For the past year, every day we hear of painful numbers — x servicemen and y civilians killed by shelling in eastern Ukraine. One year ago, the death of the Heavenly Hundred on the Maidan in Kiev moved the world. Today, it seems that death has become a statistic. When deaths are too numerous they become depersonalized. Without names, even supreme sacrifice — and our own responsibility in its regard — becomes blurred.
So let me tell you about one young man whose life and death help explain the developments in Ukraine today.
Bohdan Solchanyk was 28 years old. A promising historian, a faculty member at the Ukrainian Catholic University, a poet, a young man in love. He sought to understand the past of his country while fully engaging in its present struggle for dignity in order to build a better future. His future included marriage to Maria Pohorilko, herself an aspiring historian, a UCU graduate, and a Ph.D. candidate. Bohdan and Maria both wanted to live with dignity. They hoped to share the story of their country with fellow students, with readers of their articles and books, and with the world at large.
Alas, the final episode in the life of Bohdan occurred on February 20, 2014. Along with some 80 other unarmed idealists, European-minded Ukrainians, Bohdan was brutally shot and killed by government snipers in the central square of the capital of Ukraine as the world’s TV cameras showed the slaughter live.
The message of Bohdan’s life and death is simple. It is a message that Europe and the world need to hear at a time of great anxiety and confusion surrounding Ukraine and Russia. This confusion is largely created by the propaganda of those who despise Bohdan’s vision of life and are confounded by his very act of sacrifice.
Bohdan was one of the millions who for months assembled peacefully, joyfully, with song, with prayer, with poetry, with street theater, with music and dance in the very center of Kiev and many other cities and towns in Ukraine. Their goal was simple: to manifest their desire for liberty, for freedom of the press, for the vitality of civil society, for justice in the court system, for freedom from corruption in business, politics, education, and the medical system. In short: a life of dignity. A life guaranteed to most Europeans.
Bohdan’s life was cut short because his position was a threat to authoritarianism, cronyism, and corruption. He was a threat to radical social inequality, with oligarchs and politicians living in vulgar opulence and the rest of the population struggling to survive. He was killed because people in power feared his song and his joy, the dance of millions and the solidarity of a nation.
Bohdan had been in the forefront of social protest over the last ten years, ever since the Orange Revolution in 2004–05, when he was 19 years old. He was not paid by American agents to stand in the Maidan in the middle of the night in five-degree weather. He was not a puppet of external forces. He was not an agent provocateur of the European Union.
He was a human being who recognized his own God-given dignity and wanted that dignity to be ensured for all Ukrainians.
Bohdan’s death and the death of the rest of the first hundred killed mercilessly by the riot police and security services led to the collapse of the Yanukovych regime. Yanukovych fled the country because his security forces no longer could sustain the brutality he had instigated. Enough was enough. They realized that criminal methods no longer could control the country. The sacrifice of innocents, the spilling of blood — the most profound and awesome sacrament — toppled an unjust tyranny.
However, the collapse of tyranny in Kiev could not be endured by the president of Russia. Ukraine had to be punished. Crimea had to be annexed; an artificial war had to be created to bring to its knees a society that dared to defend its dignity. It had to be proved that Ukraine is a failed state and that Bohdan Solchanyk died in vain.
That is the story of Bohdan Solchanyk and the millions who stood with him. That is the explanation of what is happening in Ukraine today. There are many factors and many issues in this complex story, but at its heart is a pilgrimage from fear to dignity, from authoritarianism to liberty, from corruption to justice — ultimately from death to life. It is a paschal story.
Today Ukrainians and all friends of Ukraine commemorate the sacrifice in blood of the Heavenly Hundred — the first to die on this road to dignity. They commemorate the 5,500 soldiers and civilians who have been killed over the past year because of the invasion of their country.
As they commemorate the dead, they are addressing the humanitarian crisis of the living, the tens of thousands of wounded, the thousands of widows and orphans, the 1.5 million displaced, the 5 million directly touched by the war.
For us who are people of faith, who follow Christ and celebrate His passion and paschal victory, the sacrifice of Bohdan and his colleagues is a reminder of the witness of the martyrs. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). These are the words of our Lord. They explain this painful anniversary and the heart of the events happening today in Ukraine.