Finding a faith angle in the Ukraine

A spate of wire service photos from the demonstrations in Kiev may have awakened the Western press to the religious element in the protests. As GetReligion‘s editor tmatt has noted, photojournalism has led the way.

The pictures from Kiev are telling a fascinating story — but unless you know what you are seeing and can interpret the images or place them in their political and religious context, you will not understand what is happening.

The “Eurorevolution” as some Ukrainian newspapers have dubbed the protests is about economics, politics, national identity, and religion. It is being articulated in protests over a trade agreements. Yet the dispute has as just as much to do with the Soviet past and the present battle over gay rights in Russia.

However, the press has so far been unable to get its head round all this. The stories I have seen rarely address more than one of these topics at a time and then do so from an American/English perspective.

Even when there is a direct religion angle to the news, as in this story printed on Jan 27, 2014 on the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, western reporters on the ground appear to be unaware of the symbolism (or perhaps iconography as we are talking about the Orthodox) of what they are reporting.

The ABC story entitled “Ukraine protests: Thousands mourn slain protester in Kiev as opposition rejects president’s bid to end unrest” is an example of the Western press’ lack of comprehension of the forces at work. It states in its sub-headline:

Thousands of people have packed into a church in Kiev for the funeral of a young protester shot dead during clashes in the Ukrainian capital last week.

Then the lede reports on the clashes, notes the calls by protestors for the president to step down and then moves to the funeral of one protestor killed in clashes with the security services.

There have been violent clashes in Kiev as demonstrators demand president Viktor Yanukovych stand down for pulling out of a free trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord. The fate of the government remains unclear, with demonstrators vowing to continue protests despite the president’s offer to give top jobs to opposition leaders.

The opposition called off a massive Sunday rally out of respect for the funeral of Mikhail Zhyznevsky, whose coffin was borne through the streets of Kiev before his burial. Zhyznevsky, a Belarussian living in Ukraine, was one of three people officially recognised by the prosecutor’s office as having died from gunshot wounds after clashes last week.

Mourners spilled over into a square outside Saint Michael’s Cathedral on what would have been his 26th birthday, many bringing flowers and waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons.

The article goes into details of the funeral noting the presence of the chief opposition leaders, and then notes the political symbolism of some of the flags flown at the funeral.

Some red and white nationalist flags from before Belarus became a Soviet republic – currently banned by the country’s authoritarian regime – were also seen at the ceremony.

The article then closes out with reports on the street protests. All of this I assume is correct, but the story leaves out so many pieces of the puzzle that a anglophone reader will not truly understand what is happening.

Among the things the ABC neglects to mention is what sort of church St Michael’s may be. It belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate — not the larger Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

As I noted in a report last year on GetReligion, there are three principal churches in the Ukraine. One under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate; an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Kiev Patriarchate; and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

The leaders of the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow. In late December the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its Ukrainian bishops, released a statement condemning proposals for the Ukraine to move closer to the EU at the expense of its relations with Russia.

God was on Russia’s side and God wanted the Ukraine to be linked, forever, with Russia. Faith should determine whether the Ukraine joined the EU or a Russian customs union, the Russian bishops said.

We call upon all to remember: the emancipation of morals will with time fully destroy a people, depriving their and each one’s soul of purity and integrity. As far back as the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom warned: “When families are broken, cities and states will fall”. It is as if the voice of the teacher of the Early Church speaks to our contemporaries. And the holy martyr Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) of Kiev and Galich noted in his works: “The whole human society is based on the family and in it, like a building in its foundation, it finds its solidity and stability”. That is why it is so important today that we stand for the immutable, God-given moral law concerning both family life and all the spheres of human existence including that of the development of society and state.

What are the Russian bishops talking about? Gay rights.

For the Moscow Patriarchate, the EU’s support for gay rights compared to Russia’s distaste for them should dictate how the Ukraine ordered its economic affairs. There is much much more to it that this — but that is the issue the Russian Orthodox Church has chosen to contest in the fight over an economic customs union.

The Kiev Patriarchate has been equally blunt. In a November speech in Washington Patriarch Filaret of the Kiev Patriarchate was reported to have said the Moscow Patriarchate’s opposition to the Ukraine’s opening to the EU was treasonous:

[T]he Ukrainian Churches would benefit from an Association Agreement. For one thing, it would place the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in a new situation. With Ukraine committed to Europe and continued independence, that Church would have to decide which side it was on – that of Russia, or that of the Ukrainian people. By siding with Russia, the UOC-MP would assume the role of a fifth column for a hostile state. If, on the other hand, it sided with the Ukrainians, it would be obligated to unite with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow.

It is not just the bishops who are linking the political struggle with religion. On Jan 23 Interfax reported the far-right Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, believed the battle in the Ukraine was between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Partition of the Ukraine into an eastern Russian client state and a western European state was the way forward, he argued.

Russians and Russified Ukrainians, and Westerners, who always live in Austro-Hungary, will always be enemies. The only solution is to divide Ukraine based on the civilization principle: Catholics in the West and Orthodox Christians in the East. Otherwise this bloodbath will last a long time.

Before we go too far afield let’s head back to the ABC and St. Michael’s. The article picks up the political – nationalist significance of flags, but overlooks the symbolism of the funeral setting. The original St Michael’s Cathedral was demolished on the orders of Joseph Stalin in 1936, one of the many attempts to destroy religion and Ukrainian nationalism by the Soviet regime.

The cathedral where the service was held was rebuilt in 1999. Holding the funeral of an anti-Moscow protestor at the iconic structure of Ukrainian nationalism and religious identity sends a message, which the ABC missed.

Now I am not arguing that the Kiev protests should be covered as a religion news story. What I am saying is that a good reporter should be as aware of religious symbolism as political symbolism. Religion may not play a part in the iconography of western reporters, but to ignore it in their accounts of the Ukrainian demonstrations misses a major part of this story.

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  • Matt

    You can find various maps on the Internet showing the very strong regional divide in the 2010 presidential election, and how it maps onto the country’s linguistic divide (though interestingly not its ethnic divide, as Russian-speaking Ukrainians are numerous in the pro-Russian region). For example, here and here. Does anyone know whether the religious demographics have a similarly strong regional divide?

  • Julia B

    I’m thinking most Western news people are not aware of how closely Orthodoxy’s branches are connected to specific geographic and ethnic populations in the East. Even the Catholics in Poland looked to their church as an embodiment of their nation. Interesting that now a free Poland is getting less religious and the now free Communist countries are becoming more religious.

    • JoFro

      This is exactly why I wonder what exactly is the reason for the Greek Catholics and the Kiev Patriachate in supporting the EU? It’s a fact that countries that enter the EU have ended up with most of their population leaving the churches for the secular sphere. So, what’s the reasons for their support of the EU exactly other than to get away from Russia’s Orthodox Church’s influence?

  • P. McCoy

    Any religion that tries to overthrow a government should be outlawed, thus it makes sense to start outlawing the Greek Catholics and ban them from all political activities. Putin can see how the EU is not working for other Orthodox countries currently in the EU.


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