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Ukrainian religious stereotypes and their impact on the processes of cultural identification of contemporary Ukrainians: the European and alternative vectors

22.04.2009, 12:15
The reality is that the society in which we live is chock-full of stereotypes – ethnic, political, gender, age, cultural, linguistic, religious – that prevent collective as well as individual subjects from acquiring new identities.

Processes of cultural identification are invariably connected with the formation of functioning stereotypes. On the one hand, these stereotypes systematize and generalize the world, helping people to perceive and interpret existence adequately, and on the other hand, strictly adhering to these concepts is what sometimes prevents a person from fitting into new life conditions. History has generated many religious stereotypes, according to which many ethnic groups, nations, religious communities, and denominations have been constituted and preserved. At the same time, uncontrolled domination of stereotypes in the theory and practice of social and individual life has led to complications in the functioning of ethnic religious communities, struggles between them, and even destruction of various ethnic groups, nations, religions, and churches as others appeared.

The reality is that the society in which we live is chock-full of stereotypes – ethnic, political, gender, age, cultural, linguistic, religious – that prevent collective as well as individual subjects from acquiring new identities. Stereotypes appear, affix, function, vanish, and revive everyday on practical and theoretical levels. They are closely connected with myths, not only historical, but modern as well (social, cultural, ethnic, religious, etc.). Unlike myths, which are the collective form of a generalized reflection of reality in the form of sense-specific personifications and humanized creatures that exist in the consciousness as entirely real, stereotypes, being a particular way of perceiving the Other in fixed and inflexible terms, are based on specific characteristics of the certain groups of people, on their unique features perceived in a definite way, proceeding from the narrow assumptions about their origin, nationality, race, temperament, capacity for thinking or working etc. [See: Pickering, Michael. “ Two different good. The conception of the good: the Eastern and Western perspective,” Stereotyping and Stereotypes. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007.]

Even a superficial acquaintance with the Vatican and the Catholic Church make it possible to generate stereotypes about them. The Vatican is accused of considering the whole world to be a missionary field for the Catholic Church, of not being sensitive to the fact that there are territories that are traditionally, say, Orthodox. Catholic expansion and proselytism are said to be the essence of the eastern policy of the Vatican, directed particularly against Orthodoxy. It is believed that the Vatican tries to destroy the borders of Orthodox canonical theory to gain a foothold on the East and spiritually subordinate Orthodox believers. It is said that the Vatican is competing with autochthonous Christian churches on foreign grounds, mainly Orthodox Churches.

The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians believe that the Catholic West is inimical to the Orthodox East and therefore any negotiations, dialogue initiatives or ecumenical actions are seen by the public as heresy spread by the Catholics who want to gather all Christians under their wing and subdue them.

There is no doubt that public opinion with regards to Catholicism has been greatly affected by the presence of the RCC, the growth of its communities, and the activities of the Catholic monastic orders and priests since Ukraine gained its independence. Those who closely monitor religious life throughout the country have observed the disintigration of many stereotypes, especially in the West of Ukraine, where the joint cooperation of various religious communities is well established. However, the East (Dnipropetrovs’k, Kharkiv) and to some extent the South (Odessa) met with difficulties connected with the rights to religious buildings that historically belonged to the RCC. And of course, the social stances of politicians who stereotype the RCC did not play an insignificant role in the conflicts. Here, despite the increasing number of the Catholic faithful and the establishment of the new Catholic communities, the thought about the genetic alienation of the Catholicism is dominant.

In Ukrainian society, anti Greek Catholic stereotypes are especially popular. Greek Catholics are pigeonholed as too religious and openly nationalistic. Offensive terms like “Uniat” and “Bandera” are used in some regions of Ukraine even today. For a long time, uniatism was considered as a “bastard-child” of the Vatican – the Polish magnates’ plot against the Ukrainian people by means of catholicization and polonization. Uniats were depicted as servants of the Austrian and Polish magnates, spiritual mentors of the Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists. Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytskyj and Patriarch Joseph Slipyj were exposed to personal attacks for their anti-Soviet views. Extremely negative stereotypes about Greek Catholics are mainly spread beyond the Western regions of Ukraine. Even in today’s print media and on the Internet (especially from Moscow Patriarchate sources), you can find thousands of provocative statements similar to those found on Internet forums: “the goal of the uniats is the complete destruction of Orthodoxy. Therefore, all uniats should be drowned in the Dnipro straight away” (Valerii), “Ukraine must be Orthodox. Therefore, there is one option for Catholics, pseudo’s, Greeks, etc. – coffer, railway station, Magadan” (Igor).

The process of overcoming stereotypes is complicated and long. Galicia was the first region that managed to get rid of the negative perception of Greek Catholics, despite extensive Soviet propaganda. However, the Soviets formed an influential Orthodox community and free thinking alliance of intelligentsia in Galicia in one generation (1946-1989) to disempower uniats. The UGCC spent the following 20 years coming out from the underground but has now completely revived its structure, institutions, and parishes. Naturally, there remain some difficulties in the strengthening of Greek Catholics in the central, southern, and eastern regions of Ukraine. People often recall the public question of a representative of the Sevastopol City Council: “Are the Greek Catholics Christians?” or the unresolved issue of granting Greek Catholics permission to build the thier churches in the Luhansk and Kharkiv regions. In terms of a public recognition of the principle of freedom of conscience and religious freedom, the latter seems especially strange. It can only be explained as an expansion of archaic religious stereotypes. Unlike in Galicia, where anti-uniats use denominational and historical arguments to defend their religious rights, eastern fighters against the lasting effects of Soviet Union operate with ideological and political levers that were in use in the totalitarian times.

The notion “Ukrainian Catholic” doesn’t really fit into the psyches of modern Ukrainians. And the notion “Ukrainian Protestant” is almost surrealistic. This is first of all due to the mainstream belief that Protestantism is a non-Ukrainian phenomenon. Most ordinary Ukrainians are convinced that Protestantism has survived only via Western financial support. Protestants widely perceived as strangers that have the right to exist but have no right to undermine Ukrainian religiousity or to exert any kind of dominance in the spiritual sphere. One “liberal” wrote: “Well, I cannot overlook the obvious anti-state position in some Protestant circles. I cannot accept (and DO NOT ACCUSE ME OF A LACK OF CHRISTIAN LOVE) the criminal methods they use… murderers…” Another adds, “Do not be naïve… They are strangers on our land…” In response to a question about the prospects of reconciliation and understanding between denominations, this “Christian” wrote: “THERE WILL BE NO RECONCILLIATION!!!!! AND THANK GOD FOR THAT!!!” Here is the response of one Christian to the head of the Protestant Church’s appeals to Ukrainians regarding fasting and prayer: “…they should come from the spiritual leaders of Ukraine and not from Protestant leaders that are ignorant of the traditions, spirituality, and legends of our people. These values were defended by the blood and the lives of our ancestors. And here rushes some guy to ‘rule’ our nation spiritually. Don’t trust the appeals of foreigners with other ideologies, however tempting they may be. We need to revive our (Orthodox) faith and spirituality. Not religion, but faith itself, which is tested by time.”

“Ukraine became a state due to Orthodoxy and Protestants are foreigners that have the right to exist but have no right to dominate in spiritual life,” another member of the forum writes with conviction. “Jesus Christ himself followed all the laws of Moses and said that no iota can escape the Law. Therefore, without Orthodoxy our salvation is not possible. Glory to the Canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Vladimir!!!” It is clear through the language and style of these postings that such fanaticism is not formed by the Churches, whose distinctive feature is denominational tolerance.

Orthodox believers aren’t free from stereotyping either. The most popular stereotype is the notion that Ukraine is an Orthodox country. Although any and all legislative acts aren’t in any way bound to the status of the Orthodox Church, the latter wants to behave as an overbuilt spiritual element of the country. The Church itself doesn’t state that Orthodoxy is the state religion, but some voluntary ideologues and party leaders who support the Orthodox Church voice such views. Initiatives of the higher secular authorities concerning the establishment of their respective local Orthodox churches only reinforce the stereotype of the state status of the Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is presented as an exceptionally positive force in the history of the nation; the spiritual future of Ukraine is connected with its revival. Orthodoxy is automatically perceived as something inseparable from Ukraine and vice versa. For the self-identification of Ukrainians, who for 70 years were persuaded of their genetic inferiority, and after Gorbachov’s perestroika, the very idea of closeness to the Christian – especially Orthodox – values seemed to be the most revolutionary of all democratic slogans. During the process of reviving national self-identification, when it was necessary to seek out the history, language, culture, values, the future stolen by other states, this idea turned out to be a constructive one, as it helped many people to rebuild and develop their cultural identities with religion as the core around which the whole culture of Ukrainians was formed. From this multi-staged history and spirituality of the Ukrainian people emerged Leonid Kuchma’s slogan “Ukraine is not Russia,” despite the fact that he was totally not nationally oriented. But this level of understanding is not enough for a valuable cultural identity. In the denominational dimensions, the identity of Ukraine has finally been conceptualized into a formula: an independent part of a common Orthodox space. As a component of Ecumenical Orthodoxy, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is still looking for its historical bosom, from which the Kyivan Church, the Kyivan Metropolitanate, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Kyivan Patriarchate were born. Within Orthodoxy itself, there exist various and hierarchical conceptions of the canonicity of Orthodoxy – which is in Eucharistic unity with the ROC – therefore other Orthodox Churches are seem as schismatics. And it is even harder for the collective Orthodox consciousness to overcome these stereotypes than for Catholics, Protestants, and other religious denominations.

The main depiction of the contemporary search for identity in Ukraine is that of a rude, obtrusive, wistfully romanticized conflict between the Christian East and West. The overwhelming majority are convinced that the Orthodox East resists the aggressive West, and therefore Catholics and Protestants. “Western godlessless and its anti-human spiritual poison is overwhelming the eastern lands…” “The phenomenon of papism with its unlimited power is unfathomable to the moskovites!” (http://pravoslavye.org.ua/index.php?action=fullinfo&r_type=&id=8487). Perhaps the only Church in Ukraine that wants to overcome this division is the Greek Catholic Church, which is nourished by a belief in its special role in uniting the Christian East and West.

Today, the majority of Ukrainians produce mainly exclusive stereotypes, which may exclude a certain community from stabilized cultural areas. Inclusive stereotypes, on the other hand, seem to weaken a culture’s own traditions in the absence of stable skills needed to develop culture, language, spirituality. Inclusive stereotyping would replace the unproductive separation, this independence from everyone and everything, via a creative identification of historically inherited and contemporary religious systems, as long as the latter harmoniously includes the community into the space of the human culture. The dichotomization of certain regions, depending on their location and denominational priorities, is actually aimed at impairing the religious geopolitical situation. The map positioning followers of different religions or denominations changes constantly, and this does not solve but rather complicates the identity crisis of Ukraine.

(Report for the International Philosophical conference «Europe: the uniting processes and Christian values», Lviv, 27-28 February 2009)

Ludmyla Fylypovych

Ph.D in Philosophy. Head of the Department of Religious Processes in Ukraine at the H. Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine