By Stefania Knecht
In the 1940s, my great-grandparents fled from what is today Western Ukraine to Poland. A couple of weeks ago, my parents called and said they were doing a humanitarian supply run to L’viv. “It’s our duty,” my father said. And so, as a Polish citizen with Ukrainian roots, and with a doctoral thesis on religious peacebuilding in Ukraine and by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, I knew I had to join them. For 24 hours we drove to L’viv and back on two hours of sleep, spent excruciating hours at border control, and dropped off food, clothing, home, and medical supplies at three different locations. We ate, cried, and prayed with our dear friends, and left them with the hope of meeting again in more peaceful times. How did we get here?
On 24 February 2022, the Global North’s apparent peace took a hit, when just after 5am the first Russian missiles were reported in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and the Donbas region. Since then, the events of the last few weeks have been too numerous and too harrowing to summarise. However, here is a snapshot of some of the most difficult developments:
- In a mass mobilising effort, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered weapons to all citizens wanting to defend their country.1Natalia Zinets et al., Ukraine’s Zelenskiy calls on citizens to fight, promises weapons, Reuters (24 February 2022), https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraines-zelenskiy-calls-citizens-fight-promises-weapons-2022-02-24/. [Accessed 14 March 2022]
- On 9 March, a maternity and children’s hospital in the centre of Mariupol were destroyed in an attack, and Ukraine’s state-run nuclear company Energoatom announced that all nuclear facilities in the Chernobyl exclusion zone were without power, with the possibility of a nuclear discharge.2OCHA Ukraine, Ukraine: Humanitarian Impact Situation Report (As of 3:00 p.m. (EET), 10 March 2022), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ukraine, 10 March 2022).
- Since 24 February, an estimated 4.2 million people have been forcibly displaced during the Ukraine crisis. This includes 2.6 million refugees who have fled to other countries, and an estimated 1.85 million people are internally displaced.3OCHA Ukraine, Ukraine: Humanitarian Impact Situation Report (As of 3:00 p.m. (EET), 10 March 2022); OCHA Ukraine, Ukraine: Humanitarian Impact Situation Report (As of 3:00 p.m. (EET), 12 March 2022), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ukraine, 2022). And on 10 March, UNICEF announced that over 1 million child refugees had left the country.4Additional UNICEF supplies on their way to Ukraine as number of child refugees exceeds 1 million mark, UNICEF (10 March 2022), https://www.unicef.org/eca/press-releases/additional-unicef-supplies-their-way-ukraine-number-child-refugees-exceeds-1-million. [Accessed 14 March 2022]
- The waiting times at the Polish-Ukrainian border exceed the opening times, sometimes taking days. The refugees from various parts of Ukraine are forced to find shelter in the nearby forests at freezing night temperatures to escape the military curfew.
Why this war? What is the root of all this suffering? As Russian President Vladimir Putin has used Ukrainian history to explain and justify the war,5Vladimir Putin, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Kremlin (2021), http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181. [Accessed 14 March 2022] it is important to know the history of the Ukrainian people—and their suffering on the road to independence. Putin sees Russian and Ukrainian ancestry as rooted in Kievan Rus’, though historians themselves are divided in the ethnic composition of the Rus’.6Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History 4th ed. (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 23-25, 52-54. Further, the Russian Orthodox Church has a strong (and awkward) link to Kyiv (rather than Moscow), in that Christianity first came to Kievan Rus’ (and Kyiv specifically) with Volodymyr the Great’s conversion in 988.7Subtelny, Ukraine, 33-34.
History generally has been unkind to the Ukrainian people. Since the 16th century, Ukrainians have been under Polish-Lithuanian, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian rule. During the Polish-Ukrainian Commonwealth, there already was, however, a clear distinction between “Ukrainians” and “Russians,” as “Ruthenians” and “Muscovites”, respectively.8Subtelny, Ukraine, 69. Then, in the First World War, 3.5 million Ukrainian soldiers served in the Russian Army, and 250,000 in the Austrian forces. Tragically, historian Orest Subtelny highlights that Ukrainians “fought and died for empires that not only ignored their national interests but, in the case of Russia, actively sought to destroy their national movements.” And even worse: “as combatants on opposing sides, Ukrainians were forced to kill each other.”9Subtelny, Ukraine, 340.
In response to the structural violence they were facing, Ukrainians first declared independence toward the end of the First World War. In 1917 the Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed in Kyiv, and in 1918 the West Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed in L’viv—just over a century ago. In 1919, the two republics united symbolically, though fighting different battles: in the West with Polish forces, and in the East with Russian and Soviet forces. However, turbulent political dynamics resulted in the 1921 Peace of Riga, which ignored Ukrainian claims of independence and divided the territory among the Second Polish Republic, the Russian Soviet Republic, and the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic.
Since then, 3.5 million Ukrainians died in the 1930s genocidal famine “Holodomor” orchestrated by the Soviet regime, and Russian historian Vadim Erlikman estimates that 6.85 million individuals died in Soviet Ukraine during the Second World War.10This includes military deaths, as well as Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and civilian deaths due to military activity and crimes against humanity, as well as civilian deaths due to war related famine and disease. This does not include Ukrainian victims in today’s Western Ukraine. Вадим Эрлихман, Потери народонаселения в XX веке: справочник (Москва: Русская панорама, 2004). Until Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the Ukrainian people were subjects of a Soviet proto-state: severe censorship, repression, arrests, and exile to labour camps were commonplace.11“Soviet Ukraine in the Postwar Period,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (2022). https://www.britannica.com/place/Ukraine/Soviet-Ukraine-in-the-postwar-period. [Accessed 14 March 2022] Ukrainian independence—which was voted for in a referendum with an overwhelming majority of 92.3%—was not only a sigh of relief after a brutal period, but a century-long process of being a discriminated people and many failed efforts to establish a state.
Unfortunately, their independence, democratic institution, and right to national identity are all now being violently tested anew. What can we do? Aside from financial assistance (which is acutely necessary and must be viewed as a marathon, rather than a sprint), political support (adapted to the needs communicated by Ukrainian people), and practical efforts (though not possible for all from afar), it must be to familiarise oneself with Ukrainian history. It is knowledge of history that is the weapon against the current Russian government’s narrative of Ukrainians as “Little Russians” and the denial of Soviet war crimes. It is misinformation and propaganda that underlies this war—and for all those that feel helpless, these can be your opponents.
Lastly, it must be mentioned that there is also light in the darkness.
Between 2015 and 2017, as a result of the European migrant crisis, Germany accepted 1.4 asylum claims. In the span of 17 days, however, Poland with a population of 38 million has accepted 1.6 million refugees from Ukraine. (Imagine the USA accepting a comparative 13.8 million refugees within that timeframe!) We see significant acts of kindness and humanity. There are pictures of Polish volunteers hugging refugees at the border, individuals offering baby prams at the main train station in Przemyśl, people accepting refugees into their homes and doing supply runs to war zones, and countless other acts of solidarity and neighbourly love.
Further, a member of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University stated that this time of crisis—and the unprovoked Russian aggression and invasion—has done the unexpected: bringing the Ukrainian churches together. In what has been decades of disunity and strife on wide-ranging issues, such as matters of allegiance (to the Moscow Patriarchate, Constantinople Patriarchate, Kyiv Patriarchate, or to the Holy See in Rome),12For an in-depth discussion on this see, for example: Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer, eds., Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). especially the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) has changed its perspective and has moved away from its close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. In response to the Russian Orthodox Church’s refusal to condemn the military actions of the Russian Federation’s government, Father Sergiy Bortnyk, lecturer at the Theology Academy of Kyiv, stated, “We have had to change our attitudes. And we now have excluded Patriarch Kirill from our prayers.” The Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, representing more than 90% of religious organizations in Ukraine, has been unified in their joint statements since the Russian Federation’s invasion.13Statements, UCCRO (Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations) (2022), https://vrciro.org.ua/en/statements. [Accessed 14 March 2022]
The Church and its message have also taken on a new—more holistic—role. In a call rallying church and political leaders in Europe and North America on 26 February, Oleh Kindiy, Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and theology lecturer at the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, said: “Our church buildings have become yet again a place of both spiritual and physical refuge.” Kindiy also mentioned that ten times as many individuals were coming to confession. Similarly, the Director of the St Thomas Aquinas Institute in Kyiv, Father Petro Balog, stated in an online seminar on 4 March, “At first, we taught theology. And now we have found we need to live it out.”
Indeed, in a time like this, the thought of solidarity alone is too little. May we equip ourselves with historical knowledge and with it be able to support the Ukrainian people in their (literal) fight for independence. May we sacrificially give and serve. May we, too, learn to see what that theology, grounded in the self-giving love of Christ, practically looks like in this time.
This article was first published on Blogos (University of St Andrews) on Monday, March 14th:
UNICEF. Additional Unicef Supplies on Their Way to Ukraine as Number of Child Refugees Exceeds 1 Million Mark. (10 March 2022). https://www.unicef.org/eca/press-releases/additional-unicef-supplies-their-way-ukraine-number-child-refugees-exceeds-1-million.
Krawchuk, Andrii, and Thomas Bremer, eds. Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis: Palgrave Macmillan 2016.
OCHA Ukraine. Ukraine: Humanitarian Impact Situation Report (as of 3:00 P.M. (EET), 10 March 2022). United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ukraine: 10 March 2022).
———. Ukraine: Humanitarian Impact Situation Report (as of 3:00 P.M. (EET), 12 March 2022). United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ukraine: 2022).
Putin, Vladimir. On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Kremlin (2021). http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181.
“Soviet Ukraine in the Postwar Period.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/place/Ukraine/Soviet-Ukraine-in-the-postwar-period.
Statements. UCCRO (Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations) (2022). https://vrciro.org.ua/en/statements.
Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History 4th ed. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2009.
Zinets, Natalia, Matthias Williams, Alexander Marrow, and Raissa Kasolowsky. Ukraine’s Zelenskiy Calls on Citizens to Fight, Promises Weapons. Reuters (24 February 2022). https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraines-zelenskiy-calls-citizens-fight-promises-weapons-2022-02-24/.
Эрлихман, Вадим. Потери Народонаселения В XX Веке: Справочник. Москва: Русская панорама, 2004.
About the author:
Stefania Knecht did an MLitt in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of St Andrews, and after gaining experience in refugee relief work in Jordan, returned to St Andrews to do a PhD. She has submitted a thesis on religious peacebuilding in Ukraine and is currently doing relief work at the Polish-Ukrainian border. Together with her husband, Jasper, she has a daughter, and they live in Bristol, England. She is connected to the Quo Vadis Institute in Austria.