Churches and Memory in Ukraine: A Postsecular Development

Andriy Fert is a PhD candidate at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (Ukraine).

Religion in Memory Studies

Historical memory scholars explore how societies remember the past and what influence collective memory has on individuals. Given that during European premodern history Christian churches were the main actors crafting collective memory, it’s no surprise that memory studies started with a significant focus on religion. French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, one of the founding fathers of the field, for example, focused on religious practices to explore the boundaries of what he called the “social framework” of memory in his 1925 book Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire.

But as this field grew, attention to religion diminished. The idea of a linear secularization that dominated academia in the 1980s and early 1990s had it that religion was gradually giving way to a more “secular” worldview and thus was losing its grip on society’s imagery. As a result, memory scholars tended to ignore contemporary lived religion while focusing on states or other, non-state actors in their works. When modern religion did fall into their sight, it was mostly reduced to the research of how states or nationalisms borrowed religious language to sacralize the nation.

Such an approach, while highlighting important issues—like the political use of religion, for example—failed to see religions as independent actors. Even more, it was built on the idea that there was a clear distinction between secular and religious practices where the latter were supposed to be left for those who study religion. Post-Soviet Ukrainian scholars of memory eventually inherited this approach. For them too, churches appeared as mere transmitters of nationalism or symbols-suppliers and never another way round.

The Religious and the Secular in Commemorations of War

However, such strict separation of the secular from the religious and a one-way look at church-nationalism interplay hinders one’s understating of religious memory practices. For quite some time now, I have been studying an Orthodox annual procession that takes place on the Soviet Day of Victory in WWII on May 9. It came into being in 2015 in the easternmost region of Ukraine. Organized by the local orthodox monastery, the procession aimed to pay tribute to Soviet soldiers who died during the war with the Nazis. There are many processions of this sort around Ukraine, but this one stood out due to its unusual format: apart from crosses and icons, participants would carry photographs of their ancestors who fought in WWII. In doing so, they followed the Russia-promoted non-church tradition known as the “Immortal Regiment.”

The first procession occurred after the Ukrainian government attempted to get rid of Soviet WW2 Victory Day, which, in contrast to Victory in Europe Day (May 8), is celebrated on May 9. Taken as a symbol of aggressive Russia in post-Euromaidan Ukraine, the Soviet holiday commemorating the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany fought by “fraternal peoples” (i.e., Ukrainians, Russians, and other Soviet nations together) was to be abandoned.

But the monks perceived this as a betrayal of those who died in the war. For them, dropping the term “Great Patriotic War” and not celebrating the Victory on May 9 appeared incompatible with not only their political views but with their Christian identity. So they chose a provocative form for the procession to articulate their protest of the “elimination” of “true memory” about the war.

In addition, with the help of sermons, they framed “memory preservation” as part of Orthodox beliefs. With time, the monks effectively incorporated the local memory of WWII soldiers into a broader narrative representing the 1941–45 Soviet-Nazi war as the battle between true Christianity and evil, which thrives among many Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Christians.

On the other side of the country, another Orthodox monastery came into being several years ago solely to protect the graves of Ukrainian insurgents in the middle of a forest. Those insurgents fought against Nazis and Soviets in the 1940s, and their places of burial were untended after decades of restrictions and forced amnesia. Just like the monks from the east, the monks from this western Ukrainian region framed memory preservation as an utmost embodiment of Christian beliefs.

They exhumed and reburied the bodies and recreated an underground bunker as a replica of the one used by the insurgents in the 1940s. Located right below the cathedral, the bunker is represented by the monastery as a “cave,” where a pilgrim can reflect on the “Christian sacrifice” that insurgents offered to God by fighting against “godless” communists and Nazis. They also hold an annual celebration, a festal day after Easter when, after liturgy and memorial service, the pilgrims reconstruct the battle between insurgents and communists.

It is hard, if not impossible, to separate religious worship from secular commemoration in both of these cases and not to notice how a religious community borrows secular symbols and narratives to reimagine the very idea of religious practice and defend what it sees as its history.

Remembering the Great Famine

The twentieth century left several deep marks on Ukrainians, of which one of the most visible is the artificial famine in 1932 and 1933, commonly referred to as the “Holodomor.” It caused more than three million deaths of peasants and was completely forbidden to talk about during Soviet rule. The memory of this event was preserved mainly in families of survivors and by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the US. This church established the Holodomor Memory Day and created a language to discuss famine victims’ experience and tragedy. When Ukraine became independent, the priests brought their practices of commemoration to their Homeland. Until recently, however, this profound contribution remained unacknowledged as scholars tended to focus on state memory politics and appropriation of religious language in Holodomor commemorations.

Such an approach failed to grasp religion’s dynamic role in the communities that struggled to cope with trauma being brought back to light. It did not matter whether the local community was religious (in terms of church attendance). Still, when it came to mourning the dead and honoring them, it was the church the locals usually turned to, as religion, in the words of Chris van der Merwe, offered ways for the “representation of trauma.”

One telling example that I encountered was a Catholic parish in southwestern Ukraine. It stands in a town that, before the 1930s, was populated mainly by the Polish minority. Apart from deportations and numerous other repressions, this minority was also hit by the Holodomor. In 2019, the local parish created a special place to commemorate the “martyrdom” of the Catholic population, including the famine.

Located in the parish basement, this place is simultaneously a parish museum exhibiting documents about famine, victims, recollections, etc., and a place for veneration of what they call the “Martyrs of the twentieth century.” Several times a year, the parish holds the Stations of the Cross procession within this museum/temple, allowing locals to engage with the traumatic local history by reading survivors’ testimonies out loud and praying. The exhibition elements play an essential role in the devotion; for example, each display stand with personal belongings serves as a station for meditation.

Through the museum, the parish creates a narrative about the Holodomor, representing the tragedy as an outcome of communist apostasy and celebrating the examples of locals who remained “faithful to Jesus” despite the tribulations. What is more, being open to new stories, the museum/temple offers a unique way for the locals to cope with the trauma of the past and reflect on history with the help of Christian teaching.

Memory of Death, Sacrifice, and Suffering

The cases I analyze in this post mix extensively secular and religious tools in remembering deaths, sacrifice, and suffering. They signal that the reality memory scholars tackle in Ukraine is neither religious nor secular; it’s postsecular, where a completely secular approach to studying historical memory is simply misguided and inappropriate.

A postsecular approach in memory studies, as Zuzanna Bogumil and Yuliya Yurchuk wittingly argue in their recent book, is about acknowledging religious roots of the very memory language and seeing religion not as “exotic other” but as an ordinary actor of memory production. In addition, challenges presented by postsecularity lead us to question what religion is, what secularity is, and how religion contributes to the way we remember something even if, at the first glance, the object of our memory is completely secular.

The postsecular relationships between religion and memory obviously exceed the topics of sacrifice and death. But these topics show in the most obvious way the dynamic interplay between religion and secularity. As Ukraine is getting through the brutal war perpetrated by Russia, new wounds appear in the nation’s collective memory, and Ukrainian religious communities are stepping in to give them meaning, turn them into stories, and offer a toolkit for healing, just as they did in the past. And memory scholars have to take a sensitive and inclusive approach to studying this multilayered interplay.