In 2023, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, an important historic site for Orthodox Christianity, is under siege by the Ukrainian government. Its Metropolitan Pavel has been charged with “inciting religious hatred” and placed under house arrest. Yet the state’s persecution of the canonical Orthodox Church is the culmination of the brewing clash involving politics and identity since the establishment of independent Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its causes are far more complex and go back centuries when the Ukrainian territory was part of multiple states (Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire).
Indeed, when the new Ukrainian state emerged in 1991, it was based on two conflicting identities of the western minority and the eastern and southern majority, respectively. These identities were part of different geopolitical entities for centuries, in which culture, language, and religion played a key role. This is not to say that new states cannot be successfully formed, or that different identities within them cannot coexist. But the latter requires state mechanisms to facilitate such coexistence such as federalization and recognizing more than one state language.
“You are but millions. We are hordes and hordes and hordes.” (“Scythians,” Alexander Blok, 1918)
On May 9, 2015, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, was on an official visit to Moscow in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Upon seeing countless people marching in the streets, he assumed that what he was witnessing was an anti-Putin protest. This kind of ‘misunderstanding’ was not a surprise. After all, European and North American mainstream media is fond of exaggerating anti-government protests—by a handful of affluent pro-Western ideological Liberals—that are limited to large urban centers. Yet that day, foreign journalists were forced to cover something unprecedented, though underestimating the numbers: half a million Muscovites marched through the city carrying mounted photographs of their family members, who participated in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).
But then I saw that, on the contrary, the marchers hailed your government. I saw that they did it with pride, I saw it in their faces. They waved to us as the UN delegation passed by, which was very pleasant. And so I really think you deserve all this love of the people.