Letter from Ukraine
A Church of martyrs confronts the cultural iron curtain.

Bishop Borys Gudziak


George Weigel

The Soviet hangover is deeper than the pandemic bureaucratic, political, financial, and judicial corruption, however. There is a deep historical pessimism in Ukraine, born of both a colonial past (which taught Ukrainians that they were an inferior subspecies of the eastern Slavs) and a totalitarian past (in which millions of Ukrainians were deliberately starved to death as a matter of Soviet state policy in what seems to be the forgotten horror among the 20th-century genocides). No one knows how many died in the Holodomor of 1932–33; Robert Conquest’s figure of 5 million deaths may be on the high side, but not by much; and with the subsequent “birth deficit,” the “demographic loss” of the Ukrainian terror-famine, to use the chilling language of the statisticians, may well have reached 10 million. Thus during the very period when the Baltic states, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were making often-halting but nonetheless crucial first efforts at modern-state building and some form of democratization, much of what is today’s Ukraine was being brutalized by Stalinism at its most viciously lethal. For even after the Holodomor, any potential emergence of a nationally minded Ukrainian cultural elite was ruthlessly destroyed by the agents of Soviet state power (including Nikita Khrushchev).

That experience, coupled with the failures of the Orange Revolution to secure a postcolonial, post-totalitarian Ukrainian political and economic future, has bred into many Ukrainians a paralyzing resignation about the future that plays right into the hands of Yanukovych’s neocolonial and neo-totalitarian tendencies (or, if your prefer, the regime’s oligarchic thugocracy). Many — including many of the most energetic and enterprising — have simply left the country. Government denials and official statistics notwithstanding, one knowledgeable Ukrainian told me that the country’s population may have declined in the past 20 years by as much as 10 million because of an emigration that is not a matter of finding work elsewhere and then returning home but of leaving-for-good because there is no hope for “home.” Others, convinced that The Way Things Are is the only way things can be for the foreseeable future, make the petty and not-so-petty compromises that permit them, if not to flourish, then at least to get along. Everyone complains about patterns of bureaucratic idiocy that make the IRS and the TSA looks like paragons of rationality and efficiency; few have any confidence that there is real hope for change.

Ukraine is thus a textbook case of the impossibility of securing a democratic transition — by which I mean a transition to a law-governed society with a free economy, open politics, and a vibrant civil society — absent a sufficiently thick and robust civic culture. The roots from which such a civil culture might spring are not easy to identify in, say, Belarus or Egypt. But their first eruption from beneath the hard soil of post-Soviet public life is now visible in Ukraine. And that brings this tale — whose resolution is absolutely crucial for the future political architecture of Europe — back to Andrey Sheptytsky and Josyf Slipyj.

From Martyrdom to Mission
From 1946 until 1990, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — Byzantine in liturgy and church polity but in full communion with the Bishop of Rome — was the largest illegal, underground religious body in the world. For more than four decades, those Greek Catholics who refused to truckle to the spurious “L’viv Sobor [Council]” of 1946 and be “reunited” with Russian Orthodoxy — an exercise stage-managed by the NKVD — lived a modern catacomb existence in which everything from worship to seminary instruction, priestly ordinations, and the consecration of bishops was conducted clandestinely, often deep in Ukraine’s forests. In 2001, John Paul II formally beatified more than two dozen martyrs of that draconian persecution; Ukrainian Greek Catholics today know that that martyrology could be extended into the hundreds and thousands.

Andrey Sheptytsky, who bridged the worlds of Latin and eastern Christianity in his family, his person, and his cast of mind, was a man who imagined European Christianity once again breathing with its “two lungs,” as John Paul II so often put it — and who invested 40 years in the project of building the Greek Catholic religious, educational, and cultural institutions that could give that vision historical reality. Virtually all his work was destroyed by the Second World War, and what wasn’t destroyed by the war was subsequently plowed under by communism. But while his world was crumbling around him, Sheptytsky chose as his successor (under special authority granted him by the Vatican) Josyf Slipyj, who paid for his consecration as leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with more than 17 years in the Gulag, from which he was released in 1963 at the personal request of Pope John XXIII and exiled to Rome, where he died in 1984.