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Andriy Shkrabyuk: “Ukraine is a mixture of Eastern religiosity and Western political traditions”

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Ukraine – Interview with Ukrainian academic Andriy Shkrabyuk: “Historically, Ukrainian independence already existed at the time of the Cossacks, that is, in the second half of the 17th century. Various elements of this Ukrainian Hetmanate functioned until 1783. In addition, there was a different culture in Ukraine from the Russian one, more inspired by European customs, for example by the Magdeburg Law, with elements of separation of powers. ”

Andriy Shkrabyuk is an academic from Lviv, specialising in Greek-Catholic and Orthodox liturgies and liturgical music.

Olivier Bault spoke with him by phone on Monday evening, 28 February, on the fifth day of the Russian offensive against Ukraine.

Photo: Andriy Shkrabyuk

Olivier Bault: What is the situation in Lviv at the moment?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: Even in my home, we are currently putting up a family from Kharkiv with three children. There are refugees everywhere. My wife and I are wondering whether we should send our children to Poland to stay with Polish friends. Just a moment ago, the air raid siren alarms sounded. It is like that all the time. Generally speaking, if we compare the situation with other cities of Ukraine, it is of course better, calmer, but there are a lot of tensions. There is a food supply problem because people have bought everything they can and deliveries are hampered. The situation is not yet catastrophic, but there are problems.

Olivier Bault: Have there been explosions or are they just air raid alarms?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: These are just alarms, but we also catch diversionary groups, people who, though few in number, install signage on buildings to make them easy targets. The threat of bombing is there and we do not know how it will end.

Olivier Bault: But there have been no air raids or missile attacks on Lviv yet, right?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: In the oblast, there have been such attacks on various military facilities. Not on the city itself, though, but we do not know what will happen.

Olivier Bault: What is the state of mind of people when they see what is happening in Kiev, Kharkiv and other cities where there is fighting and where their compatriots have to defend themselves against the Russian army?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: Men want to fight. There is a great desire to fight among the men. I have not met anyone who would waver on the need to fight. No one has any doubt. All this creates tension in the population and even a kind of panic, but this does not translate into disorderly actions. People are terrified, on the one hand, but they remain firm. Many men want to join the territorial defence. Territorial defence consists of distributing weapons and ammunition to people, for example Kalashnikovs. The number of volunteers already exceeds requirements. The mood is to fight against the enemy.

Olivier Bault: In your opinion and in the opinion of Ukrainians around you, of your family, your acquaintances and friends, and your colleagues at work, what are the real reasons for this war? Why did Vladimir Putin decide to invade Ukraine now?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: Ukraine is a source of resentment for Putin. He has a real complex about it. The way he thinks dates back to the Soviet era. He does not regard Ukraine as a real country. He keeps saying that there is no Ukrainian nation. He does not accept the idea that such a nation exists, that it has a different mentality, a different culture, different state and democratic traditions. He forgets that during his own reign, five presidents have already been elected in Ukraine. Putin has been in power for 22 years, while in Ukraine we have already had five presidents and governments from different political sides. Power has changed hands. This is something he cannot understand. For him, Ukraine is part of Russia, and has been artificially detached from its motherland. He is attacking us because he wants Ukraine back. He now wants to do the same with Ukraine as with Belarus after the August 2020 protests, even if in Belarus things went differently.

Olivier Bault: For many Westerners, who know little about Ukraine or even Russia, Ukraine has never really existed. The fact is that an independent Ukraine has existed only since the fall of the USSR. Apart from that, there was briefly an independent Ukrainian state at the time of the Bolshevik revolution. But there is still a Ukrainian identity. Where does it come from?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: Historically speaking, Ukrainian independence already existed at the time of the Cossacks, that is, in the second half of the 17th century. Various elements of this Ukrainian Hetmanate functioned until 1783. In addition, there was a different culture in Ukraine, more inspired by European customs, for example by the Magdeburg Law, with elements of separation of powers. Ukraine had a system very similar to that of the First Polish Republic with its elected kings. Ukraine was a kind of a smaller-scale copy of the Polish political system. And it is well known that the Russian tsarate and Poland at that time were two completely different worlds. It is important to grasp this difference.

Despite the religious similarity, since we have always adhered like Russia to Eastern Christianity, Ukraine was politically a kind of “East in the West”. It was not the West, but it was not the East either. There was something very interesting about it, a mixture of elements of Eastern religiosity and Western political traditions.

The argument that there has never been a Ukrainian state is, first, ridiculous and, second, very dangerous. It is ridiculous, because I do not know of any European country that did not have border problems a few decades ago or a century ago, and where there have been no territorial conflicts, for example in France over who should own Alsace and Lorraine. It was a bit like our contemporary Donbass. These areas were subject to fighting. If, from Russia’s point of view, Ukraine is an artificial state, why should Austria exist as a separate state? After all, it is a German-speaking country. In his time, Hitler wanted to unite all German-speaking regions. Putin is driven by a similar idea, but he produces this kind of speech without perhaps even realising that it is fascist speech. After all, the French could also say: “And why does Belgium exist? Half of the country speaks French, so maybe it’s not a separate nation? Maybe at least the south of Belgium should be annexed to France? ”

Such a way of thinking leads to terrible things, it leads to war. This is why European culture, since the Second World War, has been based on the principle of a moratorium on this type of thinking. It is based on the idea that we solve these problems in another way and that there is a principle of inviolability of borders. We do not question the Yalta agreements or the Potsdam agreements, because Europe has already paid an enormous price in the past in terms of human and material losses. The price of two horrible wars. The First and Second World Wars broke out because someone thought his mission was to unite the whole German nation, and maybe someone else wanted to unite another nation. From Putin’s point of view, Ukraine is what Austria was for Hitler.

However, Ukraine is very different from Russia and we do not speak the same language, as Ukrainian is completely different from Russian. It does not have the same grammatical structure. Ukrainian is partly related to the West Slavic languages, but it also has links to the South Slavic languages. It is a separate, autonomous language. It is more different from Russian than Dutch is from Flemish, for example, and the Netherlands could also lay claim to Ostend or Antwerp and ask why these regions do not belong to their country. Such a line of thinking is unacceptable. The problem is that Putin has just such a way of thinking that always leads to war. That is why this war broke out. Putin thinks in terms from which Europe has resolutely moved away.

Olivier Bault: We have talked about the question of Ukrainian identity. Could you introduce yourself, say a few words about yourself and tell us what you do?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: I deal with things that have nothing to do with politics. I am mostly involved in liturgy, that is what I am interested in. I am a doctoral student in liturgical theology and I am writing a thesis on Armenian liturgy. I am a specialist in liturgical music from various traditions: Western and Eastern. I am closer to Marcel Pérès, the famous French musicologist and founder of the Organum group, than to any politician. I also work with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was established and recognised by Constantinople in early 2019. During the week, I usually sing at the Ukrainian Catholic University. We have choir rehearsals and I lead the student ministry. On Sundays I am in one of the Lviv parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and I also conduct the choir there. For me, the Greek Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are sister churches.

Olivier Bault: To which of these Churches do you belong?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: I belong to Christ. For me, belonging to the Church as a community bound by certain rules is somewhat secondary, if I may say so. I feel that I am a full member of both the Greek Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. I directed the Armenian choir of the Armenian Apostolic Church for 20 years and I feel at home there as well. And when I go to sing with the Dominican fathers, as I also help prepare the liturgy of the traditional Mass in the Dominican rite, which is the Tridentine Mass, I bring my singers from the Eastern churches and we sing Gregorian chants in a very traditional Latin version. For me, tradition is important. There is a little more tradition in the East than in the West. I know that there are liturgical problems in the Western Church today, but that is another topic. I feel part of the Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditionalist community. The traditional Church is where I belong.

Olivier Bault: I understand that you are attached to Tradition and to Christ. So, in the political sphere, you are probably a conservative, literally, right?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: Yes, to a large extent. I lean towards conservatism, but maybe not 100%.

Olivier Bault: In that case, don’t you fear that if Ukraine wants to move away from Russia and join the European Union, the steamroller of LGBT ideology will transform your country? Poland is facing this problem already. Brussels is putting pressure on Poland to stop defending the traditional family model. Do Ukrainians who, like you, have rather traditional values really want to join this European Union?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: We live in a sinful world where no system is perfect. I do not consider the EU to be a perfect political system. However, I see it as a much better alternative than what Putin could offer us. I do not support, for example, “Gay Pride” marches or the marginalisation of the role of the traditional family. There are many things I do not like about the EU, but despite that I see more good than bad in it. I see in it fundamental values related to elective power, to the separation of powers, to the economy, which are beneficial, in spite of all the other reservations that one may have. And as for the things you mentioned, I would answer very simply: in the West, that can change.

Certainly, this madness linked to LGBT ideology is a disease of the West. But it may not be as serious a disease as what is happening in Russia. I am referring to this enslavement, this system of total corruption, where Russian oligarchs suck the wealth out of Russia and then invest this money in the West in luxurious apartments. They send their wives, children and mistresses to the West. And what Russia itself looks like can be seen, for example, in Russian prisons, where prisoners are tortured and raped. You can go to the website directed by Vladimir Osechkin to see the terrible things that are happening there. While one can be critical of the West, I am much more critical of Russia. It seems to me that Ukrainian society, which has been able to defend itself for so many days against such a great power and has defeated Putin’s blitzkrieg strategy, will also be able to defend itself against the ideas of the West. Or so I hope.

We also do not know how the situation will evolve in the future. Perhaps Ukraine, Poland, Romania and other Eastern countries will one day form a new union that will retain all that is best in the European Union and will defend different values together. I do not exclude at all the prospect of the emergence of a new centre of the European Union.

Olivier Bault: In right-wing and conservative circles in the West, Russia is considered a Christian country attached to its Orthodox tradition. It is said that Putin has converted, he goes to church. On the other hand, we have seen the videos of Kadyrov’s Chechen Islamists sent against Kiev in this war started by Russia. Isn’t Kiev a holy city for the Orthodox?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: Maybe not all of Kiev, but certainly the Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, with its famous monastery, and other very important sites. However, in Eastern Christianity, it is like in Western Christianity. It is not a holy place or a sanctuary that is the refuge of holiness, but man. That said, those who think Russia is a pillar of religiosity are probably not often in that country, or they are looking at the images delivered by Russian propaganda. Just go to Russia and be there at Easter, for example. Just go to Yaroslavl, a city north of Moscow, to Vologda, even further north, to Moscow itself, or to any regional city in Russia, and count the number of people in Orthodox churches, not on an ordinary Sunday, but at Easter. You will then realise that the faithful represent at most 1% of the population of a given city. What kind of religiosity is this? In Russia, it is very common to say “I am an Orthodox atheist”. What kind of religiosity is this if a person can say this about himself or herself? All that remains for these people is a thin layer of tradition, without any substance.

I do not mean to say that there are no holy men and priests in the Russian Orthodox Church, although I find it very strange that none of the Russian bishops have spoken out about this war. I do not hear any judgment from them. As Christians, they should speak out against the war, but they remain silent. Even in Belarus, a bishop of Grodno, if I am not mistaken, spoke out against Lukashenko and his persecution of the opposition in 2020. Today there are no such voices in Russia. And I am asking myself: What kind of religiosity is this? In parishes, it may be that some priests speak out against the war, but bishops are not taking a stance on this.

The Orthodox Church that exists in Russia today was actually created during the Stalinist era. In 1943, there was a reversal and Stalin decided, while still in the middle of World War II, to revive the Orthodox Church, of which there were then only four bishops left in freedom in the entire USSR. Stalin brought back the imprisoned bishops from the camps and allowed the reconstruction of the Church, but under the strict control of the KGB. And it is still like that today. Even within this Church there have been priests like Alexander Men and Gleb Yakunin who were witnesses of the Truth, but they are few. It is a very state-controlled Church. Personally, I do not see this Church as a refuge of faith. One must take a closer look at this Church and religiosity in Russia to get an idea of what is going on. It would be a mistake to see Russia as a new Jerusalem.

Olivier Bault: The courage and bravery of the Ukrainian people is admired all over the world today. But Ukraine is not a homogeneous country. If it were homogeneous, Russia would have no pretext to detach, for example, the Donbass from Ukraine. I guess the division between Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking Ukrainians is too simplistic? After all, President Zelensky is himself a Russian speaker, and he also happens to be a great Ukrainian patriot. Shall we just say that there are Russians and Ukrainians living in Ukraine? Will you still be able to live side by side after this war?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: We joke here that Putin has done the most to build Ukraine’s national unity. Now he has just united the nation even more. In Ukraine, there are currently no problems related to whether a person is Russian-speaking or not. The Russian and Ukrainian languages, although distinct, are close to each other, and it is not a big problem to learn the other language, at least enough to understand what people say. It is much simpler than with the Walloons and the Flemish in Belgium. Moreover, people in Ukraine are often ethnically mixed. There are lots of people who are half Russian and half Ukrainian. In Ukraine there is a concept of political nation, or political identity, and that is why our fight against Russia today is a fight for freedom, for basic democratic values. In Russia, everything depends on one person, which is not the case in Ukraine. In Ukraine, civil society is playing a huge role in the current patriotic uprising. My male friends enlist in the territorial defence without anyone forcing them. My female friends weave protective camouflage nets. Everyone volunteers to do these things. There is no coercion. In our mentality, unlike the Russian mentality, there is no sanctity of power. What makes Ukraine very different from Russia is the Russian belief that power is sacred, that whoever is in power is a demiurge on whom everything depends. Certainly, Ukraine is a poor and corrupt country, it is all too obvious. On the other hand, we have never had this Russian attitude towards power. Traditionally, power was elective in our country. If something goes wrong, the people feel they have the right to overthrow it, especially when it begins to have dictatorial tendencies.

Olivier Bault: Do you think Putin has made a miscalculation this time? Could this be the beginning of the end for him?

Andriy Shkrabyuk: I am absolutely convinced of this. I am waiting for the coup that will be led by the Russian billionaires who are currently suffering huge losses in the West, as they will now be deprived of their assets, their houses, their mistresses, and so on. All this will be over for them and it is already obvious. They are the ones who will remove Putin from power, or even kill him. Or the generals will oppose Putin, because Russia’s General Staff generals were against this war. The voices of generals, of military men from the Soviet era, were heard in the public space to say that this war should not be started because Russia would not win it. I had been following closely the various Russian media for about a month. Russian politicians were foaming with hatred towards Ukraine and calling for war, while the stance of the generals – and I mean pro-Putin, imperialist generals – was more realistic. So I am waiting to see what happens. Will Russian billionaires take the initiative or will Russian generals stage a coup? It seems to me that these scenarios are quite possible.

Putin might have won Ukraine, my country might have remained in Russia’s orbit, if he had pursued a policy of cultural soft power. If Russia itself had become economically attractive, if it had been easier to do business there, if it had used its culture and beauty as enticements, Ukraine would probably never have separated from Russia. He did it to himself, that is where his stupidity lies. Cultural and economic soft-power policies always prevail. But this is something Putin cannot understand.