Thursday, April 16, 2009

Old Traditions Reborn

My time here in Ukraine has been bookended by two holidays: I arrived just before Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas on January 6 and I'll depart soon after Ukrainian Orthodox Easter, coming up this weekend. Religion has a very different place here than it does in the US. Because the Soviets repressed religion for decades, it now appears that the country is going through an immense religious revival.

I see new Orthodox churches being built everywhere, in small towns and in big cities. Old churches that had been converted to other uses are now being restored back to their original function--as I saw again this week when I visited a church on the campus of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy where I teach. As I enter Pechersk-Lavra, a monastery site here in Kyiv that also includes several museums, I enter with a growing, this Easter season, number of faithful. But it's not just the Orthodox faith that's thriving: there are a number of Pentecostal and other Protestant American missionaries here attracting a growing number of converts.

In Kyiv and Odessa, I've walked by synagogues reaching the once-decimated, but centuries-old Jewish communities here. In Lviv, the former Museum of Atheism is now the Museum of Religions, with artifacts from many different religious traditions. But, in most situations, the focus is strictly on the Ukrainian Orthodox faith, with limited acknowledgement of other faiths. At the Donetsk Regional History Museum, it was nice to see a exhibit room about religion include not only Ukrainian Orthodox icons, but also Greek Orthodox icons and Torah scrolls. Usually, in museums, a single faith is presented.

I had an interesting discussion with a Ukrainian colleague the other day about the persistence of religious traditions. First, that many Ukrainian traditions, now Christian, actually stem back, in some form, to pre-Christian and pagan times; and second, that despite 80 years of enforced atheism, the Soviets were unsuccessful in fully stamping out religion, and with the fall of the Soviet Union, religious faith has burst into flower.

I'm only a bystander in making these simple observations of the complex stew that is religion here in Ukraine--but it's fascinating to see the ways in which these centuries-old traditions make their way into modern urban life--from the icon-decorated mashrutkas (buses) to the willow branches on Palm Sunday.

Top to bottom:
Church in Podil district, Kyiv
Synagogue in Odessa
Pechersk Lavra, Kyiv

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