Antoine Arjakovsky: History and Memories of the Pseudo-Synod of Lviv

The editors of The Wheel are grateful to Antoine Arjakovsky for his careful analysis of a painful episode in the history of the Church in Ukraine on the occasion of its 70th anniversary. His article below is a reminder that the repercussions of that episode resonate to this day in the unfortunate tangle of secular and ecclesiastical politics that prevail in the contemporary situation of Ukraine.  

We welcome the historical insight and passionate candor of those who wrestle with the Church's most pressing challenges.  Likewise, we would like to invite all to consider how the tragic events of recent history might provide an opportunity for those of us in the contemporary worldwide Church to promote a new perspective, one that seeks to overcome the impasses and disputes of the past concerning ecclesiastical boundaries and jurisdiction, conflicts that have seriously damaged the Church’s living witness to Christ.

No historical analysis can be entirely objective, and any good piece of historical writing should provide ground for fruitful discussion rather than close off dialogue.  We at The Wheel would like to include more articles of such historical and analytical character in the future.


(1) Note: This text was originally published in French as “Histoire et mémoires du pseudo-synode de Lvov/Lviv”, in: En attendant le concile de l’Église orthodoxe (Paris: Cerf, 2013), pp. 489-500.


In March 2006, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the official liquidation of its Metropolis of Halych by the Soviet authorities on March 8-10, 1946. Many personalities, from Pope Benedict XVI to Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, from the synod of the Greek Catholic Church to the synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, from Viktor Yushchenko, the president of the Ukrainian State, to Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk, the head of the Department of Foreign Relations for the patriarchate of Moscow, have expressed their opinions on this event, before, during or after the legislative electoral campaign of March 2006 (2).

The History
In February 1945, twelve days after the Conference of Yalta, Stalin decided to organize a “synod” of the Greek Catholic Church for the following year. This decision was carried out by the NKVD according to a very precise plan (3) and the synod was held at the Cathedral of Saint George of Lvov (4), a city conquered by the Red Army a year earlier. This “synod” led to the total elimination of the Greek Catholic Church and the forced integration of the so-called “Uniate” parishes into the Russian Orthodox Church – a Church which had itself been persecuted by the Soviet government since 1917. The Canadian historian Bohdan Bociurkiw has given a detailed chronicle of events based on numerous archives (5). This narrative was taken up and completed in a documentary film, Understand And to Forgive realized by the Institute for Ecumenical Studies of Lviv in 2006 with an international team of historians belonging to different universities and Christian confessions (among them the patriarchate of Moscow and the Greek-Catholic Ukrainian Church).

In 1945, with the beginning of the Cold War among the former allies of the anti-Hitler coalition, the Greek-Catholic Church was considered in the Soviet Union as being a member of “the other side,” as “an agent of international imperialism” and a “fifth column of the Vatican.” At the beginning of March, 1945, Georgiy Karpov, a colonel of the National Committee for the Security of the State (NKGB) and president of the council in charge of the Russian Orthodox Church, a department under the Council of Commissioners of the People of the Soviet Union, was entrusted with a mission by Stalin. He was to devise a plan of attack against the Vatican and implicate the Patriarchate of Moscow in the “struggle against Catholicism and Uniatism” i.e. principally against the Greek-Catholic Church. On March 17, Stalin ratified the “Secret Instruction No. 58” which Georgiy Karpov had prepared, and signed it noting, “I approve all the measures. Joseph Stalin.” The realization of Karpov’s plan began on April 8, 1945, by the publication of the article “With the Cross or With the Knife” by the Communist Yaroslav Halan in the regional newspaper Vilna Ukraina ("Free Ukraine") which accused the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine of “complacency” towards the Nazis. At Lvov, on the night of April 11-12, 1945, Metropolitan Yosyf Slipy, the head of the Greek-Catholic Church, was arrested together with Mgr. Mykyta Budka and Mgr. Mykola Charnetsky. A little later, at Stanislav, Bishop Hryhoriy Khomyshyn and Auxiliary Bishop Ivan Lyatychevsky were detained.

After the arrests of the hierarchs, many known priests, superiors of monasteries, monks and nuns found themselves in prison. Many of them were tortured.

The “initiative” group, which was to carry out the Secret Instruction No. 58, was officially created on May 28, 1945. Two letters of request for recognition were sent to priests and to the government. The direction of the group was assured by three priests, well-respected in their eparchies, who represented three eparchies of the Greek-Catholic Church in the Soviet Union. The eparchy of Lvov was represented by Father Havryil Kostelnyk, the rector of the Church of the Transfiguration who was known for his “pro-Western” opinions; the eparchy of Stanislav was represented by the dean of Housyatyn, Father Antoniy Pelvetsky; that of Peremyshl by Father Mykhailo Melnyk, its vicar. On June 18, 1945, the government, through Khodchenko, the minister for affairs with the Russian Orthodox Church, announced that this group was the only representative organ of the Greek-Catholic Church. The security services of the State then organized the publication and distribution of about 10,000 copies of a letter written in the name of the Patriarch Alexis, summoning the Greek-Catholics to join the Russian Orthodox Church.

At the end of April 1945, for the first time in history, an eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church was created with its seat in Lvov. Makariy Oksyuk, a bishop of the patriarchate of Moscow, became its head. The activity of the initiative group finished in December at the moment when the preparations for the assembly of the Greek-Catholic clergy began. According to the plan of Karpov, it was during this assembly that the liquidation of the Greek Catholic Church and its reunion with the Russian Orthodox Church would be announced. But in order to realize this plan and give the assembly the appearances of a true council, some bishops had to be present. In the absence of any support from the Greek-Catholic episcopate, it was decided to consecrate as bishops two members of the initiative group who had made a vow of celibacy, Antoniy Pelvetsky and Mykhailo Melnyk.

The decision of their ordination was accepted by Moscow on February 19, 1946 at the Synod meeting. The ordinations took place in Kiev during a celebration at which the thirteen most active members of the initiative committee assisted. On February 22, they converted to Orthodoxy and on the February 24 and 25, they were consecrated bishops – Pelvetsky first, then Melnyk. Thus everything was ready. Moreover, the initiative group prepared the invitations which were sent to those who favored the idea of reunion. But most of the priests did not know that they had been summoned to a synod because they had been whisked away in the militia trucks. They thought that they were being arrested and taken to jail.

The synod began the Friday of the first week of Lent and ended on the feast of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. During these three days the members were not informed of the agenda. No Greek-Catholic bishop was present. The 216 priests and 19 laypeople had been chosen by The National Committee of State Security and ratified by the initiative group which was Orthodox and had not been elected by anyone. The initiative group itself was under pressure and was controlled by the forces of national security. On March 8, the delegates ratified by a show of hands – which was filmed – the resolution read by Father Kostelnyk concerning the annulment of the 1596 Union of Brest and the return to the Orthodox Church. On March 10 the feast of unification was celebrated.

Between 1946 and 1949, more than 3,000 Greek-Catholic parishes of Galicia and Transcarpathia were shut down or forcefully incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church. Thousands of persons died in the prisons or in the Gulag system. The Greek-Catholic Church was able to continue in existence until 1990 but only clandestinely or in the diaspora.

The Memories
For the archbishop of the patriarchate of Moscow at Lviv and Halych in 2006, Bishop Augustin Markevich, this “synod” was an authentic synod since, for him, the Greek-Catholic Church did not have real ecclesial status (6). The Russian Church had never accepted the fact that, at the Council of Brest in 1596, the Orthodox Church of Kiev-Halych had actualized its canonical links with Rome as is attested by the letter of Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk to Cardinal Lubomir Husar on July 10, 2006.

But for the synod of Greek-Catholic bishops of 2006, this was nothing more than a pseudo-synod since, in 1946, not a single bishop was present in this reunion organized by Stalin. Pope Benedict XVI fully supported this interpretation when he wrote: “In these sad days of March, 1946, a group of ecclesiastics, united in a pseudo-synod, usurped for itself the right to represent the Church and gravely harmed ecclesial unity” (7).

President Yushchenko, in a speech on March 7, 2006, made the following declaration concerning the pseudo-synod of Lviv:

“The 1946 Synod of Lviv is a painful memory in the hearts of many Ukrainians. That day marked the beginning of a period both tragic and heroic in the history of the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine. It was a period of violent massacres for those whose faith and patriotism had not been broken by the totalitarian regime. The rebirth of the Church after 50 years of persecutions has proved the impossibility of destroying the true faith […] These dramatic pages of Ukrainian history should teach us toleration and cooperation in order to find peace and unity within our society. Faith has given Ukraine the possibility of defending its independence. God has given us the gift of wisdom and patience so that we might arrive at this goal with His aid. The love for our neighbors and unity for the good of all will guide us towards success. May God protect you and all Ukrainians” (8).

For its part, on March 9, 2006, the synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Patriarchate of Moscow published a declaration (9) in which it admits the irregularities of this “synod” and, for the first time, recognizes that it was organized by the Communists in power. However, in its declaration, it continues to justify this synod as an action of “divine providence” since, the document states, the Greek-Catholics represent an historical error.

In their declaration, the bishops begin by roundly rejecting the 1596 Union of Brest. They state that it is “useless” because: firstly, the Church of Rus’ alone has the plentitude of grace, secondly, it was signed by “mercenary bishops” and, finally, because it was the result of Roman proselytizing and the desire to “Polonize” Galicia.

The work of university researchers, however, questions this way of looking at the Union of Brest. As the historian J. Meyendorff writes, the Church of Kiev-Halych, distinct from the see of Kiev-Moscow, existed from the beginnings and still more since 1458, after the recognition of the Council of Florence by the bishops of the Southern Rus’ – following the triumphal reception which Kiev gave to Metropolitan Isidor – by its twofold communion with Constantinople and Rome (10). In addition, the historian Borys Gudziak has shown that the Union was motivated by the desire to react to the Reformation, which became all the more necessary due to the absence of correct governance on the part of the Mother Church which had been dominated by the Turks since 1453. According to the viewpoint of B. Gudziak, which has been vastly accepted by the scientific community (11), the Union of Brest, far from having been suggested by Rome, was an initiative of “Orthodox bishops” based upon “an authentic desire of union (12), according to Bernard Marchadier of the Church of Kiev-Halych.

The bishops of the patriarchate of Moscow, on the contrary, convinced, because of their confessional and anachronistic vision of the events, that the Union of Brest was not desired by the Church of Kiev, considered this synod to be a violation of the Orthodox conscience and the loss of the churches of Little Russia to be acts of violence. Having established this fact, these Ukrainian bishops then became the defenders of the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and of the reunification of Western Ukraine and the Soviet Union. They wrote:

“In 1939, the territory of Ukraine was reunified after an interruption of 600 years. Nobody can say that the Soviet government has brought happiness and liberty to the Western territories of the Ukraine. But is it not positive that Ukraine has finally recovered its integrity? Nobody approves the totalitarian Soviet regime and the persecutions suffered by nearly every Ukrainian family. But no one can deny the fact that the deliverance from the yoke of slavery under Fascist Germany by the Soviet soldiers was a great happiness for Ukraine” (13).

Without mentioning the fact that the advance of the Red Army was made considerably easier because of the action of the Ukrainian Resistance, these bishops affirm that “the Uniate leaders supported Fascism.” If it is true that, in June of 1941, the majority of the Ukrainians greeted the Germans with joy, seeing them as liberators from Communist oppression, it must be kept in mind that as early as Autumn of 1941, Metropolitan Sheptytsky, the major archbishop of the Greek-Catholic Church during the Second World War, distanced himself from the occupation forces. In February 1942, he wrote a letter to Heinrich Himmler in which he severely condemned the final solution (14).

In the documentary film To Understand and Forgive (15), the director of the Institute of Church History, the Greek-Catholic historian Oleh Tury, has given an instructive explanation of the conciliatory attitude of the Ukrainians towards the Nazi armies in 1941:

“The main problem of the Ukrainians during this epoch was that they did not have their own State and that they always had to decide where they were going to direct their political and national sympathies. They had to choose not between good and evil but among different forms of evil. It is very important to replace events in their historical context. I am thinking especially about the desire the Ukrainians have had since the end of the 19th century to be recognized as a European nation. When talking about the benevolent attitude of the Ukrainians toward the Nazi regime in 1941, their benevolent attitude towards the Soviet occupiers in 1939 should also be taken into account. Every time such and such an event is examined, the real historical context should be established. That is how we can understand that, for the Ukrainians, the Nazi occupation of their territory represented, at the beginning, a liberation from Soviet domination. This Soviet occupation did not last long – from 1939-1941 – but it was very brutal and bloody. It culminated with the deportation of hundreds of thousands of persons and by the assassination of other thousands, above all during the final days, before the Soviet retreat. The Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine was equally affected and even threatened with total liquidation” (16).

In their text, however, the bishops of the Orthodox synod expressed their regret that all the Greek Catholic bishops were arrested in 1945-46. That is a critical point which will make itself felt during the following years. At the end of their declaration, they will go so far as to say that: “The Ukrainian Orthodox Church does not justify in any way the circumstances and the means employed in the past during the totalitarian Soviet occupation when the 1946 Synod of Lviv was convoked. “ But these same Ukrainian bishops – probably pressured by their Mother Church – do not see any difficulty in recognizing the legitimacy of a synod without bishops (since these were considered collaborators) and pointing out, even in good faith, that the priests were given “the right to vote”. But according to the Canadian historian Bohdan Bociurkiw (17), the right to vote under the Stalinist regime was only a masquerade. The 216 priests and 19 lay people chosen by the NKGB and the Orthodox initiative group were not elected and they were brought in trucks without knowing where they were going; they were at the mercy of the “initiative group” created by the NKVD. The Greek-Catholic Church, forced to enter into the clandestine state, would offer an incalculable number of martyrs. For 40 years it was main social force of opposition to the Communist regime within the borders of the USSR until it was recognized by Mikhail Gorbachev on December 1, 1989, following the latter’s meeting with Pope John Paul II (18).

Everything happened as if what mattered for the Ukrainian bishops depending on the patriarchate of Moscow, was to finally come to the following conclusion: “It must be realized that the Orthodox Church received the assets which had been taken away from it by the Uniates with the military support of the Polish Crown. Among these assets are the cathedrals built by the Orthodox before the Treaty of Brest and the lands which the Orthodox Church owned before the synod of 1596.” It is this argument which is still used today to justify the Russian imperial vision concerning the churches lost in Galicia in 1990-95 which were “taken away by force” and the condemnations of the permanence of “Uniate proselytism” in these territories. The difficulty here is not only that the historical justification which they present is far from convincing. The main problem is that the Patriarchate of Moscow has never had, at any time of its history, jurisdiction over Galicia! The Church of Kiev-Halych has always been under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as the Ecumenical Throne asserted on three occasions during the 20th century. And if the princes of Moscow invaded the Rus’ in the 17th century and submitted the see of Kiev to Moscow in 1686, they never arrived at extending their jurisdiction over Galicia until March 1946. On the other side of the coin, since the 17th century, vague impulses of independence from Moscow have been running through the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This explains the basic solidarity which now unites the Greek-Catholic Church, the patriarchate of Kiev and the Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

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The memories of the 1946 “synod” of Lviv clearly bear witness to the fact that, above and beyond the inter-confessional polemic, there are many important questions involved: the history of the formation of Nation-States in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland; the unity of the Orthodox world; the future of the ecumenical movement.

The history of the (pseudo-) synod of Lviv/Lvov enables us to understand that if the Ukrainians wanted to heal the wounds of their bloody history, if the heirs of the Church of Kyiv/Kiev, Catholics and Orthodox, would succeed in forgiving one another, the latter for refusing to recognize the existence of a Church of Kyiv-Halych in double communion with Rome and Constantinople until the 16th century, the former for not having understood the vacillations of the Church of Kiev-Moscow regarding the 15th century Council of Florence, then the Church of Kyiv/Kiev would finally be able to come together again and thus reassemble the Roman, Byzantine and Slavic poles of its identity.

This twofold recognition could give impetus to the following movement of ecclesial consciousness. The Orthodox hierarchs of the Patriarchate of Moscow would then recognize the artificiality of the pseudo-synod of Lviv. Many Orthodox personalities who belong to the Patriarchate of Moscow have already recognized this: Father Lev Gillet, Nicolas Lossky... (19)


(2) The official version of the position of the patriarchate of Moscow can be found at: http://www.risu.org.ua/ukr/resources/religdoc/uocmp_doc/appeal_60yearslvivsobor/ with a very radical and personal position on the part of the representative of the patriarchate of Moscow at Lviv: http://www.risu.org.ua/rus/religion.and.society/other.articles/article;9497/  and a more open and measured stance on Blagovest-info (patriarchate of Moscow at Moscow) http://www.risu.org.ua/rus/religion.and.society/other.articles/article;9499/ The position of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church: http://www.ugcc.org.ukr/documents/appeal2006/poslannya_psevdo/ ; The position of Pope Benedict XVI (in French) on the site of the Catholic University of Ukraine: http://ww.ucu.edu.ua/frhttp://www.ucu.edu.ua/fr/information/article;2051/ The position of President Yushchenko (in English) at http://www.ugcc.org.ua/eng/press-releases/article;3116.

(3) According to s=Secret Instruction No. 58 addressed by M. Molotov to G. Karpov and confirmed by J. Stalin on February 16, 1945.

(4) During the course of its history, the capital of Galicia has had several names (Leopolis, Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov, Lviv). We will use different names of the city according to the historical context under consideration.

(5) Bohdan Bociurkiw, Ukrainska Greko-Katolitska i Radianska Deržava (1939-1950) (Lviv: UCU, 2005).

(6) http://www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=5&id=5011

(7) “Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Cardinal Lubomir Husar”, in: Istina (February 22, 2006) 2 (2006): 193.

(8) www.risu.org.ua, from March 27, 2006.

(9) http://www.risu.org.ua/ukr/resources/religdoc/uocmp_doc/appeal_60yearslvivsobor/

(10) Cf. John Meyendorff and Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy. The Church 1071-1453, Chapter VIII (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1994).

(11) Cf. B. Marchadier, “L’Union de Brest, quelques precisions,” in: Istina 2 (2006): 180-183. On the Orthodox side, Father Cyril Argenti has long admitted this same fact.

(12) The Ukrainian bishops then interpret the requests for pardon on the part of John Paul II, as a repentance for this proselytism. This interpretation is clearly contradicted by the opinions of the deceased pontiff expressed in Mémoire et identité where John Paul II insists on the positive and ecumenical role assumed by the Church of Poland in the 16th century.

(13) http://www.risu.org.ua/ukr/rersourses/religdoc/uocmp_doc/appeal_60yearslvivsobor/

(14) Cf. the study of Andriy Kravchuk on the activity of Metropolitan Sheptytsky during the Second World War. The author notably points out how the head of the Greek-Catholic Church, risking his own life, protected many Jews and helped them to escape: M.A. Sheptytsky, Dokumenty i Materialy (Kiev: Duh i litera, 2003).

(15) Comprendre et pardonner, written by Antoine Arjakovsky and realized by the Institute of Ecumenical Studies of Lviv, 2006. The documentary film was presented in French, English, and Ukrainian.

(16) Ibid.

(17) B. Bociurkiw, “Le synode de Lviv,” in: Istina 34.3-4 (1989): 288. Cf. also, by the same author, The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Soviet State 1939-1950 (Toronto: Edmonton, 1996).

(18) Serge Keleher, Passion and Resurrection. The Greek-Catholic Church in Soviet Ukraine (Lviv: Stauropegion, 1993), 152.

(19) Cf. for example, Nicolas Lossky, a member of the patriarchate of Moscow in France: “From the times of the Soviet regime, the Greek Catholics, like other believers, have been the victims of successive persecutions. Like the others, they have, like other Christians, their martyrs. But they have perhaps suffered more than the others. Indeed, as we all know, they were forcefully integrated into the Russian Orthodox Church. The decision to carry out this forced integration was taken by Stalin, who obliged the Orthodox Church to take the responsibility for this act upon itself even though it was totally contrary to the “liberty of cult” inscribed in the Soviet Constitution. The hierarchy of the Church accepted to endorse this ignominious act (D. Pospielovsky, The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime [Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1984], pp. 306-309) in: Comité mixte catholique-orthodoxe en France, Catholiques et Orthodoxes: les enjeux de l’uniatisme (Paris: Bayard-Fleurus-Ed. Du Cerf, 2004), 287.


Antoine Arjakovsky is an Orthodox historian and the author of several books on Orthodox Christianity. In 2013, he published En attendant le Concile de l’Église orthodoxe (Paris: Cerf), which has been translated into Ukrainian and Russian, and Qu’est-ce que l’orthodoxie? (Paris: Gallimard) which is soon to be published in English). In October 2012, he organized with Peter de Mey and Michel Stavrou an international colloquium under the auspices of the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute and the Centre for Ecumenical Research of the Catholic University of Leuven, in partnership with the Orthodox theological review Contacts and the Collège des Bernardins, entitled “The Forthcoming Council of the Orthodox Church: Understanding the Challenges.” The texts of the colloquium have appeared in Contacts 243 (July-September 2013) and SVTQ 60: 1-2 (2016).