Ukraine

A thousand years of Orthodoxy history loom over today's Moscow-Istanbul clash

A thousand years of Orthodoxy history loom over today's Moscow-Istanbul clash

The great prince Vladimir had a problem in the year 986, while striving to build unity in the Kievan Rus, his network of Eastern Slavic and Finnic tribes.

The old pagan gods and goddesses were not enough. So the prince dispatched ambassadors to investigate Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and the Orthodox faith of the Christian East.

When they returned to Kiev, their report included this passage about Byzantium: "We went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth. … All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. … We cannot remain any more in paganism."

So Vladimir surrendered his concubines and was baptized in 988, while commanding his people to convert. Orthodoxy came to the lands of the Rus.

This early chronicle was, according to church tradition, written by St. Nestor of the great Kiev-Pechersk Monastery, founded in 1051. Pilgrims continue to flock to the Monastery of the Kiev Caves to see its beautiful churches, soaring bell tower, the labyrinthine underground tunnels and the incorrupt bodies of many saints.

Note the importance of the word "Kiev" in that spiritual and national narrative.

"Just as the original Church in Jerusalem is the mother of all Orthodox Churches around the world, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople some 300 years later, so the venerable see of Kiev in Kievan Rus in the tenth century is the mother of the Churches in all the East Slavic Orthodox lands -- including the current nation-states of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Byelorussia," explained the Very Rev. Alexander Webster, dean of Holy Trinity Seminary in upstate New York. This seminary is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

"Kiev is the Russian Orthodox Church," he said, "and the Russian Orthodox Church is Kiev."

Nevertheless, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has taken the first step to establish an independent, or "autocephalous," Orthodox church in Ukraine. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church responded by breaking "Eucharistic communion" with Istanbul.

Speaking as an Orthodox convert (I joined the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church and now attend a Bible Belt parish with Russian roots), I think it's important for anyone following this byzantine drama to know that:

* The historic ties between Kiev and Russian Orthodoxy are more than talking points in arguments involving the United States, the European Union, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Apocalyptic visions about Chernobyl

KIEV -- The apocalyptic visions begin just inside the doors of the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum and many of them lead straight into the Book of Revelation. The final pages of Christian scripture are full of angels, trumpets, flames, thunder, lighting, earthquakes and catastrophes that shake heaven and earth.

In this museum, the key is in the eighth chapter: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

When Ukrainians translate "wormwood" into their own language it becomes "chernobyl." It's easy to connect the two when discussing the legacy of pain that followed the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Power Station north of Kiev, when explosions and fires at the reactor core released a plume of radioactive debris that drifted over Russian and into Europe.

Soviet officials claim a mere 31 died. Ukrainians mock this number, saying it's impossible to calculate the long-term fallout in cancers, birth defects and other forms of human suffering.

"The catastrophe at Chernobyl station took its victims before their time," said Archpriest Andrei Tkachev of St. Agapit of Pechersk Orthodox Church in Kiev. "Man is supposed to meet death in his own time, when he has a chance to prepare to meet God. That kind of death is a gift from God -- a good death.

"That is not what happened for many of the victims of Chernobyl."

The museum opened on April 26, 1992, the fifth anniversary of the disaster and soon after the Soviet Union's collapse. The exhibits include 7,000 artifacts from the 76 towns and villages -- with 76 churches, in this historically Orthodox culture -- that were razed in the radiation-tainted resettlement zone.

The door into a large chamber dedicated to the families and children of Chernobyl leads to the church iconostasis, with a radiation suit hanging in place of the Archangel Michael and barbed wire and a contamination sign blocking the way to the altar. High overhead is an icon of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of endangered children.

The altar is gone, replaced by a boat -- to carry souls over the waters of death -- full of children's toys. Under the boat, the blackness is full of the icons of saints.

The Chernobyl disaster was especially poignant, said Tkachev, because it struck a region that for many symbolized the innocence and safety of the past.

"The people here were simple people. They didn't have writers and journalists to tell their stories," he said. "This is an attempt to tell their story, using what they left behind when they were forced to flee the homes, their schools and their churches. ...

"Modern life separates a man who has deep faith from a man who has little. In these villages, life and faith was simply combined and you can see that here."

In one of the starkest images -- over a map of the stricken region -- the melting reactor literally shatters a famous icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, while an apocalyptic storm swirls around her.

"We are tempted to think that fire and water and all the elements of nature are at our command, but that is not true," said Tkachev, outside the final exhibit hall. "We can become victims. ... The more technologies are in our lives, the more danger there is that we become their servants, even their slaves."

The archpriest stroked his beard, thinking of another way of stating the ultimate message of this sobering tribute to lessons learned at Chernobyl.

Finally he offered a litany of simple images.

If a man builds a bicycle and it breaks while he is riding it, then he will be hurt when he falls, said Tkachev. If he builds an airplane and it breaks, this man will almost certainly die when it crashes.

"Now, if we build a nuclear reactor in our back yard and it breaks, then the catastrophe will kill many and it may last into future generations," he said. "What this teaches us is that we must fear God and try to be humble about the things that we build with our own hands."

Religion ghosts in Ukraine

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."