Interview: Catherine Wanner on Religion in Post-Communist Countries

Catherine Wanner is a Professor of History, Anthropology and Religious Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a doctorate in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University.  She is the author of Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine (1998), Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelism (2007), co-editor of Religion, Morality and Community in Post-Soviet Societies (2008), editor of State Secularism and Lived Religion in Soviet Russia and Ukraine (2012) and editor of three collections of essays on resistance and renewal during the Maidan protests in Ukraine. Her research has been supported by awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. In 2016-17 she was a visiting professor at the Institute of European Ethnology of Humboldt University and in 2019-20 she was a Fulbright Scholar at the Ukrainian Catholic University. She was awarded the 2020 Distinguished Scholar Prize from the Association for the Study of Eastern Christianity. Professor Wanner was interviewed by Dmytro Vovk.

Watch a shorter video version of this interview here.

Anthropological Approach in Studying Religion

In your works, you utilize an anthropological approach to studying religion. How does that approach help us to better understand religion in communist and post-communist countries?

I think it helps on many different levels. An anthropological approach centers on what’s called “participant observation.” This means long-term fieldwork in-country, which gives a certain kind of insight and knowledge to contemporary developments that complement the kinds of knowledge gained from sociological or political surveys. The main contribution that ethnographic research offers is how and why people understand certain categories, values, and other ideas the way they do. It can help in concept formation or in interpreting the results of surveys, which very often can be puzzling or otherwise inexplicable and surprising. But combined with ethnographic research, the two can offer a more accurate and fuller picture of developments as they’re occurring on the ground.

Can you give an example of how the anthropological perspective can enrich our understanding of religion?

I just completed a book on what I’m calling everyday religiosity. In the book, I’m looking at the category of [Ukrainian] people who describe themselves as “just Orthodox” (prosto pravoslavni). A large block of the population describes themselves in this amorphous way. Scholars often translate this as “simply Orthodox,” claiming that these Ukrainians are undecided and cannot choose allegiance to a particular denomination because they are not historically used to having a spectrum of denominations from which to choose. Even some scholars who claim to have particular expertise in Ukraine put forth those kinds of interpretations as to why people might identify themselves as prosto pravoslavni.

Based on ethnographic research in Ukraine, extensive conversations with people there, and watching how people actually practice religion, I argue that one should not translate this as “simply Orthodox,” but rather as Just Orthodox. People are not undecided. They are making a very conscious decision to ally themselves with Orthodoxy, to claim identification with Orthodoxy. But they are refusing to choose a particular institutional affiliation. They could, and some do, of course, claim to be with the new local Orthodox Church of Ukraine, or with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. But others choose to simply ally themselves with the Eastern Christian faith tradition. These are the people who call themselves prosto pravoslavni.

I came to those kinds of conclusions after seeing people very actively practicing religion, but just not doing it in a narrow, institutional, denominational kind of way. In that sense, an anthropological approach offers nuance as to how these kinds of categories might be understood. This becomes especially important when we’re looking at a society where there is the option of allying with a faith tradition as opposed to a particular denomination. That is not necessarily the pattern in the United States and in many Western European or even Eastern European countries. So ethnography allows us to see the local specificities of the Ukrainian case, as well as how Ukraine shares similarities with all other countries that have experienced Soviet-style socialism, as well as other European countries more broadly.

Religion and Religiosity in Post-Communist Societies

How has the communist period changed religion and its spiritual and social roles in Eastern European societies? Some commentators argue that post-communist societies are less religious than similar non-communist societies. But other commentators disagree, because in Eastern European and Central Asian societies more people affiliate themselves with religion than in Western Europe, even if this is more a matter of identification rather than everyday practices.

That’s an excellent example of where certain kinds of questions that are asked are freighted with certain understandings. To measure religiosity in terms of being a churchgoer or not is a very Protestant-based model. Within Protestantism, there is a plethora of smaller communities and people who proclaim membership to a community and very often support it financially. This membership is exhibited in terms of showing up on Sunday morning. That’s what makes one a churchgoer, makes one, say, Methodist or Presbyterian, and makes one religious. That pattern of thinking might have relevance and significance in an American context, and even in some European contexts, but we have to think in other terms when looking at Eastern Christian societies.

To measure religiosity in terms of being a churchgoer or not is a very Protestant-based model. … That pattern of thinking might have relevance and significance in an American context, and even in some European contexts, but we have to think in other terms when looking at Eastern Christian societies.

For starters, there’s very much of a sense of an inherited religious identity: being Ukrainian means being Orthodox, or if you’re from Western Ukraine, perhaps being Ukrainian means being Greek Catholic. This identitarian way of thinking is not something that is necessarily shared in other societies, but it’s particularly visible in Eastern Christian societies. By extension, there are other ways of being religious. For example, in my research, with those who are Just Orthodox, I’ve come to rarely use the word religion. When I ask: “Are you a religious person?” many people say: “Oh, no, no, I’m not religious, it’s better to speak with someone else who knows much more than me.” And no sooner do they say that than I see them very actively practicing their faith by engaging in appeals to otherworldly kinds of forces.

So I have learned to not necessarily speak of religion, but rather to speak of faith, because when you speak of faith, the kinds of responses you get are totally different. When asked about their faith, people are quite willing to speak with you about what they believe and why they believe it, how this motivates some of their behaviors, and how this affects the way they engage religious institutions. I’ve also come to the understanding that perhaps church isn’t always the best place to go to research the Just Orthodox. In other words, people who might consider themselves Just Orthodox perhaps engage in pilgrimages, visit monasteries, or they go to cemeteries  for commemorating various anniversaries of family members’ deaths, or engage in commemorating the Heavenly Hundred (protestors killed by the security officers and their merceries during the 2013-14 Ukrainian revolution) or those who died fighting in WWII. The list is very extensive; there are many different ways to practice religion.

Ukrainian diaspora members commemorating the Heavenly Hundred in Washington, DC / Stozhary

Hence, very often (I think, in particular, Western scholars are guilty of this) the Protestant model of being a churchgoer is put forth as a means of ascertaining to what extent someone is religious or not religious, to what extent a society is secular or non-secular, and this doesn’t really work in Ukraine. I think via ethnographic research, we can see the various ways in which one can be religious, have faith, practice that faith, and engage religious institutions, but very often in a very different way than an average Baptist in the United States who, perhaps, shows up regularly on Sunday morning does. But this doesn’t mean that the religious practices or religious engagement and belief in various otherworldly forces is in any way diminished or anyway less valuable or less influential in Ukraine or other Eastern Christian societies.

Was the state promotion of atheism in communist societies successful?

Soviet League of Militant Atheists’ banner “Fight against religion, fight for socialism”

I do think that their goal was to produce atheism by replacing superstition with rational thought and  religion with Marxism-Leninism. In that sense, we have to conclude that their attempt to produce atheism generally failed. However, they used a variety of methods to diminish the appeal and the influence of religion, some of which were successful. For example, it’s important to note that Soviet authorities were obliged to not just close churches or monasteries. In many instances, they had to destroy them. They not only had to rein in the activities of the clergy, but they had to execute them, ship them off to the Gulag, silence them, and neutralize their authority. So the state made recourse to very extreme measures. Those extreme measures did serve to reduce the visibility and influence of religious authorities, religious practices, and religious institutions more broadly in the public sphere and they achieved a measure of success.

Soviet atheist banner “God doesn’t exist!”

But this is a far cry from realizing atheism. I’ve argued in earlier books that the Soviet system and its campaigns to promote atheism primarily produced a lack of knowledge about religious doctrine and religious symbolism, the liturgy, the history of Orthodoxy, and the like. In other words, it diminished knowledge about official aspects of religion. It did not, however, diminish belief in such things as the soul, the afterlife, or otherworldly forces, however understood, be they natural forces that animate nature, the idea of ghosts, the Unquiet Dead, or a variety of other concepts that trade on the assumption that there is some other realm.

So the record of Soviet campaigns to produce atheism is mixed. It’s also important to note a variety of dynamics that were operative elsewhere in Europe and in certain modernizing societies that shifted the meaning of religion. In communist countries, even with the diminished visibility of religious institutions in the public sphere these kinds of shifts also occurred. In other words, I think it’s possible to become educated and to endorse the validity of scientific-based knowledge, and simultaneously hold beliefs and practices that are oriented towards a transcendent realm. We see that in Europe, in Ukraine, and some other post-Soviet republics as well.

Soviet authorities were obliged to not just close churches or monasteries. In many instances, they had to destroy them. They not only had to rein in the activities of the clergy, but they had to execute them, ship them off to the Gulag, silence them, and neutralize their authority.

How does this everyday, practical, and often non-institutionalized religiosity deal with politics and the state’s attempt to bring religiously originated tools to its political agenda?

All states have to grapple with religious institutions. And very often they engage or make recourse to religious institutions and religious practices, precisely because they can be effective political tools. Religion has a heightened ability to create certain, as anthropologists call them, “moods and motivations.” Most recently I have argued that religious institutions and religiosity can create a certain atmosphere. It’s an atmosphere that is emotionally charged, and, as the result of this, on a fine-grained level, it creates inclinations, orientations, and even assumptions that are very often, but not necessarily, unconsciously held. They are just something a person feels to be true. This can be a very expedient political resource.

To give a concrete example, [in Ukrainian society] there was tremendous interest in the Tomos of autocephaly (an ecclesiastical grant of independence) and whether there would be a local Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This interest and support for this church were genuine and quite widespread. So people can simultaneously endorse that church, but yet, choose not to be churchgoers. In other words, they can actively endorse that Church in their minds, with their emotional inclinations, and sincerely believe that “Ukraine should have this church.” But that commitment doesn’t necessarily translate for them into showing up on Sunday, or, in terms of actively participating in this church. That is why too many people who are unfamiliar with a Ukrainian religious landscape would see that as a contradiction, a puzzle. But I think it can be explained by the various forms of everyday religiosity that are not necessarily institutionally based and allow people to exercise their faith via religious practices in a way that is connected to religious institutions but not exclusively grounded in them. So that when you have a plethora of people practicing faith in such a way, it makes religion meaningful in the moods, the motivations, and the atmospheres it creates in the country. This doesn’t necessarily translate into a firm endorsement for certain political agendas but it does make religion a political resource.

Does this approach to religiosity not necessarily grounded in religious institutions and not necessarily based on some basic knowledge in church theology and history make the line between religious and non-religious almost invisible?

In one sense, that’s true. The line between secular space and religious space is very blurred, and hence malleable. I would argue that it’s particularly blurred in a place like Ukraine and in other Eastern Christian countries, like Armenia or Georgia, where there is a dominant religious denomination. You can see a similar phenomenon in Europe, where churchgoing and even belief in religious practices per se has diminished substantially and continues to diminish in some areas. Even when churches are abandoned and repurposed for other uses, it’s not just any use. In Europe they repurpose churches as concert halls or art exhibition space. In the Soviet Union churches were repurposed for storage as warehouses. Soviets attempted to repurpose them in such a way so as to destroy the sacred aspect of those buildings. But after the collapse of the USSR, in many instances, not only were those churches reopened as churches, but they were very often especially valued because they were older, long-standing, religious buildings. Similarly, the Netherlands, for example, is quite extraordinary in converting churches that are no longer in use for worship into other uses. They declare that there is nonetheless a “sacred residue” in those buildings. So those churches can only be repurposed in a certain way to carry on the aesthetic tradition or heritage of the country for some other higher cultural purpose. So I think that the line separating secular and religious is in many ways imposed, and imposed precisely because it is so permeable.

In addition, a discipline such as anthropology, up until only very recently, had no journal dedicated specifically to the anthropological study of religion. One of the reasons why they never had such a journal was because it was understood that religion is part of virtually all aspects of social life: politics, family life, etc. And I think that is the way it is experienced. Many scholars have argued that religion, as a category, is something that we scholars impose on what we are studying to be able to delineate what is religious and enable comparisons. If you didn’t create these lines, then it’s all blurred, it’s all sacred-secular and secular-sacred and it’s very difficult to exercise any kind of analytical rigor,  let alone comparisons. So we have to impose some kinds of limitations. But it’s important to understand that very often those delineations are imposed for knowledge production. They’re necessary, but they’re imposed.

I came to this conclusion after studying religion in Ukraine. The main delineating factor I choose is, whether you’re speaking of certain places, or certain objects, or certain people, the extent to which they appeal or in some way are connected with a transcendent realm. If they meet this criterion, then it is enough to consider them religious. This means, for example, that various shrines that have been created to commemorate death or tragedy in the past (of which there are many in Ukraine) can take on sacred attributes. The objects that are placed in those sites also take on sacred attributes, and engagement with those sites very often inspires certain, if not religious rituals, then ritualized behavior that is not sharply different from the kinds of sacred attitudes and ritualized behaviors that one would find in a church.

You said that certain aspects of official atheist campaigns in communist countries were generally not successful. Does it mean that after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a great religious comeback in Central and Eastern Europe and the region has remained very religious?

There are extraordinary differences in the region. Some of the most secular societies, as defined by not just church membership and church participation in liturgies or services, but also simply by belief in the afterlife, soul, and other religious concepts are the Czech Republic, Estonia, and parts of eastern Germany, what was the former German Democratic Republic. There are other pockets as well. It’s important to note, however, that what those three examples hold in common is they are predominantly non-Orthodox countries. They have primarily Protestant populations. In Eastern Christian societies (although there are certain differences among them too) there is a sense of having a common civilization and heritage. The influence of Orthodoxy is meaningful in terms of the aesthetic tradition, the various kinds of holidays that are celebrated and commemorated, and how, on an everyday level, a person marks time and space. In that sense, whereas there are people who might criticize religious institutions and not necessarily believe in many aspects of religious doctrine or people who might be more secular in thinking and secular in practice, these people still have a link to Orthodoxy in a way that doesn’t very often exist in primarily Protestant societies and, to a lesser degree but still notable, in predominantly Catholic societies.

If most people have this link to religion in its institutionalized or non-institutionalized forms, what is the role of religion in the public sphere and everyday life beyond satisfying some spiritual needs? Is religion an important factor of moral, political, and economic factors in the personal choices of believers?

What makes the situation of post-communist countries interesting for religious scholars is that it’s difficult to predict. For example, I was an advisor to the Pew Research Center’s extensive survey on religious attitudes in Eastern and Central Europe. They selected certain countries like Ukraine for especially deep surveys, and we’re trying to understand Ukraine in relation to Eastern Europe. One of the surprising findings for me was that, despite great criticism of Russia on a whole number of fronts, there was a widespread endorsement of the Russian Orthodox Church as being a bulwark against what they saw as a radical change being imposed from the outside. They trusted that the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, would maintain traditional Christian values that inform gender and sexual identities. In contrast, in the United States, some religious organizations have very pronounced progressive attitudes towards gender and recognition of sexual minorities, and others have very pronounced conservative attitudes towards these issues. I’ve watched how it has not worked to the advantage of those conservative groups trying to rally support by mobilizing condemnation of any kind of change to God-given-gender-based identities or mobilizing condemnation and even exclusion of sexual minorities. This is an issue that has not worked in their favor.

The influence of Orthodoxy is meaningful in terms of the aesthetic tradition, the various kinds of holidays that are celebrated and commemorated, and how, on an everyday level, a person marks time and space.

Although those Pew findings suggest that there is a receptivity to the kind of conservative vision  propagated by the Russian Orthodox Church, I wonder how strong that support will ultimately be over the long term. Consider the example of Georgia. One could say that Georgia is a country like Ukraine. It has lost part of its territory due to the Russia-backed aggression in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There is the Georgian Orthodox Church that has widespread support and puts forth a very conservative view of God-given-gender-based identities and God-given-gender-based sexual practices. Just recently, however, there was a pushback among the population and specifically among younger generations to embracing that kind of a vision. So it remains a question for me to what extent, over the long term, this kind of mobilization of traditional values in Ukraine will be beneficial to the Russian Orthodox Church and religious institutions more broadly in the region.

You mentioned the Russia-Georgia and Russia-Ukraine conflicts. There were many more in the region, including a civil war in Yugoslavia, and two wars between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In most of these conflicts, warring parties were affiliated either with different religions (Armenia / Azerbaijan) or with different branches of the same religion (Russia / Ukraine). Was religion an important factor in these conflicts?

Religion can be mobilized to either intensify or quell tensions. In the region, we see examples of religious institutions doing both. I don’t think the above-mentioned conflicts were primarily religious. Religion was brought into these conflicts, was mobilized by one side or the other either to enhance tensions or enhance the willingness to resort to violence to resolve them. But, as certain examples in the past prove, it could just as easily be the opposite if there is political will to use religious leaders, the moral authority that they have, and the presence religious institutions have throughout society to relax and even resolve some of those conflicts. The fact remains that these conflicts are likely (and one hopes very soon) to cease, and then the parties will have to begin the process of reconciliation or learning to live together again. Here, there is a role for religious institutions.

Post-Communist Countries as a Land of Evangelization

Since the 1990s, the post-communist area has become a land of evangelization for many Western churches and denominations. Were they successful in their mission?

In 2007, I wrote a book called Communities of the Converted, where I looked specifically at this issue of Western missionaries coming to Ukraine and even more broadly to the region. I began by analyzing the communities in Ukraine and how receptive they were to these Western missionaries. In the 1990s and even into the 2000s, the steady stream of Western missionaries came to Ukraine mostly in an attempt to save Ukrainians after “godless communism.” The overwhelming majority of missionaries came for short periods. I think the primary beneficiary of those kinds of short-term missions is the individual who comes themselves. They don’t necessarily transform Ukrainians or Ukrainian communities but they themselves are often transformed by the experience of being in Ukraine. So the overwhelming majority of missionaries who came had a marginal effect on religiosity in Ukraine. There were, however, some long-term missionaries who came to Ukraine and lived in Ukraine for years. They played a significant role in creating a religious infrastructure: theological schools or seminaries, publishing houses, mechanisms of humanitarian aid, and the like. But creating infrastructure is not the same as creating religious communities. In a great many instances, the resources, ideas and practices that those Western missionaries brought were then adapted by Ukrainian believers and religious leaders themselves in various ways. And that’s primarily because those practices, values, and ideas that many of the Western missionaries brought were born in another context. Whereas they might have made sense and might have been practical and influential in other contexts, they had to be adapted to be made practical, influential, and otherwise meaningful in Ukraine.

In a great many instances, the resources, ideas and practices that those Western missionaries brought were then adapted by Ukrainian believers and religious leaders themselves in various ways.

The transformation of these religious communities in Ukraine was probably a greater source of influence stimulating change in other groups. For example, if we look at how religion is currently entering the public sphere in Ukraine, in many respects it’s some of the Protestant communities and the Greek Catholic communities that are very influential and very active. That perhaps can be traced to the fact that those communities are firmly ensconced in transnational religious networks. They have influences that are coming from the United States, Rome, South America, and beyond. Hence, these religious denominations are receiving a plethora of everything from ideas to directives to programs and the like. These ideas and directives are not necessarily wholesale embraced and implemented in Ukraine, but are adapted and filtered through local ideas, needs, and circumstances. But to the extent those Protestant and Greek Catholic communities are active and successful, they, by extension, put pressure on, or at least influence, the path of change for various Orthodox churches. The latter are forced to respond to the innovations, activities, or propositions of Protestants and Greek Catholics.

What was the state’s response to those Western missionaries? Not only in Ukraine, but in other countries of the region?

I think once again, religion has to be studied in a very local way. There were a lot of short-term missionaries, and even long-term missionaries trying to build infrastructure who came to Ukraine,  Russia, or Belarus. However, very quickly, all those kinds of initiatives proved to be far more complicated in those countries than they were in Ukraine.

In Communities of the Converted, I found that the most effective missionaries were not necessarily Western missionaries coming on short-term missions to Ukraine. There was a plethora of Ukrainians who had emigrated out of Ukraine to the United States and then missionized back in Ukraine. The Ukrainian religious landscape and the legislation that regulated religious organizations was such that the kind of infrastructure they began to build allowed missionary training, humanitarian aid, publishing, and all kinds of other activities to take root in Ukraine such that Ukraine and Ukrainians could be a source of evangelizing the rest of the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian state was less restrictive [in regulating religion] and therefore it has allowed for the buildup of a greater and more robust infrastructure allowing Ukrainians themselves to missionize other parts of the former Soviet Union. The 2007 book finished up, by the way, with the fact that there were even Ukrainians coming to the United States and missionizing Americans.

There is a far more diverse religious landscape that exists in Ukraine, and by extension a far more robust civil society in Ukraine, than in Russia or Belarus. What some might call a “weakness” has yielded formidable strength in another domain.

So the state does play a very key role. At one level, to use the kind of black and white terms that are often employed, one could claim the Ukrainian state is “weak” and unable to mobilize repressive tactics that could restrain the involvement of foreign organizations (and even foreign individuals), and the transfer of financial resources and humanitarian aid, which Russia or Belarus as “strong” states have been able to do. But, a dividend of this “weakness” in Ukraine is a stronger civil society, a flourishing of religious organizations that have received a wide spectrum of influences, which they have selectively and to various degrees adapted. Hence, there is a far more diverse religious landscape that exists in Ukraine, and by extension a far more robust civil society in Ukraine, than in Russia or Belarus. What some might call a “weakness” has yielded formidable strength in another domain.

Religious Lessons of the Communism Era

What is the biggest religion-related “anomaly” in post-communist countries that surprises you?

The thing that never ceases to surprise me is the enormous role that commemorating death and tragedy plays in Ukraine. Religious worldviews, as well as religious concepts and sensibilities, are very oriented towards the afterlife and the unseen world. This automatically brings in religious practices and institutions. So the commemoration of death, whether it be of known individuals, of a group of people, or a national loss of people, is very prominent in Ukraine. I find myself continually surprised by that recourse to very sad, even tragic events, and the use of those kinds of events by the state and religious institutions to generate solidarity and forge a nation. And it works! It’s hard to say if another strategy would work even more, but this focus on death, victimhood, trauma, and tragedy resonates with Ukrainians.

Day of Remembrance of the Great Famine victims in Kyiv, Ukraine / Ukrainian Institute of National Memory

The 20th century was not kind to Ukraine. It was a century of extraordinary suffering. So it’s not a mystery why death and victimhood resonate. But it never ceases to amaze me and perhaps that’s in part because of my cultural background. I’m from the United States with its “Yes, we can!” and “Don’t worry, be happy” mentality. So in my country, these inclinations and the overall atmosphere are very different. And I think, at the end of the day, religion and religious practices, those that are institutionally based, but also those that have infiltrated everyday religiosity, play a formidable role in creating and sustaining each of those atmospheres.

If we try to generalize the communist experience of Eastern European countries and republics of the former USSR, what do we learn about religion beyond the fact that this brutal political ideology caused many cases of religious persecution?

The main lesson, specifically as it concerns religion, is that we humans are social animals. We want and we even need to belong to a group. Émile Durkheim, a very famous theoretician of religion, famously said, the difference between religion and magic is that there’s no church of magic. Magic, superstition, and the like are individually practiced whereas religion is inherently social. And I think people need that. If we return to the “Just Orthodox” (prosto pravoslavni), one of the reasons why we have this category is that people want to belong, to feel connected to other people. Religion is a powerful way of doing so. It connects people, not only to members of their own familial or national group, but to those who are living as well as those who are dead; it connects them to ancestors and a place; and it connects them to certain shared practices, values, and a shared emotional palette. This sense of connection and belonging gives religion and religiosity enduring appeal, despite Soviet campaigns of atheism and other, perhaps less draconian secularizing forces, which have yet to offer a relevant counterpart to these meaningful, emotionally felt, and cognitively recognized ways of connecting people.