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Reconciliation Begins at Home

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New Eastern Europe, 2015, #5
A conversation with Mykhailo Cherenkov,
----- Interviewer: Iwona Reichardt


IWONA REICHARDT: We met during the London Consultation which was held in late April 2015. This meeting gathered religious leaders from different countries, including Ukraine and Russia, who passed a resolution urging an international reaction to the war in eastern Ukraine. In its text we read: “This crisis presents an urgent opportunity for the global Church to demonstrate solidarity with those who are suffering, to advocate for religious freedom, and to help restore peace, justice and reconciliation.” Coming from Donetsk and experiencing first-hand the ongoing war, do you think this really is the right moment to start talking about reconciliation?

MYKHAILO CHERENKOV: Like the majority of the participants at the London Consultation I am convinced that we should start speaking about reconciliation now, even while the war is ongoing and the attempts to stop it continue to be unsuccessful. The more people pray and talk about peace and post-war reconciliation, the faster the war will come to an end. In other words, the sooner we begin, the better. At the same time we have to be realistic. As long as there is military action, reconciliation with enemies is out of the question. During the gathering in London the Bishop of Ukrainian Pentecostals, Mykhailo Panochko, brought up this problem. I can imagine that his sober words may not have been welcomed by all, mainly because Russians and Ukrainians are still referred to as “brothers”.

The true tragedy of the Ukrainian-Russian war is that the fraternal people have turned out to be an aggressor. Those who were our brothers yesterday are our enemies today. Yet we need to do everything we can so that today’s enemies become our brothers tomorrow. However, when our brothers are still our enemies we need to protect ourselves from them. The enemies need to repent and admit their guilt in order to become our brothers again. Only then will we be able to make peace.

Thus, the Christian leaders from all over the world who gathered at the London Consultation did not call for surrender. On the contrary, they supported Ukraine in its resolute struggle for freedom, while encouraging us to anticipate and prepare for the day when the enemy asks for peace and forgiveness. The challenge of reconciliation needs to be addressed by both Russians and Ukrainians.

In other words reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine is possible?

Yes, but we need to keep in mind that for the moment this is a matter for the future. There is also another urgent matter that needs to be tackled, but no one is really talking about it. And that is reconciliation among the Ukrainian people. Admittedly, before reconciling with Russians (and I stress we are talking here about a very vague and remote future), the Ukrainian people must first reconcile themselves internally. What I am mainly referring to here is a regional reconciliation between the country’s east and west. And this reconciliation needs to take place on a number of levels including political, social, cultural, linguistic and religious.

Today Ukraine’s internal diversity is perceived as a problem. But once there is an internal reconciliation, this diversity will turn into a great asset. And this is something that totalitarian Russia fears the most: a peaceful and plural Ukraine. Therefore, reconciliation becomes a process which begins inside the nation, unites it and makes it invincible. Only then it can expand to its neighbours and enemies.

As a former provost of the Donetsk Christian University and a religious leader of an organisation that suffered harm from the pro-Russian separatists how can you envision a process of healing wounds?

Reconciliation, healing and recovery mean something more than just a return to the status quo ante, a time when there was no war. Reconciliation implies renovation, upgrading to a new level of relationship. Once war has occurred, no one is able to live as they did before. Life is possible only on the other side of the war – after the war. This means that reconciliation opens the door only to one direction – the future. Recovery by means of a return to the past is doomed to reproduce the same cycle of war. Moving to the future is needed but it shall be based on remembering what happened in the past. I am talking about the relationship model that people have with each other, with the world around them and with God. We cannot necessarily learn about these relationships from history books but rather from the Bible. There, love reigns and is the motif of reconciliation, its purpose and means.
Keeping in mind the Biblical model of reconciliation where God does not turn a blind eye to sins, but sacrifices Himself to save the world, we should not speak about reconciliation with the reality of evil and lies, or giving in to their inevitability. Reconciliation requires meekness, not to evil but to the higher Truth. It requires an acceptance of personal responsibility and guilt for what has happened. Meek people admit their guilt and the relative character of their rightness, not justifying the perpetrator nor agreeing with the prevailing opinion, and therefore do not judge in their own name, but pass the judgment to God, asking for mercy: “forgive us..., as we have forgiven”.

We usually think of reconciliation as a restoration of a disrupted relationship. However does not this tragedy demonstrate that there is actually nothing to restore? What used to be has turned out to be untenable. Is it worth restoring? That is why, at the end of the day, maybe we should not speak about a restoration or a reformation but rather about a revival or a birth? Something new has to be born, something that did not exist in the past.

If peace is possible, it can be only attained by a deliberate and unanimous effort. If unity is possible, it is the unity of the engaged and not of the indifferent. In this respect, we are witnessing the creation of a new Ukraine. Previously, there was a Ukraine that did not know itself nor self-reflected on its existence. It was a Ukraine that was not able to answer its own or other’s questions about the nature of its unity, conditions for peace or the distinctiveness of its historical fate. Today it starts to painfully understand and accept itself and others, its calling and shared responsibility, its internal complexity and a future full of opportunities.

You come from a household where one parent is Ukrainian and one parent is Russian. You speak Russian openly and without embarrassment, which is quite common in Ukraine. Yet, unquestionably, parts of your country are torn and divisions run deep. If language is not a problem, what are the barriers to a peaceful co-existence between people, especially in eastern Ukraine?

The language division of Ukraine is only the visible tip of the iceberg. This division goes deeper and is reflected in people’s attitude to the Russian and the Soviet empire. Thus, the main division lies on the Soviet/Ukrainian line, although there is also an internal line which divides a Soviet-Ukraine and a European-Ukraine. As a result, supporters of the Soviet past obstinately speak Russian, while supporters of Ukraine’s European future speak Ukrainian and English (as well as Polish, German and French). Language preferences of Ukrainians are clear markers of their regional, national and cultural identity.

The Russian language in Ukraine is a residual trace of the targeted colonial policy of Russification, denationalisation and cultural assimilation. For many western Ukrainians the Russian language is a language of occupants and torturers. For the inhabitants of the eastern regions it is a part of their common Soviet heritage. I actually divide all Russian-speaking Ukrainians into two groups: those who speak both Russian and Ukrainian and those who speak Russian and Russian only. People from first group fit well in the Ukrainian culture while those from the second group opposes Ukraine and identify themselves with Russian and Soviet cultures.

Where do you see yourself in these divisions?

I belong to the first group and to the best of my knowledge the majority of Donbas (up to 70 per cent of the locals) also belong to it. With the consistent soft cultural integration of the region these people will shift to seeing themselves as strictly Ukrainian, especially the younger generations. The remaining 30 per cent make up the reserve of the Soviet past and, as was demonstrated by the events of 2014, are ready to defend their cultural reserve with arms. What is more, they dream of expanding it to the whole of Ukraine. Thus, the Russian language is associated with the Soviet past while Ukrainian with the pre-Soviet past, and most importantly, with the future.

However, two clarifications should be made in relation to the perspectives that both languages have. Firstly, the Russian language can have a new future in Ukraine; it can become a “Russian Ukrainian” or a “Ukrainian Russian” (similar to “American English”). In other words, it can be the language of the Russian speaking population who look not to Moscow, but to Kyiv, not to the totalitarian model of the Russian culture, but to the tradition of Ukrainian freedom which dates back to the Kyivan Rus’. Secondly, the prospects of the Ukrainian language are associated with the plethora of European languages and cultures. It can develop not in opposition to Russian and not in obstinate provincial self-containment, but in enriching cultural and linguistic co-existence with European influence.

Since last year’s EuroMaidan Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity, the role of churches and religious organisations has significantly increased in Ukraine. Today, social trust in these entities is estimated to be at the highest level, also when compared to other public institutions. However, this picture is far from simple, especially given the role the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the lack of canonical legitimacy of the Kyiv Patriarchate. What do you think is the future of Eastern Orthodoxy in Ukraine and how may the future of these two churches affect the situation in the country?

Indeed, the level of social trust in the Church is higher than ever before. Accordingly, the expectations of it are also very high. And if these expectations are not met, the pendulum of public opinion will swing from a position of high trust to a position of great disappointment. This is well illustrated by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. It was, and so far remains, the largest and most influential religious denomination in Ukraine and was expected to give a casting vote capable of ending confrontation between the government and the people during the EuroMaidan Revolution and the following war. Unfortunately, even though the voice was uttered, it was soft and unclear.

Today it should be acknowledged that the UOC (MP) is perceived as anti-Ukrainian. At the same time, the Kyiv Patriachate, which is not officially recognised by Constantinople, is viewed as national and patriotic. People prefer not the canonical (“right”) and the anti-Ukrainian (“not ours”) church, but the one that is pro-Ukrainian, although non-canonical. Ukrainians have progressively been losing interest in the canonicity of the Church and are more concerned with its practical service for the society. In fact, canonicity is the last argument the Moscow Patriarchate has. Once Constantinople decides to recognise the Kyiv Patriarchate, it will become the main denomination of the country and the parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate will simply shift to it.

Europe and the whole world should understand that the Moscow Patriarchate has no rights to the Ukrainian territory and the concept of the “canonical territory” and the “canonical Church” are hardly applicable in the current context. Besides, the Moscow Patriarchate is schismatic as it opposes and distances itself from global Orthodoxy (by the doctrine of concordance, unconditional support of the Kremlin, aggressive denial of democracy and human rights, abjection of other Orthodox Churches as “small” and “weak”, the doctrine of representing Moscow as “the third Rome”, after which “there will be no fourth”), and self-confidently equates the Russian Orthodox Church and Orthodoxy as such.

Looking into the future, do you think that you will ever be able to go back to Donetsk and continue the work you were doing there before the war?

What is going on in Donetsk now is almost impossible to imagine. It is difficult to comprehend all that has happened. People are different now, even the air is different. I was there incognito in late December 2014. Everything was strange, as if it was a bad dream. As a matter of fact, I often have nightmares about Donetsk – a city covered in darkness where zombies hunt the last survivors. My nightmares are filled with fires and shootings, tortures and murders.

When I went back to Donetsk, I felt that this was a different world, like another planet. People were afraid to speak and nobody was certain of anyone. They were closed to any talk about faith, conscience, God and the soul. I noticed something similar in Crimea in the spring of 2014 – people with St. George ribbons behaved like other human, or even non-human, beings. The Donetsk Christian University, where I previously worked, has been taken over by pro-Russian separatists. The academic buildings and dormitories have been converted into warehouses. Hostages are being held there and rooms have been transformed into torture chambers. A classroom of a private Christian school on the university campus has been turned into a shooting range where rebels shoot at Ukrainian symbols and children’s drawings. These activities are recorded and exhibited like trophies. Where my children once planted trees, now there are trenches and guns.

I find it hard to believe that all this can ever be returned and sanctified, cleared from sin. But we have to have faith. Otherwise hundreds of thousands of scattered Ukrainians will live with emptiness in their souls, without any hope of returning to their homes. I very much hope that we will never come back to the remains of Soviet nostalgia. We need to build a new Donetsk and a new Ukraine. I want to believe that something new is being born out of the flames of war, that the Soviet past is destroying itself and that there will be no alternative to the European future in the absence of the old shores. And above all, I want to believe that the point of no return has been crossed and Ukraine will become a part of the commonwealth of European states.


Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.
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