Viktor Yelensky

Viktor Yelensky

Interviews “The war has become a serious challenge for religious actors in Ukraine”

Viktor Yelensky, professor of religion, in a conversation with Yuliya Yurchuk on the position of religions in Ukraine, and different religious actors in the ongoing military conflict in a broader perspective.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:2-3, pp 96-99
Published on on October 8, 2020

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Viktor Yelensky in a conversation with Yuliya Yurchuk on the position of religions in Ukraine, and different religious actors in the ongoing military conflict in a broader perspective.

Viktor Yelensky is Professor of Studies of Religions, Dragomanov National Pedagogical University, Kyiv. He is a member of the Ukrainian Parliament of the 8th convocation and a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

When we read about religion in post-Soviet countries after 1991, it is often the narrative about the religious revival which prevails. Suddenly, societies where religion was banned got permission to go to church, goes the narrative. At the same time, not many people practice religious rituals or observe rules or even go to church. Some scholars even speak about belonging without believing. To what extent can we speak about a religious revival in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Was there a break with Soviet atheism or are there some continuities of Soviet legacies which can be seen even today? If so, what are these legacies?

“The religious revival in Ukraine began about a decade and a half before the collapse of the Soviet Union. This revival revealed itself in a manifestation of popular religiosity, a growing interest in religion on the part of the intelligentsia, appeal to the religion of young people, mass listening to Western radio broadcasting, increasing numbers of adult baptisms and frank mockery of state-sponsored atheism. The most numerous Ukrainian religious underground in the whole Europe (Greek Catholics, Evangelicals, Jehovah Witnesses) was consolidated and signaled their willingness to leave the catacombs. Religion received more and more social encouragement, religious practices intensified, and religious attributes (icons, body crosses, church candles) were actively spread. I analyzed the reasons for this phenomenon in my chapter ‘The Revival before the Revival: Popular and Institutionalized Religion in Ukraine on the Eve of the Collapse of Communism’.1

“What happened after the fall of Communism was the powerful entry of religion into the public sphere, the mass opening of early closed religious buildings and the renewal of religious communities, the reestablishment of church structures, theological education, missionary activities, social work, and the revitalization of religious culture deformed in Soviet era. Churches began to play their own, often important role in a public and political life.  Religion has also emerged as an important factor in political, cultural and ethnic mobilization, as well as in the legitimization of such crucial popular movements as the Orange Revolution 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity 2013–2014. Does all this mean that Ukrainians became religious and strive for the sacred en masse? It is difficult to say, but anyway, Ukrainians demonstrate what can be called ‘average European behavior’ with regard to religion. It should be mentioned that in the west of the country, religiosity is higher and religious behavior is more consistent. The survey conducted by the Razumkov Center in October 2019 showed that 20% of the respondents said that they had attended a religious service in the previous week.”

To what extent can we speak about the secularization of Ukrainian society?

“Religion in Ukraine will probably not leave the public space and will not limit itself solely to the ‘space of individual human souls’. Religious institutions expressed their political positions in practically all electoral campaigns. They also take open and clear positions in regard to the plans of Euro-Atlantic integration and Russian aggression. Most Ukrainian presidents and top politicians use religious rhetoric. No public figure in the sphere of politics, culture or art openly positions themselves as atheist. By the way, it is dramatically different to the position held by  Ukrainian state and nation-builders in the early 20th century who had Kobzar, a book of poetry by Taras Shevchenko, and Das Kapital by Karl Marx in their pockets, to put it metaphorically.”

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine finally got the Tomos in 2019. However, it did not result in the unification of Orthodox churches; instead, it led to even further fragmentation. How do you assess the present situation of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine and the possible development of the situation in the future?

“Granting the Tomos to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is a truly historical event. Millions of Ukrainians who were called ‘graceless schismatics’ because they belonged to the church that did not have canonical status were returned to the embrace of the canonical church. The obstacle to church independence was not only the Russian Orthodox Church but also the whole arsenal of the Russian state. The struggle is not over yet but it seems that Russia lost this battle. I think that the development of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is dynamic. This year about 540 communities from Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate transferred to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This church has strong support from Ukrainian intellectual elites. The attempted coup organized by Filaret (Patriarch of Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate) and actively supported by pro-Russian groups failed. Russia tried to cause a split in Orthodoxy, but no Orthodox church has severed links with Constantinople so far. Russia also tried to organize the isolation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine but these efforts failed. Now the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has many hopes for the future and is concentrating on the quality of religious life, the development of theological education, and missionary activities.”

Considering the fact that each main Church in Ukraine relates to Kyivan tradition as their origin, do you see any possibility for the churches to find mutual understanding about this past? Will these interpretations always differ or is there a chance for reconciliation? What is needed for such reconciliation?

“There were several initiatives in Ukraine dealing with the shared past of the Christianization of Kyiv Rus’ (often referred to as ‘Volodymyr’s Christianization’, ‘Dnieper font’, ‘Kyiv tradition’, etc.). What is interesting, is that it was most often the initiative of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. There is still little cooperation between churches in the questions about their past. Despite misunderstandings about the past, there are instances of fruitful cooperation for the common future. The intensity of the conflict between the churches is not so great that we need to speak about reconciliation. Even in their ‘hottest’ stages, these conflicts in contemporary Ukraine have never reached the level of the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland.”

In Ukraine, as in many post-Soviet countries, religion and politics are very close. As a result, the religious sphere is very politicized. Is there any chance for religion to become less influenced by politics? What is needed to achieve a separation of political and religious spheres, in your opinion?

“Religion is inseparable from politics, especially when it comes to large human communities. The leadership of the church which unites thousands or even millions of people cannot stand aside and express no position about life outside the Church. The Churches are dealing with people who are born, live and die under certain conditions and the Church cannot ignore these conditions. Church leadership also ought to propose to its believers a way they should live in ‘this world’ which would align with their religious belief. Believers in Ukraine often faced severe challenges which were thrown at them by this world, such as wars, revolutions, turbulent social changes, but the religious leaders did not always give them adequate guidelines. I personally think that religion is always about politics. Even the questions of individual salvation are about the ways one lives here and now, how one should interact with others, whether one can and should participate in certain events or not.”

What is the role of religious actors at times of war and military conflict in Ukraine? Religion can both split and unite communities: Which role does it play in Ukraine? Is there potential for religion to act for peace building?

“The war has become a serious challenge for religious actors in Ukraine. Most of them condemned the aggression and called for believers to protect the country. They provided unconditional support for the Ukrainian army, volunteers, and forcibly displaced persons. The only exception is the leadership of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. This church became one of the organized actors who justified aggression against Ukraine and an ardent critic of Ukrainian Euro-Atlantic foreign politics. Moreover, the leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate used democratic institutions as tools for undermining democracy and democratic values in Ukraine. The peacebuilding potential of this church, which is one of the favorite topics of Kremlin propaganda, is non-existent since its leadership accuses not the aggressor but Ukraine in the war in Donbas. This position is openly pro-Russian. In general, all these demands for peace directed only to the Ukrainian side are unfair and unjust: It is not the Ukrainian state that initiated the war and it is not Ukraine which furthers it. Other churches in Ukraine were very active in peace-building initiatives in 2014–2015. For instance, Ukrainian Baptists and Pentecostals met with their Russian co-believers in third countries. Now Ukrainian churches are focusing on easing the fates of their co-believers in the occupied territories and in the annexed Crimea where religious freedoms are severely suppressed.”

Since the annexation of Crimea, more attention is being paid to Islam in Ukrainian public space. With Crimean Tatars who moved to inland Ukraine from the occupied peninsular, Islam became more visible, not only in Crimea. What is the future for Islam in Ukraine? Does the new government demonstrate an interest in supporting Muslim communities?

“Islam in Ukraine is as multifaceted as are the groups which belong to Islam. Historically those groups come from different ethnic communities, different cultures and have their own histories. From the very beginning of the war in Donbas, Ukrainian authorities supported Muslims, their rights and freedoms, including supporting those communities who are in Crimea. Thanks to Ukraine’s efforts, resolutions were passed in the UN, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), condemning the suppression of religious freedoms in annexed Crimea. As a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I personally raised this question with Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, during my visit there in April 2019.

“If we talk about the future of Islam in Ukraine, then I think that it will be developed in the conditions of competition between ethnic modifications of Islam, where Islam is an identity marker, and global modification, whose link to ethnic identity is not so strong. The latter form of Islam is getting more and more popular among Muslim youth in Europe.”

Note: This text is based on an interview conducted in October 2019.


Viktor Yelensky, “The Revival before the Revival: Popular and Institutionalized Religion in Ukraine on the Eve of the Collapse  of Communism” In, Catherine Wanner, ed., State Secularism and Lived Religion in Soviet Russia and Ukraine. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 302-330.