Compared to many other countries in Europe, Ukraine’s religious life is very active, although there is no state religion. So how do politics and religion work together here?
Ukraine has no state religion: its Constitution clearly separates church and state and guarantees freedom of conscience. At the same time, religious life is far more active in Ukraine today than in many other European countries and the question of faith is generally a private matter. Its civic leaders do not require the blessing of any religious leaders to be seen as legitimate, unlike some countries, where the civic and church leadership are seen as two sides of the same coin. Yet, when Ukrainian politicians go to a church or temple for major holy days, or appear in public with clerics or even heads of religious institutions, there’s a clear message for all and sundry: “We have common interests.”
The politics of religion
The relationship and interaction between religion and politics is an issue that naturally comes up for any observant researcher. The two hold the same instrument in their hands: influence over the people who are the source of any power that is real, rather than illusory. Not everyone will continue analyzing along those lines, getting more specific about which of the two is more powerful in terms of governing and influencing, who subordinates whom, and how exactly that happens. But the study of the politics of religion has been around since at least the time of Max Weber.
If we take a closer look at broad Ukrainian discourse about the religiousness of Ukrainians, then we can see that it’s quite customary to talk about the country as a state that traditionally and historically orbited around Christianity and European world, a nation that, in addition to having an ancient culture, also leans heavily on Christian culture. And so this article will focus precisely on Christians in their enormous variety, and not members of other of Ukraine’s contemporary faiths. For now, however, let’s leave the variety of forms that Christianity takes aside and look at the configuration its relationship to those in power in the state have taken throughout history. In short, this is about caesaropapism vs theocracy, or systems in which there is no separation of church and state.
Under caesaropapism, the government has a single leader who combines the power of secular government with religious power, effectively making secular authority superior to the spiritual authority of the Church. Here what is obvious is the tight internal connection and interdependence of states and the Church. This gradually moulded them into a single secular-ecclesiastic entity whose interests are closely intertwined. In practice, this kind of holism was not always upheld because such a union inevitably led to the subordination of the church to the imperial ruler or other type of government. Theocracy, on the other hand, is when the spiritual leader, usually the top cleric, like the Roman Catholic Pope, controls both spiritual and secular power. Both these principles are essentially a symphony between the church and the state. Alongside them is a third principle, the separation of church and state—whether that means that their relations could be those of antagonists, neutral forces, or allies.
The history of the last 300 years or so showed a disturbing tradition in the relationship between the different Christian churches in Ukraine and those in government: in short, lack of freedom of conscience. It was the Orthodox Christians who found themselves in the worst position. In 1685, Gideon Sviatopolk-Chetvertynskiy became Metropolitan of Kyiv, having been ordained by Moscow Patriarch Joachim and sworn fealty to the Moscow Patriarchate. In this manner, the independent, self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church ceased to exist until at least 1919.
In 1721, Peter I waved his imperial hand and Muscovy became the Russian Empire. He also replaced the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) with an ecclesiastic college known as the Holy Governing Synod. This state institution, which operated in subordination and by decree of the Emperor, was headed by an imperial chief prosecutor—a secular official. Thanks to the orthodox clergy, who controlled preaching and schooling, all the colonized peoples across the empire were russified—including Ukrainians.
In 1919, this church institution was cut down, along with a slew of others that emerged when the Russian Empire collapsed and other faiths that had developed on its territories that became part of the USSR, all the way until to 1943 when the ROC was restored. State and church, church and schools were constitutionally separated while control over religious communities was placed in the hands of the NKVD, the soviet secret police, to counter what they called “counterrevolutionary” elements among the lay and clergy, and dissent. In the meantime, their taxes were increased and a slew of religious facilities were closed and destroyed. Anyone who served in these churches had to register with the NKVD and violate the sacrament of confession at the demand of the secret police.
During WWII, the USSR policy towards religions was softened on the direct orders of Josef Stalin. In 1943, the ROC was restored and it patriarch became Sergei Stargorodskoi. However, there was no independence to speak of. That same year, the Council on ROC Affairs was set up and in 1944 the Council for Religious Affairs, whose remit was to establish contact between the government and the ROC and other religious organizations, including a variety of Christian churches. When Nikita Khrushchev came to power, a thaw began towards the arts but it did not affect the religious sphere. In those times, almost all of the concessions that Stalin had made on religious issues were cancelled.
In 1945, Stalin ordered that the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC), which had entered a union with Rome in the late 16th century, be invited to subordinate itself to the Moscow Patriarchate. In May of that year, during the Lviv pseudo-Sobor, this move was made. Many UGCC clergy were persecuted and shot, including Patriarch Josef Slipyj, while the Church itself was forced to go underground and become a secret church in order to survive, until 1989. This was no surprise: the soviets needed to push as far away as possible those who still remembered the time when soviet nations existed as independent states and could be sources of influence and information in soviet society. Leonid Brezhnev did everything possible to replace religious rituals in people’s lives with alternative “civilian” ones.
The soviets understood that it was easiest to control those religious groups whose leadership was located on soviet territory. This, of course, excluded the Roman Catholics and Protestants, especially Evangelical Christians such as Baptists, Pentecostals and Adventists. In 1944, a resolution was issued in Moscow to set up an All-Union Council of Evangelical Baptist Christians, as though a single large pot to hold communities of Baptists, Pentecostals and an entire slew of other late Protestant groups. On one hand, setting up such an entity legitimized many religious communities of late Protestantism, but on the other hand, this legal status was earned at the cost of horrendous concessions, including eliminating differences in faith among the many denominations and rejecting any and all mechanisms that would enable religious traditions to be preserved for the longer term.
Theological education was not available to all Christians in the Soviet Union. Theological academies and seminaries were all exclusively ROC, and at that were under the careful eye of the government and secret police, who decided who could study for the priesthood and be ordained—and even who could be appointed bishop. This education was intended to serve the purposes of the soviet state’s social policies and to isolate and marginalize the clergy. In this way, orthodox priests became performers of rituals rather than not spiritual pastors, slowly losing the ground beneath their feet.
After the 1960s, many unregistered communities emerged in this environment who did not agree with the style of life being forced by the soviet government. During the period of Khrushchev’s atheist campaigns, late Protestant groups were suddenly declared taboo and called “sects”—a feature that has unfortunately survived to this day—and were seen as threatening enormous harm to soviet society. Some of their leadership had been shipped to labor camps and prisons under Stalin, while its younger generation faced other forms of persecution: they were prevented from gaining a higher education because of their religious bent and in some cases even lost parental rights. It’s worth remembering that Pentecostals and Adventists were protestant movements that came to Ukraine from the US—the USSR’s bitter foe during the Cold War. Political neutrality, distrust towards the state and rejecting being part of it, being drawn to Eurasian communities or to unity within the CIS were all typical of late Protestants born in the USSR. For many years, they continued to be without the least possibility of gaining a spiritual education, let alone engage in the theological development of their tradition as it evolved outside the Soviet Union.
The Roman Catholic Church also suffered enormously under the soviets. Prior to 1920, it was largely ignored, because at that point the soviets still wanted to maintain contact with the Roman Curia in order to get around the diplomatic blockade. But in 1930, official ties between Moscow and the Vatican were broken off for a very long time. In 1934, a case was fabricated about “the attempt of Catholics to take the life of Comrade Stalin,” based on which many faithful were executed and almost all Catholic churches shut down. The Roman Catholic Church managed to survive only in Lithuania, Latvia and Western Ukraine, where the Uzhhorod Vicarage was in charge. Relations between the USSR and the Vatican began to be normalized diplomatically in 1989, just two years before the Union collapsed altogether.
Some things change, some stay the same
The phenomenon of demonstrative devoutness among Ukraine’s elected officials, ministers and presidents, once society began to pay attention to which church a particular official attended at Christmas or Easter is a clear indication of how the interaction between secular leaders and religion is changing. Right now Ukraine is in a profound transition period and is clearly post-soviet, meaning it combines elements of both the soviet era and of the new one.
What changed the most in the religious arena in 1991, when Ukraine declared independence, was the rejection of atheism as a state ideology, declared in the Law “On freedom of conscience and religious organization.” This law is in force to this day. At that moment every Ukrainian citizen gained the right to freedom of conscience and the church, meaning religious organizations, and state were separated, and education was separated from the church as well. The document also stated that religious organizations would no longer carry out state functions, while the state would no longer finance the activities of any organization based on its position towards religion.
And so, religious organizations are not allowed to engage in party politics or to provide financial support to political parties, to nominate candidates for public office, to engage in politicking or funding the election campaigns of individuals running for office. Clergy are allowed to participate in political activities just like all other citizens. Meanwhile, religious institutions gained the right to solicit financial and other donations and to accept them. Financial and material contributions, together with other incomes of religious organizations are not taxed, including their expenses on charitable activities. At the same time, religious organizations have no right to force their faithful to contribute funds. On the other hand, enterprises belonging to religious organizations are subject to taxes on income from their manufacturing or other commercial activities, in accordance with whatever laws are in effect, in the procedure and amounts established for commercial community organizations.
The leaders of some Christian denominations in Ukraine can be seen to be making both determined efforts to prevent politicians from interfering and determined efforts to participate actively in politics. Many others remember soviet times and practices very well, and have less desire to gain political influence by participating in a deliberate independent game in political circles than to ensure that the government pay as little attention as possible, let alone control, what they are doing in their business and commercial activities as religious organizations. Audits, tax inspections, financial reporting, transparency and personal income declarations just like other members of society are things that such individuals are not especially happy to deal with. And so they try to resolve issues like this not through legislation but through backroom deals, through agreements not to attack but to cooperate. Corruption goes a long way here, as well because it is a systemic phenomenon. To change this state of affairs means a different approach to interactions between society and its government in Ukraine, and so far that has proved very difficult, indeed.
Religion is one of the more powerful channels of influence in a society, right next to the press. The faithful are, after all, citizens of the state with the right to vote during elections. They are an enormous resource whose mass vote determines who will or will not be elected to a post, from the local to the national level. How to influence them is what interests those seeking secular power. And this influence is how some part of religious leaders thank the government for not paying too much attention to their activities, especially commercial and business ones, and to their relationship to foreign administrative centers where those happen to exist. And so, politicking, even if indirectly, and success in an electoral race determine all.
Interestingly, since Ukraine became independent, political parties that were based on religious principles gained neither broad popularity nor powerful influence. A party like the Christian Democratic Union in Germany, which unites all Christians on an interconfessional basis, or the Christian Social Union, is nearly impossible to imagine in Ukraine.
Of the 352 parties registered in Ukraine as of January 2017, only five can be considered religious in orientation: the Christian-Liberal Party, the Christian-Democratic Party, the Republican Christian Party, the Christian Movement, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Assembly. Few Ukrainians have even heard of most of them, but should the need arise and funding be found these parties could suddenly appear on the list of those who are participating in an election campaign, especially in 2019. After all, “placeholder” candidates are always needed.
When politicians and ministers show up with the top clerics of a church, it’s a clear message to parishioners that “these are our boys and girls,” and you have to support yours. This works just as well as someone donating to this or that religious organization so that they can look good in others’ eyes. Indirect campaigning happens in various ways in various places: it doesn’t take much to drop a hint in a sermon or, even more subtly, during informal conversations at people’s homes. This kind of thing shapes preferences, not just about worldviews, but about politics as well. Distributing information further in the community becomes easy enough just using the grapevine.
This kind of scheme can be seen in the links between the members of the one-time Party of the Regions and Opposition Bloc with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP)— Vadym Novynskiy gets around a lot—and in the open cooperation between ex-Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskiy and the founder and senior pastor of the charismatic New Generation Church, Oleksandr Lediayev, and before that with the Nigerian founder of the Embassy of God church Sunday Adelaja, and with Volodymyr Muntyan, the director of the Renaissance Spiritual Center who took Adelaja’s place.
This was also evident in the way that politicians tried to insure themselves support on both sides of the barricades during the Euromaidan, because they weren’t sure who would win. And so Ukrainians saw Yulia Tymoshenko with the head of the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate at the All-Ukrainian Conference of young members of evangelical Christian faiths in Ukraine. Deputy Speaker Oksana Syroyid (Samopomich) and Samopomich faction leader at Kyiv City Council Serhiy Husovskiy both spoke at the Renaissance Spiritual Center. Various MPs have made high-profile pilgrimages across the entire country, also raising the questions: were they inspired by priests or politics and did they not perhaps cut a deal amongst them?
However, not all the leaders of Christian churches in Ukraine have obvious political ambitions. There are also those who are working to overcome the system of relations between politicians and churches that is all too familiar in Ukraine, and have already taken specific steps towards this end. National Security Council Chair Oleksandr Turchynov, National Front MP Pavlo Ungurian, both of them from the Baptist community, and a long string of those who came from the Greek-Catholic community, especially members of Svoboda and Samopomich, have shown the example here.
Religion and churches have always been a powerful channel for shaping public opinions and attitudes, and, in the case of Ukraine, they have also led in public trust. The question is how this influence was used and in whose favor. The power of politicians is unstable and changeable. What’s more important is whom society is really supporting. Those political activists and religious organizations that are able to listen to the public’s requests and demands, who have a social doctrine and carry out social work, have the support of Ukrainian citizens.
The thing is that mere performers of rituals are not Martin Luther Kings who can force an entire society and its politicians to change. Ordinary folks are interested in work that is important for all of society: help to orphans, the elderly, the crippled and the poor; the rehabilitation of people suffering from various addictions… and with the Euromaidan and Russia’s military aggression, this extended to volunteering, rehabilitating and returning prisoners of war and the wounded to normal life, and, last but not least, chaplaincy.
Yes, neither the American nor the German or French systems work in Ukraine, and the bill to regulate the country’s many religions has not been passed – this is a task for the future. But state recognition of church documents on higher spiritual education and of academic degrees and titles issued by post-secondary theological institutions is a clear indication that religious organizations, including Christian ones, influence the secular government, not just the other way. And so, in modern-day Ukraine, politicians may speak through the voices of spiritual leaders, but the opposite is true as well, especially when it comes to support or lack of support for certain reforms, family values, migration abroad, and Ukrainian or other worldviews. The point is that, in a modern, democratic European society, we should hear the voices of all stakeholders, not just one particular group.