The Many Faces of Tradition

23 July 2015, 17:30

ADORATION OF THE MAGI. 18th century baroque icon. The characters are portrayed with a likeness of contemporary Ukrainians, with Cossack mustache

Various forms of Christianity, paganism, Judaism, and Islam coexisted in the territory of the modern Ukraine since ancient times. In later periods and in modern times, a number of other beliefs were added to the list. This created a unique environment where different religions coexisted peacefully in the same area, while tolerance became an inherent feature of the Ukrainian national character. Besides, Ukraine never had religious wars. Another national Ukrainian tradition is horizontal interaction between society and the church: it ensured twoway influence of the church on the laity and vice versa. This distinguishes Ukraine from the vertical traditions that existed in Rome, Constantinople, and later in Moscow.

The Symphony of Church and State, adapted from the Byzantine Empire and still viable in Russia that likes to boast of its "Third Rome" status, the secularism and atheism of the Soviet period, and the European trends of post-secularism when religion gradually stepped down from the public and political arena, becoming a private matter – all these models of interaction between the society and religious organizations either existed traditionally or are present in today's Ukraine in one form or another, accounting for that specific Ukrainian attitude toward religion and the Church as an institution that is markedly noticeable to this day.


The system of church-state relations of Kyivan Rus developed upon the final introduction of Christianity was brought from the Byzantine Empire, along with its religious tradition. It was the practice of the "Symphony of Church and State" prescribed in the sixth paragraph of the Code of Emperor Justinian, whereby the State and the Church were declared to be the two divine gifts to humanity that should exist in perfect harmony with each other. While the Church takes care of the works of God, the State is responsible for the worldly matters and, at the same time, for the protection of the Church dogma and the priesthood that ensures the compliance of public life with religious prescriptions. In the times of Yaroslav the Wise, the institutions and structures necessary for the activities of the local church were formed, and a Metropolitan arch-see was established at the St. Sofia Cathedral in Kyiv. In 1051, Metropolitan Hilarion, a local, was elected to head the Kyiv archdiocese, becoming the first church leader of the Kyivan Rus. At first, bishops were elected by the Bishops' Council, but later a tradition was established whereby local princes and other local authorities determined the nominees for ordination. The tradition of moving eparches from one see to another did not exist in the medieval Kyivan Metropolia. At the same time, every town had its own bishop or metropolitan, which made the status of the head of a diocese higher than that in Byzantium. Bishops were assisted by the clergy acting on the basis of customary law. These were the priests with the highest available levels of education and the monks headed by an Archpriest. They assisted the bishop during various religious ceremonies, sat in judgment, and managed the property of the diocese.

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The Symphony of Church and State, while proclaiming the two parties to this relationship to be equal and equivalent, meant in practice the predominance of only one of them over the political and social life. This gave rise to the "Papa-Caesarism" phenomenon, when the church clergy assumed the power of political governance, or to "Caesaropapism," when the church was subordinated to secular rulers and served their interests. Depending on the prevailing trend, the Church had the status of either the ruling or a subordinate institution. In the Ukrainian territory that was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the above practices coexisted at the turn of the Middle Ages and the early modern period (though their forms differed from those of Western Europe and Muscovy). A distinctive feature was the "right of patronage," when possession of churches and monasteries was granted to the clergy by the king, magnates or noblemen who concentrated in their hands the ownership of the Church property and its lands. This allowed them to impose their will or denominational preferences, and even to sell the highest clerical posts. At the Vilnius Church Council of 1509, convened at the initiative of the Kyiv Metropolitan Joseph Soltan, a rule was adopted that condemned the Symphony and the use of the right of patronage for the appointment and ordination of clergy, and those ordained for money were excommunicated.

ICON OF ST. BARBARA THE GREAT MARTYR. Early 19th century, Transcarpathia. Likeness to real life is typical of modern Ukrainian iconography

ICON OF ST. BARBARA THE GREAT MARTYR. Early 19th century, Transcarpathia. Likeness to real life is characteristic of modern Ukrainian iconographyAt about the same time, the tradition of the Kyivan Orthodox Metropolia returned to election of the clergy for offices within the church. Eparches were elected by councils, where laymen also had voting rights. Priests and deacons were elected at the meetings of parishioners. Special agreements were made, often in writing, stipulating the terms of holding specific clerical posts. In the 18th century, a parish "choice" was used, which was a special deed confirming the community's agreement to accept a person as a member of the clergy. The electivity extended to monasteries, where archimandrites and abbots were elected. Such practice was characteristic, in particular, of Kyiv monasteries, where both secular clergy and laypeople took part in the elections of their heads. The participation of laypeople in the elections of church clergy goes back to the apostolic times, when the Apostles along with the lay people elected two candidates and cast lots between them. The electivity of the clergy at all levels was carefully preserved by the Kyiv Metropolia and distinguished it from the Moscow and even the Constantinople Churches, where bishops and priests are appointed to this day. In the 6th century Byzantium, the Justinian Code was enacted, whereby 2 or 3 bishop nominees were elected by higher clergy and influential local officials, but the final choice was left to the Metropolitan or the Patriarch. This system was borrowed in its entirety by Muscovy, but when absolute monarchy was established there, it lost any signs of electivity. From the mid-15th century, bishops and even the Metropolitan in Muscovy were elected "with the help of the Holy Spirit and at the command of our lord the Grand Duke…." The 17th century Order and Rule code stated that bishops were those "whom the Czar commanded, and His Holiness Patriarch blessed." Priests were appointed by the acting hierarch.

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In case of elections with free votes, the candidate elected by many was not obliged to anyone in particular. Over time, this ensured the establishment of the principles of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's hierarchical structure that were radically different from the ones used in churches subordinated to Constantinople or Moscow. Bishops who elected the Metropolitan considered themselves to be equal to him, and the Metropolitan to be the first among equals. Therefore, the clergy had both rights and obligations not only to secular authorities, but also to the community. This also influenced the establishment of Orthodox Church Fellowships in Ukraine that largely influenced the country's spiritual and secular life.


The territory of the modern-day Ukraine is interesting by the fact that the existence and the coexistence of many religions in this land, their contacts and conflicts are a historical phenomenon and not a new feature of the last 25 years of its independence. If we try to understand the history of the spread of Christianity in this geographical area, we will discover that it is not just the canonical story of the Conversion of Rus by Prince Volodymyr in 988, with Byzantium as the only source of Christianization. Geographically important in spreading Christianity were the cities of the Black Sea coast and Crimea, where Christianity was adopted already in the first centuries AD, in the times of the Roman Empire, and the areas along the Dnipro, which had close contacts with the Black Sea coast and the Steppe. These areas were under the influence of the Scythian, Korsun, Gothic, Surozh, Fulla and Bosporus dioceses that spread Christianity not only among the tribes living in the Ukrainian steppes, such as the Goths and the remains of the Scythians and Sarmatians, but also among the Slavs living in the North, up the Dnipro. If we consider the Christianization of Rus as a separate state, the story is similar to the conversion of its nearest neighbors, Scandinavians. Worth remembering here is the hypothesis of the first official Conversion of Rus by Askold the Varangian, who, most probably, was baptized by the missionaries of the Roman rather than Byzantine rite. The new belief lost the functions of a state religion after the coup of 882. During the 10th century, Christianity struggled with paganism, and outbreaks of anti-Christian violence were followed by periods of religious tolerance. Rus had contacts with Christian centers both in Constantinople and in Rome, which sent missionaries to Kyivan Rus under Popes Benedict VII, John XV, and Sylvester II. There is a record that the first Latin diocese in Kyiv was founded in 977 by Archbishop Boniface. The tradition of the de facto Christian-Pagan dual faith existed for a long time, took deep roots in Ukrainian folklore, and was nowadays complemented by Neopaganism as an attempt to restore the pre-Christian spiritual tradition.


A Catholic presbyter who founded a Dominican monastery in Kyiv in 1228. Only the Tatar invasion made him leave the capital of Rus

The Jewish tradition has also long been known in Ukraine. Its adepts lived in the cities along the Black Sea coast and later in different cities of Rus. Besides, Judaism was the dominant religion of the Khazar Khaganate, which, until the times of Prince Svyatoslav, collected tribute from the lands that later became part of Kyivan Rus. In the first half of the 18th century, in the territory of Western Ukraine, the mystical branch of Judaism, Hasidism, emerged as an alternative to the dogmatic, ritual formalism of the rabbinical orthodoxy. The founder of Hasidism was Israel ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov), known among both Jewish and non-Jewish population of Podillya as a holy man and a miracle-worker. By the middle of the 19th century, half of the Jewish communities of Ukraine confessed Hasidism. Islam has been known in the territory of modern-day Ukraine since the Kyiv Rus times. It established itself on the Ukrainian territory back in the 13th century, with the arrival of its adepts, Crimean Tatars and the Nogai, Yedisan and Bucak Hordes, with whom the ancestors of today's Ukrainians had not only military conflicts, but also close trade relations. Protestantism in the forms of Lutheranism, Calvinism and Socinianism started spreading in Ukraine just a few decades after its emergence in Europe in the mid-16th century. In the early 19th century, the second wave of Protestantism arrived in Ukraine, when various forms of Evangelical Christianity spread along its territory. In the late 16th century, Greek Catholic Church was established, a phenomenon that is no less unique and distinctive to Ukraine than Anglicanism is to Great Britain. After the accession of Ukraine to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Roman Catholicism felt quite confident in its territory. Old Believers and Molokans fled here from the repressions of the Russian tsarist government. This is just a base map that does not cover all the religious beliefs that in the past and during the modern period chose Ukraine as their motherland on Earth, and the Ukrainians as their flock.

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Despite all the positive points mentioned above, problems related to religious life in Ukraine remain. They include both the fact that the numerous churches and religious organizations actively working and feeling fine in Ukraine sometimes fail to perceive themselves as Ukrainian ones, and the lack of understanding by Ukrainians what religions exist in their country and how traditional they are to this land. Any revolution, including the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, affects the entire society, including religious organizations. It is obvious that given the current military aggression of Russia, Ukrainians, despite their natural tolerance, will not tolerate either pro-Moscow or pacifist slogans adopted by religious centers and their leaders. For the latter, it is now time to finally decide which side to take, and for Ukrainians, to learn more about themselves and their fellow citizens.

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