The Russian Church’s war against Ukrainian culture and history

As Ukraine engages in a war against the Russian invasion of the Donbas and soldiers give their lives for the sake of freedom, a silent war is being waged at the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv.

The Pecherska Lavra is a territory that includes churches, monastic quarters, the Metropolitan of Kyiv’s residence, and the holy relics of generations of saints; in addition to housing six National Museums and an artists’ studio. The Moscow Patriarchate, which has exclusive permission to hold services at the Lavra, has targeted the artists’ studios and the museums in what can be described as a corporate raidership of property. If successful, the cultural and artistic heritage of Ukraine and the city of Kyiv could potentially be destroyed.

Overlooking the mighty Dnipro River, the Ivan Yizhakevych Lavra Art Studios was founded over 130 years ago and has housed countless prominent Ukrainian artists and iconographers such as Mykhailo Boitchuk, Maria Pryjmachenko, Heorhii Yakutovych, Petro Vlasenko, Yuriy Khymych and others. Boitchuk, the founder of the Monumentalist School of Art, was executed by Stalin on the grounds that he was a Vatican spy. Diego Rivera worked with Boitchuk during the early 1930s at the Artists’ Studio.

eviction

Prior to the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-2014, numerous attempts were made to evict the artists from their premises. During Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency the heat and electricity were turned off, eviction notifications were sent, and the artists took to the streets in the hopes that citizens of good will would defend them. In conversations with a former director of the Lavra the reason given for the eviction was that this studio does not serve a religious function. It was rumored that the monastic authorities were planning to remodel the building into a residence for Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

However, another historical structure was successfully evicted. The Hromashevsky Infectious Diseases Hospital, built at the beginning of the 20th century and funded by the citizens of Kyiv, was closed last year. Metropolitan Pavlo Lebid, instrumental in the eviction of the hospital, has been criticized by the press for money laundering, an ostentatious lifestyle, and celebrating his 50th birthday to the tune of $100,000.00 American dollars. The monks who founded the monastery in the 10th century attended to the needs of the sick by studying medicine, visiting Mt. Athos in the search of medicinal herbs, and by opening the first hospital on monastery grounds. There are plans to turn the building into a hotel for Lavra visitors and pilgrims. The argument of what defines a “religious function” seems skewed in favor of financial profit as opposed to meeting the needs of the poor, sick and marginalized.

The Monastery of the Caves (Pecherska Lavra) has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The guidelines for the inclusion of a site are the following:

Each property nominated should therefore: represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; or exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design; or bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared; or be an outstanding example of a type of building or architectural ensemble.

The stewards of a UNESCO World Heritage Site are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the site’s historical authenticity. Building new structures and the reconstruction of buildings that mar their original design are strictly forbidden. Repurposing a structure also brings the UNESCO designation into question and constitutes a violation of this status.

The building which houses the Ivan Yizhakevych Lavra Art Studios was constructed solely for the study and propagation of the visual arts. It is the duty of Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, the administration of the city of Kyiv, and the Monastic community of the Pechersk Lavra to uphold, maintain and foster the legacy of the founding artists and to guarantee the continued presence of their descendants for generations to come.

The controversy surrounding the eviction of artists’ studios and the national museums is ongoing. The National Museums and Institutes threatened by closure at this time: 1) Museum of Decorative Arts, 2) the Museum of Theatre and Cinema, 3) the Museum of Printing, and the 4) National Institute of Scientific Research and the Protection of Cultural Monuments.

The silent war which is being waged on the Ukrainian culture and heritage by the Moscow Patriarchate needs to be exposed. As over a hundred Maidan activists were gunned down by Russian snipers last year, video footage was captured on the grounds of the Pecherska Lavra showing monks burning what seemed to be stacks and stacks of documents. What were they burning and what were they trying to hide?

The very presence of a foreign church entity on Ukrainian soil needs to be responsibly reviewed by government authorities. This is of particular importance when that church entity, the Moscow Patriarchate, actively supports terrorism, refuses to bury Ukrainian soldiers killed on the frontlines, and agitates the faithful to hate a legitimately elected Ukrainian president and parliament. If the stewardship of the Pecherska Lavra was in the hands of the Kyivan Patriarchate the place and integrity of Ukrainian cultural museums and institutions would be in safe hands.

This brief article constitutes a preliminary attempt at bringing this matter to the attention of our worldwide Ukrainian diaspora community and to all persons of good will. Please take the time to inform your friends and to advocate on behalf of our esteemed Lavra artists and all of the historical and cultural museums and institutions at the Pecherska Lavra.


Rev. Myron Panchuk M.A.

Protestants persecuted in rebel-held Luhansk

LVIV, Ukraine — Protestants and pro-Ukraine residents in the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine are being persecuted by separatist rebels and forced to flee, says a man from the Luhansk area.

“The separatists say all Protestant churches are American spies, so there is religious oppression,” said Yurii Radchenko, 46, from the town of Zymohiria. Radchenko, a Protestant, said he was shot at twice in separate incidents but emerged unscathed.

“All the religious communities have been threatened except the Russian Orthodox. My property was taken and we have nothing,” he said. Others, including a recent report from the United Nations Human Rights Office, confirm that looting is being done by rebels and their supporters.

“That is the problem. I have lost everything in eastern Ukraine,” said Radchenko. “Those who remain undergo threats, oppression and are beaten up. That is the tragedy. If the separatists learn that people are pro-Ukraine they suffer a lot. It is like cleansing. Either you leave or you suffer.”

Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.
Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.

Radchenko and other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) spoke to a reporter recently through an interpreter at a former military compound in the town of Vynnyky, east of Lviv. About 200 men, women and children are being sheltered and fed there by The Good Samaritan Protestant Church, said a Canadian, Roman Yereniuk, who is helping to fund the effort.

“Many Protestants are not tolerated by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” he said. “The other two Orthodox churches have good ecumenical relations with the Protestants. Many have escaped from the east to the west.”

Some 375,000 IDPs have fled from the violence in the east and are living largely off their savings and the largesse of friends and family across Ukraine, the United Nations Human Rights Office reported Oct. 8. The report confirms that persecution is taking place.

Some of them near Lviv arrived four months ago, others more recently, said one of their leaders, Elena Pavlenko. All had similar stories of fearing for their lives as a result of either direct threats or concerns about being caught in the crossfire between Ukrainian and separatist forces.

In a recent article in Ukraine’s The Day newspaper, Mykola Siry, a senior researcher at the Koretsky Institute of State and Law, said “we are talking about systemic torture of people in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, intentional murders. It is a form of intimidation of the whole population.”

In the Middle East, ISIS is attacking and killing civilian populations because of their beliefs, and the international community is taking military action. But violence is also happening to civilians in eastern Ukraine, where the West is avoiding engagement.

For Pavlenko, fears arose when the separatists placed missile launchers beside her house. The noise was deafening, she said, and they feared being bombed by their own side. Her husband arranges the refugees’ humanitarian aid, and they have a small child. The rebels, a mix of local men resenting the centralized control of Kyiv and foreigners she said are from Russia, are shelling the airport about eight kilometers away in a bid to force out the Ukrainian forces in control.

Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.
Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatist fighters recently marked one month since the signing of a Kremlin-backed truce with one the most heated battles of the six-month war in Donetsk. Ukraine said 75 soldiers and civilians have been killed since the Sept. 5 cease-fire. President Petro Poroshenko is hoping the shaky truce, signed as part of a peace plan, will hold together for parliamentary elections Oct. 26.

Pavlenko said many soldiers have died in the fighting, noting a “massive burial site” near the airport. About 400 civilians have also died from Luhansk, to her knowledge. Most people have fled, she said, and those who remain stay inside. Thousands of IDPs have also gone to Russia.

Protestants make up about 2.4 per cent of the Ukrainian population, but Ukraine has been called the “Bible belt” of Eastern Europe and a hub of evangelical church life and missions. Most people are Ukrainian Orthodox (40 per cent), Russian Orthodox (30 per cent), or Ukrainian Greek Catholic (14 per cent). Roman Catholics account for 1.7 per cent of the population, Moslems 0.6 per cent and Jews, 0.2.

While the loss of Crimea in March appeared to reduce tensions between the Orthodox churches – one pro-Moscow prelate even denounced Putin as a “bandit” – bitter divisions remain.

Mr. Radchenko, who worked for a non-profit organization that helped drug addicts and former prison inmates, said pastors have been tortured. He gave the example of one who was injured and taken to a hospital, where separatists were also being treated. When they heard him proselytize they informed their leaders, who hauled the man from the hospital, beat him up, and left him for dead in a forest. Parishoners found him and he is recovering, Radchenko said.

That’s when he asked friends to find a place for him and his family – wife, four children and mother in law. His wife and kids arrived here four months ago, but he stayed home until mid-September.

It all began with widespread protests in Ukraine last November when former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia. He was forced from office in February, as most Ukrainian people support ties with the EU as essential to cleaning up a corrupt system. Ukraine is also deeply in debt, and Yanukovych was despised for lining his own pockets and those of his family and friends. But his departure displeased the Kremlin and led to armed rebellion by pro-Russian rebels in the east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As a 17-year-old student, Valentine, said at the monument on Maidan or Independence Square, “Russia wanted to control us, hence the fighting in the east.”

Another man who fled from the east, Vasiliy Klimov, 40, who has four daughters and a wife, said things got quickly out of hand at his home of Krasnodon.

“When the war began, local people who formed the bandit groups took weapons, from I don’t know where, and captured the police station, and it surrendered and joined them. Next these separatists blew up the customs building on the border with Russia.”

Klimov said it was frightening to go into town because the armed rebels without uniforms were openly stopping cars and people. “It was scary to say something that would provoke them. Some friends heard people scream from the cars, they heard someone shoot. That’s why we packed up and left for Crimea in June.”

But the family left Crimea Sept. 22 because “there is uncertainty in the air and some people expect the war also in Crimea,” on the Black Sea peninsula. It has Russia’s only warm-water port (which it had been leasing) and is home to its Black Sea fleet. “Crimea is wanted back by local authorities,” Klimov said, “and local Tatars (who are Moslem and more than 10 per cent of the population) are against the annexation of Crimea.”

Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.
Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.

Annexation happened after the March 16 referendum showed 97 per cent support for joining Russia. Even if the voting was rigged, some people say most Crimeans wanted change; others say a majority liked the status-quo. Some Ukrainian people from the Soviet era believe that under Russia their old ways would be better protected.

Like many here, Pavlenko believes the war is rooted partly in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for a land route to Crimea.

Putin has said his concern is to protect ethnic Russians. He has accused Ukrainian troops of acting “like Nazis” in the conflict by targeting residential areas of towns and cities like German troops did in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War.

Propaganda comes from both sides, but much of it is from Russia. Russian military leaders have claimed on TV that only Ukrainian can be spoken in the region, when in fact Russian is freely and legally used. The UN report says propaganda and incitement to hatred are causing tensions in eastern Ukraine that could lead to the region breaking away like Crimea.

Language is a sore point. Ukrainian is the only officially recognized tongue, which tends to hamper rather than build national unity. Many people speak Russian, especially in the cities, while Ukrainian is more common in the country. The interpreter, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, a 27-year-old businessman and former PhD student from a town near Kyiv, said many use a blended Russian-Ukrainian language called “Surzhyk,” after a mix of grain.

Another problem is corruption in the legal system: bribery of judges is common.

But the key reason for regional discontent in Sinielnikov’s view is the lack of local control over taxation, spending, and other matters. While countries like Canada have empowered their regions and largely removed the grievances of those in outlying areas, many in the east resent Kyiv’s control of their lives. For them, it smacks of the Soviet Union at its worst.

The month-old ceasefire agreement addresses this concern, as greater autonomy will be granted to the rebel-held areas. But the separatist genie is out of the bottle and will be difficult to stuff back in.


Mr. Bird is touring Ukraine and area. For more about the refugee camp see teenagerfund.org.ua

Cover photo: Orthodox church overlooks a smoke filled Luhansk

Interior Ministry: Pro-Russian terrorists murdered, mutilated two Sloviansk priests & their sons

Security officials have exhumed a mass grave in the Donetsk region where they say a pile of mutilated bodies – two priests and the two sons of one of them – were found. The official, Interior Minister advisor Anton Herashchenko, reports the dead were involved in assisting the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO).

“We have now exhumed a grave where two priests from Sloviansk were buried. Also, the two sons of one of the preists, who were tortured and killed just because they helped our soldiers,” said Herashchenko.

While Herashchenko refrained from stating which denomination the priests belonged to, but Patriarch Filaret has previously spoken out against “numerous death threats against the Kyiv Patriarchate clergy and believers” by Russian-backed terrorists in the Donetsk region. Virtually all Christian denominations other than the Russian Orthodox Church have been subject to levels of harassment, threats, kidnapping, torture, and violence.

Sloviansk has had a documented history of brutal murders during its occupation by Igor Girkin’s militia, who was recently discovered to have carried out summary executions.

[box size=”large”]Editor’s note: This article originally mentioned “children” were found, but was later changed solely to “sons.” While they were the priest’s children, officials have not explicitly informed that they were minors and we would like to avoid any confusion.[/box]

Metropolitan Volodymyr’s Death Highlights Moscow Patriarch’s Failure in Ukraine

The death on Saturday of Metropolitan Volodymyr, the longtime head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, simultaneously highlights the failure of Moscow Patriarch Kirill in Ukraine, Russian commentators say, and likely accelerates  a wholesale re-alignment of Orthodox bishoprics and congregations in Ukraine.

Volodymyr, who died at the age of 79 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease which in fact forced him to give up his day-to-day management of his church earlier this year after serving as its metropolitan since 1992, was a major figure not only in Ukraine but in Russian Orthodoxy more generally.

In 1990, he finished a close second to Metropolitan Aleksii in the voting for a new Moscow patriarch, and in the two decades since that time, he has played a key role not only in the expansion of the bishoprics of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine but also in the retention of its congregations, which otherwise might have left that hierarchy.

While many Ukrainians viewed Volodymyr as little more than Moscow’s man in their country, Russian commentators remember him as something more than that and at least some are worried that his death will lead to the further decline in the position of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.

In a comment on Forum-MSK.org, that site’s editor, Anatoly Baranov said that Volodymyr “was one of the most interesting officials of the Russian Orthodox Church” and almost became its patriarch on two occasions, first in 1990 when he lost to Aleksii and then in 2009 when he was nominated but withdrew.

Volodymyr’s withdrawal allowed Kirill to be elected, a misfortune, Baranov says, because “if the intelligent and experienced Kyiv metropolitan had become head of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is likely that the events in Ukraine would have developed in an entirely different way.”

“The aggressive and often stupid foreign policy of Patriarch Kirill is far from the least important factor underlying the Ukrainian crisis,” the editor says. What happened was this: “the Kremlin began to openly define the policy of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Patriarch Kirill did not find in himself the courage to conduct his own.”

Metropolitan Volodymyr was “another man” entirely, Baranov continues, especially with regard to the level of his authority in society outside of Russia.  And he concludes: “the tragic events in Ukraine not by accident coincided with the deterioration of the health of the Kyiv metropolitan, and his life ended along with the disappearance of that Ukraine which he knew.”

Volodymyr’s authority was truly enormous, and with his passing, Moscow and the Moscow Patriarchate are going to find it ever more difficult to retain their positions among the Orthodox in Ukraine.  Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill implicitly recognized this in their message of sympathy on Volodymyr’s death.

But their words are unlikely to slow the process of the Ukrainianization of Orthodoxy in Ukraine at an organizational level, and with that process accelerating, both the Kremlin and especially Patriarch Kirill are going to see their leverage religious and political decline there, in the post-Soviet states, and internationally as well.

Some Orthodox writers have been referring to Volodymyr’s as “a Soviet church functionary,” one of the last of a generation that will inevitably disappear.  But unlike Kirill, who remains very much what he was, the late Volodymyr was someone who made an attempt to change. That gave him an authority Kirill very much lacks.