KIEV, Ukraine — Merely saying the forest’s name — Bykivnya — can cause strong emotions for millions of Ukrainians.
This is where the secret police of Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin buried 100,000 of their victims between 1937 and 1941 in a mass grave northeast of Kiev. President Victor Yushchenko did not mince words during his recent speech there, on Ukraine’s Day of Remembrance for Victims of Political Repression.
“Here, at Bykivnya, Stalin and his monstrous hangmen killed the bloom of Ukraine. There is no forgiveness and there will be none,” he told several thousand mourners and, of course, Ukrainian journalists.
The mourners wept, while processing through the site behind Orthodox clergy who carried liturgical banners containing iconic images of Jesus and Mary.
“Because of the national symbolism of this ceremony, the priests there may not be important,” said Victor Yelensky, a sociologist of religion associated with the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences. “But the priests have to be there because this is Ukraine and this is a ceremony that is about a great tragedy in the history of Ukraine.
“So the priests are there. It is part … of a civil religion.”
This is where the story gets complicated. In the Ukrainian media, photographs and video images showed the clergy, with their dramatic banners and colorful vestments. However, in their reporting, journalists never mentioned what the clergy said or did.
Media reports also failed to mention which Orthodoxy body or bodies were represented. This is an important gap, because of the tense and complicated nature of the religious marketplace in this historically Eastern Orthodox culture.
It would have been big news, for example, if clergy from the giant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — with direct ties to Moscow — had taken part in a ceremony that featured Yushchenko, who, as usual, aimed angry words to the north.
But what if the clergy were exclusively from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), born after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and linked to declarations of Ukrainian independence? What if there were also clergy from a third body, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century?
A rite featuring clergy from one or both of these newer churches also would have been symbolic. After all, these days almost anything can create tensions between Ukraine and Russia, from natural gas prices to efforts to emphasize the Ukrainian language, from exhibits of uniquely Ukrainian art to decisions about which statues are torn down (almost anything Soviet) or which statues are erected (such as one of Ivan Mazepa, labeled a traitor by Russia after his 18th century efforts to boost Ukrainian independence).
But it’s hard for Ukrainian journalists to ask these kinds of questions and print what they learn when people answer them, according to a circle of journalists — secular and religious — at a Kiev forum last week focusing on trends in religion news in their nation. I was one of the speakers, along with another colleague from the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life.
As in America, Ukrainian journalists often assume that politics is the only faith that matters in life. The journalists in Kiev also said that they struggle to escape unwritten Soviet-era rules stating that religion was bad, irrelevant or, at best, merely private. Many journalists lack historical knowledge required to do accurate coverage of religion, while others simply do not care, because they shun organized religion.
“Many would say that, if we do not play the violin, we really should not attempt to comment on how others play the violin,” said Yuri Makarov, editor in chief of Ukrainian Week, speaking through a translator.
This blind spot is unfortunate, because Ukrainian journalists may have missed a crucial piece of the Bykivnya story, said Yelensky. It’s hard to understand the soul of Ukraine without grasping the power of religion.
“For many Orthodox people in western Ukraine, it is simply unacceptable to live in any way under the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate. At the same time, for many Orthodox in eastern Ukraine, it is simply unacceptable to not to be associated and in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. In the middle are places like Kiev. …
“This is a division that is inside Ukrainian society. Is it based on religion? No. Is religion right there in the heart of it? Yes.”