Crucifixion in Kiev

By Tim Kelleher

Politics aside, it's hard to deny that the images beamed to the world from the opening of the Sochi Games were anything short of stunning.

Of course, removing the Olympics from political context is a challenge steeper than any we'll see in its events. And in the case of Sochi, the context is limned with welts of conflict.

When the last camera is packed and carried off to the next big thing, we may find that what was unveiled so impressively last week was more a testament to Russian stagecraft than proof the Russian nation has risen from its Soviet ashes to a greatness the world is obliged to acknowledge.

At the same moment, other images -- at times smuggled to viewers from Maidan Square in the neighboring capital of Kiev -- were telling an unscripted story in stark contrast to the orchestrated optics of Sochi.

Among the most powerful were of priests, standing in the icy breach between masses of protestors and government forces, each straining the leash-limits that keep Ukraine from the nightmare of civil war.

To Western eyes, these blokes, of long beard and foreign vestiture, might seem eccentric. Who are they, why is their presence tolerated, and what are those things they carry?

As for who, they are the sacerdotal face of Ukraine's major churches in the Orthodox tradition. What we mostly see them carrying are icons, the sacred images intrinsic to the Orthodox liturgical witness. Why has everything to do with who and what. For in Slavic culture, religion -- particularly the experience of Orthodoxy -- does not dwell on one side of an imagined wall never prescribed in that fruit of Magna Carta which are the American founding documents.

As I watched the Maidan priests, I found myself thinking of the film, On The Waterfront. The 1948 classic, written and directed by two American Jews, tells the story of long-suffering dock workers who, led by a fiery Catholic priest, rise up against the corruption and cruelty of a tyrannical mob boss. The film won a slew of Academy Awards including, Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, as well as Best Actor for Marlon Brando.

In one pivotal scene, Karl Malden's Fr. Barry is in the hold of a cargo ship kneeling beside the body of a stevedore who's been killed in a hideous "accident." From the depths of this pit, Fr. Barry looks up, eyes ablaze, and begins exhorting the workers as several enforcers look on.

"...Every time the mob puts pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it's a crucifixion!...And if you don't think Christ is down here on the docks, you've got another thing coming!"

In Ukraine the Cross is a living reality, the central, animating paradox that is both the reminder of a dignity rooted in transcendent glory, and the very vehicle of its conveyance. Today, it took on special urgency as violence in Kiev escalated sharply, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries.

There are serious differences about what course Ukraine should take going forward. For reasons more complex than typically offered by the media, the choices are being forced along a sharpening line between the West and the Russian East that is approaching the dangerous intransigence of the Cold War.

In this regard, the axiomatic, "Without Ukraine, Russia is a country. With Ukraine, it is an empire," has lately been getting a workout. It needn't be literally true to illuminate important factors adding to the current crisis.

President Putin makes no secret of his view that Ukrainian independence is an illusion tolerated by Russia for as long as it serves the latter's purposes. Further, capitalizing on the role of Orthodoxy mentioned earlier, he has found religious "justification" for an expanded map of Russia. Invoking a revisionist image of ancient Kiev-Rus, modern borders "dissolve," giving way to a "deeper", "truer" identity -- one that happens to be geographically broader.

This vision of a greater Russia was recently echoed by the Patriarch of Moscow, in an ominous warning that Russia would be obligated to intervene should the situation in Ukraine devolve into civil war. Indeed, over the past year, the Patriarch has led a parallel campaign for an ecclesial hegemony that would subsume all Ukrainian Orthodox under his authority. The presence in Maidan of priests from each of the Orthodox churches -- including those within his jurisdiction -- is a bright sign that the attempt is being thwarted.

Its size, abundant resources, and that it is home to Russia's most important naval base, are just part of a long list that add up to Ukraine's importance. In short, Mr. Putin wants, and intends to have, Ukraine under the Russian umbrella. In current president Viktor Yanukovych, he has stubborn, clumsy, but manipulable partner. Much more needs to be said about this, but Ukrainians who may disagree on course, are nonetheless allied in this: the time of systemic injustice, bullying, intimidation, and trampling of rights is finished.

Moreover, the most immediate reason Ukraine is on the brink of civil war is not Putin, but Yanukovych. While this may be to Putin's short-term advantage, for long-burdened Ukrainians, it's a matter of first things first. And the first thing is to shatter a default condition of corruption that prevents a gifted people from reaching the level of dignity, productivity, and contribution worthy of them.

As in the example of Fr. Barry, the Cross held high in the hand of a Maidan priest speaks directly to this. For one side it is a shimmering hope, for the other, a looming threat. For both, it is the Truth that cannot be ignored.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.

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