A member of the Ukrainian armed forces is seen at combat positions at the line of separation from Russian-backed rebels near the village of Novomykhalivka in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Jan. 21. CNS photo/Anna Kudriavtseva, Reuters

Ukraine-Russia divide beyond religion

  • January 26, 2022

COVID has kept Fr. Mykhailo Ozorovych out of Ukraine the last two years, but he knows what the country of his birth is fighting for in Donbass and understands the threat Ukraine faces from more than 100,000 Russian troops massed on its eastern border.

“Those who are dying there (in eastern Ukraine) are the brightest and the more courageous — those who are willing to lay their lives for their loved ones, those who are willing to sacrifice. And there is no life without sacrifice,” said the administrator of Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in New Westminster, B.C.

Ozorovich doesn’t believe Russia will invade, but he’s not betting his next pay cheque.

“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin doesn’t seem to be guided by reason and wisdom, so it might be that they do,” he said.

At stake are Christian values of liberty, freedom and dignity — values Ukrainians fought for in the 2014 Maidan Revolution against a corrupt government that operated Ukraine as a client state of Russia, said Ozorovich. Ukrainians refer to the 2014 uprising as the “Revolution of Dignity.”

“It allowed people to look at themselves as ones having dignity and having inherent freedoms that they were willing to stand up for,” Ozorovych said.

Ozorovych concedes that not every Ukrainian is on-side with a more pluralistic, democratic Ukraine that looks west to Europe and rejects Moscow’s attempt to dominate. But while an older generation nurses nostalgia for a stable place within a once mighty empire, young Ukrainians long for a democratic future.

“People are willing to pay tax, cheat less,” said Ozorovich. “They know they will give it a fair chance at proving themselves, be it at university, be it at a job.”

Before he sent troops to undertake military exercises on the border with Ukraine, Putin wrote, “Our spiritual unity has also been attacked.” Ukrainians knew exactly what he meant.

In 2015 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew granted approval for an autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine — one not beholden to the Moscow Patriarchate. That independent church now claims nearly 60 per cent of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians, compared to 25 per cent still under the Moscow Patriarchate and more than 10 per cent who refuse to be categorized.

Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill have repeatedly attacked the idea of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. They call it schismatic and selling out to the West. Kirill has even hinted that the Ecumenical Patriarch has been co-opted into a political plot engineered by the Americans.

“No one will convince me that this isn’t the implementation of a certain plan aimed at weakening the spiritual life of Ukraine, breaking the unity of historical Russia,” the patriarch told Russia-24 TV in November.

“The government of Russia has found it convenient to present itself as the defender of conservative, religious values,” said Matthew Light of the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. “It’s on the whole, not true. What might be true is that on issues of women’s equality and sexuality the Russian government has definitely staked out more conservative positions than Western European governments.”

But Light does not believe a culture war lurks underneath the shooting war, even if religion sometimes determines politics in Ukraine.

“It’s fair to say that the Catholic community in Ukraine is very associated with Ukrainian independence, the desire for an independent Ukraine and for a Ukraine that is fully autonomous from Russia and not following the Russian lead,” Light said.

The Byzantine Rite Greek Catholics of Ukraine only represent eight to 10 per cent of the population, points out Tymofii Brik, a sociologist of religion at the Kyiv School of Economics. While religious talk comes up frequently, religion is not driving the conflict, Brik told The Catholic Register.

“This war is very much about identities and religion is part of identities,” Brik wrote in an email. “But still, I would not reduce the war, and the attitudes of Ukrainians towards the war, to this factor.”

In surveys, Ukrainians come across as more likely to identify with a church than Western Europeans, but in practice they are no more religious, said Brik. Just like Catholics in the West, many show up only at Christmas and Easter.

“Religion is just one of many labels which Ukrainians use to signal their distance from Russia and a desire to be closer to the EU and West,” said Brik. “There is an old joke, ‘I am an atheist! But I am an atheist from the Kyiv Orthodox Church, not the Moscow one!’ ”

The result is that the Russia-Ukraine conflict may produce very religious propaganda for a war that’s really about political hegemony and economic interests.

“Russian elites, politicians, philosophers and pundits push the narrative of the ‘Russian world,’ which is basically an idea that everyone who speaks (or spoke) Russian, who is Orthodox and who has some historical ties with Russia belongs to the same ‘civilization.’ In a way, Russians see themselves as heroes who protect Ukrainians from the Western propaganda, who protect Ukraine from the devils of the EU and U.S., from homosexuality,” Brik said. “Many Russian intellectuals would claim that this is almost a holy war to protect Russians and their ‘small brothers,’ Ukrainians.”

As the conflict continues in eastern Ukraine, it has killed nearly 5,000 on the Ukrainian side and nearly 6,000 on the Russian side, with as many as 23,000 injured on both sides. The grind of the eight-year-old war and further threats from Russia is driving many of the most educated and mobile Ukrainians into exile in places like Canada, said Ozorovych.

Russia’s strategy for splitting Ukrainian society along cultural, economic and religious lines is undermining Ukrainian democracy, said the priest. But Ozorovych has hope.

“We’re people of resurrection, people of hope,” he said. “We hope it leads to new life and it can.”

Meanwhile, Canada’s Ukrainian Catholic Bishops are calling on the 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian origin to “fight falsehood in a post-truth public debate being warped by Russian disinformation.”

The bishops Jan. 23 statement accuses Russia of using Ukraine “as a pawn in a game of posturing between outside powers,” and hiding its “imperialistic ambitions.”

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