The Impact of the Ukrainian Crisis on Religious Life in Ukraine and Russia
by Mark R. Elliott
One may ask: how far in the past can the discord between Ukraine and Russia be traced? Does the present conflict only date back to this past winter, Viktor Yanukovich’s ouster from power, his replacement by a strongly pro-Western government, and Russia’s move into Crimea?
Or does the present conflict date back to the Orange Revolution of 2004-05? In this case, public protests over the fraudulent presidential victory of Yanukovich forced a new election that was won by Viktor Yushchenko.
Or does the present crisis find its roots in the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War (1918-21)? In those years Ukraine momentarily proclaimed its independence, only to be reabsorbed into a new Soviet version of the old tsarist Russian Empire.
Or can the present conflict be traced back to Muscovy’s seizure of Ukrainian lands from the Poles and Ottoman Turks in the 17th and 18th centuries? In the train of those victories Moscow gave no cultural quarter to its new Ukrainian subjects, pejoratively calling them “Little Russians” and suppressing use of the Ukrainian language.
Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy in Contrast
Whatever the ultimate origins of the conflict, a starting point for comprehending its religious dimensions involves recognition of the fundamental contrast between Orthodoxy in Ukraine and Orthodoxy in Russia. In Russia the Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate is so revered as a cultural linchpin and unifying force that in public surveys even Russian non-believers identify themselves as Orthodox. Putin recognizes this fact, sees benefit in Orthodox hierarchs’ political support, and, in turn, grants privileges to the Orthodox Church at the expense of other Christian confessions and faiths.
In contrast, in Ukraine three different Orthodox Churches vie for followers, and strong Eastern-Rite Catholic and Protestant churches must also be taken into account. As a result, religious tolerance and freedom of conscience, of necessity, are much more in evidence in Ukraine than in Russia. In addition, for whatever reasons, the dynamism of Ukrainian church life, be it Orthodox, Eastern-Rite Catholic, or Protestant, compared to Russia, is striking. The strength of Christian expression in Ukraine compared to Russia may be illustrated by the number of churches per capita. With a population of 46 million, Ukraine, for example, has 16,811 Orthodox parishes, while Russia, with a population of 142 million, has 14,616 Orthodox parishes. In the Soviet period, for good reason, Ukraine was referred to as the Bible Belt of the U.S.S.R. Today, in the post-Soviet era, this characterization is just as appropriate. Unfortunately, counter balancing the vigor of Ukraine’s church life is the troubling reality that it suffers as much from moral disarray as Russia: widespread corruption and bribery in business, government services, education, and medical care; human trafficking; wealthy oligarchs out for their own interest; and high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, divorce, poverty, and homelessness.
A Ukrainian Protestant Overview
A major consequence of Ukraine’s church divisions (three Orthodox jurisdictions and two Catholic confessions—Eastern Rite and Latin Rite) is that no one church can work its will as Russian Orthodoxy does in Russia. As a result, evangelicals have had much more freedom to exist and to evangelize than has been the case in Russia. Churches that were disproportionately strong in Ukraine compared to Russia – and that remain so to this day – include Orthodox, Catholics, Evangelical Christians – Baptists, Pentecostals, and Adventists. To give but one example, Ukraine, with a population of 46 million, is home to 125,000 Evangelical Christians–Baptists (ECB), whereas Russia, with a population of 142 million, is home to 76,000 ECB faithful.
Protestant Separatism Versus Political Engagement
In the course of 70-plus years of persecution and discrimination, Ukrainian and Russian evangelicals developed an isolationist, siege mentality, rejecting any involvement in Soviet political or social life. However, in Ukraine, following independence, evangelical isolationism began to erode, first in the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, but especially in the Maidan demonstrations between November 2013 and February 2014.
Ukrainian-Russian Evangelical Strained Relations
Another of the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis has been increasingly strained relations between Ukrainian and Russian evangelicals, which run counter to longstanding, intimate ties that previously had united them. As with the general population, many Ukrainian evangelicals have family relations in Russia. Not a few Russian Evangelical Christian–Baptist (ECB) leaders are of Ukrainian origin. For example, before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian Hrihorii Komendant served in Moscow as general secretary of the All-Union Council of the ECB; and prominent Moscow ECB layman and academic, Alexander Zaichenko, was born in Sevastopol, is Ukrainian by nationality, but is Russian by working language and education. In addition, after the fall of the Soviet Union many hundreds of Ukrainian Pentecostal and Baptist missionaries moved to Russia, especially to Siberia and the Russian Far East, serving as church planters.
Given the Ukrainian contribution to the spread of the Gospel in Russia, many Ukrainian evangelicals have been disappointed by the attitudes of their northern brethren in the current political crisis. They sense correctly that, as a rule, many Russians, including many evangelicals, cannot understand why Ukrainians want to be independent: “Many Russians think that Ukraine is and should remain a province of Russia,” and they reject the idea that the two peoples “truly represent two distinct and different cultures.” As a pastor in Kharkiv put it, “Russians see even Ukrainian independence as an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
As noted earlier, some Russian evangelicals hold to the traditional, isolationist position of non-involvement in worldly politics, blended with passive submission to authority, in this case Putin, as defined in Romans 13. Russian evangelicals of this persuasion were taken aback by the active participation of many Ukrainian evangelicals in the anti-Yanukovich Maidan demonstrations. The gulf between the two sides causes some to yearn for days of old when evangelicals had in common their opposition to an atheist state. Journalist William Yoder sensed “sadness and nostalgia” in the prayer of a Russian Baptist layman in a 2 March service: “Remind us of how it was when we were still brothers!”
For the most part, Russian evangelicals have not aired their political preferences, choosing instead to maintain a low profile in the Ukraine conflict. Russian evangelical leaders in particular were slow to comment on the Ukrainian crisis in public, and many of their pronouncements demonstrated pained discomfort as they attempted not to take sides. Vitaly Vlasenko, head of the ECB Department of External Relations, for example, on 13 March, wrote “God is not for one side at the expense of the other….We want to demonstrate our love – and God’s love – for those on all sides.” Undoubtedly, the reticence of some Russian evangelical leaders stems from a fear of the consequences, should they take exception to Kremlin policies on Ukraine. As Tetiana Mukhomorova observed, Putin has “such vertical control in spiritual circles” that any church pronouncement not in conformity with government policy “is going to be very expensive.”
The nationalistic, patriotic fervor that is sweeping Russia is another reason few of the country’s evangelicals are likely to object to Kremlin moves against Ukraine. Increasingly xenophobic Russia equates dissent of any kind with support for the enemy, and the enemy of convenience today is the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Many Russian evangelicals believe it prudent to stress their native roots, their Russian patriotism, and to downplay their historic ties with Western churches and missionaries.
The Impact of the Ukrainian Crisis on Missionaries
The impact of the Ukrainian crisis on missionary efforts in the former Soviet Union varies dramatically depending upon location. Missionaries serving in western and central Ukraine, including the capital of Kyiv, have not been affected negatively – to the extent that their work is centered in Ukraine. However, missionaries based in Ukraine with significant involvement in ministry in other post-Soviet republics, particularly Russia, have experienced major disruption. Since independence Ukraine has frequently served as a venue for church and ministry meetings involving participants from many former Soviet republics, and those gatherings are now being scaled back, postponed, or cancelled. Likewise, Ukrainian-based missionaries working throughout the former Soviet Union cannot expect to travel as freely as they have previously. Western Christian missions headquartered in Ukraine, such as Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries and the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), do not have the easy relationship with Russian evangelicals that they enjoyed even a year ago. Thus, Ukrainian evangelicals and missionaries based in Ukraine have a much harder time speaking or carrying out ministry projects in Russia. Russians even consider “a Christian Russian-language website for children…suspect because it originates in Ukraine.”
A particularly nuanced reflection comes from Sue Fuller, an American missionary serving in the Russian Far East:
Please be praying for the situation with Ukraine and Russia. I, of course, have my opinions, but as far as everyone else is concerned I try and be as neutral as possible. There is so much culture, history, politics, money, nationalism, pride, etc. tied up in this situation, it would be hard for anyone to make sense of it. So let’s focus on praying for the families who have lost loved ones in the uprisings in Ukraine. Pray for the people of Crimea who are in a time of transition. Pray for wisdom, cool heads, and diplomacy. No matter what decisions are made by our countries the Russians who I have contact with are very kind and good to me and can separate people from their governments and what they do. Let’s do the same and continue to love and pray for good things for the Russian people.
Religious Trajectories: Seven Projections
Whether or not Russia ends up seizing more of Ukraine than Crimea, several current religious trajectories will likely continue.
- Western missionaries will likely continue to face growing impediments in Russia, Crimea, and possibly eastern and southern Ukraine.
- Western missionaries in Ukraine free of Russian interference will likely continue to be welcome and active.
- In the midst of ever-mounting violence across eastern and southern Ukraine, it will likely become ever more difficult for missions based in Ukraine to function in Russia.
- Evangelical churches in Russia will likely continue to face increasing restrictions to their freedom of worship, with the same consequence for any part of Ukraine that Russia might occupy.
- Relations between Ukrainian and Russian evangelicals will likely continue to remain strained.
- In an independent Ukraine, the Ukrainian Eastern-Rite Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church will all strongly support the country’s European orientation.
- Finally, short of Russian occupation of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate will likely succeed in resisting Patriarch Kyrill’s “wide-scale plans for consolidation of the ‘Russian world,’” and may, in time, achieve autocephalous status with the support of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
From the perspective of those who favor a stable, independent Ukraine, the experience of the church in communist China suggests that even a dreaded political outcome need not spell decline for people of faith. The encouraging fact is that Christianity in China has grown dramatically since 1949 despite concerted government attempts to suppress it. Christians in Ukraine and Russia will hopefully take heart in the biblical promise that, in the end, “the gates of hell will not prevail.”
Mark R. Elliott is editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report. This is excerpted from “A Theme Issue on the Impact of the Ukrainian Crisis on the Church and Christian Ministry.” It is available in English, Russian and Ukrainian versions at EastWestReport.org.