During the rule of imperial Russia and under the Soviet Union, Russian was the common language of public life in Ukraine. Although Ukrainian had been afforded equal status with Russian in the decade following the revolution of 1917, by the 1930s a concerted attempt at Russification was well under way.
In 1989, Ukrainian once again became the country’s official language, and its status as the sole official language was confirmed in the 1996 Ukrainian Constitution.
A vast majority of people in Ukraine speak Ukrainian, which is written with a form of the Cyrillic alphabet. The language — belonging with Russian and Belarusian to the East Slavic branch of the Slavic language family — is closely related to Russian but has distinct similarities to Polish language. A significant numbers of people in the country speak Polish, Yiddish, Rusyn, Belarusian, Romanian or Moldovan, Bulgarian, Crimean Turkish, or Hungarian. Russian is the most important minority language.
The breakup of the Soviet Union has been haunting President Vladimir Putin ever since 1991. In dreaming of restoring the splendor of the ‘Russian empire’ his attachment to Kievan Ukraine is strong from where Eastern Orthodox Christianity originated. Putin has today become a populist world leader when he employs history, culture and religion artfully in the Russo-Ukraine war.
Using the power of Church, Putin seems to be fulfilling his ambition and justifying nationalist rhetoric in war against fellow-Christians in Ukraine. Interestingly, President Putin has developed close relations with Russian Patriarch H.H. Kirill-I and has been frequently visiting churches, monasteries, attending services and financially helping the Church. Kirill has eulogized Putin as a “martyr” and characterized the ongoing war as a “holy war|”.
Baptized by his mother in 1954 who was a devout Christian while his father remained an atheist, Putin is a ‘born again’ Christian. He is seen with a golden crucifix wearing around his neck and attending religious ceremonies.
Over the years, his relations with the Russian Patriarch have grown stronger. Recently, in May 2022, he attended the midnight Easter function at a Moscow Church and is also participant of the Epiphany ceremony in Orthodox Russian Church. Moreover, he has backed the “special military operations” of Russian armed forces against Ukraine. Russian authorities are however averse to using or allowing the use of “war” and “invasion.”
Revivalism of religion is a global phenomenon: what was happening in the US under Donald Trump is part of extension of Christian nationalism as in Hungary and Poland where Christian historical mythologies have become quasi-doctrines of the state.
The belief in a mythologized Christian realm, rejection of Western democracy, neo-liberalism and cultural norms is now in vogue in many nations. Whether Russia shall be successful or not remains moot but this harking back to fundamental religion like e.g., in Narendra Modi’s India about Hindutva, and earlier, the Muslim world harking back to past Muslim glory — the message of Christian nationalism carries resonance with the Russian people.
Russia claims victory over Nazi Germany along with then Allied forces in WW-II in what is called the “Great Patriotic War.” Many writers see the real fear of Putin in the rise of Western influence and democratic stirrings in Ukraine and East European countries rather than the invoked threat.
According to many Russians, the “Color Revolutions” of the mid-2000s in Europe are perceived as efforts in weaning former republics away from the Russian sphere of influence. Since 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, fighting has continued with pro-Ukrainian forces with Western assistance.
On militarization, this is partially true with West, especially US supplying economic and military assistance to Ukraine since 2014 but more so after the 2022 war, it has been pursued more earnestly.
Putin has invoked the twin menace of “Neo-Nazism” and “Demilitarization” before launching of the Ukraine war. It seems that his rationalization is rather overstretched. In fact, the employment of the “Nazi card” is age old and has been played by many European countries, Muslim nations, etc., as diversion from domestic ills; now it is vigorously peddled against Ukraine and Western supporters.
This is because Nazism as an ideology originated in Hitler’s Germany from the West and subsequently conceived as ‘western import and product’ by Russia. Russia and Ukraine together fought against Nazism in WW-II entailed heavy Russian sacrifices together with Allied efforts. Somehow, Nazism has been conflated with the West and especially the US.
Since 2014 when Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula, sporadic fighting has been going on against pro-Ukrainian nationalist forces allegedly with Western assistance. The present Ukrainian leadership of Vlodymyr Zelensky is Jewish; his father and uncles were killed in WW-II by the Nazis. Now most of the Jewish community in Ukraine has left after the breakout of this war for neighbouring countries.
Historically, Ukraine had large Jewish and Polish populations, particularly in the right bank region (west of the Dnieper River). In fact, in the late 19th century slightly more than one-fourth of the world’s Jewish population (estimated at 10 million) lived in ethnic Ukrainian territory.
This predominantly Yiddish-speaking population was greatly reduced by emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in particular. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a large number of Ukraine’s remaining Jews immigrated mainly to Israel.
At the turn of the 21st century, the several hundred thousand Jews left in Ukraine made up less than 1 percent of the Ukrainian population. Most of Ukraine’s large Polish minority was resettled in Poland after World War II as part of a Soviet plan. Fewer than 150,000 ethnic Poles remained in Ukraine at the turn of the 21st century.
In 1988, the adherents of the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, with roots in baptism of Kiev celebrated 1,000 years of Eastern Slavic Christianity. The great celebrations in Moscow changed the character of the relationship between the Soviet state and church.
For the first time since 1917, numerous churches and monasteries were returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. In Ukrainian communities around the world, members of Ukrainian churches also celebrated the Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine. The religious rift between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Eastern churches however resulted after the Russian invasion of Crimea.
Christian nationalism is now deeply rooted in Russia and can be traced back to the 19th century when the Russian Church and state acted in unison to fight the influx of Western ideas of democracy and popular sovereignty. This brand of nationalism was then used as a weapon to fight revolutionaries (many of them women and minorities), demonize civil liberties and parliamentarianism, and suppress non-Russian minorities.
For Putin, the Russian orthodox nationalism serves a similar function but it has blinded him to the strong spirit of popular resistance in Ukraine. Whether he shall be successful or not in his adventure cannot be said with certainty, but at least for now, Christian nationalism carries strong resonance with the Russian people.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022
The writer is former Adviser, Centre for Policy Studies, COMSATS, Islamabad, former President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute, and ex-Head Department of International Relations, NUML University, Islamabad