ROME – With Russia building up its troops in the border with Ukraine, Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the current head of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, is warning the conflict is not only a threat for the region, but for the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Gudziak argued, “is trying to make Ukraine fail as a state, bleed the country, through the invasion, economic undermining, and very importantly, information.”
Gudziak spoke with Crux over the phone on Tuesday, after Pope Francis’s Sunday appeal for a de-escalation of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine at the end of his weekly Regina Coeli prayer. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
How did you react when you found out that Pope Francis had, once again, referred to Ukraine?
It’s very encouraging first of all on a spiritual level. The longer I live, the more I analyze my life by how much prayer… the prayer of my mother, that of other people, guided me, sustained me. And now, thanks to the Holy Father, Catholics around the world and all people of good will, the response to such appeal has a deep spiritual meaning.
The second issue is that this war that has been ongoing for 7 years, this invasion of 7.5 percent of Ukrainian territory, by the annexation of Crimea and a war in the Eastern part of the country, the so-called Donbas area. This war is clearly a military one. It’s an authentic, physical, geographic military invasion; but also, it’s an information war. And this is a war that dips in and out of global consciousness. At the beginning, in 2014, you had almost daily news reports about the situation, and then for months at the time the tension from this occupation of a European country is lost, it just fades away.
What is important to realize is that, what happened in Ukraine is really decisive for European or even Eurasian geopolitics. Without Ukraine, Russia is not an empire, and it’s the imperial status that Putin craves. His posture, his ideology, really is quintessentially imperialist. There’s even a whitewashing of Stalin, saying that under Stalin there was the greatness of Russia — the Soviet Union then. Without all of the countries that became free in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia is not what Putin would like it to be. The U.S. economy is 14 times bigger than that of Russia, that is about the size of that of Texas. It’s a mediocre economy with a nuclear arsenal.
The suffering that has been caused — the tens of millions of deaths that have been caused by Russia imperialism over the last three centuries — it’s daunting. And every time Russia invades Ukraine, the Eastern Catholic Church gets whipped out.
One last thing: In 1994, Ukraine was the first country that got rid of its nuclear arsenal, unilaterally got rid of weapons of mass destruction, on the condition that the U.S., the UK, Russia and to some extent, France, would guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity. And that integrity has been violated now for seven years. And the only repercussion for Russia has been that there are a couple hundred millionaires who can’t do their Christmas shopping in Harrods or go to the casinos in Monaco. While two million people have become refugees and 14,000, maybe many more people, have been killed. The economy in Ukraine has been undermined, becoming the poorest country in the Europe. And this shows that a country can do this [to another] and get by. And that is a spiritual problem. It’s a moral problem. It’s an ethical problem. And it’s a real danger for Europe and the world.
The pope’s words: He didn’t use the word Russia because the Holy See likes to maintain a very diplomatic position, but he’s proven by his humanitarian campaign in 2017, Pope for Ukraine, through which 17 million Euros were directed to humanitarian aid in the country, the Holy Father knows who’s suffering and why people are suffering, and he wants to support them.
Russia is getting away with committing a crime – violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine – despite an international agreement, and this is a war that is being fought in continental Europe. Why do you think Europe is allowing this?
Europe’s response has been mixed. There was not much response until the Malaysian Airlines civilian plane was brought down over Ukrainian air space, killing over 200 people from different countries. It was attacked by either Russian-supported separatists or by Russian official forces, because it was a very sophisticated rocket used, and Russia wouldn’t just give it into the hands of these guerrillas. Germany particularly, but other countries too, have business interests in Russia. A gas pipeline is being constructed, and Russia’s main goal is to circumvent a pipeline that goes through Ukraine. And even though there are countries, including the United States, that are adamantly against this pipeline, Germany insists on continuing the partnership with Russia, and Germany’s former chancellor is a leading member of the board of directors of this project, in a position he accepted before finishing his term.
So, in short, it’s corruption, there’re payoffs. There’s evidence that journalists in Western Europe received funding from Russian authorities, at different times, using different approaches, to skew the story, and make the population of Europe disbelieve the truth. Contemporary propaganda has come to the conclusion that you don’t have to get people to believe you. You just have to get them to doubt the truth, have people say “oh, it’s all so complicated over there, that I don’t know what the truth is.” At this point, propaganda has already won, because it becomes the cover under which evil deeds can pass without response.
And this is how the devil works: Sowing doubt, getting us to live in fear and anxiety. What was happening in Ukraine, with the Revolution of Dignity, people were taking off the shackles of transgenerational trauma. From the beginning of World War I, and the Soviet Regime in Ukraine, in 1917-18, to 1991, probably about 16 million Ukrainians were killed or died an unnatural death. This includes ethnic Ukrainians, but also Jews who were killed in the Nazi Holocaust, Polish who were living in Ukraine. There was a great human devastation, and people to protect themselves from a system that killed systematically, put on masks and build up walls, because they didn’t trust one another nor systems. In this kind of situation, corruption flounders, because nobody believes nobody.
What was the Revolution of Dignity?
The revolution of dignity in 2013/2014 was a movement of great solidarity, of people coming together. This moral movement of unshackling from the traumatic past which created deep seated mistrust and fear, was basically a pilgrimage from fear to real dignity, with people recognizing that our dignity is God given. It began as a movement for integration with the European Union, a desire to have visa-free travel to countries of the EU.
But then it became much more, a movement for dignity, and there was a sense of the sacred, that the human being is sacred, not just constitutional dignity or socio-economic dignity, but the profound, unalienable God-given dignity. And this was something very deep.
On Feb. 18-20 of 2014, 100 people — unarmed, peaceful protesters — were killed, shot at in broad daylight. And this Christ-like sacrifice shook the country. The president fled. The special forces involved in these shootings also fled to Russia, and there was a strengthening of certain moral principles. Not everything straightened out, there is still quite a bit of corruption. But Ukraine has free press, we have a democracy, and people can vote for their leaders. And this is hardly the case in Russia or many of the other central Asian former Soviet republics which are totalitarian or authoritarian in nature.
The presence of this movement for democracy, for human dignity, for freedom o the press, freedom of travel, this was seen as something that was dangerous to the status quo with Russia and thus must be attacked. Putin is trying to make Ukraine fail as a state, bleed the country, through the invasion, economic undermining, and very importantly, information.
Every time the world hears from a ruler or moral authority like Pope Francis some information or moral input into this very painful saga of a country struggling for its democratic future, this is a source of support and inspiration.
Seeing the silence and corruption surrounding this invasion. How worried should Christians around the world be over what is happening in Ukraine and for the future of Greek Catholic Ukrainians?
We see this in an extreme case in the Middle East, where the Christian community has been decimated by war, invasions and persecution. Many have been killed, but also many, many more have fled. They’ve come to the conclusion that they cannot live freely, safely and prosperously in the home of their ancestors, where Christians have been for two thousand years. And they go to other countries.
This is happening in Ukraine, since before the war. The calamity left by the Soviet legacy left a really injured society, economically handicapped, socially crippled often. We had some 51 million people in 1991, according to some counts, the population today is closer to 40 or even 38 million people.
The country has lost as much as 30 percent of its population, and the exit of Greek Catholics is disproportionately large. The hypothesis of immigration is a live one, and this has brought at least three million Ukrainians to Western Europe. When I was a student in Rome, there were some 400 Ukrainians in Italy, mostly priests, seminarians and religious sisters studying in Rome. Today there’s at least half a million, and a large Eastern Ukrainian Catholic community in Italy, with some 150 parishes. And the analogous is true in Poland or other countries.
And the world is watching idly by …
Until 30 years ago, most people couldn’t point where Ukraine is, and growing up I had to explain that I’m not Russian, but Ukrainian. And it’s a country that is bigger than continental France. But information and branding is important for survival. When the Holy Father names Ukraine, when Ukraine is pulled out of the ranks of the anonymous, those that don’t have a name, that’s a gesture of blessing. From the Bible we know that naming a person is a very important sacramental gesture.
Has there been any repercussion of the pope’s words?
It was widely reported in Ukraine, and there’s great appreciation for what he said. This is not the first time Pope Francis has spoken about the dangers in the country, with between 100,000 and 150,000 troops gathered on the Russian side of the border, so there’s fear, hundreds of tanks, planes, artillery units. In global diplomatic circles there’s real concern about an escalation of the invasion. It’s public knowledge of Russia’s 2014 intent to occupy all of Eastern Ukraine, not 7.5 of the country but about half of it, but they didn’t expect the resistance they found.
There is a lot of suffering in the world, and a lot of wrong. The big danger is a cynicism and complacency, “we can’t do anything about it anyway.” I think the pandemic has dispirited many people. Among young people in the U.S., according to a report from NPR, one quarter of young people between the age of 18 and 25 have contemplated suicide. There’s mental illness among young people, and there’s a lot of people who live in a very lonely way. They’re not connected nor do they feel the connection of the human race. And they’re consumed by their own pain and sorrow, with little awareness of what’s going on elsewhere.
Totalitarian regimes try to isolate people in their fear so they cannot hold solidarity and resist manipulation and bias. Getting people in a corner of fear, where people think it’s not worth trying to help others. This stance of not even trying is very sad and ultimately, quite dangerous.
Is there something else you’d like to say?
Express great confidence in the Lord’s blessings. Ukraine has endured against all odds. Some 35 years ago the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine was still illegal, reduced from 3,000 priests to 300 aging priests, and some 30,000 people connected to the underground church. And today we’re back to having 3,000 priests, we have 36 dioceses, 20 of which are around the world, outside Ukraine. There’s a dynamic, young head of the Church in Sviatoslav Shevchuk, it has one of the youngest episcopacies in the Catholic Church, with many bishops in their early 40s. It’s a story of hope, of overcoming great brutality, genocide, totalitarianism, and surviving.
The country and the Church either were dead or supposed to die, and they’re alive. There’s been suffering and persecution, but the memory of the recent Easter, the passage from death to live. This Church, which was the biggest illegal Church for 44 years, supposed to been crushed, today is a very respected moral authority in the country despite being a minority of the population.
Even though life is very difficult, with a war, a pandemic, devastating floods and fires last year, economic crisis and migration: Never has the world been so Ukrainian, and the Greek Ukrainian Church so Catholic, meaning, universal or global. This Church that was in a tiny enclave in the Western part of one country today is global and sharing this story of the resurrection, of being almost extinguished and coming back to life.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma