ZOiS Spotlight 28/2022

The Effect of War on Ukraine’s Values

by Iryna Kaplan 20/07/2022
Because of the war, Warsaw and KyivPride marched together in the Polish capital this year. imago / ZUMA Wire

The war in Ukraine has put a spotlight on the country. The world has been watching in horror as the names of Kharkiv’s neighbourhoods and Kyiv’s suburbs and the outfits of the Ukrainian president become all too familiar. But the longer the war goes on, the harder it is to keep outsiders’ attention on it. And Ukrainians are also managing to return to ordinary life, which will never be the same and yet must continue.

For some groups in society, ordinary life was hard enough even in peacetime. When the Workshop for the Academic Study of Religion, a Ukrainian NGO, started the project Combining the Incompatible: Making the Problems of Feminist and LGBTQ+ Believers Visible in Ukraine in 2021, debates about gender equality, women’s rights, and freedom for the LGBTQ+ community sparked many controversial speeches from politicians, thought leaders, and, crucially, religious leaders.

The Christian churches in particular have boycotted Ukraine’s initiatives against domestic violence, for gender equality and the defence of LGBTQ+ rights, referring to traditional values. Thus, in addition to wide-ranging discrimination, LGBTQ+ people and feminists in Ukraine have been unable to find spiritual support within their religious communities.

Western values portrayed as the enemy

In the first month of the brutal war, while Russian troops massacred civilians in Bucha, Hostomel, and other cities, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow delivered a sermon about how Western values threatened Russia, which, in his view, includes Ukraine. Kirill described LGBTQ+ rights and pride marches as a ‘test of loyalty’ to the Western world that had been violently imposed on the faithful people in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Kirill’s sermon, held on 6 March, which marks Forgiveness Sunday for Orthodox Christians, underlined Russia’s bizarre obsession with LGBTQ+ people by linking a church holiday and the war with topics of sexual orientation and gender. The patriarch’s intervention was without doubt an attempt to gain the attention and support of European conservative movements.

The war has forced Ukrainian and Russian public speakers to choose a side and express their alignment with one of the two sets of values in the European discourse. Russia picked the more conservative outlook and Ukraine the more liberal one, and each side has received the recognition of its allies.

Patriarch Kirill’s sermon was also part of Moscow’s propaganda, which presents Ukraine as a country on which dangerous European values have been imposed. Ironically, Kirill’s depiction of LGBTQ+ rights as a threat may turn out to be positive for Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activists and feminists. Since the war began on 24 February, everything that is Russian, especially the country’s values, has become synonymous with devastation and war. If being homophobic is Russian, then being Ukrainian is about affirming LGBTQ+ rights. Having outlined Russia’s values, Kirill also described what he saw as the development of Ukraine’s struggle for freedom against its current government and the West.

Ukraine’s pro-European path

Since the war began, the Ukrainian authorities have started to actively and openly express their support for LGBTQ+ people by posting photos of gay, bisexual, and trans soldiers on official web pages. The authorities also celebrate the achievements of women in the army and use gender-specific job titles in official speeches to emphasise the role of women in society and in the current war in particular. The discourse of power in Ukraine has changed from ignoring to embracing the topics of women and LGBTQ+.

This shift is partly due to the intensification of Ukraine’s EU accession course that began even before February 2022 because the country needed to show its openness to minorities and vulnerable groups. The annual events of KyivPride, which this year joined forces with WarsawPride and took place in the Polish capital, have become a confirmation of this policy of supporting minorities.

At the same time, Ukraine’s pro-European course triggered a long-term confrontation between activists and the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, a multi-religious platform representing over 90 per cent of religious communities in Ukraine, over the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention. The document on the prevention of domestic violence caused significant indignation among the council and its allies in the Ukrainian parliament. Ukraine signed the convention in 2011, but due to protests and a campaign launched by the council, the accord was not ratified. The council’s statements on the convention contained similar messages to those of Patriarch Kirill in his speech on Forgiveness Sunday.

With Patriarch Kirill’s legitimation of the war through a homophobic agenda, it became impossible to continue arguments over the Istanbul Convention. When the convention was finally ratified on 20 June, mass protests could not be held because of martial law and an unspoken moratorium on criticising the authorities to avoid breaking Ukraine’s newfound unity in the face of Russian aggression. There was no mass expression of discontent over the ratification of the convention, as such discontent would now mean support for the ideas of Russia. Even the most conservative Christians cannot afford to be seen in this light. In the coming months, a similar reaction can be expected to an initiative to legalise same-sex marriage.

The war as a catalyst for value issues

Russia’s war against Ukraine has escalated the polarisation between the two countries. Before 24 February, it was possible to count on a certain percentage of the Ukrainian population taking a positive attitude to the values represented by Russia and expressed, among others, by Ukrainian religious communities. Since 24 February, Russia has been associated solely with devastation, death, famine, and the other horrors of war.

The case of LGBTQ+ people makes it obvious that Ukrainians have to urgently rethink their attitudes to many things, such as Russian colonialism and freedoms for vulnerable groups. It is too early to draw conclusions about the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, but it is a crucial first step towards a more inclusive Ukrainian society. As a paradoxical result of Russia’s religious strategy, Ukraine’s pro-European course shows that even powerful Russian propaganda makes mistakes once in a while.

Iryna Kaplan holds a Master’s in Theology. She is a member of the NGO ‘Workshop for the Academic Study of Religion’ (Kyiv, Ukraine) and project manager for the project ‘Combining the Incompatible: Making the Problems of Feminist and LGBTQ+ Believers Visible in Ukraine (2021–2022)’. She is currently a guest researcher at the Center for Religious Studies (CERES), Ruhr-Universität Bochum.