East and West from Russia and Ukraine

Teuvo Laitila & Heta Hurskainen

If the position of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) towards the West and East could be characterised by one word, it would be ‘mission’. Since the start of its missionary work, the East – Siberia, Alaska, Korea and Japan in the early 20th century – has been the ROC’s direction, with more recent efforts being directed towards Southeast Asia. The West has been a contested missionary direction. Since the Russian religious-philosophical thinkers of the 19th century, the ROC has struggled for deciding whether to cooperate with the western tradition of Christianity or challenge it by claiming the authentic interpretation of Christianity and contesting the secular beliefs and values of the West, which are the present emphases in the ROC’s western discourse.

This categorisation also encompasses the space ‘in between’, covering Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova. The Russian World concept of the last decade endeavoured to gather these areas together with an emphasis on common Slavic roots stemming from the ‘Kievan baptismal font’.

Curanovic (2018) proved how the ROC has not turned Ukraine into an object of its mission. Brotherhood between the two nations does not serve as a solid foundation for a common mission nor is the clash of two civilisations reason for the ROC to fulfil its mission in Ukraine. Rather, Ukraine is seen as a place where foreign influences are gaining space for themselves. According to the ROC, Europe’s secularised and fallen moral influence on Ukraine should be resisted; Catholic proselytism, which also takes place through the Greek Catholic Church, is foreign, misleading and not valued positively, as well as the latest but not the least confrontation. According to the ROC, the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its actions should not have reached Ukraine in the form of granting autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. All the mentioned influences are not wanted in this ‘in between’ space from the perspective of the ROC, but the Ukrainian space itself does not need a mission, as it belongs neither to the West nor the East.

Finding a way to balance the perspectives of not considering Ukraine as missionary land and Ukraine as influenced by the West is not easy. In Ukraine, the ROC uses a similar tactic as in its argumentation on homosexuals: the ROC condemns the acts and inclinations but invites people to repent and connect with the True Orthodoxy in the ROC. This kind of sentiment leaves little space for dialogue with the multiformity of Orthodoxy in Ukraine. If the theological bases of ‘people of the good will’ for the Soviet times’ cooperation with atheistic authorities were strongly built, then could these bases be used in present day as well? Lines are drawn deep nowadays. According to the ROC, actions and ideology must be shared in order to cooperate. If so, how can there be cooperation with Ukraine, which belongs to this shared ‘in between’ but is influenced by the West?

If Russia pretends to be sure that Russia exists ‘in between space’ and can thus implement a policy towards the East or West, then Ukraine’s existence as a historical entity can be challenged—and has been challenged—both politically and ecclesiastically. For the ROC, the Ukrainian Orthodox are part of the Russian Orthodoxy, and all claims to the contrary border on creating a schism. Thus, the Ukrainian Orthodoxy must first establish itself prior to asserting its independence from the ROC and Russia.

The ROC’s metanarrative defending the inclusion of Ukrainian Orthodoxy into the Russian one portrays a linear transformation of Christianity, from the baptism of Kyiv people around 988 CE through the establishment of Muscovite Rus in the 14th century and the Moscow Patriarchate in 1589 to the hegemonic claims of present post-Soviet ROC over the ‘Russian World’. This narrative makes Russia the East for those Ukrainians who argue that they are a separate nation and culture, not a subdivision of the ‘great Russian’ people.

Ukrainians critical of Russia assert their dissociation from the East by resorting to Westernising rhetoric, such as defining Ukraine culturally and politically as an extension of the West, with the European Union or some older entity enabling a linkage to the West.

Separating Ukraine and Ukrainians from their Russian ‘East’ is far from simple and usually ignores the fact that from the late 17th to the late 20th century most of the territory of present Ukraine was held continuously by the Russians or the Soviets. 

During that time, several attempts to establish a separate Ukrainian identity were made, even though most of the people we now call Ukrainians did not consider such identity in modern national terms; rather, they were ‘locals’ trying to cope with the changing circumstances. Concepts such as ‘East’ or ‘West’ were of little use except for major 20th-century conflicts, Ukrainian–Russian civil and independence wars from 1917 to 1921, the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. During these events, a part of Ukrainians nationalised their history and ‘found’ their allies in the West and their enemies in the East. Notably, Ukrainian Orthodoxy was an exception; its enemy was the Moscow Patriarchate in the East, but its ‘West’ was global Orthodoxy, especially the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

After the Ukrainian independence in 1991, observers both in Ukraine and abroad argued that Ukrainian politicians and the people in general are divided between the Russophone ‘West’ and Russophile ‘East’. In other words, attitudes towards things Russian were the decisive factor in the Ukrainian conceptualisation of East and West.

This finding is only partially true. Ukrainian Orthodoxy and Ukrainian politicians are highly conscious of their audiences, and select their words accordingly, creating divisions into the ‘East’ or ‘West’ as they find appropriate. Only global politics and western media essentialise East and West, arguing that this or that statement of a bishop or a politician is indicative of his, rarely her, support to the East or the West.

This does not mean that Ukrainians are turncoats of sorts who do not care what the East and West concepts represent. However, what they mean when talking about, for example, ‘western’ values or ‘eastern’, usually Russian, menace begs further investigation. For instance, it is evident that while Ukrainian Orthodoxy dubs the events of 2013–2014 centring on Maidans as ‘revolution of dignity’ or ‘revolution of values’, dignity and values are considered from a rather conservative Orthodox perspective. ‘Values’ may include a western conception of democracy, but they do not exclude eastern, Orthodox, conceptions of, say, family and sex roles. Thus, to make sense of Ukraine and its relations with ‘East’ and ‘West’, we have to understand their variations and limits. 

Teuvo Laitila, PhD, is Assistant Professor in Orthodox Church History and Comparative Religion at the UEF. His research interests include religion-state relations in Ukraine and the Balkans, antisemitism from the Baltic to Bulgaria, and folk or ‘lived’ Orthodoxy in Karelia.

Heta Hurskainen, ThD, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the UEF. Her research interests are in ecumenical relations of Orthodox and Lutheran churches, questions of Orthodox migrants, and in Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, as well as their relations with politics.