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Why Ukraine’s history matters  

by
04 March 2022

Myths about its past are being used to justify aggression, says Douglas Dales

Alamy

Prayers are said in St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, in central Kyiv, on Thursday of last week, the day the Russian invasion of Ukraine began

Prayers are said in St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, in central Kyiv, on Thursday of last week, the day the Russian invasion of Ukraine began

THE Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only an affront to, and a flagrant denial of, Christian values: it is also an attack on Christianity itself.

In the minds of some around President Putin, including some leading Russian churchmen, it is partly a religiously inspired mission to retrieve and safeguard Kyiv as the cradle of Russian Christianity. It is notable that the Patriarch of Moscow has not only refrained from condemning this unprovoked aggression, but appears to bless it as a just cause. This will greatly damage the credibility of the Russian Church in the years to come, especially among a rising and younger generation in Russia and elsewhere.

It is true, of course, that Kyiv is the cradle of Russian Christianity — a common
inheritance treasured not only by Russian and Ukrainian Christians, but also by Orthodox and other Christians around the world. In this tragic conflict, Christians are now being pitted against each other, at least in military terms, and hatred is being rekindled, using bitter memories of the way in which Stalin deliberately starved many millions of Ukrainians to death.

Schism already exists between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople after his recognition of the identity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and its right to be self-governing, and to be independent of control from Moscow (Comment, 18 February, News, 8 February 2019).

Pursuit of historical-religious fantasy is, at one level, a crude justification for aggression; but, at another level, it is a dangerous intoxication that can end only in disaster, as it did for the Greeks in the aftermath of the First World War, who fantasised about regaining Constantinople; or the Serbs, who wished to regain Kosovo as an ancestral heartland and cradle of their faith. It is a misuse of history and a travesty of Christianity, raising false hopes and fears while justifying brutality.

 

THE actual history of how Christianity came to become established in Kyiv in the tenth century is well documented and important; and some buildings remain from this early period, most notably the beautiful cathedral of St Sophia, decorated with stunning mosaics by Greek artists, but also frescoed with paintings of Kyivan court life by Russian artists.

By some miracle, it has survived all the trauma that has afflicted the history of Kyiv. The Monastery of the Caves, set high above the Dnieper River, was founded in the 11th century by a Kyivan layman, St Antony, who went to Mount Athos, where he became a monk. He was sent back to Kyiv twice to kindle monastic life there, and he lived as a hermit in a cave above the river, where he attracted a following. The first monastery in Kyiv was thus an outpost of the Holy Mountain of Athos.

His disciple, St Theodosius, created and formed the actual monastery above ground, where it remains to this day, surmounting two sets of caves where subsequently many holy men lived and died and are now buried. Nestor’s Life of St Theodosius is one of the best lives of early medieval saints, portraying him as a humble monk like St Francis of Assisi, who was none the less capable of standing up to, and gaining the respect of, the ruler of Kyiv, Jaroslav, who supported the growth of the monastery.

Nestor writes that Theodosius “was respected, not because of his fine clothes or rich estates, but for his radiant life and purity of spirit; and also, for his teachings, which were fired with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To him, the goatskin and hair-shirt were more precious than any king’s purple robe; and he was proud to wear them as a monk.”

The subsequent history of the monastery is carefully recorded in the earliest chronicle of Russian history. Many other monasteries and bishops sprang from the Kyivan Pechersk Lavra, which became and still remains the mother-house of Russian and Ukrainian monastic life.

Kyiv itself became a prosperous medieval kingdom, being originally founded by
Vikings and Slavs, and capitalising on the trade that flowed along the Dnieper river, with close links to Byzantium, from where Christianity came formally to Kyiv during the reign of Prince Vladimir. He married a princess from there, and was baptised, along with many of his people, in the Dnieper by Kyiv in 988. After his death, conflict arose among his successors.

Russians remember and treasure the martyrdom of the princes Boris and Gleb, who were murdered by their own brother, but who refused as Christians to use armed resistance to protect themselves.

Kyiv had close links of marriage and trade with kingdoms in Western Europe, and
some from the English royal family took refuge there after their defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In 1240, however, Kyiv was overthrown by Mongol invasion from the eastern steppes, and the Slav population came increasingly under alien domination for more than 200 years, until the princes of Moscow began the fight-back. Thereafter, Kyiv was seldom free from foreign rule, until finally being incorporated into the Russian empire of the tsars.

 

DOES this history matter, and does it provide a gleam of hope in the midst of the darkness of the current conflict?

It surely demonstrates the truths that historical fact is stronger than myth, and that Christianity finds expression in actual historical situations, from which later generations can learn much. Humility, accountability, charity, prayer, compassion, determination, education, non-violence — these were the Christlike qualities that created Christianity in Kyiv in the beginning, as they created Christianity in England as well.

In every generation, they act as salt: as a corrective and challenge to the false values of sinful humanity. In Kyiv, as in Rome, their reality may still be sensed, hidden behind the carapace and wreckage of history. Kyiv, like Rome, is a holy city for all Christians. But they are not qualities that can be appropriated by conquest or domination, religious or political; nor should they be distanced by sentimental idolisation of saints, or by fantasies about remote periods of Christian history as some kind of lost golden age.

On my first visit to Kyiv, in 1989, we were made very welcome, and given the freedom to explore the city for a while. I was astounded by St Sophia’s Cathedral, which was the first Byzantine church that I had ever visited. High in the beautiful apse is a commanding mosaic of Mary, the Theotokos, with her hands uplifted in prayer.

Later that day, I made my way alone by bus to the terrible monument at Babi Yar, which marks the area where thousands of Jews and others were murdered in a ravine by the Nazis. It is surmounted by the figure of another mother, with her hands tied behind her back, unable to protect her little child, who sits on her lap. Two mothers — two martyrs to the suffering of their own children. It is terrible to witness
this tragedy being repeated in the lines of families now fleeing Ukraine.

Kyiv has often been a place where, amid great trauma, darkness has collided with the light of Christ. Let us pray for and alongside all those in that holy city and elsewhere in Ukraine, that, in the present darkness, the light of Christ, crucified and risen, may yet shine forth and make all things new — for Russians and Ukrainians alike.

In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written while in prison in Berlin in 1944: “Christians stand by God in His hour of grieving.” Let us commend Russia and Ukraine and all their people to the intercession of the Mother of God and of the founding saints of holy Kyiv: St Antony and St Theodosius.

The Revd Douglas Dales is Associate Priest in the East Downland Benefice, in the diocese of Oxford.

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