Had we been perfect, there would have been no war
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About a visit to Ukraine
William Yoder, Ph.D.
S m o l e n s k – Ukraine's infrastructure remains on the slide. One popular joke states that only alcoholised drivers still drive in a straight line. The economy is on the brink. Many – including medical personnel near the front lines – are unemployed. But a bit of Western flair does surface: tattoos and male ear jewellery are on the rise. Jehovah's Witnesses are becoming a part of regular street life. The latter indeed does please me: I may find their theology harmful, but I am very much a believer in religious freedom. But many younger women still insist on very feminine ("Russian-style") dress; Western Torn-Jeans-fashion has not yet taken over
I repeatedly heard the following opinions in conversations during my visit to Ukraine this past week:
1. The longing for an affluent, organised, transparent and non-corrupt society is palpable. One wants to live like the citizens of Denmark, and one has no understanding for the eventuality that Russians might be able to prevent that. Total isolation from Russia is a price the country is willing to pay – it may indeed be a prerequisite for the fulfilment of this desire.
2. Russia is the aggressor. That is explained with the simplest of reasoning: The "Russians" are camped out on the territory of another completely sovereign and independent state – not vice versa.
Evil is personalised – it's called Vladimir Putin. Many even claim Putin is more depraved than Hitler. On Facebook, Gennady Mokhenko, pastor of the Charismatic "Church of Positive Changes" in Mariupol, called Putin a "madman". Freshly returned from a world bicycle tour through Russia's Far East, he and many of his 32 sons got to work strengthening the fortifications of their coastal city. (Mokhenko heads a movement aiming to empty the country's orphanages through adoption. See our release from 15 June 2011.) Filaret, the somewhat dubious Patriarch of the "Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate", even claimed the Russian president was a liar and Cain "under the influence of Satan".
3. There are neither Eastern nor pro-Russian Ukrainians. Russian-friendly Viktor Yanukovich may have obtained 49% of the vote during the run-off elections on 7 February 2010, but these elections were a complete forgery. One hears it repeatedly: "We Ukrainians are more united than we have ever been before."
A leading spokesperson of the country's Baptist Union from Lugansk assured me that the insurgents ("opolchentsy") really do not exist. That grouping consists only of criminals and freshly-arrived Russians. The conflict therefore cannot be described as a civil war – it is instead nothing less than Russia's war against the populace of Ukraine. (That's one of the country's most prominent postulates.)
An improvised monument with photos of 46 who lost their lives still stands on the restored Maidan Square. Yet no less than 75 were killed there during the violence in February.
4. Protestants heartily reassure that the country is without any fascist threat. Westerners and Russians who claim otherwise are the victims of Russian propaganda. "Pravy Sector" had garnered hardly more than 1% of the votes at the last election; "Svoboda", which is part of the present government, is not a fascist party. They have no aversions regarding Ihor Kolomoysky, the oligarch, warlord and governor of Dnipropetrovsk region. Kolomoysky was presented his political office last March by Baptist President Oleksandr Turchynov. Kolomysky himself though happens to be Jewish.
5. Protestants leave little space for gray half-truths. In politics, one is either lying – or not. (West)Ukraine's media are reporting the truth, they assure. God hates lies, and they stem from the media of Russia. The Budapest Memorandum of December 1994 is often used as an example. In that accord, Ukraine agreed to part with its nuclear weapons on the condition that Great Britain, the USA and Russia guarantee its sovereignty within existing borders. Russia has now broken that promise and "lied".
6. Russia's security concerns are dismissed. A foreign Mennonite there assured that Russia had nothing against the eastward advance of NATO. After all, that nation had accepted without protest the encirclement of the Kaliningrad enclave by NATO in 2004.
7. The hospitable Mennonite congregations in Zaporozhe region – Mennonites are sometimes regarded as pacifists – are barely more peaceful than others. The Facebook page of "Mennonite Centre Ukraine" is brimming with Ukrainian flags and even a Ukrainian tank transporter is greeted there. It is indeed understandable not far removed from the front that the affected populace is hardly eager to have its homes and jobs destroyed by armed conflict. That's why they place their hope in tanks.
The fairest, politically most independent dialogue partner I found was a journalist working for the Charismatic news service "Invictory" in Kyiv.
8. Ukrainians place much hope in Slavyansk, the major city retaken by Ukrainian forces. A large Charismatic congregation headed by Peter Dudnyk, "Good News Church", is accomplishing impressive amounts of humanitarian work. (Its Facebook page is partly in English.)
The obvious need has welded together the Christian confessions of Ukraine – something totally new for Eastern Europe. Only the country's largest church may still be among the outcasts: the "Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate".
Commentary – What still needs to be said
1. Regarding the supposedly rigged elections of January and February 2010, the English-language "Wikipedia" wrote that 3.149 international observers monitored the elections of 17 January. The OSCE "endorsed the first round of the Ukrainian presidential poll, saying it was of high quality and demonstrated significant progress. After the second round of the election, international observers and the OSCE called the election transparent and honest." Back then, the West had accepted these election results without qualms.
2. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 must be seen in context. Mikhail Gorbachev had been promised in 1990, that NATO would not be expanding even an inch further into the East. NATO then accepted Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary as members in 1999. Five years later, the Kaliningrad enclave became encircled through the NATO membership of the Baltic states.
Protestant prophets assure that Russia is preparing to restore the Soviet Union by annexing Ukraine, the Baltic states and Kazakhstan. Russia indeed has pressed westward over a distance of dozens of kilometres and supported the creation of mini "rouge" states in places such as Armenia, Moldova and Georgia. The same fate is apparently also awaiting segments of Eastern Ukraine. Yet only NATO has been involved in major expansion. During the oral assurances of 1990, NATO reached just east of Hamburg – today it has advanced nearly as far as St. Petersburg. It therefore requires a truly partisan spirit to claim that Russia is the sole aggressor. The Russians have reacted to the encirclement of Kaliningrad – but they were in no hurry to do so. Is Putin intending to expand Russia massively – or is he only trying to break the free fall?
In 1998, the acclaimed US-diplomat George Kennan (1904-2005) warned that the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe would mean "the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake." In this "Washington Post" article from 9/9, Katrina vanden Heuvel assures that "what has unfolded was predictable and preventable". Forcing Ukraine into an exclusive relationship with the European Union will "spark deep, historical divisions within the country".
The sudden destruction of all Ukrainian units in the region of Ilovaisk immediately after 28 August made for the first time abundantly clear that Russia would not be giving up its interests in that realm. Whether one likes it or not: Russia's presence in that border region is very likely long-term.
At the same time, the US-American Mark Sleboda, a political consultant for Moscow's "Russia Today" television, wrote on 5 September that Russia long ago lost Ukraine almost in its entirety to the West. "Now Putin is doing damage control . . . and salvaging what he can in the areas of the Ukraine still most 'Russian' and resistant to US influence."
3. Ukrainian Protestants confirm their longing for democracy. But are the people already in an appropriate state-of-mind? Democracy will not fall from the heavens nor waft over from the West. As long as fists remain a means of debate in parliament and large opposition parties such as the Party of Regions and the communists remain on the verge of becoming illegal, an appreciation for the foundations of democracy cannot grow. Democratic compromise can only be risked and learned. Democracy is no final, end result – it can only be a direction and goal. It is endangered time-and-again through mighty forces - Wall Street, for ex.
4. Ukrainians don't understand their Russian brothers and sisters in faith. One regards them to be victimised by propaganda and beholden to their state. Russians indeed are highly reluctant to pay the Ukraine a visit. On international trains between Belarus and Ukraine I met very few non-Ukrainians.
I visited Mikhail Cherenkov, a leading representative of the vehemently pro-Ukrainian "Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries" in Irpen near Kiev. (This mission actually needs a new name.) Cherenkov hosted me in a friendly and honourable way; he undoubtedly acts similarly with other guests calling "from the East". "We repeatedly invite Russians to our conferences," he assured. "I do not want to regard anyone as an enemy."
I appreciated the concession of a young, highly-educated Baptist woman in Kiev: "We too have made mistakes, we too are not perfect. If we were so, then it would not have had this war." Dialogue and exhausting attempts to comprehend one another will very likely be the only means of making our testimony for peace credible.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 14 September 2014