Blessing The Billy-Clubs
For a Ukrainian churchman, the blessing of arms for the defense of the people is a noble precedent. But Archpriest Aleksei Yefimov’s fondnesss for Soviet Russian mythology entails a hostility to legitimate Ukrainian aspirations, which a true pastor would support.
On February 12, the organization “Narodnyi Sobor” (People’s Assembly) held an event in support of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry “Berkut” riot police. It took place during a truce in the conflict between the demonstrators on Kyiv’s Hrushevsky Street and the government. The proceedings included a prayer and communion service held by Archpriest Aleksei Yefimov. Fr. Yefimov leads the parish of Saints Anthony and Theodosius of the Caves in Vasyl’kiv in the Kyiv region, which last year announced that it was leaving the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and its Metropolitan, Volodymyr (Sabodan), to come under the direct jurisdiction of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. It took the intervention of a local bishop to bring them to order.
According to the report in “Religion in Ukraine,” the archpriest gave a homily in which he urged the police to carry out their duties diligently and not be tempted to side with the demonstrators, whom he referred to as a mob of rabble including criminals and alcoholics. Pointing out that according to tradition the Khreshchatyk, where the service took place, was the way that the tenth-century Kievans had taken to baptism in the river Dnipro, he compared the demonstrators on the Maidan to the obscurantist pagans who had been defeated by the light of Christianity. Making reference to World War II, Fr. Yefimov also compared them to fascists. He completed the service by sprinkling holy water upon each of the policemen.
There is no evidence of paganism among the demonstrators. On the contrary, clergy of various churches play a prominent supporting role, and religious song and imagery are much in evidence. But Fr. Yefimov’s reference to World War II is significant. For it was the Russian Orthodox Church’s support of the war effort that apparently convinced Stalin to permit its revival. In 1942, as the Red Army fell back before the German offensive, church leaders declared their loyalty to the Soviet state, offered prayers for the Red Army, and took up collections for armaments. At a ceremony where a tank column named after Prince Dmitrii Donskoi and funded by parish collections was presented to the armed forces, Metropolitan Nikolai (Yarushevich) spoke of Stalin as “our common father” and praised “sacred hatred of the fascist robbers.” (Geoffrey Hosking, The First Socialist Society (1992), p. 236.) Perhaps this is where Fr. Yefimov takes his rhetoric as well as his nostalgia for the Soviet victory. On November 7, 1942, Metropolitan Sergii (Stragorodskii), who had issued a declaration of loyalty to the Soviet Union in 1927, sent Iosif Stalin a telegram on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Generalissimo reestablished the Moscow Patriarchate under Sergii in September 1943 and, after his death the following year, allowed a patriarchal council to elect his successor, Aleksii I (Simanskii), in 1945. Such were the origins of the present Moscow Patriarchate and of the attitudes of much of its clergy.
If memories of the Russian Orthodox blessing of Soviet arms in World War II may underlay Fr. Yefimov’s enthusiastic blessing of Berkut, his hatred of the fascist enemy would surely be inflamed at the mention of another consecration which represents a very different orientation. This is the controversial blessing by Greek-Catholic Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky of the 14th Grenadier Waffen SS Division “Galizien.” Whether or not it really happened and, if so, what it represented, remains controversial. (For a discussion of this supposed incident and its interpretations, see Andrii Krawchuk, Christian Social Ethics in Ukraine (1997), Appendix B, pp. 264-67). While Sheptytsky was no friend of fascism, he apparently did see the value of even a Nazi-sponsored Ukrainian military formation that could defend its homeland from Soviet forces, or at least help to maintain order and safety for the population until peace arrived.
For a Ukrainian churchman, the blessing of arms for the defense of the people is a noble precedent. But which arms really defended Ukraine: those of the Red Army, which expelled the Germans but bolstered Stalin’s genocidal regime, or those of the “Galizien” division, which fought as part of the Wehrmacht but sought to protect western Ukraine from the Soviet invaders? Historians continue to debate such questions. But Fr. Yefimov’s fondness for Soviet Russian mythology entails a hostility to legitimate Ukrainian aspirations, which a true pastor would support.
A third precedent comes to mind. According to legend, in the spring of 1768 Fr. Melkhysedek Znachko-Iavors’kyi, hegumen of St. Matrona’s Trinity Monastery near Chyhyryn, blessed the knives of the rebels in the great Cossack-peasant uprising known as the “Koliivshchyna.” Taras Shevchenko mentions the event in his “Haidamaky” and “Kholodnyi Yar.” Of course, the Haidamak rebels cannot be compared to either the Berkut or the demonstrators on the Maidan: as Shevchenko knew well, the uprisings of the 1700s were dreadfully violent. But in “Kholodnyi Yar” (“Cold Ravine,” 1845), the poet chides those who call the Haidamaky mere thieves and robbers, pointing out the nobility of their aims:
Thou liest, people-starver:
For freedom and the holy truth
A robber does not rise up…
And in words that could have been addressed to the Berkut troops, Shevchenko counters that it is the insurgents’ enemies who are the robbers, and berates those of his countrymen who serve the despot:
Do not try to find your glory
In the Tsar’s “crusade,”
For you yourselves do not know what
These Tsarlings perpetrate…
(Taras Shevchenko, Song out of Darkness, translated by Vera Rich, 1961)
Perhaps, in this bicentennial year of the great poet, Fr. Yefimov should review his Shevchenko.