The following is the first instalment of a new column for The Weekly written by Borys Gudziak, the metropolitan-archbishop of the Philadelphia Archeparchy of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and the president of the Ukrainian Catholic University.
At the end of a century of death, deportations and displacements, the Lord gave Ukrainians and the world the gift of Ukraine’s independence. For anybody who felt the pain personally or followed the saga in solidarity, it was a miracle.
To the last moment, great global authorities – powerful presidents, erudite experts, confident analysts, even pious prelates – did not see it coming. Some did what they could to keep it from happening. “Better the Soviet Union than chaos,” some said. Those old enough to remember well know who they were. The Iron Curtain, the stockade of nuclear silos, the cloud of propaganda and conventional policy assessments made it seem that the Soviet Union as a prison of nations, peoples and persons was invincible.
What a day it was! For the world, for us and for me personally. In the heat of the summer, after six years of intense study and research, I was sweltering, drafting a doctoral dissertation on Ukrainian Church history. After months caged in my apartment in Cambridge, Mass., I had just delivered by bike a 100-page second chapter to Prof. Omeljan Pritsak in Wellesley, 13 miles away, and was about to begin the third chapter. For me, the summer of 1991 was marked by solitude, struggle and sweat. Everyone else was on vacation.
Everyone included Mikhail Gorbachev, most of the world’s presidents, prime ministers, parliamentarians, generals and journalists. Perfect conditions for a coup, a reactionary putsch to push back the tide of liberty nascently flowing into the Soviet republics with perestroika and freshly granted religious freedom, of sorts.
The initial reports from the USSR produced global anxiety. Several days of uncertainty and trepidation followed. Then, a newsflash – Ukraine declared independence! The jubilant images of Vyacheslav Chornovil leading the deputies, carrying a giant Ukrainian flag into the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. “Ще не вмерла Україна” (Ukraine has not yet perished) was the understatement of the day: it had just been born.
The Soviet Union was collapsing, without bloodshed, without war, like the moral house of cards that it was – built on lies, violence and perfidy. A miracle!
I raced out of my apartment on Massachusetts Avenue for a jubilant jog along the Charles River. The sun was bright, the wind was at my back. Ukraine is free! I will finish and go do my part, I thought.
The moment was a gift. Indeed, a flash of divine grace and yet part and fruit of an arduous process. The oblation of millions over decades and centuries. Just in the 20th century, there were 15 million victims of various occupiers and warring factions. Among the countless casualties of the lust for domination there were my ancestors and family members who fought for freedom.
So many had given so much. I remember the stories of my grandfather Mykhailo Shypula. He fought in the Ukrainian Galician Army at the end of World War I. His daughter, my aunt Iryna, perished in the ranks of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army at the end of World War II. Selfless service, ultimate sacrifice and lasting pain. It is a story shared by many of our families – families from a place that did not exist. An identity negated, denied. Lifetimes of futile justifications, explanations of who you are, to little avail.
On August 24, 30 years ago, freedom finally came, and a people’s dignity was acknowledged.
The dream of many generations was finally given to ours. Did we deserve it more than they did?
In any case, the treasure has been entrusted to us.
Thirty years later independence is hardly secure, and freedom is not yet full. With reason, some say that true sovereignty and independence for Ukraine is not really 30 years old.
Then, it had been a partial-birth, completed only on the Euro-Maidan in 2014 through the immolation of the Heavenly Hundred and now consolidated by the war against the perennial invader. The quest for dignity is now clearly ours. No one can fashion it for us or replace us in the task. A new awareness has come: freedom is inseparable from responsibility. It is God’s mandate to us.
The challenge and charge to defend freedom continue, and defending it is a responsibility. Each precise moment, each personal sacrifice for the other, each death at the Ukrainian-Russian frontline, each step back from personal interest toward a common good is a sacrament, a contribution in a people’s pilgrimage from fear to dignity, God-given dignity.
Ukraine’s independence has a national and ethnic dimension. At the same time, the freedom of Ukraine is a global human triumph, one of biblical connotation. It is an exodus from the land of pharaohs to the promised land of milk and honey. It is a passage, not yet complete, from death to life. As long as our responsibility is inchoate or incomplete, it remains a pilgrimage into its 30th year.
I dare say that it will be a pilgrimage to the end of time. A blessed and joyful, draining and exhilarating journey. Every one of us has to consciously and conscientiously walk his or her part.
The ebullient joy of August 24, 1991, the exuberant solidarity of the Maidans, the chance to hike freely in the Carpathians, swim in the Dnipro, have a coffee in Rynok Square in Lviv, are all real and true.
Real is the invasion and true the ultimate sacrifice of thousands.
Real and true is the struggle, the work to be done, the conversion to be made. There is much to purge, much to reform, much to build in each of us – to make the land truly one of milk and honey.
The gift was given so that we can give of ourselves for the freedom of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and elsewhere, in fact, everywhere. The liberty of each individual calls all of us to serve each other. It is the Lord’s call.
Let us go forward in gratitude and joy, remembering well the gift, remaining sanguine and sober about the road ahead.
God bless Ukraine!
Многая літа, Україно!