A Religious Affair

Ainslie Pierrynowski

“Suddenly we are now the Orthodox! We are now the Ukrainians...I did not want to stay without church, but this is too much. Too much to be patriotic enough and believing enough.” These words, from a Ukrainian woman interviewed by panelist Tomrike Metreveli, reflect one of the most fascinating elements of of Panel U7 on Power, Politics, and Religion. During Session Three on Thursday, May 2, Chair Elizabeth Clark (Brigham Young U, US), discussant Catherine Wanner (Penn State U, US), and participants Alessandro Milani (HURI, Harvard U, US), Andreii Fert (U Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Ukraine), Tornike Metreveli (U of St. Gallen, Switzerland), Inga Miller (U of Albany, US), and Annelle Sheline (Rice U, US) delved into how faith shapes and is shaped by competing nationalisms in Ukraine.


Andrii Fert argues that Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) promotes a vision of supranational unity in its messaging toward the Ukrainian public. Although this narrative attempts to legitimize UOC-MP’s ties to Russia, it taps into nationalistic discourses to do so. UOC-MP’s official media and formalized rituals construct a history which situates the Church’s origins in Kievan Rus’ and then moves to Moscow, only turning back to Ukraine when Orthodox Ukrainians suffer. Interestingly, this account reproduces the imperial and Soviet era concept of Ukrainians and Russians as a singular people with a common origin, who suffer when separated from each other. Conversely, an emergent counternarrative paints a picture of Ukraine’s religious history wherein the Ukrainian people represent a distinct spiritual—and political—entity.


Likewise, Metreveli contends that a recent push for an independent Church in Ukraine is bound up in recent political developments—the invasion of Crimea, Euromaidan, and a growing consensus around the formation of a singular state Church among political elites. Metreveli’s exploration of how these discourses are discourses applied and felt in everyday life lead him to the concept of identarian in-betweenness, a response to a civic nationalism that forces people to choose one identity over another, characterized by undecided motive narratives and a volatile secular national identity.


These analyses raised a compelling point during the question and answer period: Does a focus on these competing national projects limit one’s understanding of Ukrainian society to a simplistic binary? Metreveli responded that religion in Ukraine ought to be conceived of as a distinct category of practice which separates religion from loyalties and conflict. This answer recalls panelists Inga Miller’s and Annelie Sheline’s comparative analyses of religion and national identity. Miller contends that, like the Latvian Lutheran Church, the Kiev Patriarchate has allied itself with political parties. Sheline says that Morocco’s successful efforts to graft religion on to a new, territorially-bound nation-building project enables its state-sanctioned religion to co-exist with other competing faith and suggests that the same could be true of Ukraine. While these case studies might seem disparate at first glance, both presentations illuminated the complexities—and potential futures—of the relationship between Church, nation, and state in Ukraine.


Overall, the panelists explored salient political discourses in Ukraine which religion with conflicting national projects. From formal, high-ranking institutions, to local churches, on to the pages of newspapers and textbooks, religion is intertwined with conflicting visions of nation, identity, and self in Ukraine.

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