Kathryn David: One Ukraine, Under God: Church, State and the Making of the Postwar USSR

How did the world’s first officially atheist state use religion in its project of state building? My project examines how the Soviet state drew on and radically redefined the imperial legacy of the Russian Orthodox Church, promoting Russian Orthodoxy in a particular but critical case: the majority Catholic borderland territories annexed to Ukraine during World War II. While most scholars analyze the USSR’s management of its diverse population through nationality, my project explores a case when confessional belonging was the key category used by Soviet authorities to govern their citizens. This moment of partnership between church and state in the Soviet Ukrainian borderlands changes how we see the Soviet Union and its relationship to its diverse populations. The USSR did not always repress religion, and instead used religious institutions to build a multiconfessional, as well as multinational Soviet society. My current research explores how connections between religious belonging, nationality, and Soviet citizenship were understood and mobilized by the state and its citizens in the postwar era. As the USSR attempted to build a new society that was both Soviet and Ukrainian in the western borderland territories occupied from 1939-1941 and acquired at the end of World War II, policymakers found that promoting the Russian Orthodox Church, instead of simply repressing the majority Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, would prove a useful strategy in state- and nation-building. For the population of west Ukraine, becoming Soviet was a triple assimilation: into Soviet society, the Ukrainian nation, and perhaps surprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church. I argue that this underappreciated but pivotal moment for religious policy under socialism would have consequences for years to come, and tells us much about the politics of belonging in the postwar Soviet Union. Paradoxically, it was the atheist Soviet state that ensured confessional politics surrounding the Russian Orthodox Church would continue to frame debates on what it means to be Russian and Ukrainian in the post-Soviet era.

Kathryn David is the Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and East European Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee (USA). Her research focuses on religion, nationalism, and empire in Soviet Ukraine and Russia. Her work has been supported by the ASEEES Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship and the Title VIII and FLAS programs of the U.S. Department of State. She received her PhD in history from New York University. Her research and writing has appeared in Nationalities Papers, Ab Imperio, and in other scholarly publications.

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