Global Currents article

Beyond the West: Nationalism, Religious Literacy, and the War in Ukraine

Orthodox priests saying offices during the Euromaidan protests, Jan 21, 2014. Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Western interpretations on the war in Ukraine commonly ignore the importance of both nationalism and religion, even though such elements are arguably essential for understanding the sources of democratic resistance in Ukraine, the motivations behind Russian aggression, and the complex futures that confront the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. The following post critiques one example of western liberal reportage and offers an alternative reading that takes nationalism and religion seriously in the interpretive process.         

The War in Ukraine: Beyond Western Framing

In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a campaign begun in 2014 and escalated with criminal brutality on February 24, 2022, many in the west began thinking about the political and social makeup of the Ukrainian nation for the first time. For millions, the New York Times’ flagship podcast The Daily became a place to hear expert analysis and reportage on the war in Ukraine interwoven with explanations of history and place in ways that are brief, digestible, and accessible. For instance, the episode of February 15—‘How Ukrainians View This Perilous Moment’—arranged a suite of powerful personal stories told from the capital Kyiv and several regional contexts into a narrative challenging President Putin’s assumptions about Ukrainian submission to the looming Russian takeover. How insightful such a report proved to be: since the 2022 invasion, the refrain Slava Ukraini (“Glory to Ukraine”) has evoked images of defiance in the face of tyranny, national sacrifice in the struggle against oppression, and of hope and despair on the outer edges of catastrophe.

The magnitude of western solidarity with Ukraine, both its military and humanitarian expressions, can arguably be explained by both the moral gravity and existential proximity of the conflict. These factors are embodied in how civilians have become collateral victims and strategic targets of Russian aggression. Of equal significance, I suggest, is the translatability of the Ukrainian resistance into the idioms of western liberalism. In particular, the discursive superstructure of “democracy versus autocracy” situates the war in Ukraine in a Manichean world that pits the struggle for freedom against the demagogic intentions of a tyrant. The name of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has become universally associated with democratic liberty, much as the names of others before him in different times and contexts. Such inspiring dynamics of solidarity-making are clearly welcome, especially as a sustained humanitarian response by the west toward millions of Ukrainian refugees will no doubt be required. 

Yet we are also provoked to ask what may be lost in translating the Ukrainian resistance through the discursive filter of “democracy versus autocracy,” and why this might impact the nature of our solidarity as well as long-term prospects for peace. How might the fight be reimagined beyond westernism and western interests? And how might this reimagining thicken our understanding of democracy and the resources that inform it? I return my thoughts to The Daily, the globally popular investigative podcast that also offers a portal into the liberal worldview, and arguably the best version of it. As its millions of followers would attest, The Daily is nothing if not highly scripted, tightly produced around dramatic pauses, metered interjections, the juxtaposition of serious content with tip-toe curiosity sound bites, evocative theme music, and the communication of mature and insightful analysis in tension with a kind of “explainer baby talk” where the listener is simultaneously informed and infantilized. The movement between these experiences, I suggest, mirrors liberalism itself, notably its nimble capacity to simplify collective phenomena for individual consumption via a reductively thin rendering of social space. In this context, what is left out of a story becomes as important as what is put in.  

The Heavenly Hundred: Religion, the Sacred, and National Belonging

Street Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Victims, 2018. Image via Flickr user Adam Jones (CC BY 2.0)

The initial encounter in the podcast episode on February 15, 2022 illustrates this dynamic. The report first visits a memorial site in Kyiv dedicated to the 100-plus people who are remembered as the Heavenly Hundred. They were killed in a popular uprising, known as both the Maidan Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity, that began in late-2013 against the Russian controlled government of Ukraine. Describing the site as “this black steel and granite monument with these kind of spectral faces taken from real life photos of individuals,” the Daily report accurately depicts the memorial as dedicated to a tipping-point event in the modern history of the Ukrainian nation, whose victims are lauded as heroes for the principles of democracy, human rights and freedoms. The podcast narrative twice emphasises the fallen as “individuals” who, collectively, “through the force of numbers, through the force of their own will,” overthrew the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. Adding to the narrative is an encounter with “two elderly women there in headscarves, cleaning up the site.” As a final comment, the reporter conveys an explanation from one of the women about her actions. He says: “Every time one of the individuals who died during the uprising in 2014 has a birthday, she hangs their photos on a little holder here and rings a bell.”

End of scene.

The underlying emphasis of this brief account is one of civic defiance, of spontaneous ritualized choices by individual citizens, also depicted later in the report as “college students and history professors” joining volunteer brigades to fight the Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine. Few would doubt the inspiration of such citizen courage, but as an educative process about the dynamics of resistance in Ukraine—of helping listeners to enter into a social and political space very different from their own; to understand, as the episode’s title suggests, “how Ukrainians view this perilous moment”—the Daily’s account at the memorial of the Heavenly Hundred is deficient in important ways. Such a criticism might seem unfair given the need to produce a fast-moving podcast, were it not that the missing elements in the story are also absent from all Daily reportage to date (again: what is left out is as instructive as what is put in). The elements to which I refer are those of religion and nationalism as formative resources of communal and institutional resistance to Russian aggression. Not coincidentally, I suggest, dynamics such as these also disrupt the ideological scripts of western liberalism. 

The Daily scene at the memorial of the Heavenly Hundred begins near what the reporter describes as a “small wooden chapel.” Such a detail provokes us to interrogate the religious aspects of the site, whether they are a central or ancillary dimension, and whether they are an original or a later addition to the lived practices of remembrance that occur there. In an essay titled “Commemoration and the New Frontiers of War in Ukraine,” Catherine Wanner offers an incisive answer:

A popular outpouring of grief over the deaths of protesters in February 2014 resulted in individuals creating vernacular memorial shrines, sometimes in the form of graves, to honor those killed … From the beginning, a prominent religious idiom was incorporated into commemorations, as it was in the protests themselves. Candles, icons, and prayer beads, which evoke the veneration of saints, are among the other objects with clear religious meaning that are placed near the shrines (334, italics added).

In 2014 I was invited to write about the place of religion in the Maidan Revolution, and was immediately confronted by how to interpret powerful images of Orthodox priests placing themselves at the deadly center of the protests, actions that added a more traditionally sacral dimension to the events that preceded the vernacular rituals of the post-revolution memorials. Functioning as a corrective to my initial interpretation that religion was indeed ancillary to the struggles for economic and democratic autonomy—and that these priests had less agency, for instance, than in the earlier anti-Communist struggles in Poland—Wanner attributes religion with both a primary and ongoing role in revolutionary sentiment. For instance, 

It has become a tradition for volunteers, soldiers, and others actively engaged in the war effort to come to the Maidan to light a candle near the portraits as a form of ‘blessing’ before they head to the front. In 2017 the exterior wall of St. Michael’s Monastery in downtown Kyiv, where the protesters notably took refuge during the Maidan protests, became the site of a ‘Wall of Remembrance for those Fallen for Ukraine.’ The notable presence of clergy during the protests gave way to a rapid expansion of the number of military chaplains who accompanied soldiers to the east (Wanner 334).

The Australian Stefan Romaniw, the first vice president of the Ukrainian World Congress and a participant in the Revolution of Dignity, recalls the coexistence of ecclesiastical leadership alongside grassroots activism at work in Maidan:  

I recall the street rallies—many hundreds of thousands of people started at Taras Shevchenko National University and marched to Maidan. I remember Patriarch Lubomyr Husar [Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church] in an open vehicle speaking to the crowd … Over the course of the revolution, politicians took to the stage, but slowly realized this was a civil revolution—a people’s movement. Civil society took charge.  

For scholars seeking to reinstate religious actors, interests, and practices within the political landscape, the reframing of the Revolution of Dignity through the lens of both vernacular and formal religious expressions would constitute an important finding. Such a reframing, to be sure, represents an advance in applying religious literacy to the Ukrainian struggle because we perceive something thicker and more culturally embedded in the modes of Ukrainian dissent. Specifically, many participants in both the 2014 revolution and the anti-Russian resistance today are buoyed by a sacredness beyond the temporal order just as much as they are motivated to uphold democratic sovereignty within it—and much less by the autonomous citizen-self as the sole occupant and hero of thinner liberal narratives. 

Yet the fusion of religion and national resistance could also be a legitimate cause for concern when applying perspectives more aligned with critical disciplines, such as the contribution of Diane Moore, which require religious literacy to include “an analysis of power and powerlessness” and ask, “Which perspectives are politically and socially prominent and why?” (384). Whatever roles history professors might have played, we do know for certain that the Maidan revolution was comprised of a variety of actors with a variety of interests, “from the liberal intelligentsia to hardcore nationalists.” The specter of a religious nationalism with strong affinities toward national chauvinism, therefore, creates interpretive dilemmas for understanding how some Ukrainians do indeed view this perilous moment. As Wanner observes, 

Religious institutions have tremendous political valence because of their ability to create and morally legitimate new cultural boundaries and the often unsavory emotions that lead to delineations of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ … Many supporters of the Maidan validate religiosity as a fundamental component of Ukrainian nationality (334). 

So we must ask, “nationality for whom”? Might religio-nationalist resolve not only galvanize resistance but also unlock historic legacies of social hostility toward religious minorities in Ukraine, including an increasing number holding to no religion? Critical approaches face a dilemma here: the recognition that religion has always been involved in the world of power has caused many to erase it as the mere epiphenomena of hegemonic structural interests, an inverted form of the modern liberal containment of religion as the mere expression of individualized ethics. In a departure from both approaches, and in solidarity with a scholarly tradition that wants to ask critical questions in-and-through religious beliefs, practices, and belongings, in what follows I suggest the legacies of religion in the war in Ukraine offer frameworks for understanding the broader constitutive forces of nationhood beyond western assumptions and a political hermeneutic guided by the frame of autocracy-democracy.

Religion in the Russian State and the Ukrainian Nation

It is important to briefly declare some of my assumptions and show how they apply to the context of the war. I understand the state to be a bureaucratic entity, and as a researcher more aligned to ethno-symbolic theories of nationalism, I part ways with modernist scholars of both a cosmopolitan and critical persuasion who assume that it is the state that creates the nation.While acknowledging the salient insights of a modernist like Siniša Malešević that states can powerfully mobilize nationalist sentiment via institutions, ideology, and networks of micro-solidarity, I also hold Benedict Anderson’s popular modernist idea of the nation as an “imagined community” to be far too anemic. To echo the writings of Anthony Smith, nations are not only imagined, they are willed, felt, remembered, and repurposed, and the deep cultural reservoirs from which such actions are often drawn predate the modern state and in some instances give rise to it. 

While states differ in polity and efficiency (for instance, often less totalized and more random [or aleatory] in their actions toward the vulnerable), the long held axiom of critical theory that states “see” a certain way remains important. In classical terms, the state is more of a Parmenidean entity—defined by unity, where all movement ultimately must serve the One. The state can assert religion as an archetype, as a “first form” indispensable to the reinforcement of a patriotic standard (or canon) and the upholding of sovereignty. The principal example of religion as archetype in the context of the war in Ukraine is the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and its relationship with the Russian state. In an important essay, Shakhanova and Kratochvíl examine the “patriotic turn” of the ROC via the discursive movements of nomination (naming key actors and concepts), predication (assigning value to actors and actions against a patriotic standard), and argumentation (the construction of a persuasive narrative), leading to the creation of key rhetorical topoi that are employed in the discourses of Russian education and politics. In education, the “topos of indispensability whereby (the Church as the only one who can protect Russia from moral decadence)” develops into a “topos of superiority (Orthodox patriotism is superior to all other kinds).” In politics, the “topos of moral supremacy (the Church’s moral tutelage of the state)” develops into the “topos of power struggle (Orthodox Christians have to be influential in politics)” (120). Religion as archetype is also seen in the authors’ appeal to a 2014 study by M. D. Suslov on the creation of the idea of “Holy Rus.” Here, the archetypal first form is violently imposed upon a geopolitical space, as forecast in President Putin’s now infamous essay of July 12, 2021, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

In contrast to the state, while different nations can be understood against common sets of ideals and concepts, the processes of their formation are both varied and dynamic. Thus, the nation is more of a Heraclitan entity—defined by movement and the possibility that the flows of history will yield new iterations at once recognizable and reconfigured. If the state can assert religion as a singular archetype, the nation can enable religion more as an ideal-type, that is, as a resource that can support multiple political forms. In the context of the war in Ukraine, religious traditions, practices, and interests have an ambivalent quality and can thus contribute to civil and political cultures of both inclusion and exclusion. Regarding inclusion, that President Zelensky is Jewish in a context shaped by histories not only of social hostility toward Jews but also their elimination as a people, becomes a powerful embodiment of democratic pluralism and the role that religious diversity plays to strengthen Ukrainian nationhood. The same can be said of the public unity in support of the Ukrainian resistance by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders on March 21, 2022 in the ancient port city of Odesa. 

Religion as archetype has been stridently challenged within the majority religious tradition of Christian Orthodoxy in the region. One such example can be found in the ideational texture of the recent statement, A Declaration on The “Russian World” (Russkii Mir) Teaching, by an international network of Orthodox scholars, clergy and lay people against the Russian ideology. First, the primary appeal is to interpretive practices of the Orthodox faith, notably the ethics that stem from situated readings of sacred text. Second, the affirmation of human equality (i.e. beyond confessional and partisan boundaries) is framed as a prophetic challenge to “all forms of government that deify the state.” Third, that a turning away (a metanoia) from the current conflict is also seen as a turning toward “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The sentiments of the Declaration were also echoed in the Statement of Solidarity against Christian Nationalism signed by an international coalition of scholars instigated by a conference at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. The Tablet reports a detail from the conference that is relevant to the notion of religion as ideal-type:

At a public lecture during the conference, Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun encouraged Orthodox theologians to “weaken symphonia with the state, and strengthen symphonia with civil society.” The Ukrainian priest and academic used the metaphor of “symphonia” or musical unison to describe Orthodoxy’s relationship with the polity.

Religion understood as a set of both distinct yet malleable communal practices and a metaphor for civic unity encapsulates well the potential of religions as ideal-types in the service of the common good, the challenge to hegemonic injustice, and the building of nations.

Of course, symphonia also possesses an ambivalent quality. As William Schweiker has recently noted, in the case of the alliance between Putin and the ROC symphonia has led to belligerence over civility, thereby highlighting the importance of situating symphonia within the ideal-type of the nation rather than the archetype of a religio-state. Such a rejection would also restore transnational Orthodox unity. Notably, in a recent interview Fr. Cyril Hovorun appeals to Orthodox tradition for support of this idea:   

To restore such a unity, in my opinion, the Orthodox churches must condemn the ideology of the Russian world. Such a condemnation would be an update of the famous condemnation of “phyletism” (nationalism applied to ecclesiastical affairs) at the Council of Constantinople in 1872.

Latent within Hovorun’s appeal for a symphonia with civil society is a traditional rejection of the archetype of the religio-state in favor of a preferential option for the plural nation.

“Glory to Ukraine”: Religion and the Sacred Nation    

In the case of Russia’s war on Ukraine, we are arguably presented with a geopolitical adaptation of R. Scott Appleby’s prismatic and enduring concept of the “ambivalence of the sacred”: on the one side, “Holy Russia” founded on the archetype of a singular religio-political ontology; on the other, the Ukrainian nation in a resistance struggle understood by its citizens to be contextually and metaphorically “sacred.” The national exaltation of the Heavenly Hundred memorializes the Revolution of Dignity by infusing this sacredness throughout institutional and popular forms of Ukrainian resistance: the advocacy of traditional hierarchs—religious and civic—on behalf of an oppressed and endangered nation; and the accountability of those same hierarchs to the standards of sacred justice believed in traditional and vernacular ways by a citizen community. For the Ukrainian nation, therefore, the bifurcated discourse of “autocracy vs democracy” does not do justice to all that is at play in the circumstances of this terrible moment, nor to the multilayered and situated meanings of the refrain “Glory to Ukraine.” 

The dynamics of religion and nationalism are inextricably entangled in the scenarios that will unfold in the coming months and years, not only for Ukrainians but also for Russians. To not acknowledge those dynamics presents a serious deficiency in our understanding and our solidarity. When an elderly woman, whose history is intimately bound up in the story of both peoples, rings a bell at a grave of the fallen, it is unlikely that she intends to channel the powers of western liberal individualism to her cause; it is instead more reasonable to assume that she is releasing a sound that reverberates through spaces that are as primordial as they are modern, linked to communities of both the present and the past, and ritualized in the hope that the sustaining presences of a sacred social order will one day give rise to a renewed and better life for her people. 

Slava Ukraini.


1  For example, I have employed ethno-symbolic theory to argue that the constitutive dimensions of nationalism can be employed to counter the forces of national populism. See John A. Rees, “Religion, populism, and the dynamics of nationalism,” Religion, State and Society, 49, no. 3 (2021): 195–210. For a recent use of Anthony D. Smith’s ethno-symbolic approach in the study of religion and nationalism, see Gurharpal Singh and Giorgio Shani, Sikh Nationalism: From a Dominant Minority to an Ethno-Religious Diaspora (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

John Rees
John A. Rees, PhD. is Professor of Politics and International Relations at The University of Notre Dame Australia, where he co-convenes the Religion and Global Ethics program at the Institute for Ethics and Society. Dr. Rees was the 2022 Milward L. Simpson Visiting Fulbright Professor at the University of Wyoming (January-May). This article is based on a public talk cohosted by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, delivered at the University of Notre Dame on April 28, 2022.

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