Social Psychology and Religion on a Trip to Ukraine
By Michael E. Nielsen, Ph.D.
Text and images © Michael Nielsen
I was fortunate to be invited to a conference, Religion at the End of the Twentieth Century, held September, 1997, at Sevastopol State Technical University. I was invited to this interdisciplinary conference by Anatoly Glushak and Yuri Skomorowski, who teach at SSTU. I thought that you might like to hear about some of the things I experienced and learned while I was at the conference, and in Kyiv and Moscow on my way to and from the conference.
The entire experience was fascinating, and left me wanting to know more about the regionís people and culture. Still, one of the important benefits of the trip is that, as I have reflected on the experience, I realize that I learned quite a bit about religion in my own country as well as in Ukraine and Russia. Here are some thoughts, and a few snapshots as well.
One of the most consistent things I noticed while on this trip was how religion manifests itself as a social institution. Of course, there are many examples of this occurring in my own country, but some how it is easier for us to notice this kind of thing when we are out of our own culture and experiencing a different one. Chances are, you can see the same kind of thing near you. For example, you might live in a predominantly Christian community in the USA. If so, you probably have noticed that people who know each other at church also spend time together in other activities. Or, maybe the last election included some candidates who were endorsed by a church. These are some local (for those of us in USA) examples that illustrate the social aspects of religion. What about how religion is part of society in Ukraine?
One of the most noticeable ways that religion is part of society in Ukraine and Russia is through formal governmental arrangements. Of course, there are many examples of this in recent Soviet history. The Orthodox church was allowed to operate under Soviet supervision. For the ability to continue to operate, they gave up some of their autonomy. This resulted in some interesting arrangements. For example, at Kievís Pechersk Lavra (Caves Monastery) you find not only a monastery built around the caves, but also museums devoted to theater and miniaturization, an art school, and other secular endeavors within the walls of the monastery. They presented an interesting contrast to the monastery itself, which is an active religious enterprise. (I should also mention that the buildings there are quite beautiful, and I encourage you to visit them if you ever have the opportunity!)
The relationship between society and religion goes back much farther than Soviet history, however. The Kremlin in Moscow illustrates this well. The word "kremlin" means fortress (as this tall Kremlin tower suggests), and towns typically built their fortress around the church, which was the center of the city. This is true of Moscowís most famous of Kremlins. It began as a church in the 1150s, just a few years after Moscow was founded in 1147. Through the ages, the Kremlin came to hold several chapels and cathedrals as well as the Senate, Supreme Soviet, and other governmental buildings. Whatís more, the interweaving of church and state authority forms the basis for some of the fascinating stories of the region.
One of my favorite stories comes from Ivan the Terribleís reign during the mid-1500s. According to Orthodox Christian church laws, a man may be married up to three times and continue to worship in the chapel. Ivanís fourth marriage therefore prevented him from entering Annunciation Cathedral, which was one of the most beautiful at the time, and which served as the chapel for royal family. So what did Ivan do? He had a window installed in the gallery alongside the cathedral so that he could still participate in services!
Ivan also left his mark on Moscow by building St. Basilís Cathedral. Located just outside the Kremlin walls on Red Square, visiting the cathedral was the highlight of my time in Moscow. I mention it here, though, to point out that Ivan had the cathedral built in order to commemorate a military victory (over the Tatars in 1552). In contemporary U.S. society, this kind of thing would be unusual. Can you imagine President Clinton commissioning a national cathedral to celebrate the Persian Gulf war? Or even President Carter, who is widely known for his religious devotion, commissioning a national church at the end of the Iran hostage crisis? Of course not! But we in the U.S. need to remember that this is typical of what civil authorities have done in many societies, at least partly so that they can garner support for their military campaigns from a broad segment of society. We also should recognize that appeals to God or religion do come from national and local politicians, who invite ministers to endorse their position on an issue, or to do something as simple as pray before a legislative meeting. This is just one way that church and state intertwine.
By the way, the architecture of the cathedral is absolutely striking, but the story behind the building is astonishing. Legend has it that Ivan had the architect blinded so that he would never create something more beautiful than St. Basilís. From what else we know about Ivan the Terrible, he deserved his nickname, and I see no reason to doubt this story about him. Still, the building that he left reminds us that church and state intertwine in most intriguing ways!
These examples show some of the ways that state leaders may use religion to achieve their ends, but it doesn't always happen this way. One illustration of this is Kazan Cathedral, which is located on Red Square across from St. Basil's Cathedral. Soviet leaders had this beautiful cathedral torn down, saying that it was in the way of the May Day parade and festivities. But in 1993, as the church's popularity was on the increase, it was rebuilt. I suppose that we could think of this picture as representing how the state may both "use" and "abuse" religion in order to achieve its goals!
It is also true that religions sometimes use the state in order to meet their goals. Churches may vie for special rights or privileges, as when state-sponsored religions seek special privileges for declaring what is proper or orthodox belief. Even when there is no state-sponsored religion, religious leaders often secure reduced property tax rates and similar benefits not available to other private organizations. Religions also take positions on political issues that they deem relevant to the churchís welfare. In fact, there have been many instances in history when the religions have sought to influence the outcome of legislation in democratic countries. As you can see, the exchange between church and state goes both ways. Take a few moments to consider how this happens in your community or country-- I think youíll find it enlightening.
My professional training emphasized social psychology. Let me explain for a moment what that means, because it is related to what Iíve just described. Of the many different ways of categorizing social psychologists, one of the most basic is whether they focus more on the personís role in society, or whether they focus more on individualsí understanding of themselves and of each other. The first kind of social psychologist, the one who emphasizes the social setting and how people fit in to that setting, is more likely to be found in a sociology department than in a psychology department. In studying religion, this "sociological" social psychologist is most likely to try to understand religion using analyses that focus on religious groups and how people fit in to those groups, or how the religious group relates to other groups in society. When we think about how a religious group such as the Orthodox church maintained its standing in Soviet society, we are doing a more sociological brand of social psychology.
The second kind of social psychologist, who may be called a "psychological" social psychologist, is one who examines how an individual is influenced by other people. This kind of social psychologist is more concerned with the how one person makes sense of the world around him or her. Of course, just as we used the "sociological" perspective to understand religion, we also can use this more "psychological" perspective to try to understand religious life.
One of the things that I noticed most immediately at the Pechersk Lavra is the beautiful artwork. Paintings, icons and other forms of art are everywhere to be seen. Sometimes they take the form of murals large enough to cover entire walls. Other times, they are small details such as a bell that is illustrated with the portrait of a beloved saint. These magnificent works, beautifully done, began as expressions of devotion. The faithful often use art to express their love of God and of church leaders, and also to encourage and inspire other people. Of course, we must recognize that the person who creates the artwork may be motivated by other things. For example, artists who create the icons may be rewarded for their work, either by increased status within the church and community, or by other, more tangible rewards.
Another way that the faithful express their devotion is by performing a religious ritual. Rituals can be very personal and intimate, or they can be publicly observable and performed by thousands of people at the same time and place. As I mentioned earlier, there is something about being in a different culture that helps one to notice these kinds of things. One of the first instances that I saw it was at the entrance to the Pechersk Lavra. The devout consider the monastery to be very holy, and they will make the sign of the crucifix (genuflect) when approaching the grounds and before entering the cathedral. This simple expression of faith serves to remind the person that the place is holy and special.
Still, even though the ritual may be performed by a single person, it may have significance for other people. At the entrance of the monastery I watched one elderly woman perform rituals (genuflect, kneel, stand, etc.) and quietly recite prayers for 15 minutes. This is much longer than the average person spends at the entrance, and when we notice that the ritual is unusually long, we form questions. We might ask ourselves whether the extra time she takes indicates that she is more devoted. Does she do this because she is particularly troubled and is seeking answers to a special prayer? Or we may even wonder if she is going through "extra motions" so that others might see her and believe her to be more "religious" than she actually is. These questions come naturally to usóso naturally that it is even the case that some religious texts warn against praying merely for the sake of being seen.
This illustrates one of the fundamental concepts in psychological study of religion: the distinction between religiousness based on deep, inner conviction, and religiousness that serves some other purpose. Gordon Allport called these two forms "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" religiousness, respectively, and this basic distinction has had a lasting impact on our understanding of religious life. Can you think of ways that an "intrinsic" religiousness is different from an "extrinsic" one? If so, then you are beginning to think more like a "psychological" social-psychologist, which is what Allport was.
Allport's idea of intrinsic and extrinsic religiousness is very similar to an important idea in social psychology. If we do wonder why something happens--for example, why one person performs a ritual for a much longer time than another person--we are making an attribution for the behavior. One basic way of thinking about attributions is that they are internal or external. If we were making an internal attribution about the person's behavior, we might say that she is doing the rituals because they are personally meaningful to her. An external attribution for the same behavior would be that she is performing the rituals because she feels obliged to do them.
Of course, what Iíve described to you here is a fairly simple way of thinking about social psychologyís forms. Here is an example that should show the complexity of the situation as it is applied to real life. Anatoly Koladny, a professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy University, presented the most fascinating paper of the conference. According to his research, before the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, about 15% of Ukrainians considered themselves to be religious. Now, seven years later, that figure has risen to about 70%! Quite a change, isnít it? How do we explain such a shift? There are many possibilities. One theory might be that people under-reported their religiousness during the communist period, when religion was a liability. Now that religion is no longer a liability, this reasoning goes, people admit to something that has existed all along.
Another possibility to recognize is that religious involvement in Ukraine also serves to meet other needs, just as it does elsewhere. Most of those people who say they are religious are part of the Ukrainian Orthodox church. This, the national church, has experienced a resurgence as the previously existing political barriers to church involvement have broken down. The outlook for the Ukrainian church is not completely rosy, however, as it faces a sudden influx of churches from the west. The new churches have entered Ukraine to seek converts, who often are found among people who formerly were part of Orthodoxy. With the economic climate being what it is, the Orthodox church has had trouble meeting the challenge of competition in this new religious "marketplace" at least partly because the western churches are better-financed.
So what does the church do? It seeks assistance from the government, in the form of legislation to limit the new churches. The legislation is supported by some politicians, who emphasize the idea that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the National church. These people believe that, as the nationís church, it should enjoy special privileges. Yes, this is another example of church and government intertwined on the broad, social level.
How does this play itself out at the level of the individual? As we saw with Allportís intrinsic - extrinsic distinction, religious actions may have different motives. How do we make sense of them? Well, if we consider the person who formerly did not claim to be religious, but now is attending Orthodox services, we may wonder what motivates his or her church attendance. Is it because of a new-found faith, or is it a way to express a national identity? Likewise, for those Ukrainians who join a western church, we might question how much of their interest is motivated by intrinsic feelings (such as faith in the new-found church) or by extrinsic feelings (perhaps a general interest in western things).
Obviously, this has been a very simple discussion of a complex set of phenomena. I hope that it has nevertheless given you a chance to consider how the social psychologist addresses religious behavior and belief.
As I mentioned, the conference was interesting. One of the things that made it such a good experience for me was that that the organizers put together a fine combination of conference sessions and excursions. This meant that we spent the morning and early afternoon in conference meetings, after which we visited important religious sites in the area. These visits were so informative that I probably learned as much on the field trips as I did at the conference itself! On this trip I also was able to visit places of religious significance in Kyiv and Moscow. It was fascinating to see religious artifacts or ruins that spanned from prehistoric to modern times. Let me show you some of what I saw.
From the prehistoric era I visited a site in Crimea that has an ancient image believed to represent a sun god. In this photo (hard to make out because of the light when I made the photo) it is the reddish circle with two bisecting lines. Scholars believe that the other images nearby depict animals. Sun worship is common throughout history. Note that I said "is common." There are many ways in which we continue to worship the sun. The sacred texts of many religions often depict the sun and light as representing good, while darkness symbolizes evil. In what other ways do we worship the sun today? Think about it, and youíll come up with many, both in formal religious contexts as well as in less formal, cultural contexts.
These old Ukrainian fertility gods are located in Kyiv at the Ukraine History
Museum, near St. Andrewís church. (The statues are outdoors, and have been
placed under the hoods in order to reduce wear from the elements.) Many--perhaps
even most--religions and churches encourage fertility. Historically, fertility
was an important way to maintain the continuity of the community. This
tradition continues today, of course. Examples range from religious bans
against birth control to celebrations for newly-born children and expectant
The Greeks made their way to Crimea in 422 BCE, and with them they brought their religion. Later, as Christianity spread throughout the Greek empire, it reached what is now Sevastopol. The city was known then as Chersonesus, and its ruins are fascinating. The site is significant in several ways, and excavation of the ruins are ongoing as finances permit. In 988, Prince Volodymyr married a princess daughter of Chersonesus' ruler, and in doing so agreed to convert Kyiv and the rest of his nation to Christianity. Among the ruins are several of religious significance, including at least two Christian churches. One was located near the theater, and the other was just a stoneís throw from the Black Sea. You also can see several beautiful mosaics, including this mosaic depicting wine.
I saw more Christian artifacts and churches than any other kind. They were both fascinating and beautiful. Some of the more interesting were the Caves. I already mentioned the cave monastery in Kyiv, but there were others that were at least as interesting. In Crimea you may visit a "cave city" (eski kerman) near Bakhchysaray. At about the 7th century, many people lived in caves because of the safety they provided and the shelter that they offered from the elements. Some of these cities grew to be several hundred people, and they included all of the amenities available at the time. Bakhchysaray was a magnificent community in its day, and you can still get an appreciation of its importance today. The main streets were quite busy, as the deep ruts attest. Religious life also was important to these people, who had at least two Christian churches. One of the churches still has frescoes that depict Christ and Mary, although the frescoes are beginning to show the wear of the elements. The city was inhabited until Mongol warriors rode through the area. Due to the difficulty of reaching the city, as you can tell from the cliffs behind me in this picture, it was one of the last to succomb to the Mongol onslaught. After the hike to the caves, we were quite tired, as you can see! But, never fear, sustenance was on the way in the form of a delicious picnic. Breads, cheeses, and other delights awaited us. It was a wonderful way to end that day.
In Crimea I also visited Inkerman, a monastery that has a chapel inside the main cave. In order to appreciate Inkerman, you must try to imagine a cave perhaps 70 or 80 square meters in size. The only light comes from the windows carved into the wall, or from the many candles burning. The music is very simple, similar to western Gregorian chant, and the scent of the candles is mixed with incense. We were fortunate to have visited during servicesóI wish only that I could have stayed for the entire service. No, that is not my only wish. I also wish that I could have made photos and videotape of the inside of the monastery, which I could then share with you. To do so, however, would have been a great breach of etiquette. (After all, who wants to have interruptions and intrusions during something they hold to be quite sacred?) That is why all of my photos show only the exteriors of buildings, whether here at Inkerman or at the other churches and cathedrals.
Several other religious sites were on my itinerary. St. Andrewís Church has what may be the most elaborate architecture of the churches in Kyiv. It sits at the top of a hill, where its striking domes are easily seen from the surrounding area. As is true of some of the Kremlinís religious buildings, you can see the influence of Italian architecture in St. Andrewís.
Less well-known, but also beautiful, is St. Volodymyrís Cathedral. Located near Shevchenko University, this is one of my favorite areas of Kyiv, partly because Shevchenko Park, which is across the street from the university, is very peaceful and landscaped with flowers. Shevchenko University also has an interesting story behind its striking color. Tsar Nicholas I ordered it painted blood red when students objected to being drafted into his army. They've painted it this way ever since. (At least, that's the story I was told!)
Finally, if you visit Kyiv you must see St. Sophia Cathedral. This cathedral has stunning iconography inside it, and it is here that I truly began to appreciate my travel guide. I speak no Russian or Ukrainian, and had only Lonely Planetís "Russia, Ukraine & Belarus" travel survival kit and phrase book. I mention this here because while I was in St. Sophia Cathedral, a stranger from Germany asked if my book showed where Yaroslav was buried. (Yaroslav the Wise is a well-loved Kyivan leader who promoted Christianity by establishing churches, translating Greek religious work into Slavic, and building St. Sophia. He was prince of Kyiv beginning in 1019, and died in 1054.) Of course, my Lonely Planet guidebook showed me right where Yaroslavís marble coffin could be found. It was indispensable, and I recommend you use one the next time you travel. Here again, photographs are not allowed inside the cathedral, so youíll have to settle for my word that the cathedral was magnificent.
The final place I visited, but havenít told you about, was the Novodevichy Convent and cemetary in Moscow. This beautiful convent provides a quiet retreat in Moscowís hustle and bustle. Its beautiful red Assumption Church was being renovated while I was there, but when my host in Moscow told the caretaker that I was a professor from America who had come to see the church, I was able to see the interior of the building. The church is less elaborate than Smolensk Cathedral, the cathedral on the conventís grounds, but it still is quite impressive. (The cathedral was closed, too. What timing, eh?) It will be even more beautiful when the workers have completed the renovation of the artwork on the ceiling. Other sites at the convent, such as Prokhorov Chapel, are very interesting and full of history. The convent was used by Sofia, Peter the Greatís half-sister, while he was growing up. But, as history goes, he deposed her in 1689, and then had her confined to the convent for life. The animosity was so great that he even had some of Sofiaís friends hung outside her room at the convent, just to remind her that she should consider herself happy to be alive. Later, when Peter divorced his first wife, he also had her confined to the convent.
Outside the convent walls is the Novodevichy Cemetery, where Russiaís famous people are buried. Here you can find the tombs of many military figures, but people who are from the humanities, such as Prokofiev and Chekhov, are here as well. There are two graves that I found especially interesting. The first is Khruschevís tomb. As you undoubtedly know, Nikita Khruschev was leader of the Soviet Union during the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was the height of the "cold war" between the Soviet Union and the United States, marked most strikingly by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Commentators have said that the world was closer to total nuclear war at this point in time than at any other. Well, feelings about Khruschev are quite mixed. In fact, they are so mixed that the authorities did not want even to have him buried in Novodevichy Cemetery! Finally, an artist came up with a compromise intended to represent Khruschevís good and bad qualities.
Iíll share one other interesting story about the cemetery. The tombs of Stalinís first and second wives are found here. He divorced the first wife when he tired of her (and some say he had her killed), leaving her for his second wife. She committed suicide upon learning of an affair with another woman. People continue to have very strong feelings about the entire episode, so much so that several years ago someone broke the nose off the bust of his second wifeís monument. The busts of both women now are encased in Plexiglas so that they arenít vandalized any further. The strong feelings also are indicated by the actions of the man who took me through the cemetery. He spoke very little English, but still managed to communicate a lot on this subject! When we reached the tomb of Stalinís first wife, he said, "Stalin. First wife," and then made a slash with his finger across his neck, as a murderer might do with a knife. Nearby is the tomb of one of Stalinís sons. With disgust in his voice, my host said, "Stalin. Son," and then spat on the tomb. As they say, actions speak louder than words.
So, there you have a quick guide through my tour book. I hope youíve learned a little about psychology and religion along the way. If you ever have an opportunity to visit Ukraine and Russia, by all means take it! There are beautiful sites to see, wonderful people to meet, and you might even learn something while you're there!
If you aren't able to go, or if you first would like to see some more of the beautiful sites that await you, begin by exploring Oleg Baranovsky's Ukrainian Photo Gallery. Oleg's main page also includes resources to the U.S. Embassy and other interesting Ukraine-related sites. You also should visit The Face of Russia, produced by U.S. public television, which offers a fascinating glimpse of Russian history.