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:

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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.

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God save the Tsar

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

So reads the second stanza of what may be the most politically incorrect poem in the English language. Interpretations of what Rudyard Kipling meant by his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden“, written in the wake of the American annexation of the Philippines, have differed sharply. From Henry James and Mark Twain to the denizens of Lit-Crit faculties today, many have objected to the poem as racist and condescending. Others, especially as of the time of its writing (Theodore Roosevelt for example) saw in it an expression of a Christian duty to bring the light of civilizations to the darker corners of the world.

The era that produced “The White Man’s Burden” also formed the tenets of classical Angl0-American journalism. Motivated by many of the same moral imperatives that under girded Anglo-American imperialism, the liberal school of journalism sought to civilize the newspaper profession, replacing  partisan, hysterical, “yellow journalism” with an impartial, scientific, and honest retelling of the news of the day.

The mission of classical liberal journalism was summarized by the editor of the Manchester Guardian C.P. Scott in 1921. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” While on the editorial page he said: “It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”.

Scott’s dictum guides the writers at GetReligion. Yet this view is not universal. It is disappearing within the American newspaper guild and is all but gone in Europe. Yet not all agree that this approach to journalism is possible or ideal. Seeking balance and fairness in reporting is viewed (charitably) as being quaint, and (more commonly) as naive. It exhibits, the critics say, the same sort of condescension that makes Kipling’s poem so execrable. When truth is relative, this line goes, claiming to possess the sole truth is illusory — or an arrogant manifestation of a journalist’s “White Man’s Burden”.

This philosophical conflict can be illustrated by my critique of an article in the Observer, the Sunday edition of the Guardian. The article entitled “Church backs Vladimir Putin’s ban on Americans adopting Russian children” tells the story of the Russian Orthodox Church’s response to the passage of a law by the Duma that prevents Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Here we have a formidable caste of bogeymen — Vladimir Putin, Vsevolod Chaplin, the Russian Orthodox patriarch Cyril — playing off against orphans, Pussy Riot, and liberal democracy. What right thinking person would back KGB hacks and creepy clergy against orphans?

Before answering the question, let’s look at the article. It begins:

The Russian Orthodox church has been attacked for supporting a new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, at the end of a year that saw it plagued by scandal and accusations of collusion with an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-ranking priest and a spokesman for the church, said the law was “a search for a social answer to an elementary question: why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?”

Speaking to Interfax, a state news agency, last week, Chaplin said the path to heaven would be closed to children adopted by foreigners. “They won’t get a truly Christian upbringing and that means falling away from the church and from the path to eternal life, in God’s kingdom,” he said.

This is a strong opening. It asserts the church has been “plagued” by scandal and is in bed with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin before moving to a second hand quote from a church spokesman that is wonderfully awful (to Guardian readers). It then introduces a voice offering an opinion in line with the editorial slant of the story.

Critics say the church’s support for the law is the latest example of its submission to the Kremlin, in which it acts more like a government ministry than an independent spiritual body. “Everything is repeating – it’s like the 19th century, when the church lay completely under the state,” said Valery Otstavnykh, a theologist and Kremlin critic. “Everything was calm and fine until churches started getting blown up in 1917 and they all asked, ‘Why’?”

As an aside, I do not care for the word “theologist” — it is an uncommon word that is most often used in a pejorative sense. That may not be the case here as the statements of the theologist are in line with the views of the article, but it nonetheless is an ugly word.

The article then lays out the 2012 church scandals: Pussy Riot, the wandering watch, hit and run priests driving BMWs, church involvement in politics and suspect financial dealings. It then closes with a gratuitous unsubstantiated accusation and a plea by the outside commentator for the church to clean up its act.

Two weeks later, the state news agency RIA-Novosti cited an anonymous source as saying that a bordello was uncovered in a Moscow monastery.

“The church has also done a lot of good,” said Otstavnykh. “But the church as an organisation must change.”

There is no balance to this story. No facts are offered in mitigation nor voices in defense or explanation of the church’s actions. It may well be these actions are indefensible, but the reader cannot know this from this story. Throwing in the bordello line without further corroboration was improper.

The quote offered by Fr. Chaplin, who is a character about whom I have written, is taken from a Russian language story and is abbreviated in such a way by the Observer as to not allow for any nuance. The tail end of the first quote in the Observer story — “why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?” — continues in the original with a statement by Chaplin that Russia must take care of their own at the level of the family as well as at the local, state and national levels.

I would translate the second passages as:

As he noted, the adoption of children by foreign couples in most cases means “they can not get a truly Christian education, and thus fall away from the Church and from the road to eternal life in God’s Kingdom.”

“Orthodox people should remember and take seriously the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘He who has faith and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not have faith will be condemned’.”

The shading of the Observer’s version may leave the impression that children taken from Russia will go to hell because they have been taken from Russia. However Chaplin’s meaning is they may wind up raised in homes where the Christian faith is not practiced.

Chaplin’s views about the necessity of a Christian upbringing do not find favor with the Observer. In a Twitter exchange about the article, the author of the story responded to a critic who defended Chaplin by writing:

Your attempts to justify his statement as holding any logic or good will confound me.

The author may well think that, but should she have commented in public? If this article was in the op-ed section, I would say it would be appropriate for her to make this statement. But is it appropriate for a news story?

From a journalistic perspective, the critique offered by Mr. Otstavnykh should have been matched with a defense of the church’s actions. And it also would have helped the reader to know that Mr. Otstavnykh spoke in court on behalf of the Pussy Riot defendants, saying their actions did not constitute blasphemy.

Please note I am not speaking to the issues under examination. I am commenting on the professionalism and journalistic craft exhibited by this article. As a hit piece, the story is well done. As journalism, it is junk.

While many of the ideals expressed by Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden” are passé, “By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain”, is not. There is a story to be told from Russia on the interplay of the church, state and society. Mr. Otstavnyk’s concerns the Russian Orthodox Church is returning to the days when church and state were one is an important one. Is the Orthodox Church returning to the bad old days of the Nineteenth century, updating its prayer and priorities from God Save the Tsar to God Save the President? That story needs to be told.

The story told in this article, however, is neither plain nor simple, frank nor fair. And that is a shame.


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