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Face to Face With Life in the Extreme: Eyewitness to Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity”

Euromaidan Kiev 121513

Jose Luis Orihuela

John Burger - published on 11/17/14

Papal nuncio offers impressions on the effects of Euromaidan, one year on.

One year ago this Friday, hundreds of Ukrainians began pouring out into the central square of the capital, Kiev, after their government suddenly rejected a political and free trade agreement with the European Union—a deal that could have paved Ukraine’s way to eventual membership in the EU.

President Viktor Yanukovych cited pressure from Russia in declining to sign the deal, and in spite of pressure from growing crowds of protestors, he refused. And when the window of opportunity passed, protestors demanded his resignation.

The protest rallies continued, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence, Square, giving the movement its nameEuromaidan. Protests spread to other cities.

In early December, Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin met to discuss the drafting of a strategic partnership agreement, further energizing the protestors.

Soon enough, though, Euromaidan took aim at the corruption that was rife in the government and the undignified way average Ukrainians were foreced to live.

It beggars belief that in this age, on the continent of Europe, an acknowledged beacon of civilization and equality, 45 million people must bear the injustices imposed on them by a corrupt and self-absorbed kleptocracy,” wrote Andy Hunder, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, in an article titled “A Revolution of Human Dignity.” “That is what millions of Ukrainians have been living with for years – a system that is decayed and crooked at its core. A system where only the privileged few reap rewards, and whose values seem to be based solely on greed and oppression. The people of Ukraine have said, ‘Enough! The time has come for change.’”

But like most revolutions, this “revolution of dignity” was not without suffering. There had been clashes—some violentbetween security forces and protestors, as well as targeting of activists in the movement, but things took a dramatic turn for the worse in February, when two nights of violence left an estimated 100 protestors dead.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych signed anti-protest laws, Russia annexed Crimea, and pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine declared areas to be independent of Kievand continue to engage Ukraine’s military. Tragically, a surface-to-air missile, thought to be supplied by Russia, brought down a civilian aircraft overflying Eastern Ukraine.

But Yanokovich eventually was forced from office, and the country elected a new president, Petro Poroshenko, and parliament. Though the war continues in the East, Ukrainians are hopeful for more lasting and deeper changes.

Poroshenko recently signed a decree to establish a new national holiday to commemorate the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013 Euromaidan protests. The new holiday, which will be celebrated November 21, will be called the National Day of Freedom and Dignity.

Aleteia is speaking with several people in Ukraine this week to get a glimpse into how their lives have changed as a result of the “Revolution of Dignity” and what they feel must happen now.

Archbishop Thomas E. Gullickson, a native of South Dakota, has been the Vatican’s nuncio to Ukraine since 2011. He provided Aleteia his viewpoint through email.

What from your perspective as the Pope’s representative in Kiev has changed for Ukraine in this year since the beginning of Euromaidan?

Lots. Refined in the crucible of suffering and heroic sacrifice, Ukraine is forging leaders for its people and a national identity, something new after so many years of repression. After presidential and parliamentary elections, there is hope that governmental and social reform will further empower people for nation building. One of the most challenging questions to answer would be what impact this year has had on the Churches and religious communities here in Ukraine.

What can you say about the average Ukrainian’s faith life? Has the "revolution of dignity" had an impact on traditional schemas regarding the faith life of the people?

People tell me that following independence in 1991 there was a short-term popular resurgence of religious faith among the Orthodox Christian majority of Ukraine, but by 1996 I am told it had tapered off, and outsiders predicted the disappearance of the Orthodox Church as a social force. That did not happen, but Orthodox life is very tenuous in many parts of the country, where one would expect them to be strong and vital. The traditional Catholic regions of Ukraine have followed a very different trajectory; it has been one of steady growth and development for the Greek Catholic Church ever since 1989. Never underestimate the strength of family tradition and culture as instruments of evangelization!

Generally speaking, I think you can say that, baptized or not, Ukrainians are seekers; they seek God as He manifests Himself within His Church. The Protestant Churches have known significant growth in the last years, whereas the Orthodox have been marked by a discreet recovery and Catholics by steady growth. This last year has brought many people face to face with life in the extreme, with war. Because of it, many people have existential questions that cry out for a response. Others seem to have found answers; especially among young people, war and devastation have offered opportunities for them to shine in adversity.

One of the German TV stations was embarrassed by an informal poll it took, indicating that 89% of their viewers sided with Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine conflict. Would you care to comment?

Apart from the prudence one must use in interpreting such samplings (could that be the same famous 89% that kept appearing in Russian polls months ago?), I guess I would not be surprised if Germans had no time for Ukrainians and wished that a perceived “strongman” like Putin should manage all those “tribes” east of Magdeburg and the Elbe River. Ukraine’s revolution of dignity has raised countless questions about what constitutes national identity. We really have not come very far since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago. The whole Scotland discussion earlier this year and the serious questions posed by the European Union over and against many national entities in the region only dating from the last century has to be baffling for people.

To my mind this is as good a reason as any for holding tenaciously to the principles of international law, recognizing Ukraine’s boundaries and sovereignty from 1991, confirmed by Russia and others again in 1994.

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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