JOHN MARONE, KYIV
Remember the shell game, in which the unsuspecting player is challenged to follow a little ball with his eyes as it rolls from under one shell to the next with lightning speed? When the game operator finally stops, the player is asked to guess which shell the ball lies under in order to win a prize. However, in most cases, the operator has already managed to slip the ball into own hands, thereby making any guess by the player a losing one.
The same game is being played in modern Ukraine, with the public asked to pay attention to various, emotive issues that have nothing to do with the real game at hand. History, religion and language are bandied about in heated public debates, often drawing funds in the form of highly questionable projects, while the real issues are decided in back door deals.
Ukrainian media recently reported that President Yushchenko wants $25 million to renovate the 18th century Cossack capital Baturyn, in Chernihiv Region. Historians who support of the renovation project argue that Baturyn represents a watershed in the development of Ukrainian statehood.
Baturyn, which originally served as a Polish fortress, was taken by the forces of Czar Peter the Great during the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden in the early 18th century. The war ended with Russia smashing Sweden’s ambitions of Baltic hegemony, but also Ukrainians’ dream of independence.
To some Ukrainian historians, the lesson of Baturyn is the importance of national unity, which must be remembered by future generations. But for now, it’s a lucrative contract for some well-connected architect and construction company.
With only 17 years of independence under their belt, Ukrainians could indeed benefit from an affirmation of their national identity. But quite frankly, the cash-strapped country has more pressing problems. Why not use the money to build a hospital or clean up some environmental disaster zone?
Not coincidentally, this year marks the 300th anniversary of the battle of Poltava, which on June 28th, 1708, followed the taking of Baturyn and decided the outcome of the Great Northern War.
Moscow is as interested as Kyiv in revisiting the event, about which it has drawn very different conclusions. For example, to the Russians, Hetman Ivan Mazepa, whose face is depicted on Ukraine’s five-hryvnia note, betrayed the Czar by siding with the Swedes.
However, one interprets the history, one fact remains indisputable: Ukraine was as divided then as it is now.
Baturyn served as a Polish fort before it was taken in the mid 17th century by Hetman Bogdan Khmelnytsky, the guy who really compromised Cossack freedom by signing the highly disputed Treaty of Pereyaslav. So why not build a monument at Pereyaslav? It would probably be a lot cheaper. But maybe that’s the problem. And why try to outspend Russia on history projects, when Russia is a lot richer from the gas that it sells to Ukraine at higher and higher prices? Why not let Baturyn lie as it is? After all, Ukraine should be more concerned with remembering its rare moments of unity rather than its much longer periods of division.
Another point of contention between Moscow and Kyiv is religion, with the chief dispute also going back to the 17th century. It was then that the Kyiv Metropolitan surrendered its autonomous status to Moscow, laying the groundwork for political dependence.
This week, the 1020th anniversary of the acceptance of Christianity in Kyivan Rus will be marked in Ukraine. Events will be attended by the Universal Patriarch Bartholomew I and Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow.
Religion in Ukraine is even more divisive than history, as testified to by the number of Orthodox churches in the country. One is loyal to Rome (due to early Polish influence), another born out of the Russian Revolution, the third and biggest is loyal to Moscow, and the newest one a product of Ukrainian independence.
The biggest dispute is between Moscow’s Alexis and Kyiv’s Filaret, whom the former doesn’t recognize. In fact only a third of Ukrainians recognize Filaret. At stake in the conflict is more than just faith. As in the West, control over a church means control over its faithful and, more importantly, its church buildings and other property. In addition, in Ukraine and Russia, the Orthodox Church has closer ties to the state than would ever be allowed in Europe or America.
This relationship often leads to the use of public funds to build Orthodox churches, and, conversely, the meddling of church leaders into politics. There is also a geopolitical aspect. Only last month, the all too secular State Committee for affairs of religion and nationality rejected the Moscow church’s right to approve the Kyiv church’s charter. Submission to the Moscow church translates as submission to the Kremlin. And Ukraine’s political elite is as divided in its religious loyalties as the Cossacks were during the Great Northern War.
Nevertheless, the authorities in Kyiv should limit themselves to preventing fanatical priests from both churches from seizing each other’s monasteries and places of worship. If Ukraine wants to be a part of Europe, its leaders are going to have to accept secular political power and religious plurality anyway. As for the country’s religious leaders, they might win more converts by paying more attention to souls and charity than property and authority.
The third issue used by Ukrainian politicians to divert public attention (and possibly funds) is language. As with history and religion, the country is split right down the middle. Most recently, the current authorities decreed that every film shown in Ukraine has to be dubbed in to Ukrainian. This affects Russian-language films, which most if not all Ukrainians understand, as well as movies from further a field (primarily American).
Russian movies currently all contain Ukrainian subtitles. If the new rule is meant to reduce the influence of Russian on Ukrainian culture it misses the mark: first, because Russian language should not be equated with Kremlin policy; second, because – for whatever historical reason – many full-fledged Ukrainian citizens choose to speak Russian; and third, it just creates more tension and distrust. If the rule is aimed at promoting Ukrainian, then English-language media should also be restricted, which would make Ukraine a cultural island. But more importantly, as many Western films now shown in Ukraine have clearly already been dubbed into Russian, the extra cost of re-dubbing them can only be to the advantage of the companies that were selected to perform this service.
Promote Ukrainian – why not? Defend the rights of an independent church – also fine. As for history, the state should have its official interpretation of events. But the authorities in Kyiv, regardless of their place on the East-West continuum, must stick to the resolving current problems, secular ones, and issue that don’t needlessly infringe on people’s personal freedoms.
John Marone, a columnist of Eurasian Home website, Kyiv, Ukraine
July 22, 2008