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Defining Ukraine

A reflection on Ukraine: a country in the process of being.

In a grand, neo-classical gallery in Moscow’s Kremlin, I stood gaping at be-jeweled icons, chalices, crosses and other liturgical objects. “All of these were ours,” murmured Sophia, our Ukrainian-American guide. “Ukrainians created them – Russians stole them.”

Like many sons and daughters of immigrants, Sophia is devoted to her roots – and biased. Her remark denied Russia as a legitimate creator and keeper of the spiritual works of art that hung in the Kremlin’s Armory.

Throughout my January trip to Poland, Ukraine and Russia, I encountered many human beings whose pride shaded truth; whose opinions sharply divided brother from brother. Unlike many western tourists to these countries, I was aware that a fine line separated fact from myth. My Ukrainian encounters bolstered my belief that history, more than any other discipline, reflects the opinions and personalities of those who create it.

Ukraine is a fascinating country that, like the United States, is in a period of process – the process of definition. Like Italy, Ukraine is a geographical expression – literally, hinterland. This territory was the hinterland of the Scandinavian, Slav, Byzantine, Mongol, Polish, German and Russian empires. Unlike her powerful sister Russia, which yearns to rediscover a past that may or may not have existed, Ukraine aspires for a sense of self – a culture and people independent of Russia and the West.

The heart of these Ukrainian aspirations is Lviv, a city of 800,000 people in western Ukraine. Since its founding in 1256, Lviv has been called: Lvov (Russian), when the Soviets absorbed it in 1946; Lwow, when this city was a part of Poland; and Lemberg (German), when the city was a jewel of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The center of Lviv is dominated, not by a medieval fortress with castle and cathedral, but a large tree-lined square anchored by an opera house. Lviv’s cobblestone streets are lined with excellent examples of Renaissance, Baroque, neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture, and its squares are governed by 19th century statues.

However these signs of sophisticated affluence are deceiving. Scaffolds flank the facades of many buildings – to protect pedestrians from falling debris. Most of the city’s architectural monuments are in dire need of repair. And once a visitor passes through the thresholds, he enters a destitute world – the legacy of Lviv’s communist past.

On a mild day in mid-January, I went from one store to another, eager to mingle with the locals (my clothes gave me away instantly), searching in vain for a traditional hand-embroidered linen towel. Instead I found empty shelves, filthy walls and dim lights. Outside old women peddled dried mushrooms, fried dough and even used domestic items not available in the stores.

Altogether it was most depressing – the exuberant architecture that surrounded us oppressed us. Lviv’s prosperity was peeling away, exposing the failures of the Marxist ideal.

It was with relief that we left Lviv one afternoon for the village of Hrushiv, the site of a purported Marian apparition. At first I declined, but a drive in the country and an opportunity to meet “real” people seemed promising. So I went.

Roman, our driver, took our tour bus through roads, fields and villages that have not changed since Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev described them more than 100 years ago. Rich black soil disclosed Ukraine’s abundant natural resources; the small wooden homes of peasants, many decorated with intricately carved designs, revealed the artistic skills of the otherwise impoverished inhabitants.

As the bus approached the village, I could see from my mud-splattered window the outline of a simple wooden church with a lead-covered dome.

When our bus pulled up in front of the church, a crowd of villagers gathered around it. Although we were three hours late, many of them waited. Since they were as curious as I, our questions were undoubtedly the same: “What do they look like? What do they wear? Are they friendly or are they reserved?”

We were quickly ushered into the small shrine by Father Zenoviy Maykut, a solid, commanding Catholic priest who had been trained at the Orthodox theological school in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). The priest proudly showed us the baroque iconostasis and the many paintings that covered the walls of this simple structure. Incidentally the hand-embroidered towels that I searched for in vain in Lviv adorned every icon and painting. He then introduced us to the visionary, a fair 16-year-old embarrassed by the attention that was given her.

Then Father Maykut, with Sophia interpreting, spoke of the miraculous origins of this shrine: how an icon was found in a tree that stood next to a well, a well that provided safe drinking water during a typhus epidemic more than 300 years ago. As he spoke the villagers, who now packed the church, wept visibly. Their ancestors, he continued, built a chapel over the miraculous well, which was later replaced in 1715 by a church dedicated to St. Michael.

He then asked Maria to describe what she saw one Sunday morning in 1987. She quietly, but reluctantly, recalled seeing a shadow, a lady dressed in black, standing on the balcony of the church. She immediately knew who it was. “Who else,” she asked, “would be on the balcony of a locked church?” The church, the home of a Greek Catholic community, had been shut down by the communists when the Ukrainian Catholic Church had been liquidated by Stalin in 1946.

Sophia urged Maria to describe more of what she saw – evidently our faces betrayed our dissatisfaction. She sensed our skepticism and withdrew further. The villagers were not satisfied either. One woman, Tatiana Feodorvivna, scolded the girl and proceeded to discuss the event herself.

“Priests from all over came to our church to pray,” Tatiana said aggressively. “I had the keys to the church and I let them in after dark. Then a man from the KGB in Lviv came to me and demanded the keys to the church. I refused. He tried to force his way in my home and I cursed him. I told him that within a year he would be dead. Sure enough, he was killed in a car accident three days later.”

The congregation shook their heads gravely and murmured in agreement as Tatiana addressed us. Father Maykut smiled occasionally, abdicating his role as leader. She was without a doubt the leader and hero of the community.

What is important here is not whether the Virgin Mary appeared, but the intimate relationship between the divine and the temporal. Here, in an impoverished Ukrainian village, the links between the Creator and the created were never severed. Invaded, occupied, persecuted and killed by legions from both East and West, these simple villagers tenaciously clung to their links with God.

Ukraine cannot be defined; to define this nation and this people would deny its evolution from hinterland to nation. And unbeknownst to the West, it is the faith and traditions of the Ukrainians that have enabled them to survive empire and all that creates it.

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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