It started on April 29, 1988 when Soviet authorities gave a green light to official religiousness. Mikhail Gorbachev, then-Secretary General of the Communist Party Central Committee, met with Moscow Patriarch Pimen Izvekov and members of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.
That was an extraordinary event. A party with the solid background of physical elimination of the clergy, demolition of churches and an atheistic ideology was never supposed to cross paths with the representatives of a cult and promoters of “religious opium”. Yet, by the end of its existence the Soviet Union had found itself in a dead end. In a desperate attempt to demonstrate to the West and the US that it can have a human face, the Soviet Union met the Church halfway in the runup to the celebration of the millennium after the baptism of Kyiv Rus.
Interestingly, Metropolitan Filaret Denysenko of Kyiv and Halychyna was among the hierarchs of that Synod. He is now the Patriarch of Kyiv and All Rus-Ukraine, and the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate.
The party allowed contacts with the clergy and that meeting with the Kremlin marked a thaw. Ever since, officials and politicians have been going to churches on big holidays for decades, posing for cameras and crossing themselves as they hope to attract voters.
Often show-off and insincere, piety is a traditional component of all election campaigns in the modern post-totalitarian Ukraine. Every election cycle tends to spark religious fervor of candidates for whatever office. This article is an attempt to classify the features of this political piety practiced by Ukraine’s top leaders over the years of independence.
Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of the independent Ukraine, hardly ever goes to church. He has sometimes appeared at public religious events. This may be the legacy from his time as the chief party ideologist and atheist. However, he did support Metropolitan Filaret’s efforts to gain autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as head of state and still has good personal relations with him. “Independent Orthodox Church for the independent state” first appeared as a slogan under Kravchuk’s presidency.
When Kravchuk worked at the Communist Party Central Committee, he baptized his grandchildren at the home church of Filaret, then-exarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. That’s what I learned from his in-law, the late Anatoliy Moskalenko who headed the Institute of Journalism at the Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University. It was already at the time of perestroika, but the mere fact is intriguing.
Leonid Kuchma never was a fervent Orthodox believer during his presidency. Yet, he regularly attended important religious events and informal meetings with top hierarchs. He started a tradition known as Easter Carousels when he as president toured the major churches of all parishes in Kyiv at Easter night. Kuchma fist attended a mass at St. Volodymyr Patriarch Cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate, and ended the night at the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate.
Kuchma ascended to power as a passionate supporter of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, after the violent police attack against the burial procession for Patriarch Volodymyr Romaniuk of Kyiv and All Rus-Ukraine on what is since known as the Black Tuesday in July 1995 shocked Ukraine and the world, he shifted his position and began to show respect to the followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, too. Moreover, the law bids presidents to do so. Under Kuchma’s presidency, the state brought some important shrines back from oblivion, including the St. Michael Church and the Dormition Church, both in Kyiv. It also essentially completed the handover of cult buildings from state ownership to different parishes, and the clash between the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics in Western Ukraine stopped.
Viktor Yushchenko presented himself as a deeply religious candidate in the campaign. He was the first of the kind. That made life more difficult for the team of his imagemakers as they had to show that while the candidate preferred the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, he was no stranger to the Moscow Patriarchate. As head of state, Yushchenko continued Kuchma’s tradition of touring churches for Easter. His predecessor’s multiverctoral approach to religion put pressure on Yushchenko. Together with his brother Petro, Yushchenko built a church in his village Khorunzhivka, Sumy Oblast, that first belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate, and then was transferred to the Kyiv Patriarchate under public pressure. More generally, Ukraine’s third president was known for his chaotic nature and uncertainty both in politics, and in religion.
Still, it was under Yushchenko’s presidency that Ukraine made a strong attempt to gain autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church following the celebration of the 1020thanniversary of Kyiv Rus-Ukraine baptism. All presidents up until that point had limited themselves to public statements on the need to establish the unified Ukrainian National Orthodox Church and abstract letters to the Patriarchate in Constantinople.
Yushchenko’s team tried to use the tomos as a trump card in the campaign for the second term in office. Most Ukrainians still remember a visit of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to Kyiv. Then, however, talks about tomos of autocephaly reached a dead end. This was because everything was done chaotically, on the level of personal communication, without any specific plan and in hope of convincing the Ecumenical Patriarch with the fancy reception in Kyiv.
The religious aspect of Viktor Yanukovych is a topic for a psychological study. Everyone remembers his virtually fanatical support of the Moscow Patriarchate – he converted his team into a sect of Russia-oriented politicized Orthodoxy. His frequent visits to monasteries, including the Mount Athos, were not merely part of his image to mobilize the pro-Russian electorate of Southern and Eastern Ukraine, but an element of his ritual faith.
Yanukovych’s approach to religion was quite original. He combined deep faith in God and illegal detention of Oleksandr Drabynko, the closest aid to Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate whose independentism did not quite fit Moscow’s purposes, and who was critically ill during that period. This betrayed Yanukovych’s deep internal fear and belief in the supernatural. It was probably what led Yanukovych to what his ex-Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko later described in his book as a miracle. When Yanukovych lost the first presidential election in 2005 and was preparing to commit suicide at his estate near Kyiv, he went to the Dnipro bank with a gun and saw a cross on the ice in the moonlight. He later told his close friends that this was a sign from God. He ordered his staff to break a hole in the ice in the shape of the cross he saw, bathed in it, tossed the gun there and launched the next stage of his bid for presidency.
Another traditional candidate for presidency is Yulia Tymoshenko. She came into politics as a faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. She built a church in her constituency and has received religious awards. During her second term as prime-minister, she deliberately avoided attending the meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Instead, she had friendly meetings with the newly-elected Patriarch Kirill Gundiayev of Moscow. When she was sentenced to a term in jail under Yanukovych’s presidency, Tymoshenko presented herself as the follower of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate. Yet, she rarely shows up at St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv and did not show any public support for autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church during her latest visit to Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem.
Just like his predecessors, Ukraine’s current president went through a difficult path of religious evolution. Initially a determined member and donator of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, he has demonstrated the greatest understanding of how important autocephaly is for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has managed to establish partner relations with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and has avoided ruining relations with the pro-Ukrainian wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate.
Poroshenko’s opponents are now accusing him of using autocephaly in the upcoming presidential campaign. However, that is exactly how any president in any country builds accomplishments into the next victory.
Ukrainian politicians have long-established religious images. Oleksandr Turchynov, head of the National Defence and Security Council, is a member of the Baptist community. Vadym Rabinovych, another candidate for presidency, is an activist of the Judaic community. Arseniy Yatseniuk presents himself as Greek Catholic. Anatoliy Hrytsenko gets married at a Moscow Patriarchate church. The Opposition Bloc, an offshoot of the Party of Regions led by Vadym Novinsky, also follows in the footsteps of Metropolitan Onufriy of Moscow Patriarchate.
Quite often, religious habits of Ukrainian powerholders take weird forms in everyday life. E-declarations have revealed that some MPs own amazing collections of icons and church items, while others have built smaller and larger churches in their backyards as private property. Some have declared relics of saints which they keep at home.
With this somewhat burlesque piety of Ukrainian politicians, various Christian democratic parties have not made it well in the country. The likes of Christian Democratic Party of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Christian Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union have either disappeared from political life or are barely surviving on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, every politician must remember that Ukrainian voters hate political showing off. A survey by the Razumkov Center from March 2018 shows that 11% of Ukrainians favour public demonstration of piety by politicians, while 52% see it as a negative thing.