Ukraine: Faith and State

5 Mins read

“Russians and Ukrainians are one people — a single whole,” Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in a passionate article on on July 12, 2021. It was a long dissertation on the common origins of Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians in medieval Kievan Rus’ and their history through the century, concluding that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” He also argued that the Ukrainian leadership had “wasted and frittered away the achievements of many generations,” accusing them of imposing a nationalist, anti-Russian sentiment against the will of the Ukrainian people (Retrieved Jan. 21, 2022 from the original by Wikipedia).

What urged Putin to say all that? In April 2021, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that provocations by Russia with the relocation of troops to the border with Ukraine and the aggravation of the situation in the east (the Ukrainian secessionists supported by Putin) were the most serious since the attack on Ukrainian sailors in the Kerch Strait in November 2018 (Retrieved May 31, 2021 from the original by Wikipedia). Putin alternately denied the unspoken threat to Ukraine by the massing of troops on their common borders, and his spoken affirmation of the oneness of Russia and Ukraine.

But History will not be silenced, as it repeats itself in the re-enactment of the past that already forbode the continuing conflicts between Russians and Ukrainians. Perhaps Putin is wrong. Russians and Ukrainians are not one people. Maybe he knows that, too.

The dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) three decades ago divided the people of the union. Some say it was inadvertently started by then-President Mikhail Gorbachev when he introduced glasnost (transparency of government) and perestroika (participative public-private cooperation) at that time when the Cold War was thawing between the communist governments and the democratic “West” led by America, and the peoples of the Soviet states became aware of how other nations lived and thrived. It lit the fire of individual nationalism and identity in the constituent national republics, who realized their own capabilities and powers beyond the communistic yet autocratic control of the Supreme Soviet.

The liberalization led indirectly to the revolutions of 1989 in which Soviet states first clamored to choose their representatives, not the Party-nominated candidates, to sit in the Soviet Legislature. In 1989 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) introduced limited competitive elections to a new central legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies (although the ban on other political parties was not lifted until 1990). But the states wanted more. They wanted to make their own laws and rule their own lives. Protests for independence spread like wildfire in the 1990s.

In 1991, the leaders of three of the Union’s founding and largest republics (the Russian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, and the Byelorussian SSR) declared that the Soviet Union no longer existed, and eight more republics joined them shortly thereafter. Kazakhstan was the last nation to leave the Union, proclaiming independence on Dec. 16. All the republics, with the exception of Georgia and the Baltics, joined the CIS on Dec. 21, signing the Alma-Ata Protocol.

Gorbachev resigned. There was no more USSR. The former constituent national republics were just neighbors. Not one people, as Putin says of Russians and Ukrainians — contradictory to his assault on Ukraine today. What else can Russian air strikes and bombings, tanks plunging into Ukrainian border cities, the killing of civilians and young soldiers mean but that the Russian bully does not care for its own, if Ukraine were really its dearest brother. As of last Friday, Russia had not agreed to a ceasefire requested by Ukraine.

The world is aghast and angry at Putin’s aggression into Ukrainian territory and sovereignty, and his coddling and arming of Ukrainian separatist rebels who have pledged allegiance to him in exchange for successful secession and independence from Ukraine. Except for China, North Korea, and Cuba (all communist), nations have called the Russian attacks on Ukraine “criminal” and imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia. The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres qualified the decision of the Russian Federation “related to the status of certain regions of Ukraine” to be “a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations” ( Feb. 22, 2022).

In the midst of the anxieties of the two-year-long COVID-19 pandemic, there is a fear of the pandemonium and upheaval of a looming possible World War III. Pope Francis called for peace several times during Sunday Angelus in Rome and his weekly General Audiences, describing war as “madness” (Vatican News, Jan. 23, 2022). At the start of the Lenten season of the Church year, the Pope exhorted Christians to pray harder for Russia to relent and repent, for the conflict to end and for peace and harmony to again cover the world.

And no other can be praying harder for peace than Ukraine. It is an overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian nation, with nearly eight in 10 adults (78%) identifying as Orthodox (compared with 71% in Russia), according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. (Roman Catholics are 7.5% of some 38.4 million Christians [Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants] who make up 81.9% of the total population.)

The Pew Research Center says that “Orthodox Christianity is closely tied to Ukraine’s national and political life. Roughly half of all Ukrainians (51%) say it is at least somewhat important for someone to be Orthodox to be truly Ukrainian. The same is true for Russia, where 57% say being Orthodox is important to being truly Russian. In both countries, about half (48% in each) say religious leaders have at least some influence in political matters, although most Ukrainians (61%) and roughly half of Russians (52%) would prefer if this were not the case.

“The split between the Orthodox churches in the two countries is part and parcel of a wider history of political tensions between Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in the region and Ukraine’s resistance to them — even as some other predominantly Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe look toward Russia for political and religious leadership. For example, majorities of Orthodox Christians in countries such as Serbia (77%) and Georgia (62%) say Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians outside its borders, but fewer Orthodox Ukrainians (41%) feel this way,” the Pew research points out (

In the time of the USSR, the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches were under the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, meaning that the Russian Patriarch (who is like the Roman Catholic Pope) made the decisions on spiritual and temporal issues for the church and even the state. The political leaders and the church leaders coordinated and cooperated in ruling the people — but under the Soviet Party.

In 1990, the Ukrainian Christian community broke its shackles. When the constituent national republics were demanding autonomy and independence from the USSR, the local Ukrainian church leaders were the first and most decisive to initiate reforms. In January, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church held its first synod since its liquidation by the Soviets in 1946 (an act which the gathering declared invalid). In April that year, the Lviv City Council voted to return St. George Cathedral to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church refused to yield. In June, Metropolitan Mstyslav of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was elected patriarch of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) during that Church’s first synod. The UAOC declared its full independence from the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in March had granted autonomy to the Ukrainian Orthodox church headed by the Metropolitan Filaret (from “Dissolution of the Soviet Union” — Wikipedia).

“More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) said.

Russia may well relent and repent — if the world prays fervently enough.

Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.

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