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Ukraine One Year After Euromaidan: Struggling but Hopeful

People at Euromaidan

John Burger - published on 11/21/14

A "Revolution of Dignity" has restored values, unified society, Ukrainians say

There’s a certain sadness that comes with November in Ukraine. It’s the time of year when Ukrainians commemorate the Holodomor—the forced famine they suffered under Stalin in the 1930s. And Nov. 15 is the anniversary of the Soviet annexation of Western Ukraine in 1939, which for many brings up all kinds of memories.

But when Ukrainians gather tonight to remember the beginning of a movement that began just one year ago, they will come together with a sense of hope.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has declared Nov. 21 a National Day of Freedom and Dignity. It marks the first anniversary of the beginning of the Euromaidan demostrations in Kiev, which spread to other cities and had far-reaching effects. Beginning as a protest against former President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to forgo closer ties with the European Union in favor of better relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the movement evolved into a clarion call for a cleaner, more transparent government, free of corruption, and a life of greater dignity for the average Ukrainian citizen.

It came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, and it spurred a major political shift in the country, leading to Yanukovych’s resignatioin and the election of a new president and parliament.

“This time last year nobody dreamt about changing our president and parliament. Today, it seems like a miracle,” said Anatoliy Babinskyj, editor in chief of a magazine of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Kiev.

But Ukrainians also didn’t imagine that they would wind up in a war with neighboring Russia.

Indeed, the Revolution of Dignity has not been without much struggle and bloodshed. Yanukovych’s security forces tried to squelch the protests that continued through the winter, leading to beatings of activists and journalists and, in February, in a quasi-Tiananmen-Square-like crackdown, the death of some 100 protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square.

Putin, meanwhile, presided over the annexation of Crimea, and a pro-Russian separatist movement sprang up in parts of Eastern Ukraine, where almost 1000 people have been killed amid continuing hostilities since a September 5 ceasefire, according to a UN human rights office report this week. Altogether, since April, fighting has claimed at least 4,317 lives. The number of people internally displaced by the violence has risen sharply in the past two months to nearly 466,830 in all.

Russia has denied accusations of covertly supplying the Ukrainian rebels with military aid. The conflict had international implications with the downing of a passenger airliner over Eastern Ukraine, thought to be the result of rebels firing a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile.

In spite of the hardships of the past year, however, many Ukrainians cherish the freedom they are securing.

“I don’t think the fall of the [Yanukovych] regime, which was in power for a long time, could happen without extra difficulties,” said Marina Sidorkina, a psychologist in Kiev who works with families of “the Heavenly Hundred,” the protestors who were killed at the Maidan in February. Noting that the economy has suffered over the past year, she said, “People who are more democratically oriented are ready to go through these financial difficulties for the sake of the future of the country, for the sake of living in a free country, for the sake of having politics which are more transparent, not having hidden decisions which benefit only a few people while the rest suffer.”

Sidorkina is part of an NGO called the Ukrainian Association of Specialists in Overcoming the Consequences of Traumatic Events, which began in the midst of the Euromaidan. “We have trained volunteers all over Ukraine who are providing support to the families of those who died, to the wounded, to the refugees and other traumatized population,” she said.

That would include soldiers coming back from the war in the East.

And in spite of that rebellion, Euromaidan had an important unifying effect on the nation, believes Volodymyr Turchynovskyy, a professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and director of the International Institute for Ethics and Contemporary Issues.

“It was such a powerful expression of solidarity and values and respect for human dignity that it empowered almost all of us in the country in the sense that we feel, ‘Yeah, there is some sense of community spirit among the people. Since we made this kind of achievement we are ready to face future challenges,’” said Turchynovskyy.

He explained that finding a common “language of values” was important in bringing together Ukrainians from the predominantly Catholic West with those from the predominantly Orthodox Eastern part of the country, between those whose primary language is Ukrainian and those whose mother tongue is Russian, between more affluent business people and those who are struggling, as well as among people from ethnic minorities such as Georgians, Armenians and Poles.

“All of them were at Maidan, standing for human dignity, defending freedom—both individual freedom and freedom of the country,” he said. “And the sense of this, I think it was absolutely crucial, because all these differences were put into a perspective. It’s almost something you can feel these days, like the language thing.”

The values embraced by the movement—such as justice, solidarity, honesty, freedom—what Turchynovskyy calls "European values"—translated into votes for particular candidates in Ukraine’s new government. "Almost 85% voted for candidates who were explicitly sending this kind of message," he said. 

In addition, the Revolution of Dignity opened many people up to the spiritual life, Turchynovskyy added. In Ukraine, which only 23 years ago threw off Soviet communism, with its attendant banishment of religion to the extreme recesses of private life, many people ”were never really exposed, never had a chance to experience religious life,” he said. The Churches were involved in Euromaidan, and priests, seminarians and religious were present at the demonstrations. This presence proved valuable, especially when things got violent or the atmosphere became tense. Maidan was a “dramatic moment” in the lives of Ukrainians, and protestors’ “commitment to real values and human dignity and solidarity and justice kind of exposed them to a religious dimension.

But there have been challenges in the religious sphere as well. Some 25 parishes in Ukraine have broken ties with the “official” Orthodox Church in Ukraine because it is affiliated with the Patriarchate of Moscow, and teamed up with one of the two other Ukraiinian Orthodox Churches, which are considered “non-canonical,” or not sanctioned by the greater Orthodox communion.

The Moscow Patriarchate in Russia has supported Putin “very openly,” said Babinskij, who also works for the Institute of Religion and Society. People in the 25 breakaway parishes "do not want to identify themselves with the Moscow Patriarchate,” he said. “We have a war between Russia and Ukraine—not a classical war, because Russia always says there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, but everybody understands there is a war. So people in these parishes decided that their connection with the Moscow Patriarchate is a bad thing. How can they pray for [Russian Orthodox Patriarch] Kirill when the president of Russia decided to begin a war with Ukraine? Some priests in these parishes didn’t want to pray for Ukrainian soldiers who were killed. So people were angry.”

Euromaidan raised hopes for the Churches and "opportunities for the Churches to reconcile,” said Father Cyril Hovorun, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, who serves as research director at the Institute of Theological Studies at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “If they received an impulse from the Maidan to work together in overcoming areas like corruption, injustice and so forth, this would be a great opportunity for them to get closer to each other.”

But he hasn’t seen that happening yet. “The rhetoric of hostility unfortunately continues, and it has become even stronger than it was before the Maidan. Some of [the Churches] get even more isolated, primarily the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Some unfriendly steps continue.”

A dramatic example of that took place in Rome in October, when Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, invited by the Vatican to speak at the Synod on the Family as a representative of Patriarch Kirill, launched into a diatribe against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, in the presence of its patriarch, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Metropolitan Hilarion went from saying a few words about family issues to condemning the “Uniates” of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church—a pejorative termthat has been largely “banned” from ecumenical dialogue but which refers to Ukrainians who reunited with Rome in the 16th Century.

“The Greek Catholic Church has been accused of being responsible for the unrest in the East of Ukraine by the Moscow Patriarchate, and this is not correct at all,” Father Hovorun, a one-time spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. "I think this is an attempt to remove some responsibility from the Russian politicians and to move it to the Greek Catholic Church and make it a scapegoat."

But although some individual priests of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church may have made comments along the way that may have been too political or even inflammatory, this gave Moscow an excuse to accuse the Greek Catholic Church, he said. Greek Catholic priests were “among the people” at Maidan, as were representatives of other confessions. “It was not a Greek Catholic event, it was an ecumenical event,” Father Hovorun said.

The conflict with Russia is having other ramifications, as well, as noted recently by Forum 18. Priests and religious from Ukraine and other countries who are working in Crimea are finding that their residence permits will not be renewed after Jan. 1. Many parishes of the Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, and non-canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Churches may be forced to close. Turkish imams also will have to leave the region. 

"Catholic appeals to the authorities against this have not been heeded," the Forum 18 news service report said. 

This is the third and last in a series of articles about Ukraine one year after the beginning of "The Revolution of Dignity." The first two parts can be read here and here.

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

Synod on the FamilyUkraine
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