Religious and civilizational aspects of the war in Ukraine: a discussion with Adrian Ivakhiv

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BURLINGTON, Vermont – Since the beginning of the Russian-lead invasion of Ukraine, the TWH team has been hard at work monitoring the situation in order to bring its audience reliable and relevant information that would enable them to reach a better understanding of the conflict. However, there is no denying that TWH has not, prior to this, focused much at all on Eastern European affairs, and our coverage of the Pagan milieu in Ukraine, Russia, and other Slavic and post-Soviet countries has been limited to say the least. As a result, despite TWH‘s efforts and extensive contact network, it has proven difficult to get in touch with people who have directly been involved in the conflict.

In order to remedy this relative gap in knowledge, our team has been on the lookout for scholars, practitioners, and other experts in Eastern European contemporary Paganism who could help contextualize the religious and spiritual aspects of this war for our audience.

The first to answer this call is Adrian Ivakhiv, professor of environmental and cultural studies at the University of Vermont. Ivakhiv, whose roots stem from western Ukraine, has, through his academic career, developed a solid background in cultural theory, philosophy, and religion, and has made numerous contacts with Pagans and other members of minority religions in Ukraine. We spoke with him in early March.

The Statue of Goddess Berehynia atop the Independence monument in Maidan Square, Kyiv, by Clara Sanchiz, used by license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Before getting into the ideological and religious aspects which underlie the current war, one must first consider the recent history of Ukraine, and especially its relation with Russia. While during Soviet rule, the two nations were joined within a federation, the two countries split up following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

What followed were difficult years where Ukrainians and Russians alike experienced political instability, extreme poverty, a spike in crime, and an overall worsening of the quality of life. While Russia, thanks largely to its oil and gas sector, regained a certain degree of prosperity and stability following the rise of Vladimir Putin into power in the early 2000s, Ukraine’s economy remained weaker and more dependent on Russia.

Over the years, more and more Ukrainians started to look west, toward the relatively stable and wealthy European Union, aiming for closer cooperation with the bloc so as to help combat domestic issues such as economic underdevelopment and corruption. Still, the country remained politically divided, with certain regions generally electing pro-Russian lawmakers, while others were backing politicians who favored European integration. This division, together with the aforementioned issues of corruption and economic woes, led to concerning political instability.

Still, despite these issues, the economy of Ukraine progressively stabilized, before witnessing a period of significant growth in the 2000s which saw the quality of life of Ukrainians rise significantly. At the same time, both the EU and the Russian government were attempting to bring Ukraine closer through free-trade agreements, which led to a souring of Russo-Ukrainian relations, particularly following the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election uprising and the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

Finally, in 2013, as the Ukrainian government planned to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU, Russia pressured the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to scrap the deal. This led to mass protests all over Ukraine, which eventually culminated in Yanukovych’s fleeing to Russia, the establishment of two pro-Russian puppet rebel governments in the east of the country, as well as the Russian invasion of Crimea.

These events kick-started by what is now referred to as the Euro-Maidan uprising caused much political turmoil and economic adversity for Ukraine. Yet, in the years since, the country has managed to retain a working democratic system and experienced heightened economic growth, partially due to closer economic integration with the EU and other western financial powers.

This continued survival of the Ukrainian state, now definitely drifting away from Russia and growing ever closer to the EU, the US, and NATO, poses an existential threat to the Russian government, argues Ivakhiv: “The risk, for Putinist Russia, is that if Ukraine is seen as a successful, pro-western, democratic nation, then Putin’s own regime, essentially an anti-western, anti-liberal autocracy, would lose its appeal to Russians. Putinist Russia, therefore, needed to depict the Ukrainian government as ‘other,’ ‘foreign,’ and ‘failing,’ so that it did not pose a challenge to his own government.”

Professor Adrian Ivakhiv, courtesy

 

One of the ways the Russian government has found to legitimate the recent invasion has been to depict the Ukrainian government as being infested with “national socialists” and extremists. In his televised speech of February 24, Vladimir Putin stated that the invasion (or “special military operation,” as he put it) was necessary in order to “de-nazify” a Ukraine that he declared was suffering under the oppression of an illegitimate government.

According to Ivakhiv, this kind of rhetoric is unfortunately nothing new. “Russian state media have consistently portrayed post-Maidan Ukraine as ‘dominated’ by ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazis’ in order to demonize its government, even when the government is led by a Jewish president,” he says. “The ‘Nazi’ trope plays into a longstanding practice from Soviet times of depicting anti-Soviet Ukrainians (and Baltic people) as being dangerous elements who need to be eradicated, just as the real Nazis were fought during the Second World War.”

While groups and political parties that overtly, or covertly, espouse national socialist ideology and imagery do indeed exist in Ukraine, these remain extremely marginal according to Ivakhiv: “Ukraine is a multiparty parliamentary democracy,” he says. “Neo-Nazis and fascists are a tiny minority in the country, smaller than in other European countries, including Germany, France, Greece, or even Russia, and have never had much more than one or two percent of political support.”

Among these nationalist groups, Russian state media has especially focused on one military unit, the Azov Battalion. This unit was originally established during the Euro-Maidan uprising by members of a Ukrainian soccer hooligan club, before becoming a professional fighting force integrated into the Ukrainian army. This group, which makes little efforts to hide its ideological background and makes open use of numerous national socialist symbols, is known to harbor a number of Slavic Pagans in its ranks – some of whom have even established a god-pole to the God Perun near the city of Mariupol, where they are headquartered.

A member of the Azov battalion during a nationalist March in Kyiv, 2020, by spoilt.exile, used by license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Ivakhiv notes that the Russian state does not consider this conflict to be of a religious nature, but rather to be a civilizational battle in which religion occupies a place of choice, if not a central one. “Putinism has ideologically moved, over the years, toward a deeper embrace of a kind of neo-imperial, nostalgically ‘traditionalist’ Great Russia, in which Ukrainians can only be ‘lesser’ or ‘Little Russians’ – a Great Russia in which Orthodox Christianity plays a strong role (though Paganism could find a place as well).”

While the Russian state has, in recent years, grown closer to the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, this has not stopped a number of nationalist-minded Russian Pagans from joining the fight in the separatist eastern Ukrainian territories, even establishing a military unit composed entirely of Pagans, and erecting, like their adversary of the Azov battalion, a god-pole (this time to the god Rod). It is unknown whether any Russian Pagans are currently engaged in the war, although this might have little impact on the rift that has been growing between them and their Ukrainian counterparts since 2014.

According to Ivakhiv, while the Ukrainian Pagan milieu is diverse, many groups tend to see their religion as part of their national identity, and might be incentivized further to fight in the current war. “Many Ukrainian Pagans are nationalistically inclined and see the revival of traditional or Pagan faith/practice as part of the revival of Ukrainian nationhood,” he says. “For these, the current struggle against a foreign (if ‘traditional’) oppressor may be existential.”

For many Ukrainians, who shun the Eurasian dimension of Putin’s neo-imperialistic geopolitical project, Pagan folklore and traditions form a powerful symbol of national identity and independence. “Since Pagan traditions were retained within Christian practice, many Ukrainians consider them to be simply part of traditional Ukrainian culture. In this sense, Ukrainian Pagan and native faith movements are a more overt and ‘intensified’ expression of something that is found more broadly in Ukrainian culture, and that these days is often celebrated as ‘authentically Ukrainian,’” adds Ivakhiv.

Regardless of whether they feel more connected to a pan-Slavic, Russian, Ukrainian, or even western form of contemporary practice, Ukrainian Pagans of all stripes are currently affected by the Russian invasion of their land. As the Russian army advances, shelling cities and murdering civilians and soldiers alike in the process, people of all stripes have joined the fight against the invader, and Ukrainian Pagans are assuredly engaged in the fight.

“From individual contacts and my general sense,” Ivakhiv concludes, “Pagans are in the same positions as other Ukrainians, afraid, sheltering, or active. I suspect some have taken up arms, and for some this is a sacred duty; for others, it is simply survival.”


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