By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania.
The Australian poet, Bruce Dawe, in The Not So Good Earth, provides his reader with an all too real and cynical perspective of Australians viewing major news stories from the distant comfort of their lounge rooms. In this poem we read of a family watching scenes of starvation and riots in China. The reader gets the distinct feeling that the family who are viewing these gory and horrific images do so in the same fashion as they who sit down to be entertained on a Friday evening by a Schwarzenegger film. The poem ends with the father of the family tripping over the television chord, thus ruining the ending of the ‘film’; as no one in the family then knows how the ‘show’ finished.
One of the lessons that can be taken away from Dawe’s poem is that unless an individual can understand a situation, or at least find a degree of personal association with events, all they can ever do is look at a particular scenario, as something surreal, or as mere entertainment. How could the family in The Not So Good Earth, be expected to look at China in any other light than as an action motion picture, when what they were living and experiencing, in Australia, was so estranged from these far-off events?
Understanding leads to a greater chance of empathy; and in a modern world that has become increasingly smaller due to rapid and mass communication – it is vital that we no longer plead estrangement, because we don’t ‘know’. We need to make it our responsibility to be informed. The world is not only at our doorstep – we are, and should be, a player in the world; and many who are victims of tragic world events, turn to us in increasing numbers for support, or for refuge.
The present situation in Ukraine is a potentially pyrrhic case in point. Over recent weeks Australians have seen a smattering of images from the chilly streets of Kyiv (please note the Ukrainian to English transliteration of Ukraine’s capital as distinct from the Russian, ‘Kiev’), with hundreds of thousands of protesters and police and army jostling in Independence Square and Kyiv’s snowy and icy streets; with barricades, tear gas, blue and yellow flags, and reports of death, torture and even a crucifixion, bombarding our sensibilities. But aside from ‘entertainment value’, none of this would have much effect on the average television viewer in Australia, if they do not know what is being fought for, and over. Viewers need to know the context of this battle.
Essentially the crisis in Ukraine, is, on one side, a battle for self-determination for a majority of the Ukrainian people, and on the other side, a desire amongst a certain proportion of others in Ukraine for Moscow and Russia to keep her historic hold over the fledgling independent nation. In short, the issue is one as to whether Ukraine should be independent of Russia or not.
The city of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, holds of course importance for Ukraine, but it also holds importance for Russians, who believing they conquered Kyiv, long ago, and absorbed all things Kyivian into Russian history as well, see the idea of Ukrainian independence as an ironic jest, rather than a serious political reality.
For centuries, the great majority of Ukrainian people had been enslaved by the Russians, first under the Tsars, and then under the Soviet regime. The end-product of this persecution was that the Ukrainian language and culture had been historically suppressed; a clever ploy, by those persecuting the Ukrainians, for without language and culture – national identity and the process of self-determination become tenuous at best. This linguistic suppression meant that some of the greatest minds in Ukrainian history, have had to write in Russian in order to be published, for example, the father of the ‘Russian’ novel; Myhola Hohol (Russ. Nikolai Gogol); while others yet still are termed as Russians because of the Russification of Ukrainian history, for example the philosopher, Hryhorii Skovoroda – the so-called ‘Russian Socrates’. Up until the dawn of Ukrainian independence, the Ukrainian language in Ukraine was not permitted to be spoken during the Soviet era, if one wished to obtain a government post.
Moreover, the reader should understand that religion is not the catalyst of the problem in Ukraine, but it is a key factor in how the battle has been waged, and is waging. Since the Baptism of Kyiv-Rus’ in 988 religion has been a vital factor in Ukrainian culture and politics. Skipping over many centuries to the modern era, one can say that in the western Ukrainian nation, during the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sense of self-determination grew with the greater freedom that was offered. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church became a bastion for education, cultural development and political free-thinking. The married Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy produced from within their educated families, not only future priests, but politicians, military leaders and cultural greats. For this reason when the Soviet talons pushed westward, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, became the greatest threat to Soviet Communism. The Soviets had to eradicate the Greek Catholic clergy and the lay faithful, because the Church articulated to the people not only a dream of a national identity, but constructive ways that this dream could be realized. Both monumental Greek-Catholic Church leaders of the twentieth century, Andrii Sheptyts’kyi and Iosyp Slipyj encouraged Ukrainian self-determination.
In the eastern regions of Ukraine, where the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is predominant, Russian influence was historically all pervasive, eventually forcing Ukrainian Orthodoxy under the Moscow Patriarchate, and as part of this process murdering Ukrainian Orthodox Church leaders of the twentieth century, such as, Metropolitan Vasyl Lypkivsky who were seeking to bring the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under a Kyivian/Ukrainian Patriarchate. Poignantly, at the time of the Union of Brest in 1595, Moscow had little influence over the Ukrainian Church, but subsequent political and military events, saw Ukraine fall under Moscow’s yoke. Thus it was after the Battle of Poltava in 1709, that the Muscovite persecution of the Ukrainian people of the East truly stepped up. The town of Baturyn, where the Cossack leader, Ivan Mazeppa had come from, was ordered by Tsar Peter I to be annihilated, every living creature to be destroyed, and the children crucified on the doors of their family homes. Ironically, although the Battle of Poltava was lost by pro-Independence Cossack forces, the city of Poltava remains to this day, a cultural hub for Ukraine.
As a general rule, it can be said that the further that one travels east support for an independent Ukraine decreases; and in like manner the further one travels West from Kyiv, the more support one feels for the existence of an independent Ukraine.
What confuses some western onlookers is that although they may have a knowledge of some of the oppression of the Ukrainians by the Soviets, they in some way think that life under the Tsars had been better. What should be made clear is that whether it was the rule by the Tsars or by that of the Soviets – Ukraine’s plight was the same; subjection to Moscow. Under the Tsars, Ukraine was ‘Little Russia’, a people dis-empowered and ridiculed. Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, was exiled for his passionate literary expression for the ideal of Ukrainian nationhood; and countless other artists and intellectuals were sent to Siberia, in the era of Tsarist rule. Under the Soviets, Ukraine existed as a republic, but in name only. The Russian language was the official language of the Ukrainian S.S.R. Further still, no more tragic example of the suffering of the Ukrainian people under communism can be illustrated than in the Holodomor (1932 – 1933), the deliberate starvation of Eastern Ukrainians, that led to a demographic loss of what is recognized by modern scholars today to have been ten million people. Aside from this drastic loss of human life, Ukrainian self-determination was also dealt another insidious heavy blow, in the aftermath of the Holodomor, with Soviet sponsored ‘repatriation’ of ethnic Russians to fill the population vacuum in eastern Ukraine.
Thus in light of what has been said, an interesting subsequent dynamic began to develop, a demographic dichotomy – to the West a pro-Ukrainian independence movement, that became ever more fervent with the persecution of the predominately Ukrainian Catholic populace; and to the east an increasing number of Russian speakers, ‘naturally’ aligned to Moscow. Generations later, and after Ukraine gained its independence in 1990, these demographic forces would play out in a series of election results that tipped narrowly one way and then the other; according to pro-Western or pro-Russian sentiments. Two decades of Ukrainian independence has played out also against the background of the Orange Revolution, the poisoning of a pro-Western President, Victor Yushchenko, and the imprisonment of a pro-Western opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. Important to note in all this political chaos, is the steadily growing support by the youth of Ukraine, for Ukrainian self-determination. The Orange Revolution began in the Lecture Halls of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, taken to the streets by the students.
So we come now to the present situation in the streets of Kyiv.
The now former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych drew much of his support from Eastern Ukraine, where the Russian language, is the first language. In fact Yanukovych admitted in 2002, to Russian being his language of choice. Yanukovych was also at one point the speaker of the United Russia Party; hence indicating his political stripes.
What initiated the recent protests in Kyiv was Yanukovych’s surprise decision to reject Ukraine’s entry into the European Union, and instead establish closer economic ties with Putin’s Russia. To the pro-Ukrainian forces, Yanukovych’s decision harks back to the days when Ukraine was ruled as a Russian satellite, with appointments made by Moscow to oversee ‘Little Russians’. Western Ukrainians would consider Yanukovych’s turning away from the EU proposal, as the initial steps toward a slippery slope leading to subjucation once more, to Moscow. Alternately, Moscow and Russia, and her supporters in Ukraine, would consider Ukraine’s prospective move to the EU as a betrayal by Ukraine, of her ‘special’ status, as ‘Little Russia’.
In short the current battle in Ukraine strikes at the heart of identity; whether Ukraine is a nation or a mere dream, a barely plausible political fiction. Officially Ukraine is recognized as an independent nation in the eyes of the world. But whether Moscow fully accepts or realizes this, or whether the majority of people themselves of Ukraine, know it, is at issue. After over twenty years of being independent, the same questions still come back to haunt Ukraine; what is her future relationship with Russia going to be? Can Ukraine see herself as being independent of Russia? Can the Ukrainian people manufacture out of such a traumatic history, a sense of identity that is capable of making her a confident and democratic nation? What does it mean to be a Ukrainian? These are serious, critical questions – the answers to which will find Ukraine out either as a political reality, or as a dysfunctional marionette, waiting for yet another puppet master. What is playing out in Kyiv is not a mere street fight, but the prospective life or death of Europe’s geographically speaking second largest nation. This drama poses the question as to whether Ukraine is indeed a nation or a geographic location consisting of a polarized populace. In Ukraine’s favour is that growing number of young leaders who have a vision for the future; but the question remains, will they be given the time, and adequate support to make these visions of nationhood a reality, before others currently in power sell the nation out.
So how does the Ukrainian protest relate to Catholics in Australia? The right for citizens to conscientiously object to the actions of civil government, is a right that St. Thomas Aquinas defined in his Summa Theologiae. The situation in Kyiv and Ukraine is a stark example of this. According to Aquinas, no citizen is obligated in informed conscience: “to follow the prescriptions of civil authorities if their precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, ST, I-II, q. 93, a.3, ad 2um: Ed. Leon. 7, 164). Evidently in the downfall of the Yanukovych regime we now see high level corruption. In a nation where the majority of citizens live in poverty – the ruling oligarchs covered themselves in opulence. Moreover, a government that orders snipers to murder protesters, is most likely not a democratic government at all. All citizens of the world should take heed of what is occurring in Kyiv, for a democracy can only exist, with constant vigilance.
We all hope and pray for a peaceful solution to the situation in Ukraine, for caught between the East and the West, this nation has the precarious potential to be, if it remains destabilized, a tinderbox for Europe.
Andrew Thomas Kania Dr. Kania was a lecturer for the School of Religious Education at the University of Notre Dame Australia as well as for the Catholic Institute of Western Australia at Edith Cowan and Curtin Universities. In 2007, he became a Visiting Research Scholar at the University of Oxford; and in 2008 a Research Fellow at Oxford. Dr. Kania has written articles, for: The London Tablet, The Journal of Religious Education, The Australasian Catholic Record, New Blackfriars, AD 2000, Church & Life (Ukrainian Journal), and The Record Newspaper. Dr. Kania has also delivered papers both nationally and internationally. He belongs to the Ukrainian Church and is interested in ecumenical issues as well as contemporary problems facing religious educators.
This post is also available in: Ukrainian