This article appeared as an op-ed with a different title at the Kyiv Post on August 6, 2019.
On July 31 UNIAN reported that “Patriarch” Filaret Denysenko’s long, controversial run at the center of Ukrainian religious life had just come to an inglorious end as he was effectively escorted offstage—not by the Synod of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), to whose warnings and disciplinary actions he has proven spectacularly indifferent, but by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Justice. The former has confirmed that the never canonical “Kyiv Patriarchate” (UOC-KP) ceased to exist as a legally registered entity at the OCU’s Unification Council of December 15, 2018, while the latter has rejected Denysenko’s appeal to “extend” the Patriarchate’s registration seven and a half months after it was terminated by his own consent.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s readers around the world, largely supportive of Ukraine’s quest for political and ecclesiastical emancipation from Moscow, breathed a collective sigh of relief when they heard the news. Now the life and mission of the OCU could move forward without the embarrassing distraction of a 90-year old narcissist clamoring for one more pirouette in the spotlight.
Or so it seemed.
I hadn’t typed more than the first sentence of this article when a reader of mine, a young American woman of Polish and Jewish descent interested in converting to the Orthodox faith, sent me a message demanding an explanation of Metropolitan Epiphanius’ boast of the OCU’s “Banderitism.” I replied—too hastily—that it sounded like Russian propaganda. She swiftly referred me to the brief news item of April 11 on the OCU’s official website:
“We are proud when they call us Banderites.” —Metropolitan Epiphanius
In his capacity as Primate of the OCU he expressed this sentiment in a brief encomium to Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) during his visit to the National Agrarian University of Lviv (formerly Lviv Polytechnic), where Bandera as a student had become involved in the movement for Ukrainian independence from Poland, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany. The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine paints a sympathetic portrait of Bandera as a national hero, and defines Banderite—the term proudly embraced by Epiphanius with an implicit middle finger to Ukraine’s detractors—as a pejorative, currently
…used by radical anti-democratic pro-Russian forces in independent Ukraine to denote members of pro-Western democratic parties, especially hailing from Western Ukraine.
The historical record raises troubling questions that neither Epiphanius nor the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine seems willing to concede. I was in my early teens in the 1960s when my Ukrainian uncle first spoke to me of Bandera’s history of Nazi collaboration in the misplaced expectation that Hitler offered a better deal for Ukraine than Stalin. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Who among us can say how we would have chosen between two such terrible options? Without justifying or whitewashing Bandera’s actions, my uncle taught me an early lesson in nuanced thinking which has never left me. Recently on these pages I appealed for the same kind of nuance in relation to the Russian Orthodox Church’s obligatory complicity with the Kremlin and even with the KGB in exchange for the mere right to exist during the Soviet era.
Bandera might be forgiven an error in judgment, and even honoured as a national hero of sorts, if he had gone no further than to place his misguided reliance on Nazi Germany to advance the cause of Ukrainian independence.
Holocaust scholar Norman Goda, writing in 2010 for The George Washington University’s History News Network, notes
…that Bandera, his deputies, and the Nazis shared a key obsession, namely the notion that the Jews in Ukraine were behind Communism and Stalinist imperialism and must be destroyed. […] Bandera’s lieutenants…promised to work closely with Hitler, then helped to launch a pogrom that killed four thousand Lvov [sic] Jews in a few days, using weapons ranging from guns to metal poles.
Around the same time that Goda’s article appeared, Timothy Snyder at The New York Review of Books addressed the charge of Bandera’s direct responsibility for and involvement in the ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of Poles in 1943-44, most of them women and children. While Bandera was being held by the Germans in Berlin and later at the camp at Sachsenhausen at the time, and had no control over his followers, Snyder accepts as a fact that they carried out these massacres not only against Poles but also against Ukrainians who did not subscribe to their extremist brand of nationalism. Snyder concludes his piece:
…[T]he rehabilitation of Bandera…makes little ethical sense today. Yushchenko [and now Metropolitan Epiphanius of the OCU]…regards as a hero a man whose political program called for ethnic purity and whose followers took part in the ethnic cleansing of Poles and, in some cases, in the Holocaust.
Also in 2010, Ivan Katchanovski, visiting scholar at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, delivered a paper entitled Terrorists or National Heroes?, in which he analyzes the deeply polarizing, regional trends in post-Soviet Ukraine to rehabilitate Bandera and others whose history of embracing the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, and nationalist extremism is no secret to anyone.
More recently, on the same day as the OCU’s Unification Council this past December, The Times of Israel reported on the shock of the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine that Lviv had named 2019 the “Year of Bandera.” Two weeks later, the Times also noted that Ukraine had designated Bandera’s birthday a national holiday, and that Ukraine’s State Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting had banned Swedish historian Anders Rydell’s book on Ukrainian nationalist extremism and anti-Jewish pogroms during the Petliura era (1917-21).
Metropolitan Epiphanius’ naked embrace of Bandera’s legacy on behalf of the OCU strikes us as all the more worrisome in light of Bellingcat’s exposé, Calls to ‘Fight’ LGBT People by Ukrainian Cleric Emblematic of Church’s Proximity to Far Right, to which I drew my readers’ attention on these pages a month ago in my Nationalist Extremism the Scourge of the Orthodox Church. At that time I urged Epiphanius
…to distance himself and his Church as publicly and visibly as possible from these extremist movements, and to work energetically to promote a just society where all citizens enjoy their rightful and safe place…[and to] preach—in season and out of season—that there is no place in the Orthodox Church for unrepented nationalist extremism.
Alarmingly, the Primate’s pride in being called a Banderite throws the Church’s doors wide open to the very thing that the Gospel and Orthodox spirituality call us to reject.
We might chalk up Filaret Denysenko’s lack of compunction for his career as a KGB agent during his tenure as a priest and bishop to his extreme old age. The uncritical glorification of Ukraine’s recent past by Metropolitan Epiphanius—a man young enough to be my son—presents much greater difficulties to excuse.
Epiphanius’ role as chief pastor of the Ukrainian people is to preach Jesus Christ, not Stepan Bandera; and to summon the nation to repentance for its historical and current sins, not to promote the same kind of national amnesia that transforms the US day by day into a fascist state before our very eyes.
If Ukrainian Orthodoxy comes to be seen as little more than a stooge for nationalist extremism in the same way as Russian Orthodoxy to the northeast, those of us in the global Orthodox community who support the OCU the most will quickly lose interest.
See the extensive Ukraine section in our Archives.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian of Ukrainian and Lemko descent on his mother’s side, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and contributor of religious commentary at the Kyiv Post.
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