CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


June 17-20, 2004 - Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Religious Liberty and National Identity: The Case of Ukrainian Nation-Building

by Victor Yelensky, Philosophy Institute of Ukrainian National Academy of Science / Fulbright Researcher
A paper presented at CESNUR 2004 international conference, Baylor University, Waco (Texas), June 18-20, 2004. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

Post-Communist Ukraine: Why Religious Freedom?

Ukraine, which is definitely not “the best student” in the school of democracy for post-Communist countries, has relatively decent standards in the sphere of religious freedom. Obviously, achievement in this area is the most serious of all the post-communist changes in Ukraine. Ukrainian Law “On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” (1991) mainly follows the stipulations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as other European Conventions. In many aspects, the Ukrainian model of church-state relations turned out to be more similar to the American model than to the European ones: the Ukrainian model includes the principle of church non-establishment, the strict separation of church from state and state from church, and the equality of all the religions before the law. The Ukrainian legislation does not establish differences in the legal status of religious organizations of different confessions, does not create a division of the religious organizations on the basis of traditional and nontraditional ones, does not establish any trial period for a religious community to obtain the status of a legal entity, does not limit the right to create a religious organization to only the citizens of Ukraine only, and does not provide that only Ukrainian citizens can be leaders of churches.

There are four principal reasons which determine such a state of affairs. The first reason is the religious configuration of Ukraine. Several congruous centers of religious power exist in the country and no one denomination does unite more than one fourth of adult population.[1] This fact prevents any one of these power centers from dominating over religious minorities or from conducting repressive or even restrictive policy toward them. These power centers function as rivals, addressing their own sector of public opinion and their own corresponding circles of political elite. They create a kind of balance that prevents the establishment of a religious institution that would dominate supremely over others and with which one might identify (de facto if not de jure) the Ukrainian state.

Contrary to Jose Casanova’s evaluation of Ukraine as “the most pluralistic and competitive religious market in all East Europe”[2] it is necessary to admit that there is neither religious pluralism, no non-aggression pact between ‘great religious powers’, but a quite fragile balance based on equal possibilities of parties. ‘Pluralism, as it is put on by George Weigel, - doesn’t simply happen. Genuine pluralism is built out of plurality when differences are debated rather than ignored and a unity begins to be discerned’.[3] Indicatively, that in the regions of absolute dominance of one of the party involved religious freedom violations occurs much more frequently in comparison with zones that of strong religious diversity.

The second reason, which in my opinion is very important, is the relatively high level of tolerance toward other believers. To this very day we are unable to explain earnestly the fact that Ukrainians, with a reputation in the West for unrefined emotionalism, now seem to have become so tolerant. Obviously, the reputation is not wholly deserved. Ukraine's record of interethnic discord is arguably no worse, but no better, than that of most other countries.[4] It is evident that predictions concerning possible future development of interreligious and interethnical processes in Ukraine after attaining state independence were constructed in many cases under the influence of historical reminiscences of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rather than on the basis of the social-political and social-psychological analysis of the Ukrainian situation. Another reason may be found in special position of ethnic minorities. Two ethnic groups, Jews and Crimean Tatars, are significant because they are the largest ethnic minorities in Ukraine for which religion is a core part of their ethnic identity. The Jewish community consists of more then 100,000 and the community of Crimean Tatars consists of almost 300,000 members. These two communities are considered important allies in strengthening Ukrainian statehood, and they are in fact such allies. With the exception of some extremists, the Ukrainian dissidents in the Brezhnev era considered the Jewish and Crimean-Tatar right-defenders as comrades in the anti-imperial struggle. After Ukraine attained its independence, many Ukrainian dissidents occupied important positions in society. Ukrainian history is indebted to them for the opportunity to overturn at the end of the twentieth century the universality of the bitter statement by the great Jewish historian Shimon Dubnow, who wrote: “The experience has proved that any explosion of the national passions among any people first of all aggravates the attitude of this same people to the Jews living among them.”[5] What is quite paradoxical is that Ukrainians display relatively high level of religious tolerance against a background of sufficient worsening the general ethnic/national intolerance index of Ukraine’s adult population. In 1992 it was 4.63 points on a seven points scale, where the value of 4 points is a mark dividing positive (tolerant) and negative (intolerant) attitudes to other nationalities/ethnic groups. Last year this index measured up 5,26 points.[6] By now, sociologists are difficulty to explain such a paradox and claim that supplementary surveys are needed.

The third reason of descent standards on religious freedom in Ukraine is that religious freedom in Ukraine never threatened the government’s position as, for instance, the freedom of speech can. Respectively, the Ukrainian government had no reason to seek the destruction of religious freedom and religious human rights to which, in addition, Western Europe and especially USA are so sensitive.

Religions and nation buildings: unstable alliances

And final reason which I going to deal in detail concerns identity issues.

Theoretically thinking it is possible to suggest some factors which contributed to prominent role of religion in pocesses of forging national identity: a) when religion was the central element of proto-national mithology; b) or/and provided forging nation with manifest symbolic boundaries unmade thereby previous collectivity; c) or/and when a nation making ethnos has lost other important attributes of identity, such as language, for example, or common territory; d) or/and when the frameworks of ethnos on the basis of which the nation was formed, coincide with religious frameworks; c) or/and when a formed nation was deprived political institutes and the Church remained the most institutionalizing force of a national building.

But reality very often seems to be much more complicate. The reason lies within the nature of nationalism which as Liah Greenfeld suggests is ‘an emergent phenomenon’, that is, a phenomenon whose nature – as well as possibilities of its development and the possibilities of the development of the elements of which it is composed – is determined not by the character of its elements, but by a certain organizing principle which makes these elements into a unity and imparts to them a special significance’.[7]

Essentially, nationalisms appealed to traditional values among which one cane find nostalgic sentiments refers to mythological ‘gold age’, archaic mode of behavior, elements of rural cosmology and, of course, religious identification and, in the same time, repudiated this values and even destroyed it in the process of modernization. As Peter Alter had already noted, ‘[i]n the development of national consciences, social groups emphasizes the various commonalities…and tone down other local or universal political or religious ties that might sap their unity.’[8]

In reality in the process of national identities’ forging nationalisms arbitrarily selected symbols, myths and ideas and religion was not always a key component in this selection. This assertion seems to be relevant for even such a cases where religion constituted a core element of national mythology and has had a centuries long (if no more) history of preserving the very essence of group identity.[9] Reasserting Jonathan Fox’s definition it could be argued that the key factor which determines the salience of religion to a process of nation building is that nation builders themselves consider it to be salient. [10]

The forerunners of Ukrainian nationalism did not consider religion as the ‘Ukrainian navel’ (this notion, of course, was borrowed from Ernst Gellner),[11] but undoubtedly indicated its differential significance in the process of the forging of Ukrainian ethnic identity.[12] Additionally, the sufficient factor predetermined the attitude of Ukrainian national figures toward religion was their social convictions. The famous remark of the Ukrainian historian Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytskyi upon earnest youngsters with ‘Marx’s Communist Manifesto in one pocket and Shevchenko’s collected poems Kobzar in the other’[13] was very indicative with respect to intellectual atmosphere in Ukrainian national movement at the turn of the twentieth century. Ukrainian activists similar to elites of other stateless nations strived for stirred up masses and spoke well for onslaught, the will to live and liberation rather than for humility and repentance.

It was naturally enough that Orthodoxy as one of the central pillars of the common Ukrainian-Russian identity was considered by Ukrainian activists as destructive factor to national conscience of Ukrainian masses regardless of these activists’ personal religious backgrounds and beliefs. ‘World’s compression’ meanwhile not only had called into being ‘imagined communities’ but then also set in motion spacious peripheries of these communities. In his version of the Ukrainian nation’s birth Roman Szhporluk offers the following line of reasoning. In the 18-th century Ukraine was a retarded suburb of Russia and Poland. The two latter countries were to some extent suburbs of advanced Western Europe. In the modern epoch when nationalism became a means of global modernization of backward ethnic communities, the Polish and Russian societies were being transformed into modern nations. In that way, the formation of the modern Polish and Russian nations presented Ukrainians with a challenging choice of alternatives: either they become a part of these modern nations or they try to transform themselves into such a nation. As Ukrainians were not satisfied themselves with the places reserved to them in the modern Russian and Polish nation-buildings, as they had preserved certain historical and cultural traditions, as they had an elite (or, in the strict sense, rather latent elite) and feeling of local patriotism, they have chosen the way of transformation into a nation, instead of becoming a periphery. The growing Ukrainian nationalism aspired to transform the unarticulated cultural identity existing already in some cases for centuries, into political aspiration of the state independence.[14]

Churches and ‘Ukrainian navel’

What role did religion and Churches play in the formation of the unyielding determination of the Ukrainian elite to pursue nation-building? The particular salience of this role can be traced in the case of Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church.[15] When after the first partition of Poland (1772) Ukrainian Galicia passed under Austrian rule, the Greek Catholic hierarchy received the support and the protection of the imperial government. The educational reforms of the Habsburg rulers Maria-Teresa and Joseph II led to formation from the educated Greek-Catholic clergymen a stratum of intelligentsia for submerged Ukrainian population of Galicia. Under the relatively liberal Austrian rule there were Greek-Catholic seminarians, priests and even bishops who inspired the first, “heritage-gathering” work typical for the cultural stage of national movements. Although since 1860-th the secular intelligentsia began to assume the leadership of the national movement, clergymen were elected to the Galician diet and the all-Austrian Parliament and remained even more important at the local level, founding various educational, cultural establishments as well as agitating for Ukrainian candidates during elections.[16] With the help of the Greek-Catholic Church three hypothetical models of the development of Ukrainian population in Galicia were rejected, that is – Moscowphiles, Polish and Austrian-Rusins. Eventually, after the years of rather sharp intellectual discussion between supporters of different orientation,[17] the Greek-Catholic church supported narodovstvo that is the Ukrainian movement.

The Church, in this case the Greek-Catholic church as a guardian of Ukrainian originality – constitutes a wonderful component for a national myth. But this component clashes with that of the most important element of collective conscience, namely, with the so-called Cossack myth. Cossaks assumed a leadership in restoration of destroyed after Union of Brest Orthodox hierarchy in 1620, headed the process of revival of the ‘Rus’ faith’ and became a carrier of a distinct Ruthenian or Rus’ identity within Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The 17 century’s Wars under religious slogans, which had been waged for the protection of the ‘Native Orthodox Faith’ and the ‘Cossack Church’, against Catholic expansion etc, was for its turn, a very important if not crucial element of this myth. Therefore, the actual religious composition of Ukraine and concrete historical circumstances of the formation of Ukraine nation demanded from the Ukrainian nationalists deliberate abstraction from the religious factor. Founding fathers of Ukrainian nationalism considered religion as a stumbling block rather than a reliable resource for nation-building. In his 1906 article, Ukraine and Galychina, Michailo Hrushevs’kyi (1866-1934) warned the compatriots of the reoccurring danger of Serbs and Croats, religiously divided nations, which have arisen on the common ethnic base.[18] Similarly, in the Ivan Franko’s writing religion in no way was a fuel for national building but first and foremost a source of cute tension between Ukrainians. At the next stage of the forming of the national consciousness of the Ukrainian elite the conceptual dimension of the political nation building was formed. The main parameters of such a dimension were: integral Europeo-centrism, unification of all ethnic Ukrainian lands into nation-state, and, last but not least, secularism.

Religion and Ukrainian Identity: the attempt of redefining

Week connection between religion and Ukrainian nationalism contributes favorably in the situation on religious freedom in Ukraine. But this is not a full story. It is a sort of truism in sociology of religion that since late 1970-th world is witnessing the great revenge of religions. The previously most devoted supporters of secularization theory are hastening to reconsider their books and their thoughts arguing that ‘the world today…is as furiously religious as it ever was’ and that ’a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled “secularization theory” is essentially mistaken’[19] The religion leaves ‘a ghetto of a privatization’ (Jose Casanova) and, in turn, the process of globalization of religion is not following by the abolishment of the dividing lines of identity, but on the contrary promotes strengthening of the movements traditionally underlining group self-identification. Globalization means, as Peter Beyer has proved, renewal of religion’s influence on public arena.[20] Furthermore, in the beginning of 21-th century globalization not only remains inviolable the basis of religious and ethnic identities but imparts to them renewed importance. Religious development of post-communist and, particularly, post-soviet space is extremely indicative in this prospective. Religion very largely functions as a mean of political, cultural, and ethnic mobilization.

Accordingly, the part of the modern Ukrainian elite considers that the religion and Church at a post-communist stage of nation-building should fulfill a much more serious role than they did at the previous phases of Ukrainian identity forging. Ukraine’s elite needs connective core which would be able to maintain people with different ethnic backgrounds, with expressive Ukrainian identity as well as with explicit Soviet identity. As long ago as in 1995 members of the Ukrainian Parliament’s right-wing fractions created group striving for unification split Orthodoxy in Ukraine under the slogan of “Single Local Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church”. As coordinator of this group, member of Ukrainian parliament Lilya Hrihorovitch has claimed, "[T]he creation of the Single Local Ukrainian Orthodox Church is my goal … If in our society such a spiritual mechanism comes into service; the first stage of nation buildings will be accomplished. The State will arise. The State, I mean, which will never join any 'unions'. On the base of mental unity the nation will form. The better and most unitized ground [for national unity] than Orthodoxy nobody could invent.[21]

In the first years after the proclamation of Ukrainian independence the exclusive license for religious issues used to be in the hands of Ukrainian nationalists. The Soviet Ukraine’s nomenclature had unconditionally yielded the realm of culture and religion to their temporary allies in exchange for freedom of action in the economical sphere. However, as religion became broadly considered as a political recourse and Churches became exceptionally attractive for the persons and groups striving to acquire or preserve positions of power, all spectrum of Ukrainian polity elaborated their own religious policy. Orthodox issues turned to be in the center of sharp political debate. While national-democrats demanded from government to take an active part in gaining autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodoxy, Communists and pro-Russian political circles fiercely opposed to this agenda.

Obviously, in Ukraine there are people who deal with real difficulties in the sense of their identity. The share of those who consider themselves Orthodox exceeds the number of people who called themselves believers. This means that for very many people actual affiliation with a large community that can be identified, among others, by the religious defining term is more important than the faith, and, correspondingly, higher feelings and, as Abraham Maslow has defined, ‘peak experience’. At the same time, many of today's Orthodox are yesterday's Soviet people, who had no problem with self-identification, but suddenly lost it and did not acquire a new one. They are not hypocrite, but rather their religious affiliation presents more an attempt to revive an interrupted tradition, than establish ties with personal God. For many people, particularly in Central and Eastern Ukraine, belonging to Orthodoxy in general, but not to the certain Church is an opportunity to avoid painful hesitations about his or her ultimate identity.What is indicative in this perspective is that from 25% to 32% of those surveyed by different opinion poll institutions declared that they belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate, while only 7% to 12% declared that they belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the auspice of Moscow Patriarchate. This may seem a little strange, given that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate[1] has three times as many institutional establishments in comparison with Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kievan Patriarchate but according to surveys half as many faithful. For those who are acquainted with the realities of Ukrainian religious life, there can only be one explanation of these results. By declaring that he or she belongs to the Kiev and not to the Moscow Patriarchate, a person declares his or her identical discourse.

On the other hand, the research indicated that 12.2% of the Donetsk region’s population and 35.3% of Simferopol’s population belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet in Donetsk, at least officially, there is no such church and, in Simferopol, less than ten such churches exist compared with four hundred congregations of UOC MP. Clearly, these results are a demonstration of Russian identity in these regions. Furthermore, most respondents are nominal Christians—“nonpracticing” and, sometimes “nonbelieving,” Orthodox members. Where the survey form allowed the choice “an Orthodox who did not determine his position regarding the denomination,” (as was proposed by SOCIS-Gallup-Ukraine service in 1997) 40% of the respondents in some regions chose this response.

The sort of paradox of post-communist Ukraine is that, in order to make a serious contribution to nation-building, the Churches cannot organize its revival on a purely religions basis, but only by means of activating non-religions motifs with a national connotation.

It’s worthy to note at the same time that religion in Ukraine represents a cultural pattern which crosses denominational boundaries and embodied rather a set of symbols, signs, holidays, customs, regulations, practices, fragments of historical memory and identical markers than the network of strong formal institutions. In the framework of this pattern there are a lot of religious options which are rather compatible with notion of loyalty to emerged nation-state. Once again, religion is not a core element of Ukrainian national myth. When we speak about the ‘True Ukrainian’, we do not mean the religious identity as we do when we speak about Poles, Serbs, Georgians, or Croatians.

The famous warning of Ken Jowitt that Eastern Europe's general institutional identity would be shaped by demagogues, priests, and colonels comes true in Ukraine only what concerns demagogues. But among religious professionals have been elected in Ukrainian Parliament during last decade there were a remarkable diversity, namely bishop of Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, pastor of Pentecostal Church and priest of Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church which proclaimed its independence from Moscow Patriarchy.

But, once again this is not an end of story. We cannot put it to end because of three, at least, reasons: a) components of collective identity were not given once and for all times; b) that at least some of these components were fashioned consciously (and are fashioning deliberately now); c) that role of religion in nation building may increase sufficiently despite the growing social differentiation which deprives religion some of its important in former times functions.

Process of Ukrainian nation-building is not finishing yet. Or to exploit the Ernst Renan famous definition on nation as an everyday plebiscite it’s possible to say that nation buildings are rather processes than moment. And questions about the future role of religion in Ukrainian nation building and about the possible impact of hypothetical strong religious connotation of Ukrainian nationalism on religious freedom in this country are still open.


[1] Orthodox congregations make up 53% of all religious organizations with registered charters. At the beginning of 2004 Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate had 10.310 communities, 151 monasteries and convents with 4095 monks and nuns, 8.620 priests, and 15 theological schools. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate had 3.352 communities, 34 monasteries with 185 monks, 2588 priests, and 16 theological schools. In the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church there were 1154 communities, 685 priests, five monasteries (12 monks and nuns) and seven theological schools. the conflict among the Orthodox churches themselves, which is, more or less, an adequate reflection of (a) the social, political, and cultural contradictions of the Ukrainian society and (b) the distinctions in the levels of national self-realization, seems to be even more dramatic. The basis of this conflict is the different attitudes about the sovereignty and independence that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has obtained from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and other Local Orthodox Churches now recognize only one Ukrainian Orthodox Church–the one under the Moscow jurisdiction. Both the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate are labeled by Moscow Patriarchate as a “heretic splits.” Approximately 8 to 9% of adults belong to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. The legalization of this Church in 1989 created a new reality in Ukrainian religious life. This church of almost five million members had been the catacomb church and was considerably decimated, but not completely annihilated, by the communist regime. This legalization of this church was not recognized by the Orthodox hierarchy and believers. As a result, a severe struggle between the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic powers arose in western Ukraine over which church would have a hold over the believers and achieve the dominant position in the parceling of the church buildings and property. the membership of Protestant denominations who were baptized and recorded in the Church books numbers about one million.

[2] Casanova Jose (1996) ‘Incipient Religious Denominationalism in Ukraine and Its Effect on Ukrainian-Russian Relations’ Harriman Review, vol. 40, p.9.

[3] Weigel George (1999) ‘Roman Catholicism in the Age of John Paul II’ The Desecularization of the World. Resurgent religion and World Politics. (Ed. вy P.L.Berger). Washington, D.C., p. 34

[4] Motyl, Alexander J. (1993) Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, p.91.

[5] Simon Dubnov & Benzion Dinur(1990). Two concepts of the Rebirth of Israel, p. 101

[6] Паніна Н.В. Національна толерантність, національний ізоляціонізм та ксенофобія в Україні // http://politicon.iatp.org.ua/tm/paninadistanc.htm

[7] Greenfeld, Liah (1992) Five Roads to Modernity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p.7.

[8] Alter, Peter, (19942-d edition) Nationalism.. London-N.-Y.-Melbourne: Edward Arnold, p.12.

[9] Thus, Theodor Herzl in his ‘Jewish States’ has admitted that ‘[o]nly in the faith of our fathers can we recognize our common historical heritage’ but, at the same time: “Shall we end by having a theocracy? No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Army and priesthood shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve” Herzl, Theodor (1970) The Jewish State N.Y.: Herzl Press, p.171, 100.

[10] Fox Jonathan (1999) ‘Towards a dynamic theory of ethno-religious conflict’ Nation and nationalism 5 (4), p. 444.

[11] See chapter ‘Do nations have navels?’ in his Nationalism (1997) London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp.90-101.

[12] For instance, Mykola Mykhnovskyi (1873-1924) whose writings for a long time had been mainframe for entire generations of Ukrainian nationalists emphasized that religion only some time in future would be a sort of fabric for construction of nation but for a moment ‘not only reigns over Ukraine Tsar-foreigner but the very God become alien and does not speak Ukrainian’ Quot. from: Protsenko O. and Lysovyi V. (2000) Natsionalism. Antologija. Kyiv: Smoloskyp, p. 418.

[13] Lysiak-Rudnytskyi, Ivan (1987) Essays in Modern Ukrainian History. Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, p.139.

[14] Szporluk, Roman (2000) ‘Ukraine: From an Imperial Periphery to a Sovereign State’ In, Russia, Ukraine, and Breakup of the Soviet Union. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, p. 361-394. At the same time, Szporluk notes that the origin of modern Ukrainian national conscience can be dated with relative exactness; he traces its beginnings in the late eighteenth century.

[15] The Uniate Church in Ukraine was the output of the Union between Holy See and hierarchs of Orthodox Kiev Metropoly in Council of Brest, 1596. The name Greek Catholic Church was introduced by the Austrian Empress Maria-Teresa in 1774 to distinguish this Church from the Roman Catholic and Armenian Catholic Churches. The contemporary official name for this Church is Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church

[16] Himka, John-Paul (1988) Galician Villagers and the Ukrainian National Movements in the Nineteenth Century. Edmonton, pp.105-42.

[17] Thorough analyses of ‘orientation’ discussion within Greek-Catholic Church see, Himka, John-Paul (1999) Religion and nationality in Western Ukraine : the Greek Catholic Church and Ruthenian National Movement in Galicia, 1867-1900. Montreal ; Ithaca : McGill-Queen's University Press.

[18] Hrushevs’kyi, Michailo (1906).Ukraine and Galychina, Literaturno-naukovij vistnik Vol. 36 (9), N 12 Lviv, p.494.

[19] Berger, Peter (1999) ‘The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview’, in Peter L. Berger (ed.), The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Washington, DC: Ethic and Public Policy Center, p.2.

[20] Beyer, Peter (1994) Religion and Globalization. London – Thousand Oaks – New Delhi: Sage Publication.

[21] Lilya Hrihorovitch ‘Slyozi patriotizmu na ochah pragmatika’ In, Den’ (Ukrainian Daily), August 10, 2000.

Cyberproceedings Index

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences