A quick overview of Ukraine’s history reveals an often neglected but central aspect of the current war

From Pastor Heero Haquebord – L’viv: In the narrative of the Russian propaganda machine Ukraine is a passive region (not a country, not a nation), caught between the grand powers of Russia and the West. According to this version of history Ukraine has always been a part of the Russian world, and therefore the EU and especially the U.S. and NATO have no business pulling Ukraine into its sphere. As with all Russian propaganda, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The country called “Russia” today has its spiritual and political origins in Kyiv, which was the capital of Kievan Rus’ long before Moscow had come into existence. Yet through the persistent efforts of the Muscovite ruler Ivan the Terrible and his later successor Peter the Great, among others, the Grand Duchy of Moscow redefined itself as “Rus-sia”, the supposedly sole political and cultural heir of Rus’ and the spiritual “Third Rome” of the world. Every nation needs a unifying narrative, and this is the one around which modern “Russia” has been built. So, contra the facts of history, Russia sees itself today as the “big, older brother” among the three “Russian brothers” of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Most Ukrainians strongly reject this concocted narrative, remarking with wry irony in the light of the current war that “It’s a good thing we have only two “brothers”….”

The truth is that Ukraine has had a complex history associated with many more countries than just that which today is called “Russia.” Over the most recent centuries many kingdoms and peoples have ruled or tried to control various parts of what is today part of Ukraine – the Mongolians, Russians, Turks, Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans…. The western section of Ukraine (and what used to be Kievan Rus’) was never even part of the Russian Empire, but belonged first to Poland and later to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The south (including Crimea) was controlled by Turkey. All of these invading nations and marauders led to Ukraine developing a unique military tradition embodied by the independent-thinking, wild and skilled Cossacks, centered around modern-day Zaporizhia in the southeast of Ukraine. They fought valiantly for the freedom of their land — even though they were forced to negotiate various alliances along the way. At one point the cossacks even raided Istanbul!

Ukrainians’ desire to rule themselves came out strongly after WWI, when the Ukrainian National Republic was formed. Yet it was eventually included in the newly-formed Soviet Union — the Russian Empire masquerading as a union of 15 “equal” republics.

During the Soviet Union Ukrainians’ language, culture and distinct identity were systematically and fiercely oppressed. Much more cruelly, in the early 1930’s Stalin suppressed independent, successful entrepreneurial farming in Ukraine by means of a man-made famine. Ukrainians literally starved to death when there was plenty of grain in their fields. Several million Ukrainians died of hunger.

Ukraine’s independent-thinking spirit was also reflected in its spiritual life: Ukraine was the “Bible belt” of the Soviet Union. In addition to the Orthodox heritage of Kyiv (dating back to 988), Baptists, Pentecostals and Greek Catholics were common in Ukraine. The communist state, though, infiltrated the “Russian” Orthodox Church with its own agents, thereby tolerating and using the existence of what became a government-controlled church. All other churches were forced to register with the government (and infiltrated by the KGB) or to go underground. Yet the independent church of Christ survived, with as many as 70% of Protestant pastors in post-Soviet Russia having direct connections with Ukraine.

And the church in Ukraine has become only stronger after the implosion of the Soviet Union. After Ukraine voted for its independence in 1991, the Greek Catholic Church came back to life and Protestant missionaries streamed to Ukraine (and Russia) from all over the world. Feeling threatened, and having lost its theological bearings, the Russian Orthodox Church took a very strong stance against Protestantism and all other versions of Christianity, with such opposition growing fiercer under Putin’s autocratic reign. Many alternative voices in the Russian Orthodox Church have been silenced in one way or another. Yet Ukrainian society has grown increasingly receptive to other Christian traditions.

There is a connection between Ukrainians’ strong desire to rule themselves and their willingness to accept a variety of Christian churches. In 2004, during the “Orange Revolution,” Ukrainians spontaneously and peacefully protested against a rigged election, which had initially given victory to the pro-Russian candidate. Protestant, Greek Catholic and some Orthodox churches generally supported the popular movement to uphold Ukraine’s highest law, the constitution. When, in 2014, a pro-Russian government used brutal measures to suppress spontaneous and peaceful demonstrations against a closer association with Russia, a second revolution ensued. It was also supported by many different churches which, again, confirmed people’s constitutional right to peaceful demonstration. Some protesters eventually turned to violence after some of them had been killed by government forces. The “Revolution of Dignity” ended with the murder of more than a hundred protesters on the streets of Kyiv. Though it provided Putin with an opportunity to seize Crimea and invade parts of eastern Ukraine, the “Revolution of Dignity” galvanized the spirit of a nation that wants to chart its own path, choose its own alliances, build its own, complex identity.

After 2014 Ukraine became even more accepting of non-Orthodox Christian traditions. In 2017 then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko made the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation an official celebration in Ukraine. Protestant churches were tasked with organizing cultural and spiritual events throughout the year! The farther Ukraine has moved from Russia’s sphere of influence the more free-thinking and democratic it has become. The Church has greatly benefited from these changes!
In Russia, however, the opposite has been happening. Under a heavy, constant barrage of government and church-induced propaganda, the population is completely losing its bearings and its freedoms. Similar to the German nation of pre-WWII, the majority of Russians simply do not understand what is going on in the world, in their own country, in their hearts. They are told how to think, how to believe, how to relate to other nations. It is essentially the same situation as during the Soviet Union, only without the philosophy of communism. Their president — an ex-KGB official himself — is using tried and true (and failed!) means of hanging onto power.

So the war in Ukraine is not, primarily, about the West and Russia fighting for control over Ukraine. It is about Ukrainians’ desire to be a free nation where people can think the way they want to, believe according to their own convictions. Ukraine is certainly not a perfect democracy. It still struggles with corruption, cronyism, abuse of power, inefficiency — and Russian propaganda in the media. Yet the further Ukraine moves from Russian influence the more democratic and free it becomes. Putin wants to take these freedoms away from Ukrainians so that Russia can, once again, control its “little brother.” But Ukrainians are fed up with such patronizing attitudes. They are fighting for their identity, their religious and cultural survival, the right to make their own decisions, to form their own alliances. Ukrainians are fighting to think, live and believe freely — no matter what other nations may think or say!

6 responses to “A quick overview of Ukraine’s history reveals an often neglected but central aspect of the current war”

  1. An interesting and informative article that neglects to mention the strong beneficial Jewish influence on the culture and government of Ukraine.
    Such an omission is beyond the pale.


    • Thank you for your comment and to qualify that the author did say it was a “quick” history. No one can dispute the influence that Jewish culture and individuals have had in Ukraine‘s history. What is unfortunate that little has come in support of president Zelensky from the Israeli government to date. We are hoping that this changes.


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