About Ukraine by Ukrainians
As part of the symposium, Ukrainian Nobel laureate Oleksandra Matviychuk delivered a lecture entitled "Impunity breeds war crimes. How to fight it?". Oleksandra Matviychuk called for creating a special international court to convict Russian war crimes. According to her, the Russians have not yet been punished for their crimes in Chechnya, Georgia, Libya, and Syria, and then invaded Ukraine and turned war crimes into a weapon of war.
"We must bring Putin, Lukashenko, and other Russian war criminals to justice — and we cannot wait any longer. The trials must begin now, not after the war, so that potential perpetrators also understand that they will not go unpunished," the human rights activist said.
According to the symposium co-organizer, Noreen van Elk, organizing the event began almost immediately after Russia's major invasion of Ukraine. "We got together with our colleagues and thought about what we could do for Ukraine as a theological faculty. That's how we came up with the idea that we should focus on young Ukrainian scholars, both those in Ukraine and those who left Ukraine because of the war. As a result, we provided them with the opportunity to spend a week in Vienna by organizing a postgraduate symposium. All of our panel discussions were related to the war in Ukraine," says the researcher at the Faculty of Theology.
Her Ukrainian colleague Khrystyna Fostiak recalls that the Catholic Faculty of Theology responded immediately and unequivocally to the large-scale invasion. "In less than a week, we were already discussing options for substantial assistance. In addition to private initiatives to support Ukrainians in various ways, we wanted to do something strategically important, something that would be a good basis, particularly for dissemination among Western scholars," says Khrystyna.
At the same time, Ukrainians from the University of Vienna consulted with those scholars who remained in Ukraine. "My colleague Olga Ugryn and I tried to get feedback from Ukraine on our plans. And I am very grateful to our Austrian colleagues from the faculty, who represent not only Austria but also Germany and the Netherlands, for their deep knowledge and understanding of what is happening," says Khrystyna Fostiak.
The scholar explains that Ukrainians have gained support not only because they are victims of unprovoked aggression but also because of clear, compelling arguments as to why the Ukrainian voice should be decisive. It is important to emphasize that the symposium was attended by Ukrainians from different regions of Ukraine and thus could represent the position of the entire country. At the same time, Austrian co-organizer Noreen van Elk is convinced that it is important for scholars in Austria to hear about Russia's war against Ukraine firsthand as media information does not show the full picture, nor does it explain what exactly is happening in detail. "I am deeply touched by the people I met at this symposium, and I am impressed by the high level of Ukrainian scholars," emphasized the doctoral candidate.
The Faculty of Theology notes that it was important for the organizers to create a safe environment for free scientific discussions. During their speeches, scholars did not have to rush to bomb shelters because of the air raid alert. Every day during the week, several panel discussions were held to discuss the church situation in Ukraine, the impact of the war on the life of Ukrainian churches, Ukrainian culture and art, the destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage by the war, the policy of national memory and the formation of Ukrainian identity, as well as the response of Ukrainian churches to Russian aggression, and many other topics.
The co-organizer of the symposium, professor of the Faculty of Theology Thomas Nemeth, a priest of the UGCC, considers it important for theologians to participate in discussing the church situation in Ukraine during the war. The war has exacerbated the most painful church issues, and today there is an active discussion in Ukrainian society. However, in this case, it is worth hearing the opinion of experts. "It was important to hear the opinions of Ukrainian scholars about the role of Ukrainian churches in society and various aspects of church-state relations in Ukraine. Our theological faculty has become a place of interdisciplinary academic meetings. In my opinion, the conversation at the symposium was interesting, fruitful, and valuable for establishing new contacts," the professor said.
According to Professor Thomas Nemeth, much was said about the reactions of various Ukrainian churches to the war in Ukraine. Among other things, attention was paid to the position of the UGCC, whose head, His Beatitude Sviatoslav, has been making daily appeals to the Ukrainian people since the beginning of the war, which is unique in itself. The scholars discussed the development of the position of the Vatican and Pope Francis personally on Russian aggression, the situation of Ukrainian churches in the occupied territories, Ukrainian laws on religious organizations, and ways to resolve the issue of religious organizations associated with the aggressor country. Kateryna Budz presented the response of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Olesya Lloyd-Mayer spoke about contemporary Ukrainian art, which responds to the difficult reality daily. They talked about murals based on sacred art, such as "St. Javelina," a Christmas mural depicting the Virgin Mary and Joseph in military clothing, a picture of a soldier going on his way to the cross carrying an anti-tank hedgehog on his back, and many other works created over the past year.
Professor Thomas Pruegl, co-organizer of the symposium, notes that people often use images of sacred art to explain reality.
"It is phenomenal how sacred art leaves the Church, goes into the secularized world and becomes part of the secular language and the interpretation of reality by popular culture. The secular world, which knows nothing about Liturgy and liturgical singing, does not know biblical texts yet uses the symbols of sacred art. Popular culture uses religious concepts, language, and symbols to draw attention to various things," explains the professor. He adds that artists use canonical religious symbols to draw attention to reality and often combine religious themes with secular ones, gaining an entirely new meaning. In his opinion, religious symbols, due to their depth, significantly enhance images that interpret reality.
The actual preservation of reality for future generations is carried out through national memory policy. Ukrainian scholar Oleksandra Terentyeva spoke about decolonization and national memory at the symposium.
"The war intensifies these processes, and that is why the national memory policy, which was made in a hurry, works only partially in Ukraine. On the other hand, had this policy been implemented in peacetime, things would have progressed more slowly, probably with less radical methods. We could have seen a rollback similar to what happened in Georgia. There, the war ended quickly, and their attempts to manage decolonization processes quickly stopped," the expert explains.
Scholar Andriy Zhyvachivsky spoke about national memory and modernity, focusing on the participation of Muslims in the struggle for Ukrainian statehood. In his opinion, the history of the multifaceted relations between Ukrainians and Muslims (Crimean Tatars) who have lived on Ukrainian territory for centuries is somewhat erased. Ukrainians fought and entered into alliances with Muslims, traded, and conducted cultural exchanges.
"Since childhood, I have read a lot about the Cossacks. I noticed that only one side was represented, and it was always about the struggle between the Cossacks and the Turks or the Crimean Tatars. And I always wanted to hear about the other side. Different things occurred throughout history, e.g. enmity, cooperation, and mixed marriages. And today, Crimean Tatars and other Muslims are fighting alongside Ukrainians at the front and defending Ukrainian statehood. I wanted to talk about this and show the ecumenical nature of Ukrainian society. In this society, no one burns down churches of another religion, even churches of the Moscow Patriarchate, during Russia's attack on Ukraine. In Ukraine, Muslims and representatives of other religions are defending our territorial integrity together with Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants," Zhyvachivsky said.
In this short text, describing all the reports and quoting all the speakers is impossible, so only some were mentioned. Other scholars and presentations were no less interesting. Most importantly, this symposium was held in the center of Europe at one of the oldest universities in the world, which decided to learn about Ukraine from Ukrainians. We came to Vienna from all over the world to tell our story.
"Unlike other Western conferences, most speakers at this symposium are either Ukrainians or have close ties to Ukraine. This greatly distinguishes this event from similar ones, where it is common to have so-called experts from Eastern Europe or the East whose knowledge is very much influenced by the Russian agenda. And here we heard a lot of true narratives," scholar Roman Sigov summarized.