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.


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Christianity, Human Rights, and Dignity: Squaring the Triangle

Brett G. Scharffs
Brett G. Scharffs

Brett G. Scharffs is Rex E. Lee Chair, Professor of Law, and Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University

Andrea Pin is Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Padua, and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law & Religion Emory University

Andrea Pin

Dmytro Vovk is Director of the Centre for the Rule of Law and Religion Studies, Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University (Ukraine) and co-editor of Talk About: Law and Religion

This blogpost is modified from Scharffs, Pin, and Vovk’s Introduction to “Human Dignity and Human Rights—Christian Perspectives and Practices: A Focus on Constitutional and International Law,” in a special issue of the BYU Law Review.

Dmytro Vovk


The relationship between Christianity and human rights is a matter of deep controversy, drawing the attention of theologians, historians, lawyers, and philosophers alike. The historical connections between various denominations of Christianity and human rights and the dialectics between Christianity and human rights are matters of endless academic debates. How much contemporary narratives of rights are owed to Christianity, what Christianity has borrowed from nonreligious modern and post-modern thinkers, the extent to which the contemporary language of rights clash with Christian values, and the theoretical foundations of such clashes keep scholars busy.

The topic, however, is all but confined to theoreticians. How Christianity understands or ought to understand rights is often discussed within legal and political circles. The public role of Christianity and Christians in contemporary societies surfaces whenever a policy that touches upon Christian values is discussed. Parliaments and courts, especially in countries born out of Christianity, are often busy trying to reconcile religious freedom claims put forward by Christians with rights that contradict Christian morality.


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The Moscow Patriarchate’s Constitution: How the Russian Orthodox Church Champions the Kremlin’s Battle Against “Falsification”

Robert C. Blitt is the Toms Foundation Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law

Russia’s 2020 constitutional amendments provide fresh succor for the Kremlin’s longstanding foreign policy priorities. These priorities include fortifying a muscular vision of sovereignty, non-interference, and a multipolar international order; disseminating traditional values;” defending rights of compatriots living abroad; and cracking down on the so-called “falsification” of Russia’s WWII history that tarnishes the country’s reputation. Given the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate’s (ROC) consistent support for these priorities, its role as a vital Kremlin soft power lever is poised to deepen in the coming years.


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