From the front lines, a bishop describes the uprising in Ukraine
by Borys Gudziak
Events are moving rapidly in Ukraine. The Ukrainian nation has matured considerably in the last half year, leaving behind entrenched fear and moving toward claiming its God-given dignity. Journalists covering the recent events in Ukraine who focus on the East-West politics often miss this feature of the Ukrainian revolution: The movement that has mobilized millions has at its foundation the fundamental desire for people to live in dignity, claiming it and protecting it, even at the ultimate price: one’s own life.
This “Maidan movement” — which began in November 2013 in the center of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev as a drive to support an agreement with the European Union — took on a new meaning. Borrowed from Arabic, the Ukrainian word maidan means much more than “square.” Rather, maidan is akin to agora in ancient Greek — a place of encounter, discussion and community decision-making. Together, Ukrainians gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) grasping for something transcendental — in fact, for something fundamentally spiritual.
Youth and students; the dispossessed; the middle class; city dwellers and villagers; Orthodox Christians, Greek and Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims; and a broad range of civic institutions all came together and said: “Enough! All must be equal before the law. Corruption needs to be overcome. Violence by the government cannot be tolerated!” This was done fearlessly.
The freedom from fear could be seen in the eyes of the young men in ski helmets holding wooden shields who ran into a shower of snipers’ bullets this past 20 February. More than a thousand were injured and a hundred killed. These martyrs — publicly acclaimed as the “Heavenly Hundred” — are a moving symbol of the shift from fear to dignity in today’s Ukraine and how a manifestation of the human spirit ultimately became a revolution of democratic principles.
Many things remain unforgettable from those early days in the Maidan: the regular ecumenical prayer services; the tented chapel; the order and organization of the square; the radiant faces of committed volunteers and activists; the well-coordinated distribution of medical care, food and clothing and the psychological services; the disciplined self-defense security personnel; and the creative programs of music, theater and poetry. The “University of the Maidan,” as observers coined those days on the square, even accumulated a library of 2,500 books. Yet, the most moving images remain of those demonstrators at prayer and of the protestors that gave their lives for the freedom and dignity of all Ukrainians.
I remember visiting eight young protesters in the ophthalmological unit of a Kiev hospital. In January and February, many on the Maidan lost their eyesight; the riot police had aimed the rubber bullets of their weapons at the protesters’ eyes. The patients were not complaining about their sacrifice. They only wanted justice for their nation.
The most heart-wrenching images are connected with the funeral of our Ukrainian Catholic University history lecturer, Bohdan Solchanyk, who was gunned down on 20 February. He had told his fiancée, Marichka, a graduate of the university, that he wanted to marry her in a “new Ukraine.”
“But the birth of a new Ukraine would require sacrifice,” he said.
Every night I think of Bohdan and of the other young people — students, intellectuals, young fathers — whose heads and hearts were perforated by bullets fired from snipers’ high-powered rifles. It is hard to fall asleep. They gave their lives in order that their fellow citizens may live in a just society. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reminds us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Back in France, where I serve the Ukrainian Greek Catholic community (as well as Ukrainian Greek Catholics living in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland), I am often asked about the active participation of the churches in the Maidan movement. This has surprised some in the secularized West and needs more explanation.
For centuries, the lands that today make up Ukraine were under various foreign powers, e.g., Austria, Hungary, Poland and Imperial Russia. Throughout these centuries of statelessness, the church has been a singular thread of historic continuity and a refuge of dignity for the Ukrainian soul.
Assuming power in late 1917, the revolutionary Lenin mandated a war of terror against the church. During the first weeks of the Bolshevik presence in the Ukraine in February 1918, revolutionary soldiers captured the Orthodox metropolitan of Kiev, Vladimir Bogoyavlensky, executed him and mutilated his corpse. The Orthodox Church, which in the last years of the Imperial Russian Empire had some 100 bishops, was reduced to four active hierarchs within two decades. It was brought to its knees — tens of thousands of bishops, priests, monks and sisters were executed, as were hundreds of thousands of lay martyrs and confessors of the faith.
All religious communities in Soviet Ukraine were persecuted. In 1946, after the Soviet Union absorbed parts of western Ukraine formerly under Polish control but occupied by the Nazis during World War II, Stalin outlawed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, driving its members underground. For the next 43 years, it was the largest illegal religious body in the world and the largest opposition group across the Soviet Union.
Outlawed, mercilessly hounded and driven into the catacombs, Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church emerged from the underground as the Soviet Union unraveled with unique moral authority. With its history of swimming against the current and surviving, its strong leadership throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, its broadly articulated social doctrine rooted in Catholic social teaching and with its centuries-long solidarity with the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is among the most respected institutions in Ukrainian civil society today.
Understandably, then, religious communities were involved in the Maidan movement on different levels. As institutions, churches and religious communities spoke unanimously and clearly. They urged the president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his government to listen to the people, condemned violence and division in society, insisted on dialogue and morally supported calls for justice.
That clear social voice remains a very important dimension, not only for Maidan, but also for the future of all Ukrainian churches. Already, the events of the last months have inspired significant renewal of ecumenical dialogue, especially between the Orthodox churches that are not otherwise in communion with each other. The churches stood together at the Maidan.
Particularly noteworthy was the pastoral ministry exercised by the various churches. Global news agencies posted photos of priests in their epitrachelions (Greek for stole) among the protesters, in the shelters and field hospitals located under church cupolas and leading prayers on the Maidan.
Pope Francis has said, “Pastors should have the smell of their sheep.” Ukrainian priests joined their faithful on those freezing nights. They smelled of burned tires and Maidan bonfires. Religious leaders of various communities — Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims — were on the Maidan from the first days throughout the coldest weather, under the most violent attacks. They prayed together and supported the people, even after riot police burned down the Greek Catholic tent chapel on 18 February.
I have very personal memories of this dramatic day. Early that evening, just after the murderous assault began by the government’s special forces, I was in the chapel. From there I went to the stage of the Maidan to read the statement of Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, begging the government to refrain from attacking unarmed protestors. As I stood on the stage, I watched how the chapel tent, the one I had prayed in just 25 minutes earlier, was burned down using incendiary grenades. One priest was able to rescue the chalice and the Evangeliary, the liturgical book containing the Gospels proclaimed during the liturgy.
On 20 February, the terrible Thursday of sniper fire, clergy remained on the Maidan despite the mortal danger. They comforted the injured, absolved them of their sins and said prayers over the dying and the dead.
During these months, churches in Ukraine performed the service they had provided in previous ages — protecting people physically and offering refuge from armed attack.
The historic Orthodox Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel welcomed injured students fleeing riot police. Church bells warned of attacks. A small Greek Catholic monastery church and the Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Resurrection, commonly called the sobor, first sheltered as many as 1,100 protesters at night. Later, the sobor became a hospital for the injured. Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches also served as shelters and hospitals.
There have been many conversions on the Maidan and throughout Ukraine. Days on the Maidan continue to begin with an ecumenical prayer service. During the danger of the night, prayers and the singing of the national anthem are held on the hour, every hour. Faith has helped many people endure. Religious sisters distributed thousands of rosaries. Many people learned to pray. Some of those killed were buried with their newly acquired Maidan rosaries in hand.
The last months have witnessed the birth of a new nation. The Maidan has become an important platform and instrument for regulating political life in Ukraine. The nation has matured in these months and the Maidan movement, with its focus on principles and its explicit spiritual and even Christian character, has much to offer to Europe as a whole.
Besieged Ukraine, presented by some as a trouble spot, has become a laboratory for freedom and justice in the post-Soviet world. In its approach to Europe, Ukraine comes not as a beggar with an outstretched hand, but as a carrier of a new consciousness of our common, God-given dignity and responsibility.
Ukrainians have demonstrated remarkable restraint. With the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukrainians have turned the other cheek. They have reached deep into the fonts of the Gospel. They have imitated Christ and the martyrs by sacrificing their lives.
I can testify to the graces that flow from their generosity of spirit. I trust in the Lord’s presence and work amid these long-suffering people and in their witness to the world.
“To survive, one lived carefully.”
When I first came to live in Ukraine 25 years ago, one of the first things that perplexed me was the atmosphere of fear and distrust. People did not express their opinions in public. This was even true of students in the classroom, who had difficulty working in groups. As a result, I sought to understand why Ukrainians were gripped by a fear as if it were a part of their very DNA. I looked to Ukrainian history.
In the 20th century alone, more than 17 million people are estimated to have died violently on Ukrainian soil. World wars framed the consistent oppression of Ukrainian politicians, civic leaders, intellectuals and artists. The famines of 1932-33, chiefly caused over the collectivization of private agriculture under Stalin, cost the lives of millions. The great terror of the late 1930’s and the rise of the Gulag system silenced prominent citizens and crippled the officer corps. The Nazi German invasion, occupation and Holocaust, and the protracted fighting that followed; the Soviet deportation of almost all Crimean Tatars in 1944; the ethnic cleansing along Ukraine’s western borders with the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Poles; and the forced relocation of Russians in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions all constitute a multigenerational history of terror that has entered Ukrainian consciousness, some even say in the national genome.
The fear for physical survival in Soviet Ukraine was paralleled by fear on social, spiritual and psychological levels. Ukrainians’ culture, humor, language and spirituality were variously persecuted and demeaned. From the Soviet era and even into the present, Big Brother has been watching: A high concentration of secret agents and informants, the near-limitless budget for surveillance and wiretapping — and now, the collection of metadata — have produced a deeply embedded suspicion and fear of authority.
To survive, one lived carefully. “Better to have your house at the edge of the village,” “don’t get too involved,” “initiative is punishable” and “we wanted things to work out, but they turned out as always” are familiar Ukrainian proverbs that express that fear.
In light of this context, the true significance of the Maidan movement becomes clear — it is a collective renunciation of fear and the proclamation of identity, solidarity and self-determination, virtually unprecedented in scope and recognition.
— Bishop Borys Gudziak