Season 1, Episode 2
In episode 2 of the Conversatio podcast, Dr. Troy Feay and Dr. Daniel Hutchinson help us understand how religious identity impacts the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Julia Long, Dr.Troy Feay , Dr. Daniel Hutchinson
Julia Long 0:02
Welcome to Conversatio the Belmont Abbey college podcast. This podcast focuses on the way of formation and transformation so that each of us reflects God’s image in an ever more palpable and transparent way. I’m Julie along and today I’m joined by Dr. Troy Feay, Associate Professor of History at Belmont Abbey college. And Dr. Daniel Hutchison, also Associate Professor of History at Belmont Abbey College. Today, we’re going to talk about a topic that’s really on the minds and hearts of a lot of people as we know right now, and that is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. So before we dig into that, I’m going to give Dr. Faye and Dr. Hutchinson an opportunity to introduce themselves to our audience. Dr. Faye, if you want to go first.
Dr. Feay 0:48
Well, I’m Dr. Troy Feay, I have been a I’ve been teaching here at Belmont Abbey since 2005. My area of specialization is modern French history, particularly French religious history. And I’ve worked specially on the work of French Catholic missionaries in the French colonies in the Caribbean and West Africa.
Dr. Hutchinson 1:12
Hello, my name is Daniel Hutchinson. I’ve been a professor here at Belmont Abbey since 2011. I also graduated from the College in 2002. My teaching and research focuses on the World War Two and the Cold War. And I’m excited to talk about the material for today.
Julia Long 1:34
Great, thanks. So to set the stage for our audience, Dr. Faye and Dr. Hutchinson are really going to be kind of helping us dig into the role that that religious identity plays here, between Russia and the Ukraine. So when we think about conflict, I think one of the things that we’ve been talking about is that its conflict in its nature can be really personal. And so the role of identity has really a big role to play there. So I think a really good place to kind of start out is by helping us understand our history. So how did where we come from, get us to where we are today. So maybe let’s kick off by just talking about the historical relationship between Russia and the Ukraine.
Dr. Feay 2:20
My understanding is that this question would be answered very differently by someone who was in the camp of Putin or someone who was from the Ukraine. But I think that from the Russian perspective, from the perspective of Putin, he is trying to argue that the shared religious history of Ukraine and Russia, the fact that I guess the first Christian convert, came from an area that is today, Ukraine, and has led to the kind of the existence of the Russian Orthodox Church is the primary tie that binds these two regions together. And despite the fact that we’re talking about something that occurred in the very early medieval period, this is now still an element that that the Putin camp is emphasizing as a principle tie that binds these two regions together.
Dr. Hutchinson 3:17
The Ukrainians are there apart, as you might imagine, have a different perspective. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has their own distinctive religious leader and the religious had a patriarch, which over the last decade, broke away from the larger Russian Orthodox Church, which was a major source of irritation and consternation geopolitically between the two. And I think this is one very important example, but one of many examples of of Ukraine over the last 2030 years trying to build a sense of national identity and national independence, right? Religion being an important way to do this. And the religious element of this has been a really important part of the conflict. And it’s, in a sense, split the Orthodox religious world in many ways as it has sort of the larger Eastern European world. Do you
Julia Long 4:10
think that in a sense, then, since this religious, these religious beliefs didn’t just pop up? They’ve been in both cultures for a very long time? In a sense, could we have seen this coming? Was this always kind of maybe something that was hanging out there creating tension between the two countries? Or Is this really okay? The religious ties are what they are, they were what they were, and this is kind of, it’s there, but it’s not necessarily it wasn’t foreshadowing,
Dr. Hutchinson 4:41
I think the religious element is a symptom rather than a cause of some of the the conflict that’s that’s been expressed within the Russian and Eastern European tradition. Going back to 17th century, there’s been a really close tie between church and state. In a sense, the church is controlled by the state by design. Are or by other prominent leaders. And they’ve worked closely together. And that’s close. That’s true in this conflict as well, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch has really come out strong in support of the war and supportive. The Russian perspective on this conflict. As Ukraine, especially for the last decade has tried to assert its assert its national autonomy and independence. This has been one of the ways that is able to do so to say that we have our own distinctive religious sphere, distinctive religious practice. But I think it’s it’s less a cause of the conflict than maybe a greater symptom. And, and it’s maybe worthy to note that Ukraine and Russia two is a big country with lots of different religious traditions. Orthodox being the primary one, but there are significant Catholic, Jewish, Muslim faith communities, as well as there’s been substantial work in Ukraine over the last 30 years by Protestant evangelical communities there too.
Dr. Feay 5:59
And I think that in terms of of cultural ties, and political differences between the Ukrainian and Russia, language is often brought up as one of the things that unites the two, the two countries, however, they are not the same language. My understanding is that they are somewhat closer together than say, French and Italian, but not as close as Dutch and German. So there are linguistic similarities. And of course, the the further east you are in the Ukraine, the greater those similarities are. Again, language like religion is one of these things that can be a cultural time, but does not necessarily make you part of the same nation, United States and Canada, not the same country. Right. So and there is a very different literary tradition that plays into some of these religious differences as well, in that the Ukrainian religious literature is written in Ukrainian and not Russian.
Dr. Hutchinson 7:01
And in recent weeks, the language coming out of Russia is in terms of their victory aims is not merely the elimination of the Ukrainian political regime, but a whole transformation of Ukrainian culture, the suppression of Ukrainian language. And this has deep precedents going back into the 19th century Russia, and its expansion, as far as West as Poland, really made it a sort of central objective to rasa fie the population to in a sense to eliminate those distinctions of culture and language, ethnicity, and this is long remembered in those countries. And I think, coming out of this conflict, there will be an even greater emphasis within Ukraine, which was Dr. Phase mentioned, bilingual languages, or are many of the citizens are bilingual, and those languages are close together. But coming forward, I think there’s gonna be a real emphasis within Ukraine on promoting Ukrainian language, Ukrainian literature. And that’s way promoting natural identity. Yeah,
Dr. Feay 8:02
one of the things that just comes to mind here is you’re talking about this something that may bring together some of these both linguistic and religious similarities and differences. I think the first, the first convert to Christianity prints. Well, what’s his name? In Russian, it’s Vladimir, and in Ukrainians, Volodymyr. So we have these two leaders now, who are named after the same figure who is both identified with both of their countries. And yet, you know, has slightly different ways in which both the name and the in the figure are interpreted historically and in the president,
Julia Long 8:37
what role did the fall of the Soviet Union play here? You know, is is Putin looking back at a time like that and thinking, okay, that he needs to really work hard to secure his country identities here, you know, kind of what role does the foul play here in the minds of the leaders and even in the people?
Dr. Feay 8:55
Yeah, well, you’re the you’re the Cold War guy. So you go ahead and grab that one
Dr. Hutchinson 8:59
we’ll do so this fall of the Soviet Union is a critical issue for setting all these motions into play. When the Soviet Union collapses in 1992, the former composite states of that union each gained independence Russia became the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic now became the independent nation of Ukraine. Same across the board with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. One of the things that came out of the dissolution of the of the USSR was Ukraine, Ukraine’s efforts to secure peace and security. On its borders, it held the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, although it did not necessarily have the means to deliver those nuclear weapons and conflict. But removing those weapons safe securing those weapons was a key goal of, of Western leaders. And so there was a political not a treaty but a political arrangement made called the Bucharest agreement, in which the security of Ukraine wouldn’t be guaranteed by Britain, the United States and the Russian Federation if they gave up their nuclear weapons. They did. Apparently this weekend was the 14th anniversary of that significant agreement. And Ukraine in the years following faced a lot of challenges that Russia at the same time, converting into a free market economy, political corruption and the rise of oligarchs, Ukraine has had some significant challenges and setbacks on their road towards multiparty democracy, as well as a number of sort of political revolutions. But their goal has been the attack towards the west to embrace entry into the European Union into alliances like NATO. And that has been their trajectory. Russia since the rise of Vladimir Putin, Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union, the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. And he in his speech, in invading, Ukraine’s sought not just to reverse that historical moment. But he also called to the Russian Empire before the end of World War One and restoring its borders. So it’s a pretty sweeping and dynamic set of different visions for these two countries. Right.
Dr. Feay 11:17
Yeah, I think that when Putin was rising to power, obviously, he had been a former KGB agent, and had come to power through the old Soviet system. And as he was taking over, I think he had principally economic goals in the beginning, the Russian economy really collapsed at the end of the 20th century. And rebuilding that economy was, I think, the first order of the of the day, he did that by really turning Russia into a commodity economy, both basically oil and gas, which did bring Russia to greater economic prosperity, but also limits, you know, the the products that it’s relying on for that prosperity. Once he achieved that, then I think he was able to turn to some of his long standing goals of making Russia great again, and in his mind, that does, to some extent, mean rebuilding the old Russian Empire. But to get back to some of your earlier points, they’re rebuilding a Russian sense of identity, as a guardian of Eastern Christianity. And of a kind of mother country. I think sometimes the term he refers he uses to refer to this as his Russia as an arc of civilization in which it is protecting traditional Christian identities as well as, as the sort of traditional place of Russia, within, within eastern Europe.
Julia Long 12:51
A couple of things that are interesting that have been raised here, as you brought up the linguistic example earlier about how we have two leaders named after quintessentially maybe the same figure, right, but their names are different based on their understanding and their languages and their cultures. And then you’re kind of referencing, okay, here’s the fall of the Soviet Union, and two countries that went through, you know, a similar thing, a similar event in history at the same time, and interpreted it and responded to it very differently. So when we look at those two things, that’s really a part of identity to write because it’s something that happened, it’s a response to something that happened, that is then shaping the events of today. So when we look at cultural identity, there are leaders, right, and then there are the people. So let’s take a little bit of a look at the people in this and how we think they might be affected. What are they thinking? I mean, could we say, or would we say even that, okay, because, you know, Russian people who grew up and, you know, with this sort of cultural belief about the things that happened, are they aligned behind Putin? Would we maybe say the same for Ukrainians? Are they unified behind Solinsky? There are a lot of, you know, comments out there about Ukraine being divided as a nation. So I’d love to hear your thoughts about that
Dr. Hutchinson 14:18
for Ukraine. Historically, there has been somewhat of a division between east and west with less more inclined towards Ukrainian language, culture and tradition, and the East more inclined towards Russian language, culture and tradition. Vladimir Zelensky himself comes from the eastern part of Ukraine and speaks fluent Russian as he does Ukrainian. In some ways Russian is his first language not not Ukrainian. And those distinctions carried into other forms of sort of cultural life and Ukraine suffered divisions, like many countries, divided on these lines do. I think one of the great questions concerning the current moment is, will the shared experience acts of war and invasion, erase some of those divisions. And I think that’s that’s true. I’ve read some press coverage of Ukrainian citizens who rush who speak Russian as a first language, intentionally not speaking that language intentionally, both as a sometimes as a measure of protection against potent anger, but also that a sense of solidarity that they wish to privilege, their Ukrainian sense of identity first and foremost, and historically, war for good enough, and Ill has been one of the forces that brings communities and nations together as a shared identity. So Ukraine’s had a rocky couple decades. But I think it’s difficult to know, but I think there’s significant support within Ukraine towards this common effort of national defense. How people in Russia feel about it. That’s a much much tougher question, I
Dr. Feay 15:48
think. Yeah. I mean, I believe that there is fairly broad, but also probably pretty shallow support for Putin across Russia. Credit for restoring greater economic prosperity to Russia. But of course, maybe some frustration with the the increasing repression that has just tripled and quadrupled. Over the course of this conflict. I think that the Russian government control of the media prevents the majority of ordinary Russian people from getting much of an honest account of what’s actually going on. I know there were plenty of accounts of, of you Ukrainians with family in Russia, who couldn’t get their families to believe what was actually happening to them in the in the Ukraine. Will this in the long run, increase or decrease support for Putin? Probably a lot of that will be determined by the economic consequences of this, and if and when they start biting into the prosperity of the of the Russian people. And also, I think the extent to which this gives Russian people the impression of this increasing the power and prestige of their nation or decreasing. And I think at this point that’s still very much up in the air.
Dr. Hutchinson 17:13
The Putin’s popularity is such as it is shot up after the Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. It was seen as a sort of a big win for Russia. And Putin’s popularity surged, but recent actions by the Russian state sort of I think, demonstrate, as Dr. FaZe mentioned, maybe sort of shallowness of possible support for this conflict. The Russian Parliament passed a law very reminiscent of the old Soviet Union under Stalin, criminalizing criminalizing news or statements about the I don’t want to say war, because it’s illegal to say war in Russia, the middle of special military operation 15 years in jail is the penalty under for under this. So posting something on social media, publishing something in a newspaper, even Russian police have been seizing people’s cell phones off the streets to see what they have on there. Those sorts of things can get you hit up with this very, very punitive law. And as a result, many of Russia’s best and brightest and most sort of connected globally in press and finance and other economic areas, they’ve simply let fled the country, they’ve gone to other parts of the larger sort of Russian diaspora in different parts of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. And I think that speaks to something if you need a law criminalizing speech by 15 years in prison, it shows and you refuse to call it a war. I think it speaks a lot to the potential weakness of Russian support for this, but Russians do tend to pull together in common cause and when it conflicts going badly. So it’s difficult to say,
Dr. Feay 18:53
and I do think that that Bridwell is a couple of points that that came to mind there. One was the idea of this the invasion of Crimea and the way that Putin use that to Stoke, the religious identity of Russia, a couple of things that were done immediately after that we’re creating a chapel for the Russian Armed Forces. To celebrate that victory in Orthodox chapel. They’re putting up statues of Vladimir, also to celebrate that moment of the first Christianization of Russia. And so that directly linked these military adventures with orthodox identity with Ukraine, and all at once. And then the other thing I think that Daniels comments just brought up, in my mind were the way this is now as a social media war. And how the the Russian attempt to control the media of its own people is also limiting its ability to get any kind of message out to the rest of the world whereas in Ukraine with its greater tendencies toward toward the west toward openness and toward the ability to use and and and effectively use social media. That means Alinsky is a is a master at getting the message out and and in such a way that it is both heard and popular right around the world. So perhaps an example of a way in which social media is having a positive effect for the Ukrainians, and the Russian attempt to control it is failing.
Dr. Hutchinson 20:25
It’s a pretty stark set of images you have, particularly the beginning of the war, Vladimir Zelensky, on the streets with his people, using the skills that he has as a professional actor and comedian to great effect, while Vladimir Putin meets with his his top ministers at a very long table away away long ways away, presumably protecting himself from COVID. But more than anything else, setting sort of a classic image of a man in a bubble in denial, and not really in tune with the reality unfolding.
Julia Long 20:55
Yeah, and I think one thing that’s interesting about how we create culture and identity today is social media. One thing that it’s done is it’s allowed us to share our thoughts and opinions globally, with people that we don’t even know. And you kind of see this phenomenon, especially with influencers on Instagram, and Tiktok, where they will create such a following, that people across the globe will believe them and take their account, you know, as truth when they’ve never even met, you know, that kind of like, I need to know you and I need to have some sort of trust with you. That’s different today in the way that we create culture and identity. And I think social media plays a big part in that. So I think that’s interesting, when you talk about the parallel between Russia and Ukraine and how their leaders have either used social media or not used it. And I was thinking to Dr. Hutchinson, when you were talking about kind of the it’s a I mean, it’s a crime. I guess we can’t say that is that a word? We can’t say I can’t remember, in a war is what we can say. Right? So that it’s a crime and that you could be put in jail for 15 years. I mean, you talk about creating culture and identity, right. I mean, that’s a culture of fear, in a way.
Dr. Hutchinson 22:10
Absolutely. And for their part, the the Russian attempt to sort of brand the war in a social media friendly way has been through the adoption of the symbol of a Z, which they have posted on military vehicles, on social media on buildings. They’re trying to, in a sense, brand the war in a way to sort of bring the people together, but without calling it a war, because the implications of that, then are much greater for Russia’s politics and economy. And and it’ll be interesting to see how effective or ineffective these mediums are.
Dr. Feay 22:48
I think, you know, one of the one of the things that will be most interesting to follow as this continues, is the way that this is realigning European politics, global politics. I mean, the effect on Germany, I think, is profound. I think China is watching this very carefully to see what what happens here. France is trying to fulfill a role as kind of diplomatic intermediary here, President of France Macron is using this to bolster his own presidential campaign. Not sure it’s quite working, but it’s making the attempt to do that. So totally, I think made Germany rethink not only its energy dependence on on Russia, but also its approach to its own military, which could have profound long term consequences. And, and, you know, we a few what, 1015 years ago, a lot of people were referring to the BRIC nations, Brazil, Russia, India, China, as the kind of rising industrial powers. And all of them have, in their way gone fairly heavily toward authoritarian political systems recently, and and I think we’re seeing in Russia, one of the consequences of that. And I think those other countries are all watching this very closely to see what this Russian move means for their own, you know, sort of global political future here.
Dr. Hutchinson 24:14
Just this last weekend, Hungary held a major election to determine the leadership of their country and the campaign was hard fought before the events of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Hungary shares a border with Ukraine and the dynamics of Ukrainian refugees and more on the border and whether they shouldn’t participate in the sanctions whether they should aid in weapons delivery to Ukraine became a major political issue in Hungary. And it appears that the the ruling leader of Hungary successfully use these political dynamics to his advantage to secure another another term in office. So the reverberations from this event are going to be pretty wide sweeping for years to follow.
Julia Long 24:59
You And I think that brings me to another point I was hoping we could cover which is, you know, we’ve talked a bit about looking at this globally, let’s look at this at home. So, you know, we’ve talked about the historical implications, and the role of religion and identity. How would you say that this could translate to an American viewpoint? When we’re sitting here, and we’re watching this? And we’re thinking about, you know, some of our own landscapes and times that we’ve been through? What do you think that the American people are? How are we responding to this? And what and what’s this, like, from our view?
Dr. Hutchinson 25:36
I think the conflict has reoriented American politics in some interesting ways, but only time will tell how profound those reorientations are. I think that the conflict brought together the American people across political divides in sort of a unique and distinct way that other crises of recent times have not a lot of people drew inspiration by their heroic resistance of Ukraine to this invasion. And measures in Congress to provide the maiden sailed through with relative ease, although there still exists in both parties concerns either about America’s engagement internationally abroad, or on the size of sort of defense spending within our domestic budget. Those issues remain. But I think, only time will tell if this is true. But I think the American political center on both the left and the right has been strengthened a bit by the hard reality of Russia’s invasion, changing the geopolitical landscape. Again, time will tell, and we’ll see how the war unfolds there. But I think that’s one of the impacts that the war may have here.
Dr. Feay 26:46
Yeah, I think that this is a good moment for Americans to rethink questions of identity that you were raising earlier. There’s a French philosopher Ernest Renault, from the 19th century, big century for debating national identity, and how how you create it, where it comes from. And he said, you know, a nation needs two things, it needs a kind of past consensus on where we came from, and what brought us together, and then you need a current will to live together? And how do you bring both of those things together and maintain them? In this conflict, we can see Putin attempting to do one thing, to use history in a particular way, and an authoritarian model to, in a sense, mandate, a national identity through force. And in the Ukrainian example, you see, sort of coming together under force and pressure of the creation of a national identity. And for Americans that offers us a chance, I think, to think about All right, well, what is our our past consensus? What is that consist of? And and how do we create that live with that continue that into the present? And I do think is, as Daniel was just saying, you know, there’s a lot of current contentions behind that, what sort of things you teach in history classes in school, about the past consensus? What are the political values that we must maintain in the present and all that can be very divisive. But when you look at a conflict, like this one, you can see the consequences of I think, doing two things, one, taking that too seriously, and taking it too lightly. And and it gives us I think, motivation to find a balance.
Dr. Hutchinson 28:39
And we we can draw inspiration from what’s happening in Ukraine. Ukraine has endured similar political and social and cultural divisions as we have here in the United States. But in the midst of this difficulty, those challenges have been put aside in the cause of sort of national unity and national victory. Now, God forbid we ever have to face a situation as terrible as that, but I think we can take some, some inspiration for finding common cause even with those who perhaps we share different values or perspectives with if you know,
Dr. Feay 29:12
and I do think particularly in what the you know, the terrible atrocities have come to light in the last couple of days helped to reinforce that idea. I mean, you’ve seen the the revulsion that has taken place, across Europe, across the United States, to those sorts of things, that condemnation of that and the, the rejection of that as any sort of, of path going forward. And I think that’s, you know, heartening as well, leading to return to the kind of shared values that would prevent anything like that from ever being done.
Julia Long 29:43
Yeah. So I think as we aim to bring this to a conclusion, I want to talk a little bit about goals. So we have two leaders here who are leading their countries in ways that hopefully they believe are the right way. Um, And both feel convicted to act in the way they’re acting. What would you say if you had an ultimate goal for each one for for Zeeland scan for Putin? What would each his ultimate goal be? And or what does a resolution look like?
About the Host
Marketing Project Manager
In the role of Marketing Project Manager at Belmont Abbey College, Julia’s main focuses are brand development and external communications. This includes oversight of Public Relations, Advertising, and Social Media for the college.
With a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s in Communication, Julia’s passion for brand and communications led her to positions in corporate and higher education. She lives in Gastonia, North Carolina with her husband Justin, daughter McKenna, and two cats, Einstein and Galileo.