I wrote this essay for FirstThings.com shortly after my first trip to Ukraine in 2013.
Rousing Soviet songs surround us as we pass through a gloomy gauntlet of titanic statues on our way to Kyiv’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War. My friends, a Polish and a Ukrainian pastor, remember the songs, which played incessantly on the radio during their childhood. The sculpture complex depicts lunging soldiers and hardy peasants in dignified poses, men pointing guns and women handling bombs, boys and girls, all united in a total war effort to defeat the Nazis.
When we come into the open, we’re standing beneath a 200-foot stainless steel figure of The Motherland. She gazes fiercely toward the Dnieper, her muscular arms raised high as if signaling a touchdown, a sword in one hand and a shield decorated with hammer, sickle, and star in the other. The Soviets made sure that The Motherland was the highest point in Kyiv: It’s six meters taller than the historic bell tower of the Pechersk Lavra just to the north.
Inside the museum, the ceilings are low, the walls dark, the lights dim. On the second floor, we find a white marble staircase glowing in the light that streams down from a large window. The white marble rotunda at the top is reminiscent of an Orthodox church. Arched windows ring the dome, and above the windows is a strip of mosaics celebrating the Soviet victory. An expressionless soldier holding a sword accepts the praise and gifts of peasant women, and opposite him is another figure of The Motherland. The Polish pastor points to the center of the ceiling, where the traditional Christ Pantocrator has been replaced by a cluster of Soviet symbols. “They understood the power of symbols,” he observes. “They invented a new religion by borrowing from the old one.”
All over the city, aggressively Soviet symbols clamor for public space alongside ancient gold-domed churches. The Patona Bridge is covered with Soviet stars, but the main street through Kyiv is Khreshchatik, “Christening,” in honor of Volodymyr, the prince whose conversion led to the baptism of the Kyivan Rus in 988. On a continent where many countries prohibit the open display of Soviet (and Nazi) symbols, Kyiv is a disconcerting city. To an American visitor, it’s a shock to be reminded of a past we’ve put well behind us. When I opened a lecture with a few of Ronald Reagan’s old Soviet jokes, the pastors roared with laughter. No one would get the jokes at home.
One of the newest memorials in Kyiv pays tribute to the victims of the Holodomor, the Great Famine of 1932-33. Along the walkway, within a ring of unused millstones, there’s an inexpressibly sad statue of a grave, emaciated little girl. She stands on a millstone, hands folded against her chest, her vacant anime eyes staring into a void. She has passed beyond hunger, beyond protest. The three wheat stalks that she holds are a reminder that the Soviets punished gleaners with imprisonment or death. It’s clear that Ukrainians don’t want to forget what the USSR cost them. They don’t want to go back there.
What’s not clear is where they go next. By a popular etymology, “Ukraine” means “borderland.” For centuries, Ukraine was a precarious frontier between powerful, bellicose neighbors. It still is. The week I was in Kyiv, Ukrainian officials were meeting with the EU at Yalta to negotiate a trade pact. Ukraine is one of the poorest countries of Europe, and the EU’s promises of investment are enticing. Linguistically and culturally, though, Ukraine is closer to Russia, and dark Russian warnings about the catastrophes that lie ahead if Ukraine tightens relations with the West carry weight. It’s an old story: The “Borderland” is once again the rope in an East-West tug-of-war.
Even without the international pressures, Ukraine has more than its share of challenges. In a burst of ironic nationalism, a Baptist pastor boasted that Ukraine is first”in drug addiction and HIV. Ukrainians complain that their leaders have squandered independence. Instead of establishing a functioning political system, they’ve made Ukraine famous for its corruption, a standing joke throughout Europe. It’s in the same class as Colombia and Brazil, and American officials privately describe it as a kleptocracy. Ukraine has gotten out of the Soviet Union, but they haven’t yet figured out how to get Soviet habits of governance out of Ukraine.
It wasn’t all bad news. Voluntary Christian ethics classes are available in the public schools. Ostrog Academy, the oldest university in Ukraine and one of the oldest in Eastern Europe, produces the teaching materials, and my Ukrainian friend told me that the textbooks are sound manuals of basic Christian morality. Vasyl Zhukovsky, dean of humanities at Ostrog, strikes an ecumenical note when he tells us that the university wants to work with every Ukrainian who confesses Christ to teach Christian ethics to the next generation.
Ukraine stands at a crossroads. Having rejected Soviet religion, it may yet find a way forward by reviving its old one.
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