Explainer: Religious freedom in Ukraine in the 20th and 21st centuries | Baptist life
In 1991, as the Soviet Union was nearing its official end, the Ukrainian people turned out in record numbers to officially declare their independence from the Union of Soviet Social Republics (USSR). After the votes were counted, more than 90% of Ukrainian voters had approved independence. Despite political pressure from Moscow, Ukraine elected its first president in December of the same year and officially formalized its status as a sovereign state, quickly gaining recognition from the international community.
But Ukraine’s history up to that point had been strewn with pitfalls. And as we well know, under the thumb of a brutal and unjust invasion by Russia and its dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s future and its sovereignty are once again in doubt.
Liberty under siege
One of the hallmarks of any free nation is its recognition and preservation of the rights of its citizens; rights such as freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the right to “organize one’s life in response to” what he or she believes to be true, is how Andrew T. Walker defines freedom religious. The importance of religious freedom and its virtual ubiquity among free nations sheds light on 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 freedom. And now, as with all other expressions of freedom in Ukraine, the country’s religious freedom is under siege. The ability of Ukrainian citizens to order their lives in response to what they believe to be true is thwarted by a savage and inhumane Russian military charade.
A Brief History of Religious Freedom in Ukraine
In Article 35 of the Ukrainian Constitution, religious freedom is explicitly and clearly identified as a right that the state owes to its citizens. Part of the document reads as follows:
Everyone has the right to freedom of their 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 carry out a religious activity.
While the language described in the Constitution of Ukraine may seem trivial to those of us in the West, when considered in the context of the history of religion in this region, which only dates back to 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 unchallenged 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 atheistic ideology took root in the region, through schools and other government-enforced means, the religious life of its citizens became increasingly imperiled.
The promotion of religious persecution by the 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 the seizure, closing and destruction of churches; ridicule religion, harass and imprison believers; and even torture and execute both clergy and religious followers. While most religions were never officially banned, the Marxist-Leninist policy that marked the Soviet Union aimed at the “control, suppression, and elimination of religious beliefs” among its citizens. To a large extent, this was successful – the number of non-religious and non-believing Soviet citizens grew exponentially during the times of the USSR
Religion in the 21st century
On June 28, 1996, Ukraine’s first constitution since the declaration of independence from the former Soviet Union came into effect, formally setting out charters for the nation and its citizens. In this 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 implicit promise that this right will be preserved by the State. Undoubtedly, it was a welcome departure from Soviet-era communist politics.
Ukraine’s declaration of independence and the drafting of its constitution in the early to mid-1990s paved the way for a religiously free 21st century. There would no longer be the threat of oppression and persecution imposed on those who adhered to any kind of religious belief, or no religious belief at all. Although there have been challenges (both internal and external) to building a tolerant and religiously free society, over the 21st century Ukraine has become a pluralistic (albeit overwhelmingly Christian) nation. composed of Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Protestants. , among other religious traditions like Judaism and even atheism.
Recent challenges to Ukrainian freedoms
But as Russia has continued to encroach on Ukrainian territory since its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, “the religious pluralism and freedom that Ukrainians have enjoyed since [the mid-nineties]are devastated. In Crimea, for example, 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 completely underground.” According to some sources, “the situation in occupied Donbass – the self-proclaimed Russian-controlled “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” [DLPR] – Is similar.”
As Russia now continues to attack 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 President’s intentions. Putin towards Ukraine and its citizens. Presumably, stealing the religious freedom of Ukrainians is all in his opinion.
Fight for Ukraine in prayer
The history of religion and religious freedom in Ukraine is complex. But what is clear is that all the freedoms its citizens once enjoyed are now under threat. Once “home to a vibrant church and a number of missionaries”, the Ukrainian people are now running for their lives – though many Christians have chosen to stay and meet the needs of their neighbors in peril. For those who remained, “it is likely that these Christian brothers and sisters, as well as those from other religious minorities, will face intense persecution and human rights abuses.”
So what can those of us on the other side of the world do? We can do what the church has always instinctively done: pray. As those who enjoy religious freedom ourselves, we can exercise our freedoms on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, fighting for them in prayer in private and in public. We can pray for their protection, for their strength and determination, and ultimately for peace. We can pray that their God-given freedoms, recognized by their government and supported, with great courage, by soldiers and ordinary citizens who fight tooth and nail to keep them, will be preserved.
As they struggle for the future of their country, may we continually strive for them in prayer.