Pod people: Memory and revolution in Kiev

All Ukraine, All the time is not our moto at GetReligion. Though you may be excused for thinking it might be as tmatt and I have knocked out a number of stories looking at the reporting coming out of Kiev this week.

I returned to Kiev once more in this week’s Crossroads podcast. I spoke with Issues, Etc. host Todd Wilken about the religion angle to the protests in the Ukraine, arguing that the demonstrations were not intelligible without reference to the country’s political and religious history.

As tmatt has noted there have been some wonderful images coming out of the protests, especially those that showcase Orthodox clergy standing between protestors and the riot police — seeking to prevent bloodshed. There has also been some sharp political reporting as well.

The report on the funeral of protestor shot and killed, allegedly, by the security services, picked up the political symbolism of red and white banners waved by some mourners (the banned flag of Belorussia). But the religious symbolism of holding the memorial service at the cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) rather than at the neighboring Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) escaped Western reporters.

At its most basic level, this is a conflict of nationalism with religious overtones– Russophile Ukrainians (including those who belong to the Moscow led church) against Europhile Ukrainians (including those who belong to the Kiev led church).

But the analogy is not exact.

In the podcast I recounted how in the Stalinist era the Orthodox clergy across the Soviet Union and many lay men and women were executed or imprisoned for their faith. St Michael’s Cathedral (the location of the funeral mentioned in the story cited above) was demolished on Stalin’s orders and only rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church were forcibly incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church by the Soviet state.

Yet all religious believers were persecuted during the Soviet era. Hence the split between the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchates cannot be boiled down to one church being pro-Soviet or less tainted by collaboration than the other during the Soviet era.

Nor is this a rehash of the Nineteenth century clash between Slavophiles and Westernizers. While this intellectual battle continues to resonate within Russian/Ukrainian intellectual life — it was of consuming importance to the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn — both Orthodox churches come squarely down on the Slavophile side and reject the moral (but not economic innovations) of Western Europe.

Is it then simply a dispute over Ukraine’s economic future? Should it be tied to Russia or join the EU?

Not really. Economics is a proxy for politics which is a proxy for religion which is informed by memory. I would argue the roots of the dispute go back to the country’s experiences in the Twentieth century, especially the Holodomor, the famine engineered by Stalin in the early 1930s to break the Ukraine.

Germany has not yet finished the conversation about its Nazi past — the Ukraine is only just starting to discuss the calamities of the Twentieth century. What we are seeing today is the outworking of the traumas of the past.

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