In Ukraine, the stench of the Soviet era lingers on

Bolshevism evolved into religion, some kind of materialistic pagan religion, which worships Lenin and his like as demigods, while considering lies, deceit, violence, the oppression of the poor, the demoralizing of children, humiliation of women, destruction of the family... and the reduction of all the nation to extreme poverty as the principles of its rule—although all these principles are false.—Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics (1936)

A great and holy man made this grim and blunt pronouncement three years before Stalin drenched all Ukraine in red, his veracity confirmed in violence. To understand Ukraine today, we must briefly revisit its pre-Communist history.

Writing these cautionary words in his eighth decade, Metropolitan Sheptytsky (d. 1944) was the long-serving spiritual leader of the largest Eastern Rite within the Catholic Church, the dominant Rite in Ukraine, and rightly so: Ukraine is the crossroads of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholics are Eastern in spirituality but Western in faith, the Kievan Church having re-entered into communion with Rome in the sixteenth century, a first big step toward closing the chasm created by the Orthodox schism in the 11th century.

Sheptytsky was a prophet in his own right as well, clearly perceiving the threat from the armed ideology that would soon persecute his entire country, the eastern two-thirds already having suffered Communist rule since being incorporated into the Soviet Union shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The western third, where Sheptytsky lived, then lay within the political boundaries of Poland—the part that would be ceded to Stalin in 1939 as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty.

History would prove Sheptytsky right. Grim and blunt was the apt way to describe Communism, a grim and blunt ideology that would bludgeon an historically Christian people for the better part of the last century, leaving millions of Ukrainians dead in body (Stalin's forced-famine in the 1930s, deportations to the Gulag, swifter forms of execution) and untold more dead or wounded in spirit. Today the "walking dead" have a less than salutary effect on civil life.

On the plus side, post-Soviet Ukraine is a free and independent country for the first time in centuries. (Being a largely flat-landed country, strategically located and historically flanked by great powers, has not been propitious for Ukrainian statehood.) This freedom is a source of hope. The so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, when a presidential election widely perceived as rigged for the pro-Russian candidate was overturned by a peaceful popular uprising, seemed to tap into that hope. Today, however, that hope no longer inspires such infectious popular enthusiasm. But why? Because Ukraine bears the bruises of Bolshevism, some of which signify grave internal damage—damage so severe that, save for a rebaptism of the human spirit in the Christian faith that united the Ukrainians as a people in the tenth century, it may lead to the Ukrainians doing to themselves what Stalin was not able to accomplish: the debilitation, if not the death of Ukraine.

Sobering social trends

I spent two months in Ukraine in early 2008, volunteering at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) at the invitation of the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation (UCEF), a non-profit organization dedicated to rebuilding the Catholic Church in Ukraine. (Upon my return, I was hired by the UCEF to help spread the good word about the Good News being promoted in Ukraine: a mission, in fact, inspiring people and reaping tangible benefits far beyond the borders of that pivotally important country bridging East and West.) I came impelled by the desire to learn and report about a unique and powerful apostolate on the Church's Eastern Front that I had heard about while working in Washington, DC. I was intrigued by UCU, the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union, fighting for the faith in a culture corrupted by Communism and tempted by Western secularism. This small but dynamic university is helping train a new generation of lay and religious leaders re-evangelizing Ukraine in all aspects of daily life.

After returning from an enlightening tour-of-duty in a land that has known much darkness, and where the long, sinister night of the 20th century continues to cast shadows deep and wide, I wrote several pieces for religious and secular publications about the how UCU and the Church in Ukraine are rebuilding religious and civil society, particularly by addressing the causes of the demographic crisis and the assault of Western-style secularism: like all of Ukraine's major problems and challenges, causes neither economic nor political in nature, but moral and religious. Most of those articles may be found on the UCEF's website:

Using demographic data about Ukraine released not only by the national government but sources such as the UN, these articles were informed by a personal perspective of Ukrainian life in the western third of the country, principally its main city, Lviv, where UCU is located.

What do the data reveal about Ukraine? The more sobering trends include:

  • One of the lowest birthrates in the world, 1.2 per woman, that threatens to country's population of 47 million by the year 2050—a demographic crisis President Victor Yushchenko last year declared a "critical threat to national security";
  • the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in Europe: as of mid-2008, almost 130,000 registered cases of HIV infection and 13,000 deaths due to AIDS, actual numbers likely being far higher due to public ignorance of the causes of the disease;
  • 40,000 alcohol-related deaths per year, and, according to the World Health Organization, some 700,000 Ukrainians annually treated in hospitals for alcohol dependency. The situation may grow worse as Ukraine struggles through the global financial crisis that is hitting its post-Soviet economy especially hard: the national currency having lost half its value against the US dollar last year as the lifeblood of the economy, heavy industrial output, drains as world demand plummets;
  • a divorce-to-marriage ratio as high as 3:4 in eastern parts of the country, although that drops as low as 3:10 in western parts;
  • as many as 33 million abortions performed since legalization in 1955, averaging six per woman: according to the Ukrainian legal code, "only a physical personal [having] the right to life," a "physical person" being one who "exists only after birth"; and abortion being a common means of birth control in a country where condoms have not caught on as in Western Europe;
  • corruption pervading all levels of society, from politics to law enforcement to business—so common, expected, and generally accepted that statistics about corruption do not exist.

If only the personal perspective I gained on the ground had informed the articles I wrote shortly after returning, however, they would have painted a rosier picture of Ukraine. Certainly there was evidence of nationwide problems: eg, a drunken woman savagely beaten (by her husband?) in a busy public market in Lviv while shoppers, including a policeman, went along their business; the scantily clad young women for whom looking like anorexic prostitutes must have some pay-off, but certainly not in terms of self-respect; everyday stories of police and politicians who would rather take bribes than enforce the law; the young married women taking in an English class I helped teach who said they would rather have more and better material goods than more children, or any children at all.

Why is the western Ukraine different?

Western Ukraine, however, is better off than the rest of the country, largely due to fortunate historical circumstances that prevented its mores from enduring attacks as long and vicious as in the east.

Churches packed on Sundays and holy days are the joyous outward expression of private belief persecuted and forced underground during Soviet rule. Public displays of Christian belief abound, such as statues of the Virgin Mary, Christmas manger scenes, and huge crucifixes venerated by young and old alike. And the good work being done by religious associations—particularly the resurgent Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which was banned during most of Soviet rule—is evident in myriad social ministries, from orphanages to alcohol-addiction programs to classes introducing engaged couples to the concept of marriage as a sacrament rather than a legal arrangement, commercial in nature and dissolved at whim. And although one may charge this writer with bias, the Ukrainian Catholic University is helping lead a re-evangelization of Ukraine—mainly in the familiar west, but with forays into the east as well—through its various institutes addressing social problems in very practical ways, but mainly through the work of its graduates: courageous young people who are helping Ukraine overcome a century of totalitarianism by serving virtuously in church, government, and business.

What explains the different milieu of the western half of the country? In short, western Ukraine enjoyed a 25-year respite from Communism, and Communism at its most wicked. It was incorporated into Poland after the First World War, and it did not fall decisively to the Soviets until 1944. Eastern Ukraine was not so fortunate. Absorbed into the Soviet Union in the years just after Red October, it endured the birth pangs of Bolshevism, from the Soviets’ brutal enforcement of militant atheism to the great famine orchestrated by Stalin in the 1930s, which killed upward of seven million Ukrainians and demoralized millions more, thus serving Stalin's intention of making a proud people supine to Soviet rule. For in the first decades of Bolshevism, the Soviet scythe slashed with amateurish enthusiasm. As Communism matured, it became more of a business than a labor of perverted passion. By the time it came to western Ukraine, it had entered the business stage, evidencing more the banality than the bloodiness of evil.

Today, eastern Ukraine is stricken to a greater degree with the nationwide diseases cited above: breakdown of the family, demographic collapse, fatalistic nihilism, and, in lieu of religious faith, a materialism all the more vile for its tawdriness.

Pervasive immorality and corruption

But what do Ukrainians have to say? Through supporters of the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation who maintain close ties with Ukraine—many of them being either members of the generation of Ukrainians who fled abroad to escape the Red Army in 1944 or their children—I recently was put in contact with several Ukrainians from different parts of this country roughly the size of Texas. Their accounts of the troubles confronting their country—and the roots of those causes, all somehow branching from the tap root of Communism—were depressingly similar. For the space of this article, two will have to suffice; and suffice well, since all were minor variations on the same theme.

"The worst evil in Ukraine is immorality. Moral decay is not something you can deal with just by investing some money into some kind of program," said Natalka Lominska, an instructor at the National University of Ostroh Academy, a secular university in the western city of Volynia. "Let's take trust. In your culture, when two people meet, they tend to trust each other... But not in Ukraine. People trust almost nobody: state institutions, government officials, even neighbors and doctors! Not only are you expected to bribe the doctor [for supposedly free services] but you can't be sure tests will be done properly or you'll be diagnosed properly. And if all goes well, chances are high that the drugs from the pharmacist will be fakes."

(To give at least some doctors their due, I met a decent one in Lviv who said his salary was so paltry that he would gladly accept even a peasant's chicken in return for services. As it was, he had to moonlight as a computer programmer to make ends meet.)

Lominska, who obtained a graduate degree in the US, is a widow raising a 13-year-old son. She is particularly concerned with the pervasiveness of corruption, a hangover from Communist days when everyone was equal, only some more so than others through their connections.

"Corruption is so widespread that young people think they can buy everything, even love, trust, friendship, and health. When I ask my students about it, the answers are shocking. When I answer that one can buy medicine, but not health; that one can buy sex, but not love, and so forth, they seem to be very skeptical. Consequently, money becomes the most important thing for a lot of people. Stealing is a widespread method of obtaining it... There have been grandchildren who have killed their grandparents for a few hundred hryvnia [there are roughly seven hryvnia to one US dollar]. It's terrifying, but it's true."

The prospects for Ukraine? Said Lominska, after noting other problems such as alcoholism, AIDS, and the increasing rate of hard drug use that, in turn, fuels the rate of HIV infection leading to AIDS: "I'm not a pessimist, but I'm scared."

This predicament was expounded upon by Oksana Sorokowski, a native of the capital city of Kyiv who emigrated to the US in 1993 and now works for the National Institutes for Health, a federal government agency. But she keeps in close contact with friends and relatives in Ukraine and visits every couple of years.

Ukraine evidences the same problems resulting from Communism as other post-Soviet countries, she noted, especially corruption: an outward manifestation of spiritual ruin wreaked by displacing Christianity with a "new system of ethics built on hypocrisy." Almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the stench of Orwell's Animal Farm clings close to the ground.

What differentiates Ukraine is that the Soviets deliberately sought to destroy the Ukrainian national identity, resulting in a wounded nation confused about its own identity—the eastern part having been heavily crucified, and Russian rather than Ukrainian being the language commonly spoken in Kyiv even today.

"Except for the western part of Ukraine... most of the people, especially in the south and east, were so poor and brain washed that they didn't even embrace their [post-Soviet] freedom," she emailed from her home in the Washington, DC suburbs. "They were wishing to be back in a cage" as during the old regime when life resembled a "zoo: "people had no freedom, but their basic needs were taken care of... they were fed, watered, given a place to live."

"Brainwashing" is a term grown rusty since the Cold War contest between Free World and Communist. But Mrs. Sorokowski's use of the term is apt today, even among younger Ukrainians who evidently imbibed the brainwashedness of their parents.

A North American newspaper, The Ukrainian Weekly, recently featured a series in which first-year university students from western, central, and eastern Ukraine—the first cohort of university students born in post-Soviet Ukraine—were interviewed about Ukrainian history. Those from western Ukraine evidenced the least brainwashing, having had parents and grandparents who remembered pre-Soviet Ukraine. Some from the east, however, could have been mistaken for Young Pioneers, members of the Soviet scouting organization. They were asked about the great genocidal famine, often called Ukraine's Holocaust, which even today is shrouded in Stalinist-era secrecy and propaganda. (In the West, this propaganda was abetted by Soviet-smitten fellow travelers such as Pulitzer-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who duly reported the Communist Party line on Ukraine.) One freshman, a self-identified supporter of the Communist Party of Ukraine, even claimed the Holodomor was "technically necessary, from an economic point of view." Uncle Joe would be proud of his latter-day children who call themselves Ukrainian.

Faded hopes

Mrs Sorokowski's thoughts about Ukraine's present prospects?

During the Orange Revolution in 2004, she said, "people rediscovered trust, love, true friendship, kindness, and hope. Crime went down to an all-time low. I visited Ukraine shortly after... and the change was unbelievable. Alas, it didn't last long. The hopes for dramatic [political and social] change faded... and now I hear again about corruption, moral decrepitude, and total lawlessness. Yes, money seems to be everything—the substitute for law, for education, for just about everything. Crimes go unpunished when you are rich. Law, medicine, banking, and real estate seem to be especially warped by corruption. And it seems to be getting worse as the crisis tightens its grip on the economy."

On a relatively lighter note that complemented Mrs. Sorokowski's song of woe, Matthew Matuszak, a Ukrainian-American who is English-language editor of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine (, told me: "It is totally inconceivable to imagine a politician in Ukraine getting thrown out of office like [Rod] Blagojevich [the former governor of Illinois, accused of trying to sell President Obama's vacant Senate seat]. Politicians here are outside the law."

On a somber but still complementary note, Matuszak related an ordinary example of police corruption that makes Chicago's legendary bad cops Officer Friendlies in comparison. Ukraine, like Russia, is facing a sad phenomenon: the ever-growing population of homeless adolescents, abandoned by parents due to such causes as alcoholism and economic hardship. The Catholic Church in Ukraine is supporting many projects to help these kids. One such project in the city of Zaporizhzhia has encountered resistance from a source unimaginable in most Western countries: the local police department. The project director has said that the police make money off the street kids vis-à-vis prostitution and drugs, so they really don't want the problem solved.

Ukraine's prognosis is dire. The antidote, however, is simple but difficult to imbibe in many quarters after almost a century of totalitarianism: a rebaptism of the human spirit in Ukraine's historic Christian faith, and a total rejection of the false gods of Marx and Mammon. Wherever the antidote is being imbibed, however, the human spirit in Ukraine is proving itself as rich and life-sustaining as the soil that makes this huge and fertile country the bread basket of Europe.

Matthew A. Rarey is communications director at the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to rebuilding the Church in Ukraine by supporting various projects, especially the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Catholic University. For more information, visit or contact Matthew Rarey at [email protected].


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