Fighting for the soul of Ukraine

The demonstrations across Ukraine between November and February were not just about European integration; they were part of the birth of a spiritual-political movement, writes Lucinda Borkett-jones 

‘They threw incendiary grenades which burned one tent after another. The chapel tent burned down before my eyes,’ says Ukrainian bishop Borys Gudziak. It was 18th February this year, and he was watching from the main stage as Ukrainian Special Forces assaulted protestors in Independence Square, Kiev. Twenty-five people died in the attack.

Later that day he sat in a hospital waiting room with eight young men. All of them had been shot in the eye with rubber bullets by Special Forces acting under the authority of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Three of them had lost an eye; another two still had the bullets lodged in their eye sockets. They didn’t regret being in the square that day, but most of them were asking questions about the meaning of it all – they, like many caught up in Ukraine’s political upheaval, were spiritually searching. Throughout the protests, leaders from all denominations in Ukraine stood side by side with revolutionaries, praying for change. When protestors were asking existential questions, the Church was there to respond. Political instability has brought with it a spiritual awakening, and, surprisingly, has seemed to unify the Church. This country with a long and complex religious history has in recent months seen churches joining together to pray and serve like never before.

Snipers and Violence

On 21st November last year, demonstrators took to the streets of Kiev. They were protesting against President Yanukovych’s decision to suspend negotiations about Ukraine’s accession to the European Union. An unexpected course of events followed, resulting in the growth of a popular movement seeking freedom from institutional corruption.

Months of protest and clashes with police in public squares reached a climax on 20th February when snipers were hired – allegedly by then President Yanukovych – to target protestors in Kiev’s Independence Square. More than 80 people died over the two most violent days and hundreds were left wounded. Provoked by the violence, the state police turned their backs on the President, switching their allegiance to the people they were supposed to protect. This increased the strength of the protestors and opposition to the President intensified. The following day Yanukovych was given an ultimatum: he must leave or be forced out.

Yanukovych fled to Russia on 22nd February. The mood in Kiev was one of muted celebration, remembering those who died in the days before.

It’s possible to detect an underlying spiritual dimension to the uprising. Images of Orthodox priests standing between the police and protestors have been widespread in the international press. What hasn’t been so widely recognised is that demonstrations around the country began every day in prayer. Throughout the long winter, with temperatures dropping to 20 degrees Celsius, priests led prayer every hour throughout the night in the public squares.

Festival Atomosphere

Both the movement and the places where they gather are known as Maidan. Maidan means ‘square’ but, like the Greek word agora, it carries the sense of community, a place of gathering for debate and discussion. These city squares, found all over Ukraine, have become the natural home of the movement.

Across the country, people are now living in these squares. In Kiev, 5-10,000 people were living in Independence Square in March and millions more have visited. Those who kept away during the violence are now coming to pay their respects, lay flowers and experience the unique atmosphere.

Alison Giblett, who works for CMS in Kiev, describes the atmosphere as being like a permanent music festival. ‘Like with the Orange Revolution – it was entirely safe [apart from the government violence]. Generally it’s been more like an open-air concert with people milling around. A lot of people provided food and clothes throughout the winter and that has helped to keep the atmosphere positive.’

‘Maidan is a city within a city – with medical services, counselling, even a Maidan university with books,’ says Bishop Borys, who is president of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and a bishop in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. ‘There’s Maidan artwork and newspapers, music, poetry. And there’s a Maidan religious life; priests and pastors of all the churches have been pastorally present.’

The demonstrations, though largely peaceful, have come at a price. The Special Forces attacks started in December. In January it appeared that the state had equipped delinquents with bats to beat protestors, and then on 20th February, snipers opened fire on the Maidan.

Among those killed that day was Bohdan Solchanyk, Bishop Borys’ colleague and a lecturer at the university. One parliamentarian described the snipers as playing a kind of cruel game with the crowd – first shooting some demonstrators in the eye, and then killing those who came to their aid. ‘In the heart of Europe, in the Ukrainian capital, on its central square in broad daylight with numerous international TV transmissions showing these events live, at the command of a president, Special Forces were mowing down unarmed people,’ says Bishop Borys.

Shadows of Stalin

The current crisis is deeply affected by Ukraine’s Soviet past. Millions of Ukrainians died of starvation under Stalin’s control in the 1930s. ‘Political aspiration was suppressed in Soviet times; a culture of fear entered into the DNA,’ says Bishop Borys. ‘Maidan is fundamentally an enduring, arduous pilgrimage from fear to dignity, celebrating God-given human dignity.’

This struggle has seen many setbacks. The abduction of a Greek Catholic priest, Father Mykola Kvych, in Crimea on 15th March was another harsh reminder of the past. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was persecuted under Soviet occupation, with many priests dying for their faith. In 1945 all of its bishops were arrested, and from 1946 to 1989 it was the largest illegal Church in the world. Father Kvych, a naval chaplain in Crimea, has since been released but was forced to leave Crimea for mainland Ukraine.

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has been beset by systemic corruption. The Orange Revolution in 2004 was a response to allegations of corruption in the presidential election between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko. When Yanukovych eventually became President in 2010, he was fiercely loyal to President Putin – at times putting relations with Russia ahead of those with the rest of Europe. Maidan knows that more needs to be done this time.

‘[Maidian] doesn’t want to repeat the Orange Revolution – where the protestors beat back the falsifiers of the election then stepped back when the opposition politicians assumed position,’ says Bishop Borys. ‘Today the Maidan is not going to let that happen. It isn’t dispersing. It will continue to monitor political officials; it will protest if they do not maintain ethical positions.’

Focus has now shifted from Kiev to the Russian intervention in Crimea and the military build-up along the Russian border. The mood in Kiev has also shifted, and a sense of disillusionment hangs in the air.

‘People are angry,’ says Giblett. ‘A lot of effort was put into the revolution and people were very pleased that it did produce the results that they were hoping for, but there’s now quite a lot of despair and disillusionment that the situation has turned worse. The country seems to be splitting and Ukrainians don’t want that.’

The Church Galvinised

Perhaps because of its history, Maidan is not just a revolutionary movement. There has been much soul searching; there is a sense that this could be a unique opportunity for Ukraine to decide what it believes in.

Most Ukrainians describe themselves as Christian. There are three main forms of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine, as well as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and a number of evangelical and Pentecostal fellowships.

The revolution has galvanised the Church in Ukraine like never before. Throughout the past few months the Church has taken a united stance against Russian intervention. ‘Never has the cooperation been so close,’ says Bishop Borys. ‘[The churches] have enunciated four principles. First, that the government and the President cannot ignore the people. Second, there should be no violence, particularly on the part of the government. Third, the rhetoric and activity to divide the country should be stopped. And fourth, we believe that dialogue is the only way out.’

‘There’s certainly been a spiritual awakening in Ukraine as a result of this,’ says Clay Quaterman, president of the Evangelical Reformed Seminary in Kiev. ‘What began as a political thing, a desire for connection with Europe, became a struggle for freedom against a dictator, and then the people were united in that.’

‘Before [the revolution] we were separated,’ says Volodymyr Brychuk of Mission Without Borders. ‘But since the Maidan started, we see this unique unity of denominations especially in prayer; we see these nightly vigils where representatives of the different nations have come together.’

Brychuk is one of the pastors of a Baptist church in Rivne (in north-west Ukraine) that has been part of a prayer chain, joining with churches across the country taking it in turns to pray around clock. In their prayers, 2 Chronicles 7:14 has become a significant verse for them as they ask God to heal their land.

‘People weren’t just buoyed along by an easy life’, says Quaterman. ‘As we struggle and have difficulties we turn to the Lord, looking for help. As these people were seeing some of their compatriots killed in the conflict, they realised just how serious was the nature of the thing, and the need for God’s guidance and protection.’

Quaterman recalls seeing all those gathered in the square in Kiev chanting Jesus’ name. ‘Priests and other religious leaders were leading the people in the Lord’s Prayer, and after the prayer they said “Praise to Ukraine”, and the people responded. And then [the priests] said “Praise to Jesus Christ”, and people hesitated for moment, but then they said “Praise to Jesus Christ” and that became a chant as well. People realised that their struggle was also a spiritual struggle. There has been something of an unexpected religious turning back, as people realised how dire their circumstance was.’

Unsurprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has publicly backed Putin. Indeed, Archbishop Mark of the Berlin, Germany and Great Britain dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church says, ‘The Russian Orthodox Church cannot speak of any “intervention” because there is no such thing. The Church regrets that so much hatred and prejudice has been spread on both sides and it calls upon all faithful not to let themselves be guided by hatred or prejudice towards others.’

The emphasis on peace, largely overlooking Russian activity in Ukraine, has been the consistent message from the Russian Church. When Kirill, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, sent a letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine saying that the Church should encourage peace, it was rejected.

But close ties between the Church and politics in Moscow are not a new phenomenon. ‘We’ve seen the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia standing closer and closer to the Kremlin; I think they have become an unholy alliance,’ says Quaterman. ‘They have a territorial view of the Church – there being only one Orthodox Church in each area, and therefore can be expected to support the work [of the government] and other groups would be persecuted.’

Meanwhile the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Moscow has joined with the other Ukrainian churches in condemning Russian intervention. Indeed there is now talk of the Ukrainian Church under muscovite leadership joining with the Church under Kievan leadership – thereby uniting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and making a clear break from Russia. However, Archbishop Mark strongly denies this possibility: ‘There is no way that the canonical branch of the Russian Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, might merge with a totally uncanonical group which calls itself the Kievan Patriarchate.’

Russia, Crimea and the East

Many commentators now fear that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is the start of a creep into much of eastern Ukraine, where there is a much larger Russian population than in the rest of Ukraine. There is of course the danger that we in the West are blind to Crimea’s desire to have closer ties with Russia. But what do those in eastern Ukraine want?

Ukraine’s relationship with Russia is complex. The two countries are on the brink of war despite having a filial kind of relationship. ‘The people in Russia don’t want war in Ukraine,’ says Pavel Unguryan, a former Ukrainian MP a leader in the Ukrainian Baptist Union.

But Putin’s propaganda machine has been incredibly successful. Maidan was described as a movement of fascists, anti-Semites and right-wing extremists, despite receiving substantial support from the Jewish community.

The Kremlin also claims that ethnic Russians are at risk in Ukraine – a major argument used to justify events in Crimea. Within this picture, Russian soldiers are portrayed as freedom fighters. ‘This is big lie because there hasn’t been a single case of Russians being attacked in Ukraine,’ says Brychuk. ‘We view them [the Russian people] as our brothers. But the Kremlin, the political officials in Russia – it’s another story.’

On the Ukrainian side of the border, there are concerns that the abduction of the Greek Catholic priest in Crimea was a sign of future difficulties for religious groups on the peninsular. ‘We hope, we pray for religious peace, because Crimea is a very explosive region because there are big Orthodox communities, Muslim communities and evangelical communities. We hope the new Crimean power will not start to persecute people, but in the last few days, problems started.’

Unguryan lives in Odessa, in south-east Ukraine. He says many in Odessa fear Crimea will become like neighbouring Transnistria, a disputed territory that was once part of Moldova and which also has a Russian military presence. ‘For people in Odessa [Transnistria] helps us understand what can be happening with Crimea because we have a good example there – the economy is low, level of life is very bad, many are very poor. I think Crimea will be like that.’

For some among the older generation, particularly Communist Party supporters, memories of the Soviet past aren’t all negative. ‘The older population still think about the Soviet Union; a lot of them are sorry that the Soviet Union fell apart,’ says Brychuk. ‘In these 20 years [of independence] we have seen a lot of injustice. A lot of the older population when they see this disorder, they remember about some kind of order, especially during the last 20-30 years of the Soviet times, and they want it back. And some say that the Russian President wants to restore the Soviet Union in a certain way, that’s why he wants to gather the historical Russian lands into one country.’

Although Maidan has a large following across a broad demographic, there are differences of opinion within Ukraine. Among these, the language difference between east and west Ukraine has become particularly symbolic. Having given priority to the Ukrainian language since independence, some in the Russian-speaking regions feel disenfranchised. It is also possible that listening to Russian news will influence their political views.

So would east Ukraine want to be part of Russia? ‘There have been mistakes in the past about the way the Russian population [in Ukraine] has been treated,’ says Giblett. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they would welcome the return of Russian control. Quarterman agrees: ‘I lived in the east for 19 years and they didn’t want to be politically part of Russia, they love Ukraine.’

‘They want to have Russian language in their private life, but they don’t want to be in the Russian federation,’ says Unguryan. ‘Most of the people [who] speak Russian want to see how the government in Kiev will honour their rights. I think this is the number one question for the new government – how we can unite and also develop the country.’ There have been popular gestures of solidarity between east and west. In Lviv in north-west Ukraine, people made a commitment to speak Russian for a day. Meanwhile those in Odessa spoke Ukrainian for the day.

The Future

It is natural for a state experiencing such political turmoil to question prevailing attitudes and systems. But while discussions of ideology may sound high-minded, there will need to be a very practical application if Ukraine is going to see lasting change. Beyond seeking political change, the Church has an opportunity to respond to the spiritual awakening that these events have caused, and to pray together with fresh unity for God to heal their land.

‘Ukraine does feel like it is in the middle,’ says Giblett. ‘It’s trying to chart a course that isn’t under Russia and also isn’t influenced by the humanism of Europe.’

‘This is the role of the Church now, to send this message to the people: corrupt systems cannot be crashed or collapsed if the people don’t want to change their life, their private life, their responsibility before God and before their country,’ says Unguryan. ‘If the people just want to see European economic values, and social standards, but they don’t want to change spiritual standards and faith in Jesus then it will be a tragedy.’

In the meantime, popular demonstrations have given way to fears about Russian military intervention. ‘Many people say that only the Russian President knows what awaits Ukraine,’ says Brychuk – and second-guessing President Putin is no easy task. 



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