"A person obsessed with enemies is a sick person. Communism is gone but its sicknesses remain."
Interview with well-known dissident, human rights defender and chief editor of Our Faith newspaper, Yevhen SVERSTIUK, touching on the themes of reconciliation and understanding in Ukrainian society.
- In Ukraine the process of objectively evaluating the Soviet totalitarian regime has not really taken place. Many still praise the Stalinist regime and others still deny the fact of the Holodomor (man-made famine of 1932-33), etc. One often witnesses the process of whitewashing the past. And when it comes to the need for reconciliation, one view is that they should close their eyes to the past, not speak about it. Should we today be sacrificing memory for the sake of peace and quiet?
- I believe that it is important to put the question the other way around, this is to say, it is not just a matter of memory but a lack of information and lack of the necessary positive atmosphere for revealing information that has been withheld from people.
Generally, people are upset both intellectually and emotionally when they realize they have been deceived. This was the case with Alla Horska when she found out the truth about her Ukrainian ancestry, which knowledge had been withheld from her. That’s when she became a dissident. This is how it was for a lot of Ukrainians in the Donetsk region.
If it was just a matter of memory, then it would be possible to leave people like Petro Symonenko with their memories and have no problems. In reality, memory in the Donbas [historical name for eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region] is deep and varied – many people escaped that area due to repression or the Holodomor. They hid the truth from themselves and became loyalists; criminal party elements spoke in their name. Today they cling to the concept of two conflicting cultures in Ukraine and in their view they have a basis for hostility.
In truth, this is a hostility which originates with the communist regime and rests on the theory of “class struggle.” Actually there were no such classes, but there was a desire to divide the people, bringing about a feeling of enmity among them. The strategy of supposedly revealing enemies of the people from among the people themselves was based on this idea. This sickness, this enemy-creating virus, is supported by today’s successors of communism (that’s to say, not just those in the communist party, but others as well who spread such thinking), because this is convenient for them and gives them a galvanized electorate. A person obsessed with enemies is a sick person. Communism is gone, but the disease remains.
- Is our society ready to hear the truth about the past?
- This is what we must start with – are individuals ready to hear the truth? And from here, is the society ready?
A person must experience suffering in order to come to repentance. A person who rose from ordinary status to post-communist enrichment is not ready to understand such truths. The church could get involved with such work, but this would require a truly Christian church, not a politicized one, which in essence just exchanges Bolshevik ideology for Orthodox ideology.
But today no one is involved in this kind of preparation for change. And the powers-that-be who are working to divide people along class lines are greater in number than people of good will, those working for peace.
- We haven’t gotten rid of our Soviet inheritance even in Ukrainian religious life. We see that church leaders openly honor atheists for their supposed support of religion, as often happens during election time. At such times, people put their hopes in the church, looking to it to bring about peace within Ukrainian society. In your opinion, is the church capable of this? And what role can it play in this sphere?
We must pinpoint concretely what we mean by “church.” It’s necessary to consider this point by joining the past with the present. A church which supported oppressors will not repent and will not change. Thus one must simply call such a church a false church. Basically, Ukrainian churches are able to make such changes, and will make them according to their level of true Christian spirit, and not through pharisaical declarations.
- Would a unified Ukrainian Orthodox church be successful in this? Doesn’t the divide in Ukrainian society follow along the lines of the divide in Ukrainian Orthodoxy?
- A unified church must be considered one that corresponds to Christian ideals. Such a church would be capable of putting a stop to inflammatory quarrels and return to a ministry of peace.
- In Europe the process of secularization has gone quite far. Thus a lot of European leaders say that a new Christian spirit must come from either central or eastern Europe. What can Ukraine learn today from Europe and what can it offer to Europe?
- Ukraine today should learn to engage in truthful interpretation and honest reflection, not obstructive conjecture and programmed lying, which four generations have had to contend with.
When inter-denominational quarrels began, the Europeans reminded us that among Christian churches, in essence, there can not be enemies. Foreign journalists didn’t even register the complaints of one denomination against another.
In the sphere of church life, the West gave us some elementary lessons in correctness. It wasn’t by accident that priests and other members of the church hierarchy who came from the West stood out as very different from those of the soviet school.
For our part, we can offer the West an example of sincerity within the community, of sacrifice and of natural inclination to religion, in other words, that depth which was not lost even under the pressure of Soviet atheism. We can teach the West about the keeping of the faith even through the worst conditions, something which the West has not experienced.
But so far, we have few such individuals - working to build such a religious life - who would interest people in the West.
- The international forum of the European Justice and Peace Commissions will be held from 21 to 23 September in Kyiv. What do you expect from it? What can this forum provide Ukraine and its society in general?
- The forum will not influence the position of the church or the church hierarchy. But it can sow good seeds in the consciences of people who will have the opportunity to become acquainted with new Christian ideas.
- Finally, what can be done so that our society can find the strength and desire to work toward understanding and reconciliation?
- Climb this mountain before you, and let neither heat nor hunger stop you . . .
It is necessary everywhere and at all times to break hardened stereotypes. Awaken the living spirit of faith, the light of which penetrates darkness and hate.
It is important to revive and cultivate the spirit of love in society. Only on this foundation is it possible to build peace.
This interview was conducted with Anatolyi Babynskyi in Kyiv on 12 September 2007.