Letter from Ukraine: A Church of Martyrs Confronts the Cultural Iron Curtain

Published July 9, 2013

National Review Online

L’viv, Ukraine — It was almost a decade ago when I last visited Ukraine, and the surface changes over that period are immediately evident. Then, my flight from Poland was met by a Soviet-era school bus, sans engine, towed by a Soviet-era tractor: a bizarre jury-rigged hybrid that carted my companions and me to a one-hour wait in a Soviet-era “VIP lounge” at the Soviet-era L’viv International Airport, while the visas we had spent the better part of a day acquiring in a classic Soviet-era bureaucratic muddle were validated. On July 3, my flight pulled up to a gleaming new terminal and, with visas no longer required, I was briskly and efficiently welcomed to Ukraine.

The externals of change are visible both in Kyiv, the national capital, and L’viv, the regional capital of western Ukraine and one of the doggedly persistent centers of Ukrainian national identity during the Soviet period.

The Kyivan skyline is dominated by recently built high-rise apartment blocks, which obscure a cityscape once defined by the distinctive golden domes of Orthodox churches. The cost of the flats in those buildings is such that Ukrainians are leaving the country in droves, unable to afford to live in a capital city whose economic life, like that of the entire country, is controlled by oligarchs allied to the corrupt and authoritarian, if formally democratic, regime of Viktor Yanukovych — a regime that has thoroughly frustrated the hopes generated by the Orange Revolution of 2004–05 and that may succeed in imploding Ukraine’s efforts to sign an accession agreement with the European Union later this year.

L’viv is also changed from a decade ago. Then, the Old Town of this city of many names (Lwow to the Poles, Lemberg to the Hapsburgs, Leopolis to others) featured interwar-era street signs in Ukrainian, Polish, and German (in the old Gothic script, no less). Today, crisp new signage in Ukrainian, with Polish equivalents beneath in smaller, Latin letters, suggests that L’viv is claiming a Ukrainian identity that has been contested for centuries, while acknowledging a cultural debt to those periods in the 19th and 20th centuries when the city was one of the great centers of Polish intellectual life — home, to, among many others, Roman Ingarden, the phenomenological philosopher whose thinking was admired by John Paul II. The Old Town is replete with tony cafés and high-end international shops — Ecco shoes, various Swiss watch companies, the inevitable Benetton — that form the perimeter and immediate periphery of a great central square dominated by an impressive city hall.

The L’viv Old Town also houses the Cathedral of St. George, center of the Greek Catholic Archeparchy of L’viv. In the cathedral’s crypt are the tombs of two men whose names do not figure prominently in today’s debates over the corruptions of the Yanukovych regime, but whose dramatic lives may suggest a path beyond the culture of corruption and conformism that threatens to turn Ukraine into a simulacrum of Belarus — another country in which the intellectual iron curtain has yet to be torn down, with dire effects on both politics and the economy. Andrey Sheptytsky, a man of broad culture, who was the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for 43 turbulent years, from 1901 until 1944, is buried there. Next to him is the man Sheptytsky chose to succeed him and whom he secretly consecrated a bishop: Josyf Slipyj, model for the Ukrainian pope in Morris West’s novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, and a leader whose dreams of a Greek Catholic Church nourishing the public culture of a free Ukraine are beginning to be realized by the efforts of one of his spiritual sons — who happens to have been born in Syracuse, N.Y.

Whether those dreams come to fruition may be the key factor in determining whether Ukraine, like the Baltic states and Poland, follows the historic path into Europe taken by similar victims of Stalin’s imperialism, or whether it becomes Belarus 2.0: a vast land of shattered hopes and another extension of Vladimir Putin’s imperial revanchism.

The Ukrainian Difference
There are many reasons why Ukraine’s transition to democracy and the free economy are faltering badly. Ukraine’s independence was declared as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but, as one analyst recently put it in The Ukrainian Week, an independent Ukraine detached itself from Russia “without clearly separating itself ideologically from its totalitarian and colonial past.” The behavioral models and practices of the late-Soviet bureaucratic state remain in place through a kind of cultural inertia. (I was treated to a minor but obnoxious example of this when my ride from the Kyiv airport to the apostolic nunciature was interrupted by a police shakedown of my driver, who declined to provide the expected bribe to the policeman and received a citation for a faux traffic violation that took longer to write than the Third Catilinarian Oration.) Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko remains imprisoned. Court decisions depend almost entirely on bribes to judges, who hire middlemen to conduct the negotiations over the amount required to yield the decision desired. Yanukovych’s minions and clients dominate the media, and despite a popularity rating below 30 percent, he will be very difficult to defeat in the 2015 presidential elections because of a fractured opposition, government pressure on civil-society associations and organizations, a compliant press, and, of course, systematic cheating.

The refusal of the Yanukovych-dominated parliament to adopt, much less implement, the political, administrative, and judicial reforms required by Brussels and the EU member-states have put Ukraine’s accession to the European Union in grave jeopardy, with many informed observers suggesting that the odds on Ukraine’s being allowed to sign an accession agreement later this year are less than 50-50 — a failure that would delay further Ukrainian integration into Europe for at least three years, while the EU holds its own elections in 2014 and Ukraine tries to sort itself out politically in 2015. Failure to advance along the road to EU accession would, of course, bring a glint of satisfaction to the eyes of the hard men in the Kremlin, who have never accepted the idea of Ukrainian independence and who now dangle the possibility of a Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan-Ukraine Customs Union as an alternative to Ukraine’s joining the EU. That proposal, according to recent polls, is supported by some 57.5 percent of Ukrainians. Yet the same polls report that 59 percent of the country would support EU accession in a national referendum. That the two are incompatible seems not to have penetrated the intellectual iron curtain of Ukrainian public life, behind which people still teach themselves impossible things, like the White Queen in Wonderland.

The Soviet hangover is deeper than the pandemic bureaucratic, political, financial, and judicial corruption, however. There is a deep historical pessimism in Ukraine, born of both a colonial past (which taught Ukrainians that they were an inferior subspecies of the eastern Slavs) and a totalitarian past (in which millions of Ukrainians were deliberately starved to death as a matter of Soviet state policy in what seems to be the forgotten horror among the 20th-century genocides). No one knows how many died in the Holodomor of 1932–33; Robert Conquest’s figure of 5 million deaths may be on the high side, but not by much; and with the subsequent “birth deficit,” the “demographic loss” of the Ukrainian terror-famine, to use the chilling language of the statisticians, may well have reached 10 million. Thus during the very period when the Baltic states, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were making often-halting but nonetheless crucial first efforts at modern-state building and some form of democratization, much of what is today’s Ukraine was being brutalized by Stalinism at its most viciously lethal. For even after the Holodomor, any potential emergence of a nationally minded Ukrainian cultural elite was ruthlessly destroyed by the agents of Soviet state power (including Nikita Khrushchev).

That experience, coupled with the failures of the Orange Revolution to secure a postcolonial, post-totalitarian Ukrainian political and economic future, has bred into many Ukrainians a paralyzing resignation about the future that plays right into the hands of Yanukovych’s neocolonial and neo-totalitarian tendencies (or, if your prefer, the regime’s oligarchic thugocracy). Many — including many of the most energetic and enterprising — have simply left the country. Government denials and official statistics notwithstanding, one knowledgeable Ukrainian told me that the country’s population may have declined in the past 20 years by as much as 10 million because of an emigration that is not a matter of finding work elsewhere and then returning home but of leaving-for-good because there is no hope for “home.” Others, convinced that The Way Things Are is the only way things can be for the foreseeable future, make the petty and not-so-petty compromises that permit them, if not to flourish, then at least to get along. Everyone complains about patterns of bureaucratic idiocy that make the IRS and the TSA looks like paragons of rationality and efficiency; few have any confidence that there is real hope for change.

Ukraine is thus a textbook case of the impossibility of securing a democratic transition — by which I mean a transition to a law-governed society with a free economy, open politics, and a vibrant civil society — absent a sufficiently thick and robust civic culture. The roots from which such a civil culture might spring are not easy to identify in, say, Belarus or Egypt. But their first eruption from beneath the hard soil of post-Soviet public life is now visible in Ukraine. And that brings this tale — whose resolution is absolutely crucial for the future political architecture of Europe — back to Andrey Sheptytsky and Josyf Slipyj.

From Martyrdom To Mission
From 1946 until 1990, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — Byzantine in liturgy and church polity but in full communion with the Bishop of Rome — was the largest illegal, underground religious body in the world. For more than four decades, those Greek Catholics who refused to truckle to the spurious “L’viv Sobor [Council]” of 1946 and be “reunited” with Russian Orthodoxy — an exercise stage-managed by the NKVD — lived a modern catacomb existence in which everything from worship to seminary instruction, priestly ordinations, and the consecration of bishops was conducted clandestinely, often deep in Ukraine’s forests. In 2001, John Paul II formally beatified more than two dozen martyrs of that draconian persecution; Ukrainian Greek Catholics today know that that martyrology could be extended into the hundreds and thousands.

Andrey Sheptytsky, who bridged the worlds of Latin and eastern Christianity in his family, his person, and his cast of mind, was a man who imagined European Christianity once again breathing with its “two lungs,” as John Paul II so often put it — and who invested 40 years in the project of building the Greek Catholic religious, educational, and cultural institutions that could give that vision historical reality. Virtually all his work was destroyed by the Second World War, and what wasn’t destroyed by the war was subsequently plowed under by communism. But while his world was crumbling around him, Sheptytsky chose as his successor (under special authority granted him by the Vatican) Josyf Slipyj, who paid for his consecration as leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with more than 17 years in the Gulag, from which he was released in 1963 at the personal request of Pope John XXIII and exiled to Rome, where he died in 1984.

Slipyj was determined to keep Sheptytsky’s vision alive by every means at his disposal. He maintained a vigorous presence in Rome during his exile, often aggravating those Vatican officials whose realpolitik view of the Ukrainian situation led them to put more stock in ecumenical relations with Russian Orthodoxy (which they seemed not to recognize as being under the thumb of the KGB) than in solidarity with their own persecuted and underground fellow Catholics. Slipyj’s tough example of independence also kept alive, throughout the Ukrainian diaspora, the idea of a free Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in a free Ukraine, with a Ukrainian Catholic University as one of its cultural centerpieces. And in the last years of his life, he found and helped form an instrument for that purpose.

Borys Gudziak, born in Syracuse of emigre Ukrainian parents, once imagined himself an NBA star. When it became clear to him that six-foot-tall Ukrainian Americans of slight build were not being avidly sought by NBA general managers, he altered his adolescent ambitions and became immersed in the life, thought, and history of the Church of his ancestors, finishing a Harvard doctorate in history with a groundbreaking study of the 1596 Union of Brest, which brought today’s Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine back into full communion with Rome. Gudziak’s studies took him to Rome, where he met Josyf Slipyj; there, his own imagination was seized by Slipyj’s hope to build a Ukrainian Catholic University on the foundations of the L’viv Theological Academy, which the exiled leader had reestablished in Rome.

Now, that vision is being realized in L’viv in the only Catholic university in the former Soviet space, a remarkable enterprise whose 2013 commencement address I was privileged to deliver on July 6. Handsome new university buildings are being erected on the edge of Stryisky Park in central L’viv; they will include, within three years, a magnificent university church that honors both Holy Wisdom and Pope St. Clement I, the pope who died in Crimean exile. The university’s press wins awards for its Ukrainian-language publications and translations; its business programs are recognized by the honest entrepreneurs of the country as the best available; its theology and philosophy departments are staffed by scholars with degrees from major universities throughout the world; its new journalism school is a direct response to the corruption of the Ukrainian media by the Yanukovych regime and the oligarchy.

Perhaps most crucially, the Ukrainian Catholic University is built around an idea that is crucial to the country’s future: Education must include formation — human formation, spiritual formation, and cultural formation. Student life in the university’s residential colleges (the first of which is now open) includes worship, service opportunities, and regular interaction with special-needs adults, on the model of Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities around the world.

And all of this is being led not just by Gudziak (who is now Bishop Gudziak, having been named head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Paris eparchy last year) but by a remarkable team of men and women that has gathered around him. Most of them grew up in the underground Church; several of them are graduates of the Gulag’s distinctive educational system; all of them are living economically sacrificial lives, at salaries far below what their advanced degrees could command elsewhere, out of commitment to the Sheptytsky–Slipyj vision of an intellectually first-rate university that provides a solid cultural foundation for Ukrainian public life while taking its inspiration from the rich spiritual heritage of eastern Christianity — and from Ukraine’s new martyrs.

The challenges are endless: Four-fifths of the university’s budget comes from donors, not from tuition and fees; the Yanukovych regime’s education ministry continues to look askance at what is afoot at UCU, although under various international pressures it has backed off from a threat to decertify the university; the initial master plan for the campus remains to be completed, and if that can be achieved, there are ambitious plans to expand the campus further so that UCU becomes a place of intellectual and spiritual encounter for the entire country. The university’s youth is an advantage, in that UCU missed the silly season that corrupted so much of Catholic higher education in the West in the late 20th century. Thus, even as it opens regular lines of communication and exchange with Catholic institutions of higher learning in the West, UCU’s challenge will be to avoid the mistakes that have rendered schools like Georgetown and Fordham largely supine in the face of the anti-culture of the imperial autonomous Self.

So a lot is at stake in L’viv these days. If Ukraine is to shed the self-destructive moral and mental habits of its colonial and totalitarian past, its civic culture must be re-formed and reconnected to the cultural sources of its national identity. Those sources are eastern Christian, and the most lively and forward-looking embodiment of the eastern Christian tradition in contemporary Ukraine is the Greek Catholic Church — a point conceded, if roughly, even by some Ukrainian Orthodox observers. The Greek Catholic Church of martyrs is now a Church in mission. The success of that mission, in which the Ukrainian Catholic University will play a key role, will have much to do with answering the question of whether Ukraine enters Europe, or is reabsorbed into a new form of Putinesque Russian imperium.

And the answer to that question touches the future of the entire West.

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

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