CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Images of Ukrainian Young People’s Quest for Transcendence

by Sarah Bowers, King’s College London
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


A window on social change is offered by the images that society produces, and a study of images is essential, now more than ever, with post-modern images replacing modernity’s reliance on text. I will briefly explain how I used visual ethnography as a methodology for researching the religious values of Ukrainian young people. Then I will share the results of my research in Kiev, and argue that a secular image can function like an icon when it represents something greater than the person/object it directly represents. I will briefly relate the history of the spirituality of images in Ukraine, and conclude by discussing whether the current fascination with pop images among Ukrainian young people is a reflection of their spiritual needs and aspirations.


I. Visualising social change
II. My methodology
III. Spirituality of images
a. Icons
b. Soviet
c. Contemporary – ads and pop

My research seeks to gain insight into the spirituality, the desire for transcendence, of post-Soviet young people. I chose to perform a case study of 20 students in Kyiv, from five universities. I chose to focus particularly on the images that students display in their personal space. This paper is just a small part of this research.

Visualising social change

I conducted my fieldwork over ten months in Kyiv, Ukraine. My research methods were chosen in light of my academic orientation toward theological and cultural studies, my theoretical framework, e.g. material culture and symbolic interaction, and my role as a researcher – an ethnographer. All three aspects influenced the way I designed my study. Therefore, within the broad framework of qualitative research, I adopted a case study approach which included participant observation and semi-structured interviews. And within this case study approach, I chose to employ visual research methods, primarily for three reasons:

First of all, I believe that Slavic culture has always had a visual spirituality. Camille Paglia, an art historian, believes that in “religions, ritual and art began as one, and a religious or metaphysical element is still present in art.” She explains that Judaism was essentially a religion of the ear, and Islam and Protestantism later followed the same propensity for the ear. But she believes that when Christianity needed to reach the pagan masses, a ‘religion of the eye’ was developed. This visual spirituality continued in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but the West eventually shifted away from icons toward a more text based religiosity. I believe that within the Ukrainian context there is still what Paglia calls the ‘religion of the eye’ and that this uniquely informs people’s interaction with and interpretation of the visual. Hence, visual methods are particularly suited for a study of Ukrainian spirituality.

Second, spirituality involves abstract concepts that may be difficult to express in words. Jon Prosser, a prominent visual researcher in the UK, notes that over the last 30 years, qualitative researchers have increasingly recognised the ability of images to enhance understanding of ‘the human condition.’ I believe that this also applies to spiritual needs and the desire for transcendence. The inner reality of a person is difficult to perceive logically, but can more easily be achieved through talking about and interacting with pictures.

Third, I like the collaborative approach that most contemporary visual methods employ, which gives the informants a voice in the study. Visual researchers are very sensitive to the criticism that taking photographs can be a means of exerting power over their research subjects. Contemporary visual research aims to avoid this problem by continually thinking of new ways of working together with those researched.

Now I will describe how I used these methods to collect data toward building a concept of the spiritual search of Ukrainian young people.

My methodology

Photo elicitation is the method of using images to invoke comments and discussion in the course of a semi-structured interview. I chose to use photo elicitation in three different ways in my research:

First, I brought the same archive of fifty-five posters and pictures to each interview. These were pictures of pop stars, sports stars, actors from television programmes, adverts, art, political figures and religious images. I had gathered them from magazines and chosen them based on my observations of what students tended to put on their walls. In the interview I asked the students to chose which images they would never put on their walls, and then to choose five or less that they would definitely put on their walls. As we looked through the pictures and they made their decisions, I asked them about their choices and probed for any special significance.

Second, I also interviewed the students about the images on their walls. I conducted the interviews, as much as possible, in the students’ personal living space – either student accommodation or their room at home. I asked the students to tell me about each image on their walls, why they had put them up, and whether the pictures had any symbolic meaning for them. Thus, using images that they themselves have chosen as significant enough to put on their walls, was a way of collaborating with the students and gave them a strong voice in the interview.

My third use of photo elicitation involved another method called ‘auto-photobiography’, which has been used in social psychology for several years, particularly in studies of the self. I gave three of the students previously interviewed a role of 24 exposure 35 mm film. I asked them to take three pictures a day for a week, in order to show me a week of their life. At the end of the week we developed the pictures, and I conducted an interview to talk about the photographs. This was a highly collaborative method of photo elicitation, because the subjects were fully familiar with the photographs because they created them. And the interview allowed them to explain the photographs, so that I could understand the context and intention of each image.

Although photo elicitation was the main visual method employed in my research, I also photographed the walls of the students that I interviewed. I also took some photographs of social phenomenon that I found interesting. This is a typically sociological and objective way of using photographs in research and corresponds to the ethnographer’s field notebook in which information is recorded for later use.

Spirituality of Images

So, that was the visual methodology that I used in conjunction with typical ethnographic methods such as participant observation and informal interviews. As part of my research I sought to understand the background of the spirituality of images in Ukraine.


The first, and most obvious image that inspires a sense of transcendence is an icon. These images became an important part of worship and spirituality when Orthodox Christianity arrived in ancient Kyivan Rus via Constantinople. The Kyivan monks were taught how to write icons by Greek iconographers. As Orthodoxy grew and replaced tribal paganism, icons came to play a central role not only in Orthodox churches, but also in the community life of the people. During Soviet times it was illegal to sell icons or to print them. However, within the monasteries it was permitted to continue to ‘write’ them for use in the monasteries. Now, the churches are being repaired and filled with icons. Icons are now mass printed and are sold in kiosks all over the city. Taxi drivers keep them on their dashboards, and many people carry them in their pockets and have them in their homes. Sometimes beggars wear three icons on their chest as they ask for money in exchange for God’s blessing. The Orthodox icon is found in the church, in the icon corner at home, above city gates, literally everywhere.

Although icons are often beautiful, for many Ukrainian people, their value is not aesthetic. They function as visual and spiritual points of reference, to the transcendent realm of God and the saints. Icons function as part of liturgical worship. They also serve to educate people in Orthodox dogma and religious history. They are linked to a person’s identity as being Orthodox, which is often then linked with national identity. Icons are also believed to have healing powers and to produce miracles. But I want to focus on their transcendent function - mediating between God and human.

Orthodox cosmology emphasizes that the fall corrupted human flesh, and since humans ruled over the earth, all matter was corrupted. Therefore, at the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, Christ redeemed flesh and thus redeemed all matter. According to Orthodox theologians, the incarnation and the transfiguration allow the material world, and hence an icon, to become a mediator between God and humanity. Icons operate as a conduit of prayer to the one portrayed, mediating between heaven and earth, between saint on earth and saint in heaven. Their task is to lift people’s perspective from earth to heaven, drawing people to their vision of reality. Basil, Bishop of Sergievo writes that “ . . . the icon is always personal, opening up a pathway between us and Christ and His saints . . . The icon is evidence that the invisible can be carried by the visible, and that matter can become a bearer of the Spirit, an instrument of revelation, and a vehicle for communion with God.”

Soviet Images

I believe that these mystical symbols of Orthodoxy have their counterparts in Soviet communism. The Soviets developed their own iconography of heroes and saints and shrines and religious awe. Furthermore, art historian Albert Boime calls uses the word icon to mean a ‘visual construct . . . of a revered person or sacred object.’ Thus, a secular image can function like an icon when it represents something greater than the person it directly represents. Lenin’s programme of monument building was an attempt to inspire the masses to work toward a future for the world. He knew that icons had represented the transcendent world, offering a window on hope for life after death. He aimed to replace icons with these monuments in the hearts and minds of the people.

Monuments were the key to re-educating the people, particularly the masses. In fact, the first law passed by the new Soviet National Committee in 1918 was regarding ‘the plan for monumental propaganda.’ After Lenin’s death, he himself became a national icon. In 1932 Stalin called artists and writers to be ‘engineers of the human soul’, a concept which set in motion the politically correct Soviet Socialist Realistic style of art. Later, during the second world war, posters were the most affordable and prolific form of public propaganda.

Thus, the Soviets actively used the visual to influence the people. The monuments, the socialist realist art and propaganda posters served to educate people in Socialist history and dogma. They also developed a sense of national identity and sometimes called people to action, for example, to join the military and work hard for the motherland. The monuments were the focus of community rituals, such as Pioneers days or on a couple’s wedding day. But, most importantly, these images were designed to shape a new worldview and give the people a sense of the transcendent. Many monuments have the words, ‘Eternal Glory’(______ _____) on them. This is fascinating for an atheist society . . . what exactly is ‘eternal’? It appears that the sacrifices that one makes for the motherland have eternal significance. This perspective forces the viewer to look outside one’s own worldview and stretch to a vision of the great socialist utopia being built on the basis of the sacrifice of the people. I saw a propaganda poster at an exhibition that pictured two men working in a factory. In the background stood a kind, wise looking older man, and in the foreground stood the other man, young and looking hopefully off into the distance. At the bottom of the poster were these words, “The years will pass, and the days will come, when the Soviet working nation will call these hands, these young hands, the golden hands.” Socialist propaganda aimed to give people a sense of the transcendent, of working toward something beyond themselves, greater than themselves.

Contemporary Images that inspire

So, if for centuries Orthodox icons have aided Ukrainian people in their spiritual search for transcendence, and if Soviet monuments, art and posters sought to dislodge and replace these images, what images do the young people turn to now that Ukraine is independent?

Advertisements dominate public space in Kyiv. Just as icons inspired people toward holiness, and Soviet images inspired people to work to build the motherland, then adverts inspire people to buy, buy, buy. In a way, these images are also educational – they teach young people what their life could be like. Many young people long to have lives like people in North America or Western Europe. Advertisements create the needs that previously people didn’t know they had.

Advertising images also seek to give young people a sense of identity. Adverts aim to convince people that they are joining a global culture of ‘cool’ people when they buy a certain product. This leads to a sense of wanting to define one’s self by one’s possessions. And the subtle message of adverts is that they depict the easy life that one can only dream of – some sort of better reality. I asked a Ukrainian student who had spent a year in the United States what was the most important lesson that she learned there. She said that she learned that having money and nice things does not solve all one’s problems. She said this was a very important lesson to learn, since many of her people sincerely believe that material wealth will lead to perfect happiness. Several Ukrainians honestly told me that materialism is major motivator in Kyiv. This is no surprise, since the images of adverts tell people that if they just buy, then they can transcend their present existence to a better, more comfortable reality.

However, advertisements are images thrust upon people. Few would choose to decorate their personal space with an advert. What images do young people choose for their personal space? The heroes of contemporary Ukrainian young people are not saints, nor politicians, nor cosmonauts – they are the pop stars and celebrities. By far, the image of the pop star is the most popular image for student walls.

Pop icons such as Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain appeal to students because of their philosophical arguments against the status quo. Youth culture started in the USSR in the 1960’s with rock music. This rebellious (and illegal) music grew in popularity through unofficial channels, and in the 1960’s John Lennon was practically a saint, especially after he died. Later, young people began to form their own bands, writing songs with lyrics full of cynicism and feelings of alienation. With the disillusionment with Soviet values, “youth culture and music filled a cultural gap and gave the opportunity for creativity and self-expression”, according to Wallace and Kovacheva in their study of youth culture and consumption in 1996. Although the government decried rock groups as ‘Western imports’, local bands continued to spring up with their own followings and disseminating their music via cheap cassette recordings, sold illegally. One of my informants, a committed fan of ‘Russian rock,’ told me that rock music was responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union. Her entire family is loyal to rock music, revering Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix, the Beatles, Mick Jagger, and a host of Russian rock musicians.

But, even more than giving young people a sense of rebellion against the status quo, images of pop stars allow young people to identify with a certain subculture. In the course of my research I discovered various subcultures among students in Kyiv, including rock music fans, firmly differentiated from pop music followers, but also there were punks, hippies, skinheads, Buddhists, grunge, Tolkienists, computer clubbers, ‘sectarian Christians’ and loyal Orthodox believers. One of my informants who was really into Hip Hop told, me that people ‘find themselves’ within their subculture. He emphasised that Hip Hop is not just music, but it is a lifestyle and worldview.

But for some students, it seemed that the images on their walls served as a reminder of the success of the people portrayed. Almost every male student, and several of the female students, that I visited had a picture of the Clichko brothers on their wall. I was told that these two boxers had made Ukraine famous. The brothers are now quite wealthy and live most of the time in Germany. Everyone I spoke to about them seemed quite proud of them, not only in a nationalist sense, but also in the sense of seeing that some people can become wealthy and successful. I believe that these images are appealing because they portray the possibility of success, the hope for financial security.


I believe that the current fascination with pop images among Ukrainian young people is a reflection of their spiritual needs and aspirations. The images of the students I met revealed a longing for finding meaning in life and a desire for life to have a purpose. I also observed a need to create an identity, to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’ And finally, the strong attachment to a subculture showed me a deep desire for belonging. As I talked to students about their interests and favourite music, I felt as though I was talking to them about their religious beliefs. My ‘hip hop’ informant told me in an email, ‘I love Hip Hop and I want a lot of people’z begin to live 4 progressive culture.’

In conclusion, Orthodox icons and pop images are seen by many people as being the antithesis of each other. But I believe that understanding the centuries old function of icons in Slavic culture will help social researchers to understand the current use of images among young people in this region. I am convinced that these contemporary images are an attempt to grasp a vision of the transcendent, and reflect young people’s spiritual quest.


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