ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Forging Ukraine

Look East or turn West? Ukrainians answer

The events in Ukraine that culminated late last year in the “orange revolution” were not short on intrigue, behind-the-scenes foreign agitation and macabre flourishes. In the first round of presidential elections of 31 October, Viktor Yuschenko, the reformist former central banker and prime minister, received more votes than Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The forces behind Mr. Yanukovych, however, were formidable: the corrupt incumbent President Leonid Kuchma, the wealthy oligarchs that profited under his term, the government-controlled television stations – and Russia. In the run-up to the elections, Mr. Yuschenko was poisoned by dioxin, which nearly killed him.

During the second round of elections in November, the Kuchma regime rigged the vote and announced a slight Yanukovych victory. Russian President Vladimir Putin rushed to congratulate the “victor.” But Mr. Yanukovych’s victory was short-lived. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from all over the country traveled to the capital city of Kiev to protest. After Ukraine’s highest court intervened, Mr. Kuchma agreed to step down and withdraw his support for his prime minister in return for a Yuschenko pledge to reduce presidential power. On 26 December, Mr. Yuschenko won a repeat election and was installed as president soon after.

To many observers, the massive demonstrations in Kiev echoed Poland’s Solidarity movement, 20-odd years earlier, as well as the 1989 peaceful revolutions in central Europe. They took inspiration from the 2003 “rose revolution” in Georgia and gave inspiration to Lebanon’s “cedar revolution.”

But to lump these historic movements together would be a disservice to each. Recent events in Ukraine were rooted in the historic questions of Ukrainian identity and how Ukraine and Ukrainians relate to Russia and the West. Under the Soviets, this question was settled, however uneasily, by force. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, these issues resurfaced, not always quietly. With last year’s electoral crisis, tensions spilled out onto the streets.

The origins of these tensions date to the 13th-century demise of Kievan Rus’, the medieval state of the Eastern Slavs, from which descends modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. After a few centuries of independence, various parts of Kievan Rus’ fell under the control of the Mongols, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottomans, Muscovy (or Russia) and the Austro-Hungarians. In time, those Rus’ whose territory was annexed by Western European powers came to identify themselves culturally with Western Europe, while those who fell under Russia’s dominion looked culturally and linguistically to Moscow. (The Dnieper River serves as a rough line of demarcation.)

Until the events of late last year, this cultural divide was most evident in religious life. In 1596, Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop Mikhail Rohoza of Kiev led his brother bishops in signing the Union of Brest, which effectively established the region’s Greek Catholic Church. The church of Kiev accepted the primacy and authority of the Roman pontiff, but kept its distinct disciplines, privileges and liturgical traditions. This move brought the church closer to its contemporary Polish-Lithuanian rulers. But those leaders of the Kievan church living under the Russian domination rejected this union with Rome, and in 1686 rival jurisdictions were established and placed under the Moscow Patriarchate.

As the frontier of the tsarist Russian Empire stretched west, beyond the Dnieper River (Ukraine is Slavonic for “borderland,” or “frontier”), it repressed all groups who, in advocating a distinct “Ukrainian” identity, refused to conform to its Russo-centered policies. The Greek Catholic Church, centered in the then Austrian city of Lviv, actively supported the development of a distinct Ukrainian identity and was ruthlessly eliminated in those areas annexed by the Russian tsar. Greek Catholics were integrated into the Russian Orthodox Church and the use of the Ukrainian language was outlawed.

The declaration of an independent Ukraine shortly after the end of World War I – which united Lviv and western Ukraine with Kiev and eastern Ukraine – was short-lived. Immediately, Kiev was occupied by the Red Army of post-tsarist Soviet Russia while Lviv was swallowed up by a resurgent Poland.

The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly devastating times for Soviet Ukraine. Josef Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization and the consequent famine killed an estimated 6 million to 7 million Ukrainians. Another 8 million died during World War II, including about 600,000 Ukrainian Jews. (Today, there are about 100,000 Jews in Ukraine.)

The Soviets, who annexed western Ukraine after World War II, pursued the policies once enforced by the Russian tsar, suppressing the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, forcing it underground. This community only regained its legal status in 1989, under President Mikhail Gorbachev. With Ukrainian independence in 1991, Greek Catholics re-emerged as a political force. Immediately tensions surfaced between them and the Orthodox over Greek Catholic properties that the Soviet government had handed over to the Moscow Patriarchate. That same year, an independent “Kievan Patriarchate” was born out of a rejection of Moscow’s authority. Later, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church emerged as a third church seeking to win the country’s Orthodox faithful.

“There is no one way to be a Ukrainian,” said Lviv University history professor Yaroslav Hyrstak. “There are many ways – Galician, Kharkivan, Kievan, Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish. The list goes on.” Certainly, the demonstrations that swept Mr. Yuschenko into office were multiconfessional. Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant faithful participated in the orange revolution. Members of Kiev’s Brodsky Central Synagogue distributed food and clothing. Muslims from the Crimean peninsula made the trek to join the demonstrators.

But the election drama also highlighted the old schisms. Though both Mr. Yuschenko and Mr. Yanukovych are Orthodox, they drew their support from different confessional groups. Ukraine’s Catholic community, which accounts for about 13 percent of the country’s 48 million people (5 million Greek Catholics and 1 million Latin, or Roman, Catholics), supported Mr. Yuschenko and his pro-Western tilt. Meanwhile, the largest Orthodox community – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which accounts for about 25 percent of the population – supported Mr. Yanukovych, an advocate for close ties to Russia. The two Orthodox communities independent of Moscow – the larger Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church – supported Mr. Yuschenko’s presidential bid.

“The ecclesiastical authorities are not supposed to take a stand in this crisis,” Father Oleksandre Hoursky told the International Herald Tribune. But then, like many clergy involved, he went on to ignore his own advice. “The church supports good against evil, the protection of human rights and the end of any injustices, and the state abuse of power,” the Roman Catholic priest continued. “Personally, I hope Yuschenko becomes president.”

Even Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, who heads the country’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, weighed in on the crisis. “At the root of the crisis remains an immoral regime,” he said, “that has deprived Ukrainian people of their legitimate rights and dignity.”

The cardinal, Major Archbishop of Lviv, made his remarks on 6 December, the day before a meeting with Pope John Paul II, whose visit to Ukraine in June 2001 also exposed Catholic-Orthodox tensions. Meanwhile, Metropolitan Volodymr Sabodan, head of the UOC-MP, endorsed Mr. Yanukovych. Many parishioners, from both sides, said they felt pressure from clergy to vote a certain way.

One of Mr. Yuschenko’s many challenges will be to unite Ukrainians divided by religion. Obviously, his biggest challenge will be in the eastern and southern parts of the country, which have traditionally aligned themselves with Russia. In eastern Ukraine, for example, which is linguistically Russian, “the local press fanned the flames of regional separatism and painted Yuschenko and his team as ultranationalists and CIA agents,” reported the scholar Adrian Karatnycky in a recent Foreign Affairs appraisal of the orange revolution.

“I am deeply convinced, esteemed holy fathers, the path we have walked is the path along which God has led us,” said the president of the country’s recent turbulence. “We have won,” he continued, speaking of all Ukrainians. “And we had one advantage: We have tremendous faith … [and] we respect every faith.”

Matthew Matuszak, director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, contributed additional reporting.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español