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The Advantages and Challenges for Historians of Ukrainian Protestantism

Dr. Valentyna Kuryliak

Valentyna Kuryliak is a Ukrainian historian and researcher of Protestantism. She was born in the village of Zeleni Koshary, Mykolaiv region, and graduated from a master’s program at the Faculty of History of the National University “Ostrog Academy” in 2018. 

Kuryliak defended her doctoral thesis, “Theology of Healthy Lifestyles. The Doctrine and Practice of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” at the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Münster in 2023. At the end of 2022, she moved to the United States and is undergoing habilitation at the Faculty of History at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv on the topic, “The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sovereign Ukraine: Transformation Processes.” 

Since 2016, Kuryliak has been teaching Protestant history, the history of Adventism in the USSR during the period of independent Ukraine (after 1991), and the history of Protestantism in Europe. She is chair of the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Church History at the Ukrainian Institute of Arts and Sciences, Ukraine. Her research interests include Protestantism and its development in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the history of religion, and religious identity in the history of Ukrainian Protestantism.

In this interview with Ukranian journalist Hnat Mierienkov, Kuryliak discusses the complexity of researching the history of Protestantism in Ukraine—a religious minority that for most of Ukraine’s existence as part of atheistic USSR suffered totalitarian oppression, only gaining true religious freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence. She discusses modern writing on Protestant history—including Adventism—after Ukranian independence, and the challenges facing religious historians during the war between Russia and Ukraine. Importantly, she notes Protestant historians in Ukraine must fight for their right to choose a topic of interest, for the opportunity to conduct research based on a limited range of sources on a chosen topic, and for the right to publish articles on the history of Protestantism or participation in a scientific conference.

The interview has been minimally edited for length and clarity.

Hnat: Why did you choose the study of church history, in particular the history of Protestantism, as your professional specialization?

Valentyna: The answer can be divided into three parts. First, Protestantism—in particular Adventism—includes denominations that I have encountered since childhood, and I can say that I know them from the inside. Half of my family are Seventh-day Adventists, the other half are Pentecostal, and the friends I grew up with were Baptist. That is, the three main Protestant denominations that are common in Ukraine are familiar to me from personal experience. 

Second, my first profession was technical sciences, in which I received bachelor’s and master’s degrees and defended my doctoral dissertation. In Ukraine, since Soviet times, there has been an opinion that the humanities are not as important as the exact sciences, which is probably why I first chose the specialty “Shipbuilding Technology”. However, over time, despite my success in technology, I realized that my interest lies in history. So again, I started over. I went to study for a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree, and then for a doctorate. I realized that writing the history of religious minorities like Protestants in Ukraine is also honorable and requires not only the courage to be a pioneer, but also the patience to build a foundation for future generations of Ukrainian historians. 

Third, there is a famous Slavic proverb: “Appetite comes with eating,” which means that the desire to do something grows during the process. That’s exactly how it worked for me. At first, it was a hobby, then it turned into deep enthusiasm, and eventually it became my profession and the meaning of my life.

Hnat: What scientific projects have you implemented in the field of “History of Protestantism”? What papers and research have you published?

Valentyna: Very powerful projects were organized in 2017, when Europe, and with it Ukraine, celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Ukrainian Protestants had the opportunity to present themselves at the state level at various scientific conferences. Thanks to this, in 2017, I took part in two conferences as a co-organizer: the international scholarly conference “Reformation as a Social Phenomenon: Ukrainian Dimension” (Lviv, 2017), and the international scholarly conference, “Reformation and the Spread of Protestantism in Volyn” (Lutsk, 2017).

I directed two projects. The first was “Protestantism in Ukraine. Volyn,” a collection of articles, IFC “Christian Life,” Lutsk, 2017 (a popular scholarly publication dedicated to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation). The second was “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ukraine,” a three-volume history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ukraine from 1886 to 2022 (a scientific publication for institutions of higher education in Ukraine).

I became deputy director of the Ukrainian Scientific Society named after Teofil Babienko (UNTV registered in February 2018, Lviv). The society is named after the first ordained Adventist pastor in Ukraine, Teofil Babienko.

Based on the results of each conference, scientific collections were published, and my scholarly report was presented in each of them.

In 2018, for the first time in Ukraine’s history, I organized a conference dedicated to the history of Adventism, sponsored by the Ukrainian Institute of Arts and Sciences. More than 40 professional historians of religion were guests and speakers at the conference. In particular, at my invitation, a researcher from Andrews University, professor Denis Kaiser, attended the conference.

In 2019, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ukraine provided a grant of 500,000 UAH ($15,000) to write the first academic history of Adventists in Ukraine.

For the first time, a group of Ukrainian Protestants took part in a state conference dedicated to the history of the church: “State and Church in the New and Contemporary History of Ukraine,” at Poltava.

In 2020, I became an expert at the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance in Ukraine in the specialties of history and archaeology, theology, and religious studies. In the same year, I founded a journal on the history of Protestantism called Graphe (issued twice a year).

In 2021, I organized a special issue of articles dedicated to the history of Protestantism in Ukraine in the journal Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe (OPREE), of which I am a guest editor. The title of the issue was “On Intentions and Facts: Ukrainian Protestants Are Striving for Public Recognition.”

Two books were also published. The first volume of the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and my monograph on the history of the healthy lifestyle of Adventists in the famous publishing house in Ukraine, “Spirit and Letter.”

In 2023, I acted as guest editor of a special issue entitled Twelve Articles on Religion and Wars in Ukraine and Vicinity Since the Beginning of the Twentieth Century in the journal Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe (OPREE), dedicated to Christian denominations in Ukraine. This issue focused on difficult periods in the history of Ukraine—namely, three wars, two that took place in the twentieth century, and the third that began in 2014 and has been in its active phase since February 24, 2022.

In 2023, I defended my doctoral dissertation “Theology of Healthy Lifestyles. The Doctrine and Practice of the Seventh-day Adventist Church” at the University of Münster (Germany). Also, I was invited as one of the main speakers in the IX All-Ukrainian scholarly conference “State and Church in the New and Contemporary History of Ukraine.” My presentation was titled “The Issue of Military and Alternative Service for Believers of the SDA Church after February 24, 2022.”

At the moment, I have about 50 articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Hnat: Tell us more about your doctoral dissertation on the history of the Adventist Church in Ukraine. What is its scholarly value?

Valentyna: The topic of my dissertation was “The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sovereign Ukraine: Transformation Processes.” This topic covers the last 30 years, starting in 1991. I focused on the key activities of Adventists in their interaction with the state, society and other religious communities. I analyzed the problem of Adventists’ understanding of politics using the example of Adventists’ attitude to the events of Euromaidan and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. I also explored the problems of Adventist military and alternative service before and after the start of the large-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. I highlighted the volunteer and humanitarian work of Adventists. I also focused on changes in the relationship between the state and the church in the process of cooperation. This includes church and society, church and state, church and mass media, church and charitable activities.

Hnat: What are the issues that accompany writing the history of Protestants in Ukraine?

Valentyna: Initially Protestantism was not the native religion of most Ukrainians. Ukrainian historical scholarship during the Soviet Union was under strict ideological censorship. Although the situation has changed since Ukraine gained independence, over the past 30 years topics about Protestants are still not in high scholarly demand since many of these denominations are small compared to Orthodoxy. Historians with Soviet roots, even today, are wary of graduate students choosing Protestantism as a subject of study. In many cases, I believe this is due to Soviet methods of external censorship, which when mentally ingrained became part of the self-censorship of religious researchers. During the period of Ukrainian independence, the situation improved thanks to newly-created Protestant educational institutions, which made it possible for researchers to choose scholarly topics that would illuminate their own denominations’ histories. From the walls of Protestant educational institutions, intellectuals emerged who fought for the right to be historians of their confession.

Hnat: In your publications, you have repeatedly stated that apologetic sayings are constantly present among Protestant historians of Ukraine’s period of independence. That is, researchers tend to defend themselves and their views from attack…

Valentyna: Some Protestant historians still have an inferiority complex. They feel the topics they have chosen are not serious scholarly research, that they are not as relevant and interesting to the scholarly community as are protected subjects, for example, Orthodox topics. The parents of modern Protestant intellectuals have been persecuted for their views, and the fear of inferiority is reflected in their children, who on the one hand are ready to accept challenges and explore topics less familiar to Ukrainian religious studies and history, but who on the other hand exhibit fear and uncertainty in many research works. This is evident in that, to strengthen their scholarly conclusions, many reputable Protestants prefer to use the opinions of researchers who are not Protestants, but have spoken positively about them. This in my opinion shows that feelings of inferiority still haunt the post-Soviet generation, forcing Protestant scholars to use the authority of non-Protestant researchers to prove their scientific worth.

Hnat: Why in independent Ukraine, except for Protestants, do few researchers choose topics related to the history of Protestantism? 

Valentyna: There are a number of objective and subjective factors here. Specifically in history, we consider few scholarly sources to be objective, especially if the topic is of a narrow nature—for instance, historiography on the topic “politics and Protestantism” during the period of independence. It is not only limited, but also often contradictory. The famous Protestant politician Alexander Turchinov received the nickname “bloody pastor,” demonstrating that society perceives Protestant history, in many cases, with a certain irony and frivolity. It should be said that since 2013, the situation has changed in many ways. At least the fear that Protestants are some kind of dangerous sect has disappeared in society and the media. 

The next factor is a banal lack of research interest in what is not widespread in society. Protestants in Ukraine constitute only from 1 1/2 to 4 percent of the population. The first number is closer to reality. And those who choose rare topics from time to time face scientific bullying—others try to convince them that such a topic will be more difficult to defend. However, researchers with fairly authoritative scientific supervisors may be in more advantageous situations. Or those who choose topics that have a broad historiographical base. 

Subjective factors include the futility of such topics in a future scientific career, especially at the time of employment. Even those who defended their studies on Protestantism are forced to change their scientific interests when they get jobs at departments that predominantly study the Orthodox religion widespread in Eastern Europe. The prestige of the research topic also plays an important role. The demand for researchers of Protestantism in Ukraine in general is significantly lower, and the investment of effort in this area, as a rule, is based solely on the researcher’s own motivation.

Hnat: You have spoken out about a number of problems, but does the status of a Protestant historian have any privileges?

Valentyna: [Protestant historians are pioneers] in this niche. Despite the challenges in this area of research, I will still note that those who take this path pave the way for their successors. I am the first historian in Ukraine to choose to study Adventism during the period of independence of Ukraine. Thanks to this, other researchers who followed me were not afraid to choose similar topics on which doctoral dissertations are now being written. For example, my students Alena Bilyk (“Ukrainian Adventism during the Russian military invasion-2022: media aspect”); Bohdan Shumchuk (“Theology of love, marriage and family of the Seventh-day Adventist Church”); Taras Melnik (“History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Cherkasy region”); Anatoly Tershak (“History of Adventism in Transcarpathia”). These and other scholars chose the history of Ukrainian Protestantism as their research topic. And in their works they often refer to my articles, which laid the foundation for further scholarly research.

Hnat: What projects are you working on now?

Valentyna: I am completing the third volume of the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (the period of independent Ukraine). This 800-page manuscript marks the first ever presentation of Adventism’s growth in post-Soviet Ukraine under conditions of freedom and democracy. It will also tell the stories of Protestant women in the USSR and post-Soviet countries, since Western society does not fully understand that women’s leadership in democratic Western countries and Eastern European countries is significantly different. 

Hnat: What do you hope to see in the “History of Protestantism” as an academic pursuit?

Valentyna: I sincerely believe the time will come when the history of religious minorities in Eastern Europe will generate numerous scholarly works and become a full-fledged part of the larger history of religion in Ukraine.

About the authors

Hnat Mierienkov

Hnat Mierienkov is a Ukranian journalist. More from Hnat Mierienkov.
Valentyna Kuryliak

Valentyna Kuryliak

Valentyna Kuryliak is a Ukrainian historian and researcher of Protestantism from Zeleni Koshary in Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region. She is chair of the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Church History at the Ukrainian Institute of Arts and Sciences, Ukraine. More from Valentyna Kuryliak.
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