Kyiv has been a major eastern center of Christianity since Prince Vladimir, allegedly, baptized Kyivan Rus in 988. Despite 70 years of state-enforced atheistic communism, recent polling found that 85 percent of Ukrainians identify as Christian, with the number of those self-identifying as members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has increased from 34 percent to 54 percent between 2022 and 2023, with vibrant minority religious communities, such as Judaism and Islam, which have existed in Ukraine for centuries.


Like other European countries, up-start religions and new religious movements have also appeared on the scene since the collapse of communism in 1991. However, one Latin American New Religious Movement has reached Kyiv that perhaps few would expect: The cult of Santa Muerte – Holy Death.



Santa Muerte, which arose in Spanish Colonial era Mexico, having been mentioned during the Catholic Inquisition of 1793, is now in Ukraine, too. Dr. Andrew Chesnut of Virginia Commonwealth University, probably the foremost expert on Santa Muerte, says that the Mexican folk saint depicted as a female skeleton, from whom her devotees seek protection and favors, is the fastest-growing new religious movement in the world.


The skeleton saint went off the historical grid until the 1940s when American anthropologists “re-discovered her,” in Mexico. It became known to the larger American audience due to the television series Breaking Bad, as an object of devotion for Mexican drug cartels.


Despite the bad rap of being associated with cartels, Ukrainian followers express that they are more drawn to it because of the power the figure allegedly to not do the nefarious, but rather good things.


Andrew Shelukhin, a devotee from Kharkiv, says that his devotion is personal, and how people adore the saint varies from person to person. However he rejects a violent connection to the holy skeleton, saying she “is not responsible for war, violence and so on.



“But... in my appeals and prayers, of course, I asked for peace, life and development of Ukraine. As an integral, democratic state: What Russia is doing, as well as all authoritarian regimes, is not acceptable in the 21st century.”


Ukraine’s rising devotion seems to be a regional trend as Poland has an increasing number of Santa Muerte followers, says Chesnut, noting that his recent book, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, came out with a Polish edition to meet the high demand in knowing more about her.


Dr. Andrew Chesnut


Global devotion to her, something which he has documented in his Facebook group dedicated to the boney saint, has clearly increased as devotees share pictures of their own shrines to her.


Shelukhin, who runs a Ukrainian Facebook page about Santa Muerte devotion, believes that the New Religious Movement has brought good to his life, as it has for others, who seek her assistance with “money, love, protection from evil and enemies, etc,” noting that she is “very fond of children,” and “helps the destitute.”



Her generosity is because she “protects everyone who comes to Her with a pure and open heart,” regardless of “nationality, religion, what social group you belong to, what country you live in.”


The large number of Facebook pages focused on Santa Muerte seems to be no coincidence, says the professor, as Santa Muerte “made her way to Europe via social media, especially Facebook and Instagram. Her public outing in the rough and tumble barrio of Tepito in Mexico City in 2001 coincides with the meteoric rise of social media so millions of Europeans became acquainted with the skeleton saint via posts on Insta, Facebook and now TikTok.”


How big is Santa Muerte in Ukraine? Neither Chesnut nor Shelukhin knew the precise number of followers, however Chesnut says that most followers of the religious movement have appeared in the past twenty years – which corresponds to the rise of social media.


Interestingly, both Shelukhin and Chesnut say that many followers maintain other religious beliefs while also adopting some additional devotion to Santa Muerte. Chesnut says that he has found that “European devotees are less anchored in Catholic religiosity than Mexican devotees who still mostly consider themselves Catholic.”



Though perhaps a gimmick of marketing rather than as a sign of devotion, secondary evidence would indicate that the Mexican skeleton saint has become more well-known in Ukraine: Kyiv and Odesa both have had cafes named Santa Muerte; an online search for goods and literature on her is available in Ukrainian and Russian; and there was a recent [in 2019 – ed.] Santa Muerte Carnaval in Kyiv.


So, what could a Ukrainian follower of the “Pretty Lady,” a moniker for Santa Muerte, hope that she would do for them given the current circumstances?


Chesnut hypothesizes the same as what most of Ukraine prays for “protection from the Russian invaders as well as for [Santa Muerte] to reap their souls on the battlefield.”

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter