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Former Soviet Dissident Shares Views on War in Ukraine

Myroslav Marynovych


John Burger - published on 11/19/14

A conversation with Ukrainian human rights activist Myroslav Marynovych

Ukrainian human rights activist Myroslav Marynovych was in the Kiev rail station the other day, when police cleared the facility because of a bomb threat.

There was no bomb, in fact, but it’s the kind of disturbance that happens almost daily in Ukraine’s larger cities, and Marynovych is convinced the called-in threats are orchestrated by the Kremlin.

This is irratational, it creates a sense that there is no order, there is something dangerous,” said Marynovich in a phone interview from his office at  the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, where he is vice rector for university mission.

How does he know Moscow is behind the disturbances?

I know the logic of this office. I have a long experience of this,” he said.

The fact is, Marynovich, 65, grew up in Soviet Ukraine, and he tussled with the system. He was conscripted into the Red Army in his twenties. He worked to found the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, a group that monitored the Soviet government’s compliance with the 1975 landmark human rights accords, so in 1977, he was arrested as an agitator and sentenced to seven years of hard labor and five years in exile.

“The time in the Soviet gulag happened to be the most difficult, but, at the same time, the most spiritually rewarding in my life,” he said in June, as the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation awarded him the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom in Washington. 

In 1991, Marynovych founded and chaired the Ukrainian chapter of Amnesty International. He is also active in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, of which his grandfather was a priest. 

Marynovych spoke with Aleteia about the effects of the Euromaidan, which began with a protest against then-Presidnt Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to pursue closer ties with Russia rather than the European Union, and evolved into what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has declared Nov. 21 a National Day of Freedom and Dignity. What is planned at the Ukrainian Catholic University to mark the first anniversary of Euromaidan?

This is a great moment for us. I’m happy that this date will be celebrated. We were planning to celebrate even without that decision of our president.  

At the university, on Wednesday (the day of our own university liturgy) we’ll have a liturgy with a special prayer for those who were killed [at Euromaidan, including a young professor from Ukrainian Catholic University]. We will have a big bread to share with the whole community. It’s a Ukrainian tradition to commemorate in this way people who died.

On the 21st, the students will go in one group from the university to the main square of the city, as they went in those days. … In the evening they will have some recollection at the square, showing some videos, people freely going to the mike.

Then a few days later we will have a presentation of a new student film about the voice of young people: what about that voice today?

It was students who started Euromaidan, but later, political parties put young people aside, so something changed in the sense that the language of values was not so articulated as during the youth period of Euromaidan. For us it is important that this voice is still present and still sounded out. 

Our theologians plan to get together and speak about the chaplaincy on the Maidan, this experience, what was important in those days. At the beginning, Church was not so important on the Maidan, but later more and more, especially after the tragedies, this dimension became important.

Where do things stand in Ukraine, one year after all this started?

The trajectory of our expectations changed because of the agression of Russia. At the Maidan no one expected the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine. It changed the whole rhetoric of Maidan, because Maidan was clearly about values and reforms
—immediate reforms. 

Then, the country is almost ruined because Yanukovych has stolen our treasure. The army was dismantled. SBUthe security servicewas in the hands of the Russians. So we had to restore all these state functions. This was the biggest necessity, not reforms.

Of course, we all understood that it couldn’t mean that we put reforms ad calendas graecas… No, we need them, even during the war. But the problem was there were limited human resources at that time. The acting president at that time and head of the government had to deal with all these urgent needs. It’s not that they didn’t have time to think about reforms. Now the situation is different. At least I know that many reforms are planned to be adopted by the new parliament.

I don’t speak here about the quality of reforms. I have some concern here because the old elite would love to name some moment as reforms but change only something without changing the core of our problems. So we will see.

But at the same time, all our politicians understand that pressure from the nation would be very strong. Many people are nervous. “We want to see reforms, otherwise we will die. We want to see change.” I’ll guess that part of the population will be unhappy with the reforms. As always. At least at some period of time reforms will worsen our economic stage and so on. This is preparation for future development.

But still, I’m not 100% optimistic but at least I have some hope for positive development.

For me, it’s not clear what will be the behavior of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. For him, the improvement of the situation in Ukraine and positive reforms, its success, is like a death for his government. He’ll do everything possible to make reforms worse. Every day, there are some provocations, some small attempts to… for example, yesterday, I was in Kiev and the whole railway station was evacuated after a phoned-in bomb threat. So the police cleared the space. This is irratational, it creates a sense that there is no order, there is something dangerous. But there’s a purpose. In many citiesKharkiv, Kiev, Lvivthere  are small provocations that destroy the atmosphere of positive development.

You know it’s coming from Putin?

I’m absolutely sure. I know the logic of this office. I have a long experience of this.

So, a year after the beginning of the Euromaidan, which became a call for a greater life of dignity, have things gotten better?

So far we’ve had only two attempts to make reforms, in education and in lustration. In education, we are very happy with that. It gives much more space for positive development. Of course, every reform is costly, and this education reform is costly as well. So there will be the next problem: will this reform be implemented as soon as possible? At least we have legal space for these reforms now granted, and we will work for further reforms for universities. 

I’m not so sure about lustration. It seems to me that it is partial or maybe it would be wrongly implemented. We will see.

What we need is decentralization of our systems, management of the country. We need tax reform to make our small and medium-sized business more successful. There’s a big list of what we have to do almost immediately.

How are the relationships among the Churches in the wake of Euromaida?

We have very good experience of the Maidan. There was a brotherhood, especially among people on the Maidan. We had common prayersChristian, Jewish rabbis, Muslim mullahs. There was a feeling of unity of the country because the human dignity is a core concept in every religion. It was very helpful to unite people around that. There is also an optimistic vision of the future in different segments. For example, I gave some lectures at two big fora, for the Jewish community of all Ukraine, held in Lviv, and the Protestant forum I just came from in Kiev. Three times I had the floor. Both meetings were just excellent, with many energetic, bright people, with an optimistic vision, because everybody is concerned about Russia, and our future development. No one can deny the danger of the invasion, but people are not just sitting and just waiting and crying. They are very energetic. I was very amazed when I spoke to people of different Protestant churches. They knew that I am Greek Catholic and represent the Ukrainian Catholic University, but their attitude was absolutely positive. Everyone spoke about their experience of Maidan.

It doesn’t mean there are no doctrinal tensions among the Churches; of course there are, but it seems to me that the importance of common experience at Maidan will be visible and important at least for a year or two. I want to be moderate in my expectations.

At the Synod on the Family in Rome, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion made some remarks criticizing the “Uniates,” or the Ukrainian Greek Catholics. How do you feel when you hear things like that?

I feel that the Russian Orthodox Church has no arguments at all because the argument about Uniatism is the last one. They stop with this accusation any negotiations, any dialogue. I immediately thought, “Oh, they have nothing to say except ‘Awful uniates.’” This argument might have worked at the beginning of the 90s, but when so many foreigners, representatives of western Churches, visited Ukraine and saw the real life without something artificial, without Potemkin villages, without artificially made impressions, just real life, people understood that Russia used a false argument. …  Both Catholic and protestant segments want to preserve the last remnant of the dialogue, but there is no dialogue at all with the Russian Orthodox. That is the question. I visited many ecumenical meetings as a representative of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. If there is dialogue we will all benefit from it. But there is a moment when the hierarchs from the Russian Orthodox Church come, take the floor, say something negative about Catholics, then say “I’m very sorry, I’m very busy” and withdraw. It is even mentioned in the social doctrine of the Russian Church. If you read carefully, you will see the dialogue of the Russian Orthodox Church with the ecumenical movement. And what idea is behind that? “We will use that opportunity to deliver our position.” That’s all.

A delegation from my Church once went to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. We were invited by [Russian Orthodox Church spokesman] Vsevolod Chaplin. He invited us to sit down and for 10 minutes he spoke about how awful we are, and then gave us the floor. You cannot imagine that in the Vatican. But how is it possible for the Catholic community to respect that behavior? This is not Christian—absolutely not ecumenical dialogue.

So something has to be changed in understanding. Because the Catholic Church respects such a behavior it doesn’t allow the positive development in the Russian Orthodox Church because this ugly behavior is successful, because the whole world respects them. Why should they change?

It’s a pity that my Church has pushed itself into one narrow space and cannot change that because we will lose everything. No! We have to put clear rules. “Okay, you don’t want to go into negotiations? Okay, we will respect your will, and we will do what is possible with other Orthodox Churches.”

By the way, at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, Moscow didn’t plan to be part of it, but when they heard that Rome was negotiating with Constantinople they immediately came. so it’s the best way to invite through the dialogue, showing, “Okay, we respect your will,” and do many good things with Constantinople or other Orthodox Churches.  I know these  people from Romania; they are excellent Orthodox theologians. Why are they secondary in comparison to Russians? It would be real ecumnical dialogue. 

This is the second part of a series of articles about Ukraine one year after the beginning of the Euromaidan protests. Part 1 can be read here.

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

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