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Explainer: Religious liberty in Ukraine in the 20th and 21st centuries

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May 9, 2022

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was nearing its official end, the people of Ukraine turned out in record numbers to formally declare their independence from the Union of Soviet Social Republics (U.S.S.R.). After the votes were tallied, over 90% of Ukrainian voters had endorsed independence. Despite political pressure from Moscow, Ukraine elected its first president in December of that year and officially formalized its status as a sovereign state, earning swift recognition by the international community. 

But the history of Ukraine up to that point had been fraught with tumult. And as we well know, under the thumb of a brutal and unjust invasion by Russia and its dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin, the future of Ukraine and its sovereignty is once again uncertain. 

Liberty under siege

One of the marks of any free nation is its acknowledgment and preservation of its citizens’ rights; rights such as freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the right to “order one’s life in response to” what he or she believes is true, which is how Andrew T. Walker defines religious liberty. The significance of religious liberty and its virtual ubiquity among free nations illuminate for us why, historically, many have called it our “first freedom,” both here in the states and abroad.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Ukraine had a complicated relationship with religious liberty. And now, as with all other expressions of freedom in Ukraine, the country’s religious freedom is under siege. Ukrainian citizens’ ability to order their lives in response to what they believe is true is being thwarted by a savage and inhumane Russian military charade.

Brief history of religious liberty in Ukraine

In Article 35 of Ukraine’s Constitution, religious freedom is explicitly and clearly identified as a right that the state owes to its citizens. A portion of the document reads as follows:

Everyone has the right to freedom of personal philosophy and religion. This right includes the freedom to profess or not to profess any religion, to perform alone or collectively and without constraint religious rites and ceremonial rituals, and to conduct religious activity.

While the language outlined in Ukraine’s Constitution may seem unremarkable to those of us in the West, when considered against the backdrop of the history of religion in this region, going only as far back as the 20th century, this document and the freedoms it enshrines for its citizens is an achievement of great significance. 

Religion in the 20th century

Under Soviet rule, a period that lasted from the Russian Revolution of 1917 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, atheism was the official, and largely uncontested, worldview advanced by the government. The Russian Revolution launched the Soviet region into decades of state-sponsored atheism, “during which all religion was frowned upon, and atheism was propagated in schools.” As the atheistic ideology embedded itself in the region, through the schools and other government-imposed means, the religious life of its citizenry grew increasingly imperiled.

The promotion of religious persecution by Soviet authorities became normative, both against individual adherents and religious institutions. During these years, in fact, the Soviets unleashed a series of “anti-religious campaigns” that varied in intensity, but included such tactics as seizing, closing, and destroying churches; ridiculing religion, and harassing and imprisoning believers; and even torturing and executing both clergy and religious adherents alike. While most religions weren’t ever officially outlawed, the Marxist-Leninist policy that marked the Soviet Union sought the “control, suppression, and elimination of religious belief” among its citizens. To a large degree, it succeeded — the number of non-religious, non-believing Soviet citizens rose exponentially during the days of the U.S.S.R.

Religion in the 21st century

On June 28th, 1996, Ukraine’s first constitution since declaring their independence from the former Soviet Union took effect, officially spelling out the charters of the nation and its citizens. In that document, as mentioned above, is the explicit articulation that Ukrainian citizens possess “the right to freedom of personal philosophy and religion,” and, by virtue of its inclusion in the Constitution, the implied pledge that that right will be preserved by the state. Undoubtedly, this was a welcomed departure from the communist policy of the Soviet era.

Ukraine’s declaration of independence and the forming of its constitution in the early-to-mid 90s set the stage for a religiously free 21st century. No longer would there be the threat of oppression and persecution imposed upon those who adhered to religious belief of any kind, or no religious belief at all. While there have been challenges (both internal and external) to the building of a tolerant and religiously free society, over the course of the 21st century Ukraine has developed into a pluralistic nation (though overwhelmingly Christian) consisting of Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Protestants, among other faith traditions like Judaism, and even atheism. 

Recent challenges to Ukrainian freedoms

But as Russia has continued to encroach upon Ukrainian territory, dating back to its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, “the religious pluralism and freedom that Ukrainians have enjoyed since [the mid-nineties]” are being devastated. In Crimea, for instance, many adherents of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been “imprisoned for their faith,” and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church itself is “in danger of being driven underground altogether.Reportedly, “the situation in occupied Donbas – the self-proclaimed and Russian-controlled ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [DLPR] – is similar.”

With Russia now continuing to bear down on Ukraine militarily, seeking to wrest the country from the constitutional grip of its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his cabinet of leaders, one can only imagine the intentions President Putin has for Ukraine and its citizens. Presumably, stealing away Ukrainians’ religious freedom is squarely within his view. 

Contending for Ukraine in prayer

The history of religion and religious liberty in Ukraine is complex. But what’s plain is that all the freedoms its citizenry once enjoyed are now under threat. Once “home to a vibrant Church and a number of missionaries,” the people of Ukraine are now running for their lives — though many Christians have chosen to remain and meet the needs of their imperiled neighbors. For those who have stayed behind, “it is likely that these Christian brothers and sisters, as well as those of other religious minorities, will face intense persecution and human rights abuses.”

So, what can those of us half a world away do? We can do what the church has always instinctively done: pray. As those who enjoy religious freedom ourselves, we can exercise our liberties on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, contending for them in prayer both privately and publicly. We can pray for their protection, for their strength and resolve, and, ultimately, for peace. We can pray that their God-given freedoms, recognized by their government and upheld, with great courage, by soldiers and regular citizens fighting tooth and nail to keep them, would be preserved.

As they contend for the future of their country, may we continually contend for them in prayer.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author