Ukraine’s ‘Maidan’ Protests Are Spiritual as Well as Political

The presence of priests, prayer and an unprecedented level of cooperation between Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox are striking elements of the ongoing mass demonstrations in Kiev.

Anti-government protesters hold a religious service Dec. 13 on a hill overlooking Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine.
Anti-government protesters hold a religious service Dec. 13 on a hill overlooking Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. (photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

KIEV, Ukraine — Tense images since November  of Ukrainian riot police in sub-freezing cold, menacing a massive street encampment under the festive blue and yellow flags of Ukraine’s national flag together with the European Union symbol, might seem like déjà vu of previous mass demonstrations in other countries against unpopular regimes.

But unique in Ukraine is the prominent role being played by Christian Churches in shaping the protest as a spiritual event, not just a political one.

The daily presence of priests and prayer at the barricade — and the unprecedented level of coordination between Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox around the event — mark this as a historic moment, according to Church officials. What triggered the Nov. 21 takeover of Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Ukrainian, by opponents of President Viktor Yanukovych was, initially, a political act.

The government unexpectedly announced its decision to walk away from an expansive agreement with the European Union (EU) — just a week before it was supposed to be signed.

Neighboring countries Moldova and Georgia went ahead and inked similar accords on Nov. 29 at the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“For the last year or more, the Ukrainian government was preparing to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. It was the government’s official policy,” Serhii Plokhii, the Mykhailo Hrushevskyi professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, told the Register. “Europe and European values became a dominant discourse in Ukrainian politics — a big hope.”

To many Ukrainians, the EU agreement symbolized a path toward a more stable, less corrupt society, Plokhii explained.

“When the government announced it had changed its mind, saying there were economic difficulties with that, it was an abrupt turn in policy. The protest shows Ukraine is a democratic state, and the government can’t do what it pleases as a result of a backroom deal,” said Plokhii.

He concluded, “What we have today is the result of the Ukrainian economy being completely mismanaged by the current government, which was looking for an emergency bailout. Apparently they received one from Russia.”


Putin’s Bailout

On Dec. 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a bailout package for Ukraine’s cash-strapped economy: Russia will buy $15 billion in Ukrainian bonds and will sell natural gas to its neighbor at a major discount.

The EU agreement included no quick cash. Instead, it’s a political and trade agreement that lays the foundations for greater rule of law, transparency, human rights and free trade, all of which supporters say would bring long-term benefits.

Roman Popadiuk, the United States’ first post-communist ambassador to Ukraine, considers it essential for the country to orient itself toward Europe.

“While Ukraine can survive on its own — it’s a big country with extraordinary strategic resources — it needs a lot of help to become a viable democratic state, which can only come through association with Europe. So Ukraine needs to resume talks with the EU,” he told the Register.

Popadiuk added, “The pressure of Russian nationalism is too deeply ingrained. Russia will continue looking at Ukraine as a lost colony. Tying Ukraine’s economy to Russia’s is not good for either country.”

But both Plokhii and Popadiuk cautioned against reading the Maidan protests as simply a tug-of-war between Europe and Russia.  

Having recently returned from Kiev, Plokhii observed, “The division is not, in my opinion, linguistic or based on religion, but based on values. What I saw in Maidan was a very strong expression of unity between Russian speakers and Ukrainians, Orthodox and Catholics. They are all together there.”


The Nov. 30 Clash

On Nov. 30, hundreds of riot police with tear gas and truncheons attacked the Maidan, scattering some 10,000 protesters and injuring more than 75 people.  

Many Maidan activists took refuge in a historic Orthodox complex, St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, where they were protected and uplifted by monks from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, one of the country’s three (sometimes rival) Orthodox formations.

The next day, thousands of anti-government civilians massed to retake Independence Square. They gained buildings, too: An opposition party managed to overwhelm the Kiev City Hall, which has been used since as sleeping quarters for protesters.

Radicalized by the Nov. 30 assault on peaceful demonstrators, Maidan crowds swelled to more than 500,000 on the first two Sundays of December, drawing people from all over the country, according to participants.

Father Mykola Buryadnyk, pastor of Chicago’s St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Catholic Church, was in Independence Square from Dec. 8-13, and he described to the Register what he called “a new nation transformed.”

“When you approach Independence Square, it looks very scary from the outside, because of huge homemade barricades,” the priest recounted. He described strict controls to get inside, with former soldiers and “defense experts” guarding the Maidan perimeter, checking people for weapons and excluding anyone who has been drinking.

“Inside, it’s a joyful place, with many people in their 20s. Everything is very well organized, with teams responsible for food, medical aid, media, clothes, defense scheduling. People register and do duty,” he said.


Ecumenical Scene

Father Buryadnyk described the “great role” of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, with a chapel in the middle of the square providing daily Mass, confession and counseling.

The scene was ecumenical, said Father Buryadnyk. “The Orthodox Church of Kiev is very active, but also priests from the Autocephalous Church and the Moscow Patriarchate, too. … All the priests are serving, especially praying at night, the Jesus prayer, the Rosary, especially when it is cold. Every night from the stage, you hear the national anthem, then a prayer, holy Scripture, a prayer.”  

Early in the morning of Dec. 11, riot police attacked the Maidan encampment again.

To alert the public, a graduate student at a nearby theology academy next to Mikhailovsky Cathedral began ringing the sacred bells, which could be heard for miles. Father Buryadnyk joined other priests, in cassocks armed with crosses, taking up positions between the riot police and the demonstrators.

“At 3 o’clock in the morning, I was a few feet from police special forces, with their huge metal shields. We recited the Our Father and Hail Mary. Not only were protesters praying hard, the kind of prayer when you wonder if you will survive, but we saw some of the police praying quietly with us,” the priest said.  

Unlike the Nov. 30 clash, widespread violence was avoided this time, and the riot police subsequently withdrew without clearing the protestors from the square.

Like many of his clerical colleagues, Bishop Borys Gudziak, eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris, participated in the pro-Europe protest in early December. He told the Register, “Pope Francis has encouraged us clergy to be pastors — to have ‘the smell of the sheep.’ That is why our religious are in the square with the people.”


‘Claiming Their Human Dignity’

Bishop Gudziak was also at Maidan on Dec. 11. He considers it a miracle that night did not result in casualties: “The fact that 5,000 unarmed people with song and prayer on their lips resisted armed storm troopers is a miracle. The fact that peace has prevailed, even when the crowd swelled to 800,000 — that there is so much peace, levity and humor in Maidan — all of this is not natural; it is supernatural.”

He added, “And we believe that the grace of God is inspiring people to claim their human dignity.”

Although Bishop Gudziak is not shy to describe “the Putin government” as the “principal troublemaker in this situation,” he is also quick to see positive evolution in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, not a simplistic “West vs. Russia” split.

For example, a Dec. 15 rally at Maidan opened with an ecumenical prayer in which priests from each of the three Orthodox Churches participated alongside Catholics (both Eastern and Latin rite) and evangelical Christians.  

Bishop Gudziak also noted a significant statement issued by the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, currently chaired by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, (the Orthodox Church with closest ties to Russia).

The council’s joint statement conveyed four main points: The government should listen to the people; violence is unacceptable; Ukraine is an indivisible state; and dialogue is the only legitimate path.


Catholic University of Ukraine

Bishop Gudziak also serves as president of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, a university located in western Ukraine, founded in 2002 with extensive support from Ukrainian Americans. With more than 1,500 students and a business school as well as a seminary, it’s the only Catholic university in the former Soviet space.  

UCU students and faculty have been active in the Maidan protests from the start; the university community called for civil disobedience and resignation of the government in light of the unprovoked violence.

In the United States, the Chicago-based Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation (UCEF) coordinates support for UCU and helps educate Americans about the Greek Catholic Church.

Executive director Alexander Kuzma says a key factor in the Maidan demonstration is “frustration building about high levels of corruption. The Yanukovych regime is protecting his own privilege and narrow economic interests.”  

The popular response, Kuzma explains, is essentially a moral one: “a non-violent national uprising has emerged, which shows what Blessed John Paul II used to call ‘the eastern lung’ of Catholicism breathing very powerfully.”

Bishop Stefan Soroka, a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishop from Canada currently serving as archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy for Philadelphia, says it is essential to understand current events in the historical context of Greek-Catholic oppression.

“This is a fight for all the countries in the East, that we don’t return to the repression we experienced,” Bishop Soroka said.  “Everyone is saying, ‘Let’s not go back to a bygone era.’”


Hope for the Future

It is impossible to predict where Ukraine’s future lies. The current government seems to be succeeding in moving Ukraine back into the Russian sphere, possibly into a Eurasian “customs union” that Russian President Putin launched with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010.

Or the forces of European integration could eventually prevail as the Maidan demonstrators hope — and pray.  

The third option, geographic partition between European-oriented western Ukraine and the eastern and south regions, traditionally allied with Russia, is an idea evoked by Putin in a meeting with President George W. Bush in 2008. According to Time magazine, the Russian leader said at that time: “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.”

Most Catholics reject the idea of a split. Says Bishop Sokola, “What is developing is not East vs. West, but an authentic ‘duch’ [divinely influenced spirit], wanting a nation to progress out of this path of ongoing conflict.”

Similarly, Bishop Gudziak observes, “People are not campaigning against a party, not campaigning for some earthly messiah. They are demonstrating their dedication to God-given dignity and the principles of rule of law.”

Father Buryadnyk, a graduate of UCU’s Holy Spirit Seminary, goes so far as to call Maidan a “New Jerusalem” because “it is a place from which Christianity will spread. It is a blessing. It is the rebirth of a nation and a profound spiritual rebirth.”

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.