Ethics & Public Policy Center

Ukraine and Lent

Published in National Review Online on March 3, 2014


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


What with the impending centenary of the outbreak of World War I, it’s understandable that commentators should reach back to the European crisis of 1914 for possible parallels to the European crisis of 2014. But watching the “debate” in the upper house of the Russian parliament on March 1, as the solons “considered” President Vladimir Putin’s “request” for “authorization” to deploy Russian armed forces in Ukraine, the thought occurred that the proper analogy to all this is not Sarajevo 1914, but Berlin 1935, when the German Reichstag approved the notoriously anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. The same dynamics were in play: blatant racism and xenophobia, a crude and violent nationalism impervious to moral scrutiny, the multiplication of lies by ranting lawmakers. Amidst the polymorphous moral confusions of postmodernity, Nazism is perhaps the one available icon of unambiguous and unadulterated evil; that iconography should not be marred by inappropriate analogizing for the sake of rhetorical effect. But the utter abandonment of reason, decency, and honesty in Moscow 2014 did seem eerily familiar.

That those Russian parliamentarians, and the Putinesque “managed democracy” they embody, will not face serious internal opposition from Russian leaders who might be expected to challenge xenophobic nationalism in the name of higher truths was made painfully clear a day later. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of Russian Orthodoxy, shares a KGB background with President Putin and leads a Church that, as a senior Catholic official once put it to me, “only knows how to be chaplain to the czar — whoever he is.” For years now, Kirill and his “foreign minister,” the youthful Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, have been engaged in a massive campaign of seduction aimed at the Vatican, American Evangelicals, and other vibrant and influential Christian forces in the West — a campaign putatively in aid of forging a united front against decadent secularism and materialism. The true public face of the Russian Orthodox leadership, and its continued fealty to the dominant Kremlin line, were made unmistakably clear, however, when Patriarch Kirill’s spokesman, the ironically surnamed Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, issued a most non-comical statement urging Ukrainians not to defend themselves and their country against Russian aggression and occupation.

As Father Chaplin, speaking for Kirill and the Patriarchate of Moscow, put it, “The Russian peacemaking mission in Ukraine should guarantee her citizens the right to self-determination and tight relations with other peoples of historical Rus’. Already in 1995 the All-World Russian National Council declared that the Russian people, a divided nation on its historical territory, has the right for unification in one state body, a right universally recognized as a norm of international politics. At the same time we will hope that the mission of Russian soldiers to protect the freedom and self-determination of those people and their very life will not encounter fierce opposition that would lead to large-scale conflict. Nobody wants bloodshed and the deepening of those divisions that already exist among Orthodox people on the territory of historical Rus’.”

Here, certainly unintentionally and very clumsily, was a chilling synopsis of Putin’s Great Russia nationalism, overlaid with a veneer of pan-Orthodox solidarity: There is a historic Russian “space” (Rus’) in which the Russian state and the Patriarchate of Moscow, working in symphonic harmony, hold political, spiritual, and moral authority. That culturally integral and once-unified “space” has been artificially partitioned; two manifestations of that fracture are independent Ukraine and independent Belarus. Measures taken to repair this damage to the close relations among the peoples of historic Rus’ are legitimate in themselves and under international law. Those measures may include creating vassal states, as Putin has done with Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus; it may take other forms in Ukraine. Whatever the measures, they should not be resisted, for to resist them is to falsify cultural history.

Or to cut to the chase: Ukraine is not a real country. Russian troops invading and occupying sovereign Ukrainian territory (and those sometimes-lethal provocations conducted by Russian special forces in recent months throughout Ukraine) are peacekeeping operations. Ukrainians’ attempts to frustrate the reunification of the historic “Russian space” will be labeled as they were in the Russian parliament on March 1: as the work of Nazis, bandits, ultra-nationalists, anti-Semites, etc., etc.

In the Eastern Christian Churches, Lent — the season of penitential preparation for Easter — begins on March 3 this year. Thus it was altogether fitting that, in the days before Orthodox Lent, other Eastern Christian communities bore witness to the truth while the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church was engaging in prevarications, provocations, and the white-washing of state aggression. On March 2, a prominent priest of that Ukrainian Orthodox Church allied with the Moscow Patriarchate got up on the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, and publicly urged Patriarch Kirill to use his influence to get Russian troops out of Crimea and other parts of Ukraine — a telling sign that even Russian-speaking Ukrainians have been offended by Putin’s aggression. (That hint was confirmed by the fact, reported to me last night from Kiev, that certainly some, and perhaps all, of the demonstrators raising Russian flags in Kharkiv are being bused in from Russia, not unlike the titushki bandits hired by the previous Ukrainian regime’s security forces to cause trouble.)

For his part, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — a particular target of Muscovite venom — reiterated his community’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis. At the same time, he stressed that the defense of the nation and its integrity against aggression is an obligation of Christian citizenship.

The religious dimension of the entire Maidan movement has been sadly ignored by much of the Western media. The Independence Square chapel that was burnt down during the Yanukovych regime’s lethal assault on the Maidan last month has been rebuilt. When 30,000 people gathered on Independence Square on March 2, the day’s activities began with prayer, and as various people were making speeches to the crowd, devotees of Our Lady of Fatima were circulating through the square, passing out inexpensive rosaries. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate remains divided, and its concerns tend to mute some of the public statements of the national council of churches; but there is clear anti-Putin sentiment in these quarters, which is one important factor in an appreciable increase in the ecumenical generosity and solidarity that began to surface three months ago when the Maidan movement first emerged. This is something new: Rather than being appendages of the state (the historic weakness of Orthodoxy in its interface with public life), Ukraine’s Christian communities have reoriented themselves toward civil society, which ought to help civil society build its strength for the struggles ahead.

This dramatic change has come at a price. As Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church put it to me from Kiev on the night of March 2, “Blood is serious. Blood makes people think.” The bloodshed of last month, and the bloodshed that Putin threatens now, has led to a lot of questioning, perhaps especially among Russophone Ukrainians, and not a few religious conversions. Which ought to suggest, to Western policy-makers, that there has been real change, not just ongoing political and economic frustration, in Ukraine since November 2013. What began as a rejection of Yanukovych’s break with the path to European Union integration has become something different, something more. “People are claiming their dignity,” one Ukrainian leader said to me, “and there has been a palpable strengthening of resolve.”

In Putin’s nationalist and irredentist cast of mind, Ukrainians may still be “little brothers” in need of tutelage, sometimes with the aid of the knout. That is, one suspects, a serious miscalculation. As Ukrainian resolve hardens the temptation to truckle, once again, to authoritarian force will be less attractive.

Too many Westerners, including American and European leaders, still think of the Ukrainian drama as a question of Ukrainians wanting in on the cornucopia of Western consumer goods. That is not what my friends and colleagues are sensing in Ukraine today. Bishop Gudziak put it as well as anyone could at the end of our conversation on March 2: “Lady Gaga is very far from the minds of Ukrainians today.”

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

Comments are closed.