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The bright and dark sides of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church

Photo: Serhiy Nuzhnenko, RFE/RL
Article by: Giorgi Jgharkava

After 27 years of independence state-building process in Ukraine is still underway. However, despite the flaws of the reforming process, one could argue that there are several positive signs of improvement since the Revolution of Dignity – Association Agreement with the European Union; fighting against corruption; decentralization, etc.

The former government of Ukraine would surely add the newly granted Autocephaly to this list. Some would agree too. Could the church affairs really be related to state-building? Not really, but it can contribute to the nation-building process. Orthodox Church unification and independence were on top of former government’s political agenda. To a certain extent the whole process of unification and subsequent autocephaly was brokered by the former Ukrainian government and especially the ex-president Poroshenko. The major role played by the president in the grant of Autocephaly has left historical imprint in two senses:

  1. The Ukrainian Church managed to gain independence after ovee 300 years of Russian Orthodox Church control;
  2. Poroshenko’s effort made a special case of a secular state explicitly meddling in religious matters. According to Poroshenko, church independence was a matter of country’s security[1]. The president also stated that the church could contribute to Ukrainian national identity[2].

It would be fair to say that Poroshenko was right when he conceded that his country was still going under the nation-building process. One could state that in Ukraine the problems with nation-building eventually undermined the state-building process too.

The idea of this assumption is that less national uniformity leads to less commitment towards state and its institutions thus damages the state-building process in general. Nation-building has different components. For Poroshenko, the one which lacked in the Ukrainian case was Orthodox unity. Most importantly, it was a fixable issue. The idea which Poroshenko pursued was that the division of Ukrainian Orthodox churches undermined national unity. The positive aspect of this story is that his reasoning was right. However, later we will shortly explore the potential negative aspect too.

The idea of Poroshenko’s policy was the following – the core principle of forming national identity is differentiating between “us” and “them.” Ukraine knows who are “they” but needs to better define “us”. Nation-building can be considered a top-down process, where mostly the elites (such as clergy in some cases) tend to form a national identity. Religion is still an important part of Ukrainian identity. Therefore, it has a key part in defining what “us” really mean in Ukrainian context. However, when an integral part of your identity (religion) is divided and at the same time is owned by “them” (Russian Orthodox Church) nation-building process becomes complicated. Hence, Poroshenko tried to finally fix this very element of Ukrainian nation-building process.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the division of Orthodox Churches in Ukraine had propelled the division of narratives and perspectives on the country’s past, present, and future. In this regard, more emphasis should be put on the past, since the historical narratives are the foundation of the country’s national unity.

As David Marples notes in his book “Heroes and Villains” the Ukrainian society is characterized with different interpretations of major historical events – the most prominent examples would be the Famine (Holodomor), the activities of OUN and UPA and the attitudes towards the former governments’ performances throughout the independence period[3]. The role of the Church in predominantly religious communities is utterly important to reconcile this type of national historical narratives. This especially applies to Orthodox Churches – according to Steven Grosby, Orthodoxy was always a major contributor in shaping the cultural uniformity of its respective communities – with usage of vernacular languages, concepts of national saints, etc.[4] The division of Orthodoxy in Ukraine with its local and Russian controlled constituencies sometimes has caused the contradictory narratives which to some extent facilitated the disintegration of the society.

The fine illustration of the dominant religious institutions’ role in bringing together the society would be Catholic Church in Poland, specifically in the 80s when the Church positioned itself as a foothold in the resistance movement against the Communist regime. Other examples would make Georgian and Armenian cases. After the collapse of communism, the Georgian and Armenian churches quickly managed to fill the atheist vacuum left by the Soviet past with the religion and actively engaged in societal life.

However, at the same time, those very examples bring us back to the potential negative side of the enhanced role of religious institutions in society. More precisely, especially in the cases of Georgia and Armenia the respective dominant Churches’ enhanced roles gave these religious institutions opportunity to occupy an overwhelmingly large part of public space. For instance, in both of the countries, the Churches started to connect national identity to Christian faith. This eventually led to discrimination of ethnic minorities. Moreover, there were instances of incorporating the legacy and name of national heroes into the church context. Apart from this, the Churches tried to make religious festivals national holidays by getting closer to their respective governments. The rapprochement process to the governments eventually let the Churches penetrate the educational system, meddle in state affairs and, pursue further finances from taxpayers’ money.

Overall, autocephaly is an added value which can contribute to the nation-building process in Ukraine. Thus, the ex-president’s efforts in this achievement can be justified to a certain extent. However, the precedent of state meddling in church affairs can backfire in a reverse manner, where the particular religious institution can enjoy much more privileges and eventually overwhelm the public discourse. Therefore, the aim of current Ukrainian government should be to avoid yielding too much public space to the newly independent Church and not to let it double up the state role in certain domains.

  1. “How President Poroshenko Secured Church Independence for Ukraine”, 2018, Hromadske International, (Consulted on 18.01.2019).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Marples, David R., Heroes and villains: creating national history in contemporary Ukraine, (Central European University Press, 2007) 304-305
  4. Ibid.

Giorgi Jgharkava is a recent graduate from Georgia. He majored in International Relations (BA, Tbilisi State University) and European Interdisciplinary Studies (MA, College of Europe). His research interests include Central and Eastern European history and contemporary politics.

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