Cover of Baltic Worlds 2020:2-3. Ill: Karin Z Sunvisson

Cover of Baltic Worlds 2020:2-3. Ill: Karin Z Sunvisson

Okategoriserade Introduction The role of religion in the Ukrainian political landscape Religion in Ukraine: political and historical entanglements

The purpose of this theme section is to put the question of religion into the focus of the studies which approach different aspects of Ukrainian reality today and show how an analysis of an intricate interplay between religion, politics, and society can help us better understand this reality. The articles and interviews show the importance of including religion in the studies of societies and look closer into complex entanglements that reveal religious traces, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:2-3, pp 67-124
Published on on October 8, 2020

article as pdf No Comments on The role of religion in the Ukrainian political landscape Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

Ukraine usually becomes the focus of the international media and lively scholarly interest when it undergoes some tremendous political and societal changes. Suffice to mention the year 2004 when the Orange revolution was on front pages all over the world, or 2013-2014 when mass protests — now known as the Euromaidan Revolution — followed by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the continuing war in Donbas came into the spotlight worldwide. What happened in Ukraine in the years 2018 and 2019 drew considerably less attention both in international media and among scholars, although historically these years are no less remarkable than the years of mass unrests and regimes changes.

The year 2018 became a turning point not only in the church history of Ukraine but, more broadly, in the history of world Orthodoxy. In 2018 all official preparations were completed for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to become an independent church in communion with all other Orthodox churches in the world. On January 5, 2019, the official document that grants the church’s independence — called the Tomos — was given by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to the newly established Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Thus, in 2019 the world witnessed the birth of one more Orthodox Church, a rare event in church history.

The whole discussion on religion in Ukraine, however, cannot be restricted simply to the questions of Orthodoxy. To grasp the scale of religious life of Ukraine we should broaden our perspective and look at the country from a bird’s eye view. In this introduction I want not only to introduce each article that comprises this special section but also to describe the religious situation in Ukraine, to give readers a better grasp of the context which will be tackled in the articles. On this note, I should add an important disclaimer: it is not spirituality and religious belief as such that are in the focus of this special section. The purpose of this discussion is to put the question of religion into the focus of the studies which approach different aspects of Ukrainian reality today and show how an analysis of an intricate interplay between religion, politics, and society can help us better understand this reality.

Religious affiliation in numbers

According to the sociological survey conducted in 2018, about 72% of respondents declared themselves as believers. Compared with the number of believers in previous years, the overall number decreased somewhat from 76% in 2014, but religious leaders continue to enjoy the highest level of trust within Ukrainian society. Among believers, the most numerous are Orthodox Christians (67.3%); 9.4% of respondents declared that they belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; 2.2% said they are Protestants; and 0.8% attend the Roman Catholic Church; 0.4% belong to Judaism.
According to the Ukrainian census, 0.9% of the Ukrainian population follow Islam. Less than 1% said that they follow other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Paganism. In the previously mentioned sociological survey a further 11.0% declared themselves non-religious or unaffiliated to any religion.

From the information above we can see how religious affiliation is distributed among the population. We see that three main religions — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — which were present in the territory of the present-day Ukraine throughout the centuries are not distributed evenly. Despite the differences in numbers of believers, however, all these religions and the religious organizations that represent them play an important role in the societal life of the country, with their leaders commenting on all political changes and discussing the country’s future perspective.

Religions in Ukraine from a historical perspective

Judaism appeared in the lands which are now Ukraine when Jewish traders traveled to Greek colonies about 2,000 years ago. But it was in the 13th century that the Ashkenazi Jewish presence became significant here. Noteworthy is the fact that in the 18th century a new teaching of Judaism — Hasidism — originated in the Ukrainian lands. The significance of Ukraine as the place where Hasidism was established is difficult to overestimate, as hundreds of thousands of contemporary Hasidim come on pilgrimage to Ukraine to worship the memory of Rebbe Nachman, the founder of Breslov Hasidism, at his grave in Uman (a town in Central Ukraine). During the Second World War the Jewish population was exterminated in the Holocaust, leading to a total change of the cities’ demographical outlook: Before the war, a third of the biggest cities’ populations were of Jewish origin (15% of the population in the territory which is now Ukraine were of Jewish origin before the Second World War). Nowadays Jews comprise only 0.2% of the population of Ukraine (according to the census in 2001 or 0.4% according to the Razumkov survey in 2018). Although not numerous, the Jewish community is well-organized and is especially active in memory politics in relation to the Second World War and the remembrance of the Holocaust victims. Two big organizations represent the Jewish community in Ukraine: the VAAD of Ukraine (Association of Jewish Civic Organizations and Communities) headed by the Soviet era dissident Josef Zissels, and the United Jewish Society of Ukraine headed by the oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi. The latter organization has an impressive cultural center in the city of Dnipro — Menorah — located in a huge building with a museum and the Tkuma research center which serves as a platform for academic conferences and as a publishing house for studies on Judaism in Ukraine.

Looking at Islam, it was the Golden Horde (which at that time occupied a significant part of the territory of present Ukraine and adopted Islam as the state religion in 1313) and the Ottoman Empire (which conquered some of these territories in the 1470s) that brought Islam to these lands. Crimean Tatars accepted Islam as the state religion of the Golden Horde (1313–1502), and later ruled as vassals of the Ottoman Empire (until the late 18th century). During the Second World War, in May 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar population in Crimea was deported by the Soviet authorities on charges of collaboration with the Nazi regime. Those who survived the hard conditions of the deportation resettled in Uzbekistan and other republics of the Soviet Union. Many of the deported Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As mentioned above, only about 1% of population in Ukraine are Muslims. Most of them lived in Crimea where they comprised about 15% of the population. Many of them had to move from Crimea after the Russian annexation of the peninsula. They created their own centers in big cities and play an important role in the political and cultural life of the country. Nowadays, there are approximately 150 mosques in Ukraine. There is no single administrative center which represents all Muslims in the country; instead there are five different Muslim organizations with different political interests and agendas.

As stated above, Christianity is a majority religion in Ukraine. De facto, since the collapse of the Soviet Union up to 2018, there were four main Christian churches in Ukraine: 1) the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) which remains dependent on the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC-MP), 2) the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC- KP) which was established in 1992 by the part of the clergy that diverged from the UOC-MP, 3) the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church (UOAC) which originated in 1921 parallel to Ukrainian aspirations to build an independent state in 1917-1922, and 4) the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) which emerged as a result of the Union of Brest in 1596 between the Holy See and the Ruthenian Orthodox Church. During the Soviet period, only the Russian Orthodox Church was tolerated by the state. In practice, the UOAC and the UGCC were banned (the UOAC was permitted up to 1930 and the UGCC was forced to unite with the ROC in 1947; many priests of these churches were repressed or moved to the US or Canada where they were active in diaspora). When the UOAC and UGCC were re-established in Ukraine in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the revival of these churches was closely connected to the national revival. The same can be said about the UOC-KP which appeared as consequence of the state’s independence.

It is between the Orthodox churches that the most tensions exist today. These tensions are often framed through historical narratives which are worth mentioning in more detail. Officially, the year 988 is marked as the year when the Christian religion came to Kyiv Rus’, when Prince Volodymyr introduced Byzantine Christianity in these lands. The choice of religion was fateful because it placed the Kyiv Church under the authority of the Mother Church in Constantinople. When Kyiv lost its political power as a result of the Mongol invasion, the  Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus’, Maximus, moved to Vladimir in 1299. His successor, Metropolitan Peter, moved his see to Moscow in 1325. All the Metropolitans of Kyiv were established by the decision in Constantinople and they all held the title of the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus’ even if they had their sees in other cities. But in 1448 in Moscow, a Russian bishop, Jonas, was established as the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus’ without Constantinople’s agreement. Not until more than a century later, in 1589, did the Church in Moscow gain autocephaly from the Ecumenical See. That year, Metropolitan Job of Moscow became the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ (hence, “Kyiv” disappeared from the title).

Parallel to these events, in 1458 in Kyiv (then the part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) the Rus’ Orthodox Church was established which was under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical See. In 1686 it was transferred to the jurisdiction of Moscow. In such a way, from 1686 up to the 20th century, Orthodox Christians in the lands which are now Ukraine belonged to the Church under the jurisdiction of Moscow. When the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in January 5, 2019, it was exactly the transfer of 1686 that was annulled.

Although the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, tried to present the church independence gained during his presidency as his own victory, in reality, several factors came into play that finally resolved the fate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. These factors include the political will inside the country and the tensions in relations between Orthodox churches in the world that were caused by the Russian policy against Ukraine. The war in Donbas, the reluctance of the Moscow Patriarchate to condemn the war and to name Russia the aggressor in this conflict, and the decreasing support of the Moscow Patriarchate among the people of Ukraine, all put the position of Orthodoxy itself at risk. Compared to pre-2014 survey data, there was a dramatic decrease in numbers of people who stated that they belonged to the UOC-MP after Russian aggression against Ukraine since 2014. In yet another survey, people admitted that for them the UOC-MP was associated with the aggressive Russian policy against Ukraine. In the same survey, most of the believers named the UOC-KP as “the only Church of the Ukrainian people”. In these circumstances, the Ecumenical Patriarch realized that there was only one possible way to keep the millions of Orthodox people in Ukraine in the embrace of the canonical Orthodox church: to recognize the church they formally chose as canonical. Formally, it is not the UOC-KP that gained independence, though. It was a newly established church that was granted the Tomos, but in practice it was the churches and parishes of the UOC-KP that formed the core of this new church.

The  many aspects of religion in Ukraine today

In the following articles and interviews, more nuanced questions of religion are discussed. In his essay, Andriy Fert takes up the question of the public presentation of the church’s independence in official discourses of political and ecclesiastical leaders. He argues that during the presidency of Petro Poroshenko (2014—2019), the church independence was presented as a triumph of historical justice after centuries of repression and persecution. Hence, debates on church history were positioned in a framework of decolonization and nationalization, which is in line with the politics of history conducted in Ukraine after the Euromaidan protests. Tymofii Brik’s study approaches a broadly debated question that was raised after the presidential election in Ukraine in 2019: Why then president Petro Poroshenko’s campaign, with the emphasis on religion and Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence as supported by most Ukrainians, did not resonate with the voters, who elected Volodymyr Zelensky with an overwhelming majority of 75%. Brik shows that the Tomos did play a role in Poroshenko’s support but it was not enough for his victory. Alla Marchenko also approaches the presidential election 2019 in her study. She noticed a paradoxical situation when international media writing on candidates took up the issue which was largely absent in the Ukrainian media — Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish affiliation. This suggests an interesting observation of imaginaries about Ukraine shared in foreign countries, which are largely shaped by historical narratives that put anti-Semitism at their core. Michal Wawrzonek’s article sheds light on the social role of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He argues that although the church is not big in terms of the number of believers and parishes and is limited to the western region of the country, it is a strong actor in the country’s social life. Wawrzonek traces the church’s involvement in the most decisive moments of history of the country in the 20th and 21st centuries and demonstrates that throughout history, this church had a powerful impact on social mobilization and resistance to authorities.

In the interviews, two distinguished scholars of religion from Ukraine share their own ideas about the current religious situation in the country. Viktor Yelensky, a professor of religion who has published extensively on a vast range of religious issues, discusses the position of religions and different religious actors in the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine in a broader perspective of societal changes. He was the member of Ukrainian Parliament of the 8th convocation and a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Sociologist Tetiana Kalenychenko, an expert in the field of religion and conflict resolution who works both at the University and in different NGOs, shares her experiences at different peace building projects and reflects on how religion can be instrumentalized in conflict transformation.

All these articles and interviews show the importance of including religion in the studies of societies and look closer into complex entanglements that reveal religious traces, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

Note: This Special Section is a part of Yuliya Yurchuk’s post-doctoral project “Religion and Politics in Ukraine: The Influence of Churches and Religious Traditions in Formation of Collective Memory” funded by the Foundation of Baltic and East European Studies. This collective work resulted from the workshop “Religion, Politics and Memory in the Eastern Europe: the Case of Ukraine” organized at Södertörn University in September 27, 2019, thanks to the grant from CBEES.


  1. See: Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Andrew Wilson, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005); Serhy Yekelchyk, The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Thomas Grant, Aggression against Ukraine: Territory, Responsibility, and International Law (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
  2. See social survey of the Razumkov Center “Osoblyvosti relihiinoho i tserkovno-relihiinoho samovyznachennia ukaiins’kyh hromadian: tendentsii 2010 -2018”, 2018 Accessed June 12, 2020. It should be noted that the surveys done after 2014 do not include population on the territory of the Crimea and the territories which are not under the control of the Ukrainian government in the east of the country.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The only national census in Ukraine was conducted in 2001. In the introduction, like other scholars who deal with Ukraine, I use the latest surveys conducted by research institutions. One of most reliable sources is the Razumkov Center which conducts qualitative surveys on regular basis; I refer to their results in the Introduction. On the census 2001 see: Census 2001, See more on Islam in Ukraine e.g.: Brylov, D. “Ukrainian Muslims Between Religion and Politics”, in: Catherine Wanner & Julia Buyskykh (eds.), The Anthropology of Religion: Comparative Studies from the Carpathians to the Caucasus [in Ukrainian] (Kyiv: Dukh i Litera, 2019).

  6. Paul Robert Magosci and Johanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Elmira Muratova, Islam v sovremennom Krymu: indicatory i problemy protsessa vozrodzdeniya (Simferopol: Elinio, 2008).
  9. Elmira Muratova, “Islamic Groups of Crimea: Discourses and Politics.” Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia 53 (3): 9–24, 2014.
  10. Alina Zubkovych, “Politics of Cinematic Representation of Crimean Tatars in Ukraine: 2003-2018”. Euxeinos — Culture and Governance in the Black Sea Region 9 (28) 2019: 47-64.

  11. Nicholas E. Denysenko, The Orthodox Church in Ukraine. A Century of Separation (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018); Serhii Plokhy and Frank E. Sysyn, Religion and Nation in Modern Ukraine (CIUS Press: 2003).
  12. Cyril Hovorun, “The Cause of Ukrainian Autocephaly.” In Religion during the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict, edited Elizabeth A. Clark and Dmytro Vovk (New York: Routledge 2020): 180 – 191.
  13. Catherine Wanner, “Public religions after socialism: redefining norms of difference.” In Religion, State & Society, 46:2, 2018: 88 – 95, DOI:10.1080/09637494.2018.1465245
  14. On the role of historical narratives and religion see: Andriy Fert, “Equivocal Memory: What does the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate Remember?” In Religion during the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict, edited Elizabeth A. Clark and Dmytro Vovk (New York: Routledge 2020., 192-210); Tymofii Brik, “When Church Competition Matters? Intra-doctrinal Competition in Ukraine, 1992–2012.” In Sociology of Religion, 80(1), 2019: 45 — 82,; Alfons Brüning, “Orthodox Autocephaly in Ukraine: The Historical Dimension.” In Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis, edited by Andrii Kravchuk and Thomas Bremer (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016): 79 – 102.
  15. Plokhy and Sysyn 2003.
  16. Elizabeth A. Clark and Dmytro Vovk. Religion during the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict (New York: Routledge, 2020); Andrii Kravchuk and Thomas Bremer. Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis. (New York, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
  17. According to Razumkov Center survey, in 2013, 27.7% responded that they belonged to Moscow Patriarchate and 25.9% to Kyiv Patriarchate. Compare to respective figure of 12.8% and 28.7% in 2018. See: Razumkov Center. 2013. Relihiia i vlada v Ukraiini: problem vzaiemovidnosyn.  Razumkov Center. 2018. Report on Religion in Ukraine. (accessed 18.05.2020).

  18. Democratic Initiative Foundation. 2015. Bilshist’ naselennia Ukriiny vidnosyt sebe perevazhno do Pravoslavnoii Tserkvy Kyivs’koho Patriarhatu
    , (accessed May 18, 2020).
  19. Ibid.
  20. See: Barbara Törnquist-Plewa and Yuliya Yurchuk, “Memory Politics in Contemporary Ukraine. Reflections from the post-colonial perspective”, Memory Studies Journal, 12 (6), 2019: 699 — 720.