Workshop Report: “Religious Intersections in Post-Socialist Europe: Between State and Imaginary Borders”

By Iuliia Buyskykh

Iuliia Buyskykh. © Forum Transregionale Studien

Interdisciplinary study of religion and faith in Eastern Europe, including both post-socialist and post-Soviet spaces, reflects the internal complexity and dynamics of religiosity in a region that has constantly faced political challenges, including frozen military conflicts, shifting administrative borders and massive waves of migrations. In a number of post-socialist countries religious and national identities are closely connected, resulting sometimes in a phenomenon of “religious nationalism”, tending to sacralise the entire nation. The involvement of religion and religiosity in political, social and economic life of the region reveals a wide range of blended religious forms, memories that become materialized in religious practices, contested and shared sacred sites and a wide spectrum of quasi-religious movements.

The workshopReligious Intersections in Post-Socialist Europe: Between State and Imaginary Borders” was convened by Prisma Ukraïna Fellow Iuliia Buyskykh and took place on January 8, 2018 at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin. It addressed a number of challenging issues for the Eastern European region: involvement of religious institutions in state policies, representations of history and memory in religious institutions of local communities, practices that enable diverse ethnic and confessional groups to coexist through shared sacred spaces and common ecumenical initiatives on post-violence terrains.

The starting point of the workshop referred to the processes when religion seems not ‘to be something’ that re-turns, or re-emerges after a ‘secular age’, but seems much more to effectuate a (re)linkage of people with (established, renewed or new) practices, memories, places, texts, movements, shrines etc. In order to understand this development, it is necessary to be aware of the shifting contexts in which religious practices (re)appear and how this ‘shifting’ relates to these practices.

Participants. © Forum Transregionale Studien

The workshop was divided in two parts: the first consisted of two panels, covering specific research cases. David Henig (University of Kent) opened the workshop with his talk “Charitable Economies and the Ethics of Immediacy in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina”, analyzing both the means of bottom-up strategies of coexistence between various ethnic and religious groups after violent episodes, and theoretical modes addressing the ‘ethics of immediacy’ and ‘everyday diplomacy’. Two other papers in this panel, given by Kamila Baraniecka-Olszewska (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Dirk Schuster (University of Potsdam), covered entangled imaginary borders that occur after violence between dominant ethnic and religious groups and minorities in Poland and Romania, respectively. The second panel was dedicated to post-Maidan Ukraine and explored its religious and political challenges. Viktoria Sereda (Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin) depicted the general situation of religious communities that developed in Ukraine in the last four years, including communities of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Crimea and the Donbass. Tetyana Zhurzhenko (Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna), focusing on Ukrainian-Russian borderlands, highlighted issues connected to the involvement of two Orthodox Churches (Kyiv Patriarchy and Moscow Patriarchy) in regional political debates. Those churches construct ‘historical memories’ and influence practices of commemoration in the region. Sabine von Löwis (Centre for East European and International Studies, ZOiS) referred to her micro-level research in a village in the Western Ukraine and discussed how persisting ‘phantom borders’ of former empires influence the everyday life of the villagers and their perceptions of political changes in Ukraine.

The second part of the workshop was a roundtable discussion framed quite generally as “Religion as a Source of Conflict and Means of Reconciliation: The Case of Eastern Europe”. The discussion was a continuation of the workshop, reflecting upon the problems, raised in papers and panel discussions, but at the same time focusing on contribution of religion to the peacemaking process – as the flip side of religious conflict in the world of ‘post-truth’. Four experts from various research fields, – Regina Elsner (ZOiS), Tsypylma Darieva (ZOiS), Agnieszka Halemba (University of Warsaw), and Armina Omerika (Goethe University Frankfurt), were asked to comment on the potential of religion to provoke conflicts and to enable reconciliation at the same time.

Participants. © Forum Transregionale Studien

Regina Elsner demonstrated the ambivalent impacts of religion with examples from the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. According to her, the concept of the “Holy Rus’, an Eastern Orthodox variant of the Kingdom of Heaven, is an inclusive concept that could help promote peace between Orthodox believers in Ukraine and Russia, whereas one of the ‘Russian World’ has imperialistic connotations and excludes those who are not willing to support Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Agnieszka Halemba emphasized the need to distinguish the logic of believing from the logic of belonging, pointing out that in the post-Soviet space those are likely to diverge. She observed in her ethnographical research in Western Ukraine and in Siberia a revival of religiosity and spirituality outside of traditional religious institutions. Armina Omerika confirmed these findings for Muslim communities on the Balkan. An interest in individual spirituality and mysticism is emerging there whereas collective forms of religiosity are becoming less important. Religious practices are equally in flux in the Southern Caucasus. According to Tsypylma Darieva, common sacred spaces in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan lose social significance and give way to new sacred places. But even in the face of the rise of new forms of religiosity, religion-based reconciliation still depends on the decisions of the church and state authorities and is not easy to achieve.

Overall, the workshop demonstrated that bringing together scholars from different fields of expertise (anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and theologians) that normally do not interact with each other can be extremely thought-provoking and fruitful.

Hopefully, the workshop was a contribution to the Forum’s goal of creating a transregional network of scholars and a vibrant epistemic community. Furthermore, the workshop was also an excellent sharing platform for me and other scholars who are currently working on research projects that focus on the intersections of religion, belonging(s), memories and nationalism(s) in Central-Eastern Europe.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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