No peace in our time for the Ukraine

One hundred years from now, when the history of these past few months in the Ukraine have been told and retold, what will be the key points scholars will discuss in their analysis of events? Will it be John Kerry’s or David Cameron’s or Angela Merkel’s diplomatic initiatives?

I think not. Who today remembers the names or the diplomatic moves of the French or British Foreign Ministers during the Sudeten crisis? (George Bonnett and Lord Halifax). We remember Neville Chamberlain, but not for the reasons he may have desired. While the Angl0-American newspaper fraternity focuses on the Western political angle of the Ukraine crisis, there are deeper — more profound — forces at work that have been all but ignored.

Scholars and students will likely note the peripheral noises made by the great and good of America and Western Europe, but I suspect their work will focus on the age old clash between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. The crisis in the Ukraine is really about the interplay of religion, nationalism and politics. (Bet that came as a shock that GetReligion would bemoan the absence of religion in the news reports out of Moscow and Kiev.)

We are not alone, however, in calling attention to this so far neglected aspect of the dispute. Writing in the Washington Post last month, Henry Kissinger stated:

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.

Dr. K noted:

The Ukrainians are the decisive element.They live in a country with a complex history and a polyglot composition. The Western part was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 , when Stalin and Hitler divided up the spoils. Crimea, 60 percent of whose population is Russian , became part of Ukraine only in 1954 , when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks. The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or break up.

We can see the clash of Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy in statements made by leaders of the two churches. Statements that have so far gone unreported in the Western secular media and have only had an airing west of the Vistula in religious newspapers.

On March 26 the Catholic news service, Asia.Net reported:

The Moscow Patriarchate strongly condemned the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church in Ukraine for “meddling” in politics, in the current crisis in the country. For its part, Russia continues to accuse the Ukraine of “religious intolerance,” a charge the latter sharply rejects, noting instead how all religious denominations have come together to oppose violence and express support for Europe.

It cited a broadcast made by Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Russian Orthodox Department for External Church Relations, on March 22 aired on the Moscow-based television network Russia 24.

According to the transcript of the interview printed on the website of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion went for the jugular, attacking the Greek Catholics as a fifth column for Western interests in the Ukraine. He condemned the leader of the uniates, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk and his predecessor Lubomyr Husar for taking a:

 … very clear position from the beginning of what was a civil conflict, which grew, unfortunately, into an armed bloody conflict. They fought not just for so-called European integration, but even called for the Western countries to more actively intervene in the situation in Ukraine. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk with Filaret (head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate) even went to the United States, to the State Department and asked for U.S. intervention in the Ukrainian case.

Hilarion went on to condemn the Greek Catholics for backing the protesters that brought down the pro-Moscow Ukrainian government. This politicking was not the mark of a true church. Orthodoxy, in contrast:

… does not get on one side of the barricades. It unites all, and when necessary, steps between the warring parties, as did the monks who came out and stood up, risking their lives, their health, to prevent bloodshed between two warring parties.

The Greek Catholics have not taken the Russian Orthodox attacks lightly. In a March 28 interview with the Kiev newspaper The Day, (translated into English by Catholic World Report) Archbishop Shevchuk hits back at Moscow, calling them tools of the Russian state.

The silence of the Moscow patriarchate is “the sign of a definite weakness,” the Ukrainian prelate says. “For whenever the Church finds herself unusually close to a specific governmental institution, whenever harmonious state-church relations turn into a sort of domination of one by the other, then, obviously, the Church becomes incapable of speaking the truth in all its fullness in specific historical circumstances. And therefore I think that this is exactly what we are seeing now.”

In other words, the Russian Orthodox Church is preaching “God save the Tsar” and the tsar is Vladimir Putin.

Reading the statements from the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Moscow newspapers and the statements of the Catholic leaders published in Kiev quite clearly demonstrates the religious dimensions of this dispute. Putin’s Moscow is the inheritor of the civilizing mission of Holy Mother Russia while the Catholic Church is the bulwark standing fast in the face of the Asiatic hordes.

One expects, of course, to see media bias in the Russian and Ukrainian newspapers. Bias is to be expected from newspapers that see this conflict as a battle of civilizations.

To my mind the real issue here is the silence of the Western press. They just don’t seem to get it.

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  • Taras Szmagala

    With respect, this is not at all a “clash between Catholicism and Orthodoxy”. In fact, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church are all working very closely together. The relationship among these three churches is as close as it has ever been. The only outlier is the Russian Orthodox Church (or, if you prefer, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate). But this division has nothing to do with Orthodox vs. Catholic — it has everything to do with the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is merely an organ of the Russian state. Indeed, the ROC has been very critical of its Orthodox brethren in Ukraine who have supported Ukraine’s aspirations toward a government free of corruption. These criticisms are purely political, and have nothing to do with the division between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

    One final note – it is incorrect to refer to Ukraine as “the Ukraine”. It’s merely “Ukraine”. (Referring to “the” Ukraine is taken as offensive by many Ukrainians, who note that this is a Russian-generated attempt to make Ukraine a region (e.g.,, “the South”) rather than an independent country.) The NYT changed its style manual accordingly in 1991.

    Thanks and regards

    • George Conger

      The Ukraine is a grammatical/literary convention. Some countries use the their formal title. The Gambia, The Bahamas. For others the the is a matter of grammatical or literary convention. The United States of America, the Sudan, the Congo, the Lebanon, the Ukraine. There is one group who seek to politicize this offering the theory you cite above. The assertion that this is a Russian generated attempt to diminish the Ukraine’s identity is a theory, but one that has little behind it in the way of fact.

      • Julia B

        Then why is “the” appended to some countries’ name”?.
        I’ve also heard people refer to “the Argentine”. Why? It’s a country.

        I’ve never heard of “The Gambia” or “The Lebanon”.
        I can understand if a region was formerly just a territory [I'm assuming that Lebanon was formerly just an administrative region of the Turkish Empire] and not a country, but continuing to use that designation is offensive to countries that are now independent. Poland didn’t exist for about 100 years but nobody calls it “The Poland”.

        “The Bahamas” makes sense b/c it is a collection of islands.


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