patriarch Meletios, was abolished in March 9, 1945 by force, unilaterally without respecting the canonical order and without informing the Oecumenical Patriarch about it nor waiting for his consentment”.

In 1991 the EAOC gained independence from the Russian church with the approval of Patriarch Bartholomew who installed for Estonia an Archbishop in 1996. In response to this, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow severed all ties with Bartholomew. On February 24th 1996, Bartholomew wrote a letter to Alexy condemning Russia’s schism and also reminded Alexy of the power goals of Russia through the institution of its church:

“the Patriarchate of Russia during those years trespassed in countries under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, namely, Estonia, Hungary and elsewhere, always by the power of the Soviet army. The Church of Russia did not at the time seek the opinion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, nor was any respect shown it. The annexation of the Orthodox Church of Estonia into the Most Holy Church of Russia happened arbitrarily and uncanonically. And it is certain that events which are uncanonical at one particular time are never blessed, never seen as efficacious, and never would they set a precedence.”

The Americans understood — and still understand — that there were (and are) definite tensions between Moscow and Constantinople. A 2004 cable from the US Consul General in Istanbul details the tensions between the two Patriarchates:

“Even assuming that the Patriarch can secure the viability of its Istanbul seat, however, Bartholomew faces another major challenge from Moscow-based Russian Patriarch

Alexy II for ecclesiastical authority in the wider Orthodox  world.  Styling itself as the “Third Rome,” Moscow claims that it assumed authority within the Orthodox community

beginning in the 15th century with the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire, and much of the Orthodox Balkans to the Ottoman Muslims and the subsequent elevation of Metropolitan Job of Moscow to the rank of Patriarch. Although temporarily suspended by the Soviet

regime’s oppression of the Russian Orthodox Church for much of the 20th century, the Moscow church’s efforts to extend its influence beyond its geographic jurisdiction have continued unabated. With abundant sources of income among its vibrant community of over 100 million faithful, three seminaries in which to train new generations of clergy, and open political support from the Russian government, Alexy is well-placed to challenge Bartholomew on a number of fronts.”

In May of 1996, Moscow and Constantinople resolved the issue and ended the schism. Notwithstanding this, the schism was a reflection of the conflict between Moscow and Constantinople. The tensions never ended; for the two patriarchates are now in another schism the cause of which was influenced by American and Turkish agitation. If the creation of an independent Ukrainian church was done by Bartholomew at the pressure of Turkey and the US, it makes one wonder what is behind the curtains of Turkey making the Hagia Sophia into a mosque again.

Regardless, what we do know is that Turkey’s recent action is to the benefit of Russia. It further weakens the Constantinople Patriarchate’s position since the icon of Orthodoxy — the Hagia Sofia — is now an official mosque, and strengthens the position of the Moscow Patriarchate. On paper, the Constantinople Patriarchate is the head of the Orthodox Church; but in practice, all of the vibrancy of Orthodoxy is in Russia. When Christians were being slaughtered by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it was Russia — not Istanbul — that the Christian world was turning to for help and hope. The Russian Orthodox Church (unlike the Constantinople Patriarchate) has an entire military apparatus alongside her, with entire armies of soldiers who go to the Orthodox Church for Communion and hope; thus, the zeal of the Orthodox Church is alive in Russia. With the Hagia Sophia made into a mosque, the Orthodox world will turn to Russia as the savior of the Hagia Sophia. Russia will use this to her advantage to gather the Orthodox world under her influence.

When looking at the Hagia Sophia situation, we can see it under the same light of the Ukrainian church being allowed to sever from the Moscow Patriarchate under the pressures of Turkey (and Russia, as a response, breaking from Constantinople): it is part of a struggle for power and influence between Russia and Turkey.