During these past two weeks, the chilling conflict between Russia and Ukraine has escalated over the eastern Ukrainian province of Crimea. This volatile stand-off is changing by the day.
This is a four-hundred year conflict. Tensions between these two Slavic countries have flared up once again, this time during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. The issue is not just political and economic but religious as well, all knotted together.
Last week, Metropolitan-Archbishop Sviatoslav Schevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Kiev, warned his people that the threat of Russian attack looming over the horizon could mean sacrificing their lives as the ultimate price to pay for protecting the country’s freedom. In many televised pictures, Ukrainian Catholic prelates, easily recognizable by their distinctive headdress, have stood alongside their official leaders to support them. Thus far, the press has reported very little about the role of the Ukrainian Catholic Church among the Ukrainians themselves. The religious problem has its roots in medieval times.
Kievan Rus’: 12th - 15th Centuries
The Rus’ people trace their origins to Kiev. The Golden Age of Kievan Rus’ occurred during the reigns of Prince Vladimir and his son Yaroslav (980-1015; 1019-1054) where the people enjoyed a high degree of culture in literature, the arts, and military power. From the tenth century onwards, these Slavs worshiped according to the eastern Orthodox Byzantine Rite.
In the thirteenth century, the Mongolian invasions decimated Kiev, and its sphere of power, both civil and ecclesiastical, was transferred northeast to a small but rapidly-growing trading post, Muscovy. In time, it grew in size and influence, politically and religiously. With the fall of Constantinople (“the second Rome”) in 1453, Moscow became known as “the Third Rome” and the seat of the Orthodox Metropolitinate. Ukraine was now at the southwestern hinterland of the vast Rus’ian dynasty whose center was Moscow.
Ukraine: 16th Century
By the early sixteenth century, Poland-Lithuania, a western Slavic nation and ardently Catholic, was home to large numbers of the Kievan-Rus’, today’s Ukrainians. Church leaders felt that they were being ignored by the Orthodox Church in Moscow by reason of their geographical distance from it.
In 1595-96, the Union of Brest established the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Accordingly, several Ukrainian bishops and their people would be united with the Holy See and would follow their own Eastern rite and customs within the Catholic Church. Other Ukrainian bishops rejected communion with Rome. Instead they established themselves as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with close ties to the powerful Russian Orthodox Church. The Brest Accord marks the beginning of tension between the Ukrainian Catholic- and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church has not acknowledged the validity of the Brest Accord claiming that it was forced on the Ukrainians. In 1768, Russia precipitated a social revolution to disband the union and at the same time dismember Polish lands. A purge against the union was carried out. The partition of Poland into three parts (1772, 1794, 1795) placed under Russian rule all the parts of Ukraine and today’s Belorussia, inhabited by Ukrainian Catholics, except Galicia which went over to Austria.
Ukrainian Catholic Church: 19th Century- 1946
Under Austrian rule, the Ukrainian Catholic Church flourished culturally without fear of reprisal from Russia. Galician clergy received a formal education instead of being tutored by their fathers. For the first time, an educated social class grew among the Galician-Ukrainians living in Austrian land.
In 1914, Russian leaders imprisoned the beloved Ukrainian Catholic prelate, Archbishop Andrew Sheptysky in a Russian monastery. With the death of Metropolitan Sheptytsky in 1944, the Bolsheviks arrested his successor Joseph Slipyj. After eighteen years of imprisonment and persecution, he was released thanks to the intervention of Pope John XXIII.
The new Orthodoxy was imposed on Ukrainians. Economic need, political controversy or persecution saw the immigrants of the Ukrainian-Catholic Rite come to America in three periods: 1870-1914, 1919-38, 1945-54.
In 1946, the Communists called a mock synod in Lviv, composed of some terrorized priests who proclaimed the union of Brest with Rome null and void.
After World War II, Ukrainian Catholics were placed under Soviet rule. All church property was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarch. These tensions led to a rupture of relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican. For decades, the Ukrainian Catholics and their clergy lived underground and were subjected to vigorous attacks in the state media. The clergy were forced to abandon functioning as priests, but secretly they engaged in their priestly ministry for their people. Many priests assumed civilian professions and celebrated Mass in secret. For this, they were harshly treated. The Jesuit priest, Walter Ciszek was also imprisoned in Russia for the better part of twenty-four years. He was released in 1963.
By the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev liberalized reforms, and the Ukrainian Catholic Church was again permitted to function in the open. By this time, the catacomb Church had resulted in mass emigration from Soviet lands.
When, in 1991, the vast Soviet empire began to disintegrate, satellite countries like Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania as well as Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics proclaimed their independence but at different times. Russia considers Ukraine her most valuable satellite because of its rich farm land, “the breadbasket of Europe. Moreover, Ukraine has a well-developed manufacturing sector, and an aerospace program and industrial equipment. It boasts of the second largest military in Europe after that of Russia.
The population of Ukraine is composed of about 60 percent Orthodox, 20 percent Eastern Catholic, 15 percent Tatars, and the remainder Latin Catholics. There are three branches of Orthodox Churches, but only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has full canonical standing in Eastern Orthodoxy. Today the Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest Eastern- Rite Catholic Church that is canonically in full communion with the Holy See.
At this writing, western Ukraine desires closer ties with the European Union, but, according to Russian reports, eastern Ukraine wishes to return to the Eurasian Union of which Putin is the head. Russia has already seized control of the Crimean peninsula, thus violating the 1994 agreement between Ukraine and Russia that recognized the territorial sovereignty of Crimea. Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovich was ousted on February 21 due to allegations of corruption and internal strife between himself and the Ukrainian government. In late May, Ukraine is scheduled to hold free elections for a new president. President Putin considers this move illegal. So, ahead of May’s election, a plan has been initiated by Putin, his parliament, and the pro-Russian leaders in Crimea for a vote to take place this coming Sunday, March 16th. It will decide whether or not Crimea will secede from Ukraine and annex itself to Russia. According to the United States and its allies, this would be a violation of international law. Crimea is part of Ukraine and is subject to the vote at the end of May. In all likelihood, Crimea will be annexed to Russia. Until 1954, Crimea was part of the Russian federation, but Nikita Krushchev returned it to Ukraine. Putin regards this decision as one of the saddest ever made by a Russian leader.
Russia needs Crimea to house its naval fleets and for access to the west. Russia is an immense land-locked country, and in winter months, it is submerged in the subarctic temperatures that are extremely severe. It prizes the Crimean peninsula because of its moderate temperatures and surrounding waterways through which Russia can pass to conduct trade. The Crimea is composed of 58 percent ethnic Russians, most of whom follow Orthodox Christianity, 24 percent Ukrainians who are Eastern-Rite Catholics, and 12 percent Tatar Crimeans who follows the Islamic faith and Latin Catholics. The Crimean Tatars were forcibly expelled to Central Asia by Josef Stalin, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, they began returning to the region.
If and when Crimea votes to secede from its legitimate home country, Ukraine, what will happen to the Catholics, both Eastern-Rite and Latin Catholics living there? How will the Tatars be treated under the new status? Any discussion about Crimea’s secession from Ukraine to become part of Russia is subject to Ukrainian law.
Writes Fordham’s assistant professor, Elena Nicolayenko: “Putin will not abandon the idea of building the so-called Eurasian Union and drag most of the former Soviet republics into its sphere of influence. Russia is likely to use a wide range of political and economic to wield power in the region. In particular, the Kremlin might continue to instigate civic strife in the country and back up Russian candidates at the presidential elections scheduled for May 25th in another attempt to sabotage Ukraine’s aspiration for integration with the European Union.”
Does the tragic history of Ukrainian Catholics affect the current situation? Metropolitan-Archbishop Schevchuk is convinced it does. So do millions of Ukrainian Catholics in this country whose large numbers are concentrated in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, and Stamford, CT. Despite Crimea’s troubled history, it has enjoyed independence within Ukraine. The eyes of the world are on Crimea.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.