Ukraine’s Prolonged Post-Soviet History
The sovereign state of Ukraine lies in Eastern Europe, straddling the border between Russia and the European Union. After a long period of Soviet rule and a series of political ruptures, Ukraine hit the headlines in 2014 when it became the epicenter of a conflict with Russia. But what does the Bible say about Ukraine? The answer, surprisingly, lies deeper in history than the headlines.
In the Middle Ages, the nation was part of the Kievan Rus, a major trading power in Eastern Europe. In 988, the formal adoption of Orthodox Christianity solidified the nation’s role as a Christian nation. As Christianity spread, so too did a sense of unity between the regions of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. This unity was further underscored by the emergence of regional monasteries and small, sovereign states.
Due to its strategic location and the spoils of trade, the region changed hands multiple times between Poles, Russians, and Turks. Modern Ukraine emerged out of the ashes of the Russian empire in 1917 and declared independence in 1991.
Ukraine’s Role In Biblical Tales
Ukraine is not directly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, yet it certainly played a significant role in its setting. In the New Testament, the Crimean region is discussed multiple times. Paul wrote letters to the Galatians, perhaps from Crimea.1 The Gospel of John speaks of a man born blind coming from the region of the Jordan, which is thought to refer to the region of Crimea.2 Beyond these two references, many biblical tales experience a spiritual revival in cities across Ukraine.3
In the Carpathian Mountains, for example, there is the Church of St. John the Baptist. Many believe this church to be founded in the 1st century and to also be the setting where Jesus cured the blind man in the Gospel of John.4 Similarly, in Kyiv stands the Saint Andrew Church atop a hill overlooking the city. This area is thought to be the setting where Andrew and Peter were first called by Jesus to follow him and where Jesus himself visited.5
Christianity’s Continuing Presence In Ukraine
As an independent nation, Ukraine has several predominant faith traditions; the largest is Orthodox Christianity. Approximately 75-80% of the Ukrainian population identify themselves as Orthodox Christian.6 Other prominent faith traditions include Greek Catholicism and Roman Catholicism. Both of these grew out of a Ukrainian drive to merge the spiritual roots of Kievan Rus with the Mediterranean influences of Catholic Christianity.7
Although Russian forces have continued to test Ukraine’s borders since 2014, the nation’s religion has not suffered with the same intensity. Despite the nation’s involvement in the 2014 conflict, it has remained a secular nation, with many prominent religious organizations working actively to ensure peace and stability.8 The continuing presence of Christianity in Ukraine is in part due to the presence of organizations such as the Ukrainian Catholic University and Caritas Ukraine. Both organizations have used their religious standing to support peace and reconciliation.9
Ukraine’s Unique Theology
Although a predominantly Christian nation, the nation of Ukraine has a unique interpretation of Bible texts. There is an emphasis on moral teachings, coupled with the idea that a single cause and action can be lead to multiple effects.10 In a similar vein, when shown in churches, the Epistle of Paul is often presented in a collective form – as a reminder of the responsibility of the community of believers.11
In the liturgical context, the people of Ukraine often sing hymns and chant the word ‘troppers’, meaning the hosting of God in their midst.12 In addition to this, Ukrainian theology contributes to a more social interpretation of religious texts. This includes viewing the messages of the Bible as applicable to contemporary society. As a result, the nation has a unique approach to the evolution of Christianity.13
Ukraine’s Political Struggles
Ukraine has been through its share of political turmoil over the centuries. But it has also been subject to numerous uprisings that have occurred in its eastern regions, most notably in 2014. This saw Russian forces attempt to annex the nation, with military presence remaining in the Crimean Peninsula and Donbass region.14
Despite the political tumult, the nation remains a strong Christian nation. A survey showed that 81% of Ukrainians identify as religious.15 Churches across the nation, from the Carpathian Mountains to the mainland, remain vibrant, with many working to support the efforts of reconciliation and peace-building.
Implications For The Future
Ukraine’s history and its continued place in the world stage underscore the importance of a Christian nation and its inherent responsibility to seek peace and justice. This is particularly relevant today, in light of the nation’s strategic location and the rivalry between the EU and Russia. There is no easy resolution to the conflicts found in Ukraine and while the nation’s turmoil is ongoing, the continued presence of Christianity and its moral teachings can act as a source of hope.
Relationship With Surrounding Nations
The longstanding tradition of Orthodox Christianity has undoubtedly contributed to the strong relationship between Ukraine and its Russian neighbor.16 Recently, this relationship has grown distant in the eyes of global politics, though many Ukrainians still maintain strong ties with Russians and vice versa.17
Ukraine also has strong ties to other Eastern European countries, such as Romania, Moldova and Poland. In particular, the presence of Greek-Catholic and Orthodox Christians brings many countries together with shared spiritual traditions and commitments.18
As a Christian nation, Ukraine has a unique religious history that is deeply rooted in the New Testament and other more ancient traditions. This history, coupled with its extended post-Soviet period, has led to a creative interpretation of the Bible and an emphasis on moral teaching. In addition, the nation’s long and tumultuous history has certainly informed its strong relationships with Russia and other surrounding countries. By looking to its past, Ukraine may gain insight into a future of peace and reconciliation.
1Malina, B., The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, p. 51
2Cupit, T., An Archaeology of the Gospel: The New Testament in Its Mediterranean Setting, p. 24
3Schep, S., “The Bible in Ukraine: The Present State of Affairs”, Bible and Mission, January 2017
4Sanchez, V., “On the Road Again: Crimea, Ukraine and the Church of St. John the Baptist”, August 2014
5Detsenko, A., “Saint Andrew Church”
6U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report: Ukraine, 2017
7Forward, J., A History of the Ukraine: The Land and Its People, p. 197
8Schep, S., “The Bible in Ukraine: The Present State of Affairs”, Bible and Mission, January 2017
9U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report: Ukraine, 2017
10Kolomatsky, P., “Theology of Ukraine: Development, Challenges and Perspectives”, p. 53
11Kolomatsky, P., “Theology of Ukraine: Development, Challenges and Perspectives”, p. 45
12U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report: Ukraine, 2017
13Kolomatsky, P., “Theology of Ukraine: Development, Challenges and Perspectives”, p. 58
14BBC News, The Ukraine crisis in maps, 2017
15Hoffman, P., Revealing Stats About Religion in Ukraine, 2011
16Whitehouse, A., The Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Foreign Policy, January 2011
17U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report: Ukraine, 2017
18U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report: Ukraine, 2017