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Ukrainian Patriotism: Between Two Civilizations by Darina Rebro

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Ukrainian Patriotism: Between Two Civilizations

A statue of Prince Vladimir the Great.

Photo: Image by Александр Красовский from Pixabay.

Ukraine has a long history of rivalry with its northern neighbor Russia. From the times when the Russian Empire tried to absorb Ukrainians into its multicultural nation, to the genocide of 1932-1933 called the Holodomor, the intentions of the Russian government have remained unchanged: to attach Ukraine bit by bit to its patchwork of nations and rule over it.

Even after the 24th of August of 1991—the day that Ukraine became independent—Russia’s strategy has not changed. Instead, it has become shrewder and more severe. If you turn on Ukrainian television or search on YouTube, you can see “Made in Russia” movies, shows, and blogs directed at the Ukrainian population. They are all designed to convince them that Russia has ‘fraternal’ motives. There is also a group of pro-Russian politicians within the Ukrainian government who misuse their power to promote a policy of compromise with the enemy. For this is the truth: to Ukraine, Russia is nothing but an enemy, a relentless one.

In 2013, when the wave of protests and demonstrations known as Euromaidan began to reorient the stance of Ukraine in a more European direction, Russia struck. They attacked the East of Ukraine and Crimea, quickly annexing the Crimean Peninsula. Some of the journalists who tried to disseminate the truth about Russian aggression were promptly arrested, tortured, and even killed. The journalists who escaped are now working to ensure that information from local freelancers continues to flow westward, so that it can reach an international audience.

It seems obvious that Russia, as it is now, cannot be an ally of the West. Perhaps in the future the Ukrainian government will be able to rebuild proper relations with Russia while protecting its boundaries. But this currently seems doubtful. A recent incident illustrates the point.

During the preparation for the European Football Championship 2020 (postponed to Summer 2021 due to the pandemic), the Ukrainian team had a ‘kit’—the standard attire and equipment worn by a team’s players—prepared. The design for the kit included the map of Ukraine in its settled state—meaning with the eastern lands and Crimea—along with a slogan that became prevalent during Euromaidan: “Glory to Ukraine—Glory to heroes!”

The kit and the chant made the representatives of the Russian government furious, and they quickly lobbied the authorities of the Championship to demand a change of the kit. One of the Russian officials, Maria Zakharova, asserted that Ukraine had “attached itself to the Russian Crimea,” while another official said the kit was a political provocation from the Ukrainians. All this, in turn, generated a wave of anger from Ukrainian patriots, which was directed towards Championship authorities who seemed hesitant to properly address the growing conflict.

This example might seem trivial, but it illustrates how high passions are running in the region in the face of Russian efforts to erase the modern history of Ukraine, even as the international community is losing interest in the crisis. After seven years of war for the Eastern lands and the now-annexed Crimea, the world has moved on. The international community has turned its attention to other global problems—above all, the COVID-19 pandemic.

It helps that some international organizations, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) included, do not want to lose certain benefits that Russia can provide. Russia continues to make strenuous efforts to hide the fact that Crimea was annexed at all and denies the victory of Euromaidan in Ukraine by rewriting the emerging narratives. In Russia, maps of Ukraine do not show the peninsula, and Russian citizens are brainwashed with pictures of a Crimea that has been “returned to Russia.” Most Russian citizens believe the imperial narrative pushed by state propaganda and are convinced that Ukraine as a whole is historically—and rightfully—a part of Russia.

In this context, the reaction of Ukrainians to the furor over their football kit makes sense. It was deeply rooted in patriotism and stemmed from a legitimate concern for their country’s sovereignty. It’s not just about the football kit; the future of the country is at stake.

The interior of a chapel in Ukraine.

Photo: Photo by Marko Milivojevic on Pixnio.

On the other side, there is Europe. While European Judeo-Christian values fit perfectly well with Ukraine, the modern Europe now seems at odds with Ukrainian values. It’s important to note that Christianity has been an inseparable part of Ukrainian culture since the year 988, when Prince Vladimir the Great united the pagan tribes under a shared belief in Jesus Christ. He did this partly to build stronger ties with the Byzantine Empire, partly to unite the tribes under one God (instead of many quarreling pagan gods), and partly to honor his grandmother, Olga, regent of Kyivan Rus, who was a devout Christian.

More than a thousand years of Christianity was enough to permeate the local culture with its principles and determine the orientation of the Ukrainian nation’s moral compass. And whilst slow secularization has certainly spread across the country over the decades, it has not completely wiped out Ukrainians’ ancient sense of right and wrong.

This is why many pro-Western Ukrainians have been startled to see the emergence of a ‘new Europe’ in recent years. Conservative Ukrainians are greatly disturbed by ubiquitous abortion propaganda, the spread of gender ideology that deconstructs the family and ignores (or even denigrates) biological sex, and the uncontrolled crisis of refugees.

This is all especially unsettling when acceptance into the European Union requires accepting these progressive, left-wing ideas. Of course, there are other, more legitimate reasons Ukraine has not become a member of the EU yet—specifically, the country’s high level of political corruption. Notwithstanding this, the far left ideas promulgated by the EU makes today’s Europe much less desirable for Christianity-oriented Ukrainians—despite their interest in having a more European direction for their country.

In his 1951 book Judaism and Modern Man, the American philosopher and sociologist of religion Will Herberg offers a rather good description and analysis of what Europe is going through today. It may explain why Ukraine continues to hang uncomfortably between an authoritarian Russia and the contemporary West. Herberg writes:

“The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as ‘humanistic’ ethics, has resulted in our ‘cut flower culture.’ Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die. So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity—the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization. Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality.”

So, while European values may still have some biblical “fragrance,” Europe is slowly withering. Of course, it would be wrong to say that Christian or conservative movements are ceasing to be active. In fact, recently there has been a rise of patriotic feeling in different European countries. With Britain leaving the EU; with Hungary and Poland openly rejecting gender ideology; and with other ‘hotbeds of resistance’ emerging across Europe, there is still hope.

Stuck between two civilizations—Western democracy and Eastern authoritarianism—Ukraine is somewhat paralyzed. The classic right- and left-wing opposition is hardly recognizable in the Ukrainian parliament. Most of the traditionalists are conservative on moral issues, but their economic approaches are widely shaped by socialism. On the other hand, those who promote capitalism rarely worry about the rise of abortion and euthanasia or the deconstruction of the family. This is why there is so much confusion among Ukrainians regarding the best direction for the country in the future. However, with continuing Russian disrespect towards the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty, the West certainly seems more appealing—despite its current Leftist values.

For Ukraine to find its own path, it really must look inwards to rediscover the Judeo-Christian values on which the nation thrived for a thousand years. Strong in these roots, Ukraine must have enough courage to walk along its chosen path—without succumbing to the pressure to compromise with neighbors. This path would require a wholesome and unconditional patriotism to overcome the challenges that the country continually faces.

Since 2021 marks the jubilee of Ukraine’s 30 years of independence, the country should see this as a time to confidently assert its own path. This is a chance to restate the Ukrainian love of country—one rooted in the truth of God that has always shaped its direction.

Darina Rebro is a journalist from Ukraine. She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree and a Master of Arts in Advocacy Journalism.

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