Cause-and-effect is difficult to prove sometimes, but it is curious how things follow in a sequence of events. The recent round of protests in the Ukraine, particularly in the capital city of Kiev, have upended the country (not to mention a statue of Vladimir Lenin).
A point of curiosity around these parts: Did this Dec. 3 GetReligion post about the dearth of examination of faith-related elements of the protests move one of the world’s top newspapers to cover that point?
While the protests, which began in November, have captured the attention of the world’s media, analysis of the religious dimensions of the protest had not been much of a priority in the secular press, a point ably made by GetReligionista George Conger.
Now that’s changed: The New York Times ran a substantial piece on Dec. 4, one day after the GetReligion item, telling readers a good deal of what they’d need to know about this interesting, historically deep, backstory:
KIEV, Ukraine – After riot police officers stormed Independence Square here early Saturday, spraying tear gas, throwing stun grenades and swinging truncheons, dozens of young protesters ran, terrified, scattering up the streets. It was after 4:30 a.m., the air cold, the sky black. As they got their bearings, the half-lit bell tower of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery beckoned.
Inside, the fleeing demonstrators found more than warmth and safety. They had arrived in a bastion of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, where they were welcomed not only on a humanitarian basis but because the church, driven by its own historical tensions with Moscow, is actively supporting their uprising. It strongly favors European integration to enable Ukraine to break free from Russia’s grip, and has joined the calls to oust the Ukrainian government.
From the conversion of Princess Olga, the regent of Kievan Rus, in the 10th century to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Orthodox Church has generally flourished by acting in close concert with political powers. Its efforts to confront the authorities have tended to go badly, as when Philip II, the metropolitan of Moscow, protested political massacres in 1568 by refusing to bless Ivan the Terrible. He was jailed, chained around the neck and strangled.
But in recent days, the Kyivan Patriarchate, which controls St. Michael’s, has emerged as a powerful ally of the thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich and the revival of the far-reaching political and trade accords with the European Union that he has refused to sign. Some priests have even led prayer sessions in Independence Square, which protesters have occupied.
After discussing and clearly identifying the major religious players in the Ukraine, and noting that the Kyivan Patriarchate is not as influential as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Moscow Patriarchate, the Times clearly shows the impact of the Kyivan Patriarchate’s moves on the people:
“I don’t know who made the decision to go to St. Michael’s, but it was the right thing, in part because it rested on the whole concept of sanctuary,” said a Western diplomat observing the events here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol. “The monks closed the gates, and that was the thing that gave them the time to reconstitute.”
Yulia Onyschenko, 19, a student at Kiev Polytechnic Institute who was among those fleeing the violence, said church officials had protected the demonstrators as the police gave chase. “They closed all the gates, and there are a lot of gates,” Ms. Onyschenko said. “We’re very grateful.”
Church officials gave the protesters tea and blankets, and many slept on carpets on the floor of the main cathedral as a monk chanted prayers through the night. Participants have described it as an almost mystical experience, recalling events about 800 years ago when people sought refuge from invading Tatars and Mongols in the original monastery, long since destroyed.
“It’s very symbolic,” said Yuri Ignatenko, 27, an actor from Zhytomyr, about 85 miles west of Kiev. He has spent several nights in the church, and his eyes glistened as he recalled the nightlong prayer. Referring to the Ukrainian riot police, Mr. Ignatenko said, “The Berkut were like the Mongols who chased the people to the monastery.”
The Times report didn’t say how the paper came to this subject, although some of the criticism of a Nov. 30 story — which got key details about the history of St. Michael’s Monastery wrong (resulting in a correction at the end of the piece) — might’ve motivated the reporter to dig deeper. Then again, few newspaper reports openly disclose the motivation for any given instance of coverage.
Whether it was that criticism or the GR post discussing the missing “ghosts” in the Kiev coverage, it’s good to see the media looking at this potent element in the protest story. This article appears to be balanced and sensitive to the nuances of Ukrainian orthodoxy, although how things will end up in the Ukraine is still uncertain.