Staunton, September 21 – Many Evangelical Protestants in Ukraine and who emigrated to the United States at the end of the Soviet period are critical of the aspirations of most Ukrainians to join Europe and opposed to Ukrainian efforts to oppose Russian expansionism, according to Elena Panich, a Ukrainian specialist on religion.
On Risu.org.ua, Panich says that this reflects a great deal more than just “the impact of Russian propaganda,” although that is clearly involved. Instead, she says, it is part of an effort by Evangelical leaders in Ukraine to remain “’above’ the conflict” and to insist that “’this is not our war’” (risu.org.ua/ru/index/expert_thought/authors_columns/opanych_column/57631/).
And that in turn, she suggests, reflects some even deeper experiences and trends. “The émigré community is a kind of ‘extension’ of [Ukraine’s] evangelical brotherhood abroad.” It includes some Ukrainian patriots,” but on the whole this community is better called post-Soviet” because it takes its values from its origins.
“For the majority of believers who emigrated from eastern Slavic lands at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s,” Panich says, “the USSR remains that fatherland to which today are retained warm feelings,” even though the Soviet state was hostile to Christianity and Evangelicals in particular.
The Evangelical emigration remembers that period as one of great struggle and thus tends to be “nostalgic” about both those times and “the great power in the borders of which they first felt their attachment to global politics.” And “the sacralization of the Soviet Union took place in their consciousness in an unnoticed fashion even as they were struggle with it.”
“Having been a religious minority,” Panich says, “they felt themselves big in the framework of a great empire. [That] empire guaranteed them mobility, a language of ‘inter-ethnic communication, and even in its own way great power pride” because both in Soviet and post-Soviet times, they viewed that country as the target of their Evangelical effort.
“Of course,” the religious specialist continues, “the ‘old’ motherland no longer exists; it is preserved only in memory. But today it is embodied by Russia which presents itself as the natural extension of the Soviet state,” the supporter of the Russian language as a lingua franca, and thus an object of pride for some.
For many in the émigré churches and some in the Evangelical community in Ukraine, “the imperial character of Russia is understood as something natural, customary and even approved by God because God in the final analysis creates states.” As a result, one can say that “the Evangelical movement formed on the territory of the USSR became an imperial church.”
At present, Panich continues, some “post-Soviet Evangelicals in the US and also in Russia and even in Ukraine have without noticing it found themselves in the position of hostages of ‘the Russian world’ in the sense in which this ‘world’ can be considered a project of Russian cultural imperialism.”
For such people, “the national struggle of the Ukrainians and their desire to escape from the imperial influence of Russia is conceived as a revolt against a customary and on the whole legitimate order.” And that attitude is reinforced as various investigators have found by the negative attitude many of these Evangelicals have toward Western culture.
(On this point, Panich cites the research of Esther Grace Long, the daughter of an American missionary, as presented in her doctoral dissertation at the University of Kentucky in 2005, “Identity in Evangelical Ukraine: Negotiating Regionalism, Nationalism and Transnationalism.”)
“It is no secret that Evangelical Protestants in Ukraine, not all but a significant portion were among the biggest opponents of European integration.” Panic reports that she even heard Evangelicals pray that the EU association agreement would not be signed, and when Russia invaded Ukraine, many remained prisoners of their old “stereotypes.”
Few of them expected the invasion and they proved unable to analyze what had happened. And now, it appears that any calls for an agreement which come from this community “in fact are calls for [a subconscious and unacknowledged] acceptance of Russia’s right to seize the territory of former republics and the right of the strong to use force.”
Such attitudes, Panich concludes, show that it is possible to be “an oppressed minority but not see oneself as separate from the geopolitical and cultural space of the empire.” And when that is the case, “any efforts to destroy this space will be seen … as a violation of a sacramental unity which underlies the unity of the church itself.”