John Moroz Smith leads the law department of a global financial services company. Smith served in the George W. Bush White House, clerked for Judge Samuel Alito, and served as a U.S. Army reservist.
As I layer the daily news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over the range of my experiences since 1992 in both countries , an underlying, under-appreciated theme strikes me. It helps explain why the initial expectations of Ukraine’s attacker and allies alike were so wrong about Ukraine’s resiliency. It also hints at how this conflict likely plays out.
This is the theme: Ukraine’s relative freedom and openness and governmental weakness (especially as compared to Russia) since Soviet collapse in 1991 has created a busy hive of voluntary civic activity—especially religious activity—that likely will outlast the invasion forces. The nature and intensity of that voluntary activity is unprecedented in that oft-occupied nation’s history. It has reorganized Ukrainian society away from its Soviet legacy, connected Ukrainians with free peoples and powerful institutions abroad, revived Ukraine’s spiritual and moral strength, and strengthened its resiliency against totalitarianism.
Now that 100+ days of full Russian invasion have followed 30 years of Ukrainian independence, what big picture emerges? The Russian bear has returned, reprising it role of centuries past as a shameless marauder, intent on destroying the Ukrainian hive. The bear’s mass and sharp claws can damage the physical hive—brutally, remorselessly—and grab gobs of honey. But the bee colony’s real strength has become its organization, adaptability, commitment, and teamwork. The bees can build, resist, and rebuild. (And yes, the Stingers have helped.)
I see the stakes of this war as higher than any other military conflict in the last half century. Observers have elaborated on multiple reasons for such significance. I believe religious freedom helps explain both why Ukraine’s defenders have resisted so well thus far and why the West must support them until their victory is won.
Ukraine: the “Borderland” of Religious Freedom
One interpretation of the word Ukraine is “borderland,” a fitting name at the historical fault lines of several empires and major religions. During my entire adult life, I have witnessed Ukraine’s arduous transformation on the frontier of religious freedom.
Ukraine’s lively hive of civic and religious activity is unlike anything going on in Russia for the last two decades. After Russia sprouted tender shoots of religious and other freedoms in the early 1990s, hope blossomed for a new and fruitful direction for Russia. But Putin took a sickle to those hopes. He accelerated the return of restrictions on individual freedoms. Russian legislation in 1997 reimposed a very restrictive framework to regulate religious practice and expression. Those controls have tightened through the so-called “Yarovaya-Ozerov package” and other post-Crimean amendments.
By contrast, Ukrainian religious legislation is among the most liberal in the region. There is no mandatory registration system for religious organizations, no anti-extremist legislation targeting specifically religions, no disproportionate limitations on missionary activities, and no lawful religious discrimination against foreigners.
Ukraine has proved itself the world’s best hope that a large nation of the Soviet Union can transform from repression to freedom, especially religious freedom. That hope can only survive if Ukraine wins this war. (The regimes in Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have all strangled dissent and liberalization attempts in recent years.) Russia’s invasion threatens to undo all of Ukraine’s progress toward the reinforcing freedoms of a modern society, including the right of a sovereign nation to choose religious freedom for itself.
Russian occupation would obliterate Ukraine’s religious freedom, and Putin intends exactly that. We already know because of vivid proof from the territory Russia has controlled since its 2014 invasion of Crimea and Donbas: many religious minority organizations have been destroyed or driven out, clergy and believers murdered, tortured, imprisoned or forcibly displaced; religious buildings desecrated or damaged. Since February’s invasion, abundant evidence has emerged that Russian forces are repeating this devastation at larger scale in the new territory it occupies. Russian forces have even damaged buildings in Ukraine of the Orthodox Church, which Russia claims to be invading to protect.
Religious Freedom Fosters Resiliency
Religious freedom for Ukraine (and eventually for Russia) is not only at stake in this war. It is also the force that helped shape Ukraine into a society resilient enough to resist the largest attack in Europe since the Second World War. I have observed three ways in which religious liberty and pluralism have contributed to Ukraine’s resilience in this war.
A New, Higher Purpose
First, building a nation based on law and freedom—including religious freedom, religious pluralism, and individual human dignity and rights—has imbued Ukrainians with a higher moral purpose, for which they have proved willing to die. Ukraine has engaged in a difficult rebuilding and reorientation of its nation since declaring independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. The first fully post-Soviet generation has come of age; it is fighting to establish the largest democracy in a thousand years of Slavic political history. Religious freedom has strengthened the sense of belonging and loyalty of Ukrainian citizens of various faiths toward the Ukrainian political nation, both to defend it and to reform it toward modern European standards.
For most of its history, Ukraine’s political weakness meant conquerors have ridden in, bringing their religions with them: Mongols from the East, Russian Orthodox tsars from Russia, Roman Catholics from Poland, Muslims from Turkey, and Tartars from Crimea. But since 1991, Ukraine has turned these historical religious impositions into a modern opportunity: tolerant, genuine religious pluralism—a strong societal advantage
The Ukrainian religious market is competitive. For a millennium, a solid majority of Ukrainians have been Orthodox Christians, but since 1991 there have been multiple actively competing Orthodox churches, none with official government endorsement. Ukraine has influential religious minorities including the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and well-organized and politically represented Protestant Christian churches. Besides Ukraine’s famously Jewish President Zelensky, other top governmental officials and Members of Parliament espouse minority faiths (Greek Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews). Ukraine’s pluralism has rendered Kyiv the natural home for an influential series of law-and-religion conferences that has drawn participants from various faiths and surrounding nations (including Russia)—cosponsored by the Institute of Philosophy at the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences and BYU Law School’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
Contrast that pluralism with the long religious monopoly in Russia, reinforced by Putin. The Russian model of Symphonia establishes a special relationship between only the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, which severely restricts religious competition.
Creating Civil Society on Foundations of Faith
Second, Ukraine has created civil-society organizations unprecedentedly active for that region. To achieve a new national purpose, Ukrainians realized early they needed to create civil society, a layer of societal networks, stronger than individual citizens and independent from the government. To accelerate its creation, Ukraine welcomed tens of thousands of experts and volunteers from the free world, including thousands of religious workers of various faiths. I was one of them, in the 1990s.
I observed how religious organizations, finally free to flourish in Ukraine, not only disseminated beliefs and ministered to the needy. They also significantly contributed to the above-mentioned development of civil society. New religious organizations provided many post-Soviet Ukrainians with their first-ever experience in voluntary associations. They learned to trust, collaborate with, and even lead individuals outside their family, in a cause they chose. Ukrainians formed new connections that expanded and strengthened online, keeping pace with the emerging Internet and social media. This self-initiated engagement was a total break with Soviet infantilization—whereby the State chose all priorities and leaders, and controlled all life activities and outside information.
Ukraine’s “Orange” Revolution in 2004 revealed in microcosm the interim results of Ukraine’s nascent civil society, a preview of today’s wartime resilience. As an election observer for the do-over presidential election the same year, I witnessed in action the civil society networks that religious organizations had helped build. This Revolution’s driving force was massive, peaceful protest in several cities across the country, anchored by “tent cities” of protesters camping for months in public squares. In Kyiv, the crowds reached a million strong. How can a movement scale and sustain itself despite subfreezing temperatures and hostile government forces? How can it handle the logistics alone for such temporary “cities”—organizing food, water, heat, sanitation, hygiene? Part of the answer is the role religious organizations played, both behind the scenes and literally center stage. At rallies, leaders of different faiths stood together, wearing their distinctive religious attire, night after night, leading the crowd in singing together, including a classic ecumenical hymn, “Prayer for Ukraine.” All these features were even more pronounced during the Revolution of Dignity in 2013 and 2014.
News reports since Russia’s invasion have revealed these civil society networks back in action, sustaining the Ukrainian military and the nation’s overall resilience. Among them are religious organizations: accounting for their members, ministering to the distraught, caring for the wounded and the orphaned, aiding evacuees and refugees, feeding those who stay home, reuniting loved ones, sheltering those with destroyed homes, honoring and burying the dead, and comforting those who mourn.
From Enforced Isolation to Global Engagement
Third, religious freedom in Ukraine enabled and motivated its population to encounter foreigners and learn foreign languages—reversing the ignorance and disinformation of the Iron Curtain’s intentional isolation. Most foreigners entering Ukraine for religious activities did not speak local languages. For many of the thousands I met in Ukraine in the 1990s, our conversation was their first with a native English speaker. My fellow missionaries and I typically offered free English classes, and they were popular. Then, English skills were poor and rare. Today, Ukrainians fluent in English are ubiquitous. So many Ukrainian leaders and citizens are pleading their case directly to the English-speaking world via foreign media and social media to communicate the facts, images, and stories of heroism and human harm from Russia’s invasion.
As foreign religious workers have returned home from Ukraine, they often maintain communication and send resources to help the communities they learned to love. The web of international connections woven by robust religious activity in Ukraine has provided a framework for obtaining humanitarian aid, sheltering refugees, and rallying political and miliary support from foreign governments.
Eventually, Putin will run out of bombs and bullets, and Ukrainians will need the free world’s generosity to rebuild. Money, volunteers, and expertise can rebuild the homes, schools, churches, hospitals, and civilian infrastructure Russia has intentionally destroyed. Religious organizations will be central to that rebuilding. Ukrainians will have natural allies and people of faith in religious organizations from around the globe to help them. I foresee a beehive of activity in and around Ukraine, unlike any that country has ever seen. The honey it yields will be sweetest to those who kept Ukraine free.
 The author has worked in legal, business, and national security communities. His service in the White House, the U.S. military, the chambers of then-Judge Samuel Alito, and a global defense company have informed his various efforts to help Ukraine, Russia, and three other post-Soviet states transform into free and healthy nations. Learning Ukrainian from his WW II-refugee mother and Russian from Princeton University, the author’s stints since 1992 include a scholar of post-Soviet transition, a humanitarian medical aid worker, an election observer during the Orange Revolution, a lawyer in civil and criminal matters, a lecturer for Ukrainian lawyers and judges, a speaker and facilitator of conferences in Ukraine cosponsored by BYU Law School, a trainer of Ukrainian soldiers during a NATO mission, and a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia and Ukraine.
Check also our series on the role of religion in the Russian-Ukrainian war.