Ukrainian Catholic Church in the Russian Federation

US-UA Working Group Dinner II

Ukrainian Catholic Church in the Russian Federation

Leo Goldade

Featured remarks by Fmr. OSBM Consulter-General Fr. Leo Goldade, delivered at the 2nd Annual US-UA Working Group Dinner, held in Washington DC on July 19, 2011.

The oldest and largest Ukrainian Diaspora is to be found in the Russian Federation. It exceeds six million and possibly even numbers or has numbered up to 10 million. There are no reliable statistics, for this Diaspora dates back as far as Russian expansionism into the late 18 century. At the beginning this was composed of exiles and political prisoners and currently is composed of migrant workers in Western Siberia.

It was Exiled Ukrainian Cossacks that were responsible for building Sitka, the Russian Capital of Alaska. They left behind them a beautiful wooden Cossack baroque church as a memorial of their labors (Indeed, St. Petersburg itself is built by and on the bones of Ukrainian Cossack forced labor.) Fr. Ahapij Honcharenko, an Orthodox priest from Ukraine (1833-1916), was a liaison between the Alaskan émigré population from the Russian Empire and the American Government during the Alaska purchase. He was hired either by the State Department or some other organ of government to induct them into American jurisprudence, customs and practices. His venue for doing this was the Alaskan Herald published (from 1867-1873) in San Francisco in 3 languages: English Ukrainian and Russian. His efforts were, by all accounts, successful for they en masse accepted American citizenship. Many however, found it as an opportunity to return from exile to Ukraine.

Meanwhile there continued to be a steady flow of Ukrainian political prisoners that would be exiled to Siberia. From Tsarist times well into the Soviet period, they would be placed in labor camps. From the beginning of the 1900″s throughout the better part of the last century they were used as the labor force in building the trans-Siberian railroad (Baikalo-Amurska Mahistral –BAM) that starts in Moscow and ends in Vladivostok. My own experience of Siberia was that of one endless horizon of swamps, tundra and shrub forest from the Urals on eastward to the city of Irkutz, Lake Baikal and the so-called Prymorskyy Kraj” (Coastal Country). The inhabitants of this land do not consider themselves Siberians” but rather Prymorskiany” (Coast Dwellers). Life in the labor camps was bleak” to say the least. As there were no nearby settlements, nor any type of survival materials, escape was useless. If and once prisoners were freed, they were not allowed to return to Ukraine and if, perchance, they did, it was not to their place of birth or former residence. Very often, having acclimatized to the hardships of Siberia, they chose to live on in the nearest settlements. This was especially the case in Western Siberia following the First and Second World Wars. Cities such as Omsk, Ekaterina and Novosibirsk have large settlements of Ukrainians. Obviously, this is all the more true of Western part of the Russian Federation in such cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Among the political prisoners/exiles were many priests, both Orthodox and Greek Catholic. Why? It was the clergy that were the vanguard is sustaining Ukrainian culture, tradition and the language because this was so imbedded in the church liturgical traditions and ritual that was a part of their life. It was, indeed, a part of the very being of these people and gave them both their personal and communal identity. This unique spirituality gave them comfort, solace and hope in the midst of overbearing trials and despair. They were able to continue on in spite of insurmountable obstacles to build not simply their lives but the impossible tasks of building railroad lines and oil fields by both the Tsarist and Soviet Regimes. Ukrainian clergy felt this need of their faithful and often voluntarily followed them into exile, often at great risk. Greek Catholic Priests that had been exiled to Kazakhstan traveled north as far as Omsk and Novosibirsk to take care of the spiritual needs of these people during the Soviet Era. When arrested they would continue serving the spiritual needs of these, their people in prison camps, celebrating underground Liturgical Services, hearing confessions, administering to the sick and suffering, celebrating baptisms, marriages and funerals, praying with them in their darkest hours, blessing and encouraging them and simply working with them as they ventured out under guard to accomplish unbelievable, inhuman tasks and forced labor. I will venture to say that without this underlying spirituality that gave them super human strength there would be no gas and oil flowing into Western Europe today, much less the trans-Siberian railroad.

Our Ukrainian Catholic Hierarchy (Archbishops and bishops) not only felt this need but they themselves were even a part this very phenomena. Archbishop Metropolitan Andrew Sheptycky was himself arrested and sent into exile in Western Russia (Karelia) during the First World War by the Tsarist Regime. Once freed, he took advantage of the political instability and called the first Church Council (Sobor) electing the first Byzantine Rite Eparchy for Russia with the afore approval of Pope Pius X. This Eparchy to this very day is Sede Vacante”. Once the Church creates an Eparchy (Diocese) it seldom, if ever, nullifies its existence. Archbishop Metropolitan Joseph Slipyj would also share the fate of his faithful being arrested tried and sent to prison into Siberia as well as over 1000 of his priests. Many of them would give their lives for their beliefs there and would perish in these far-off lands. Today we have, among these exiles, some 28 confessors of the faith beatified by the now Blessed John Paul II. It is especially from Western Greek Catholic Ukraine that we have organized Church and community life in the Ukrainian Diaspora.

Yet, this human, spiritual backbone of the Siberian economy remains today suppressed. Neither Ukrainian Orthodox nor Greek Catholic Bishops are allowed to exist in the Russian Federation nor is the Greek Catholic Church itself formally allowed to function. If we do happen to exist, it is under the guise of Roman Catholic clergy. Although the existing Russian regime takes a dim view of any religion outside the Russian Orthodox Church on the territory of the Russian Federation, claiming this to be the exclusive canonical” ecclesiastical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, it does allow the Roman Catholic Church some four Dioceses in Moscow – Diocese of the Mother of God with Archbishop Paulo Pezzi as its head, the Diocese of St. Clement in Saratov, Southern Russia with Bishop Clement Pickel (German) as its head, the Diocese of St. Joseph in Eastern Siberia and Prymoskyy Kraj in Irkuts with Bishop Cyril Klymovits (ethnic Belorusin) as its head and the Diocese of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk, Western Siberia with Bishop Joseph Wert, S.J. as its head. He is also Apostolic Vicar for all Eastern Rite Catholics. (All the above were elevated to their present positions on February 11th, 2002.

In spite of his difficult, if not tenuous position, Bishop Joseph has done much for our church. He has created a Byzantine Chapel in the basement of his Cathedral. Right next to the Chapel are the Episcopal vestments of Bishop Alexander Kira, underground bishop of Zakarpattia, Ukraine who was arrested and exiled to Kazakhstan where he ministered not only among Ukrainians but also exiled Germans. Being of German ethnic origin, he attributes his vocation to Bishop Kira, whom he never knew was a bishop until recently. He has been assisted by Ukrainian clergy from various Eparchies in Western Ukraine, notably from the Eparchy of Sambir Drohobych. I met many of them as they were passing through Novosibirsk on their way to the newly created settlements, whose settlers are working on the oil and gas lines and fields in North Western Siberia. What I found striking was the pastoral care and activity of the clergy. They are constantly with their faithful, encouraging and counseling them in any way they possibly can from simple house visitation, catechizing their children, creating church organizations to help them with various problems be it labor, family, personal or communal difficulties. They seem to be able to sense and ferret these problems out and address them in a way so that they can deal with the realities and hardships of a life not all that far from the polar circle. Novosibirsk itself, the third largest city in Russia, with its beautiful, lush, boulevard neighboring city of Akademgorodok, was a closed city during the Soviet era. It was here that the various plans were developed for the Soviet space program in nearby Kazakhstan. There was once a Ukrainian intelligentsia that never quite organized itself into a viable organization for fear of being ostracized. One can feel not only the lack of any viable religiosity among the inhabitants but even certain hostility towards anything remotely religious. Having visited the recently restored Russian Orthodox church of St. Alexander Nevsky, one feels on the one hand a deep inner search for something more to their lives than a simple restored museum on the part of the visitors but yet a hesitancy to seek anything that challenges them to go beyond their own limited view of daily sustenance living. I felt this in particular when visiting the church goods store. Wanting to buy some religious mementos, we were refused purchase. The reason: they immediately knew that we were Greek Catholics. We were perceived as a threat to their very commerce: If you buy, less will be left for us!” My feeling is that we tend, unconsciously, to intimidate the local populations in various areas of the Russian Federation. This is obviously incited and perpetuated by the Russian Orthodox Church. The present newly elected head of our Ukrainian Catholic church, Sviatoslav Shewchuk, has a novel approach to this whole issue. He prefers to engage the Russian Orthodox Church, not on a confrontational level but on the level of mutual self-help. His proposal is that we find common ground to re-Christianize the people in our common tradition.

Far Eastern Siberia is even a more interesting challenge. There the Ukrainian immigration or forced resettlement stretches back some four or even five generations. Miraculously, they have neither lost their spiritual nor cultural heritage. Although a sui generi” combination of Ukrainians, I look upon them as a fascinating lot that on the one hand is open but on the other hand is thoroughly imbibed with the life of the Russian Far East. I found myself there in February of 2006 right after having been 2 week in Novosibirsk. I was invited to Novosibirsk by the Jesuit Fathers through one of their novices who had previously studied in Stamford, Connecticut. In Vladivostok I was guest of American priests who volunteered their services from their respective Roman Catholic Dioceses in the mid West. Indeed, there are a number of American missionaries who have volunteered their services for Catholics in the Far East, especially the Pyrmorskyy Kraj” which encompasses such places as Magadan in the north to Khaborovsk near the Sino-Russian triangular border, to the Sakhalin Islands to the North of Japan and the outlying furthest point of the Russian Federation, the Kamchatka Pennisnsula.

It is in these places that we find the oldest of the Ukrainian resettlements. This whole area has been known for ages to Ukrainians as the Zelenyy Klyn” where you can here the Ukrainian language being spoken through Walkie-Talkies” by foresters working in and area that is no longer indigenous, almost waste-land” Siberia, having lush forests in the area, yet has the same 40 below Celsius winter temperature. Except for the trans-Siberian railroad and air traffic, they are, for the most part, completely cut off from the rest of Russia. Commerce, from foodstuffs down to automobiles is directly connected with Japan, an hour flight away (every third car is a direct Japanese import – you can tell because the steering wheel is on the right-hand side). However, it is from places like North Korea and China that they hire migrant workers. During the Soviet period, there was tight control over this area to the extent that this was off-bounds for foreigners. Today, this is all but gone. I was able to celebrate Divine Liturgy in the former Latin Rite Cathedral Church on the hill overlooking Vladivostok that was reclaimed when the whole heating system ruptured and the state had no money to repair it. From 1928 it was used as the state archives. This was on a Wednesday night February 7th at 7:00 P.M. This was billed” as an Eastern Liturgy” so as not to arouse too much suspicion on the part of local Orthodox clergy. I celebrated in Ukrainian and preached in Ukrainian using one of the indigenous 5th generation Ukrainians as a translator. Here they are able to even publish a Ukrainian quarterly and organize Ukrainian life in the form of two choirs. I had the privilege of watching them perform on the Far Eastern fleet for the sailors, whose fleets were frozen in for the winter. Due to the inaccessibility of this whole area as well as the hostility of the government, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as well as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has found it next to impossible to create any meaningful spiritual activity in this area. For the most part, our faithful are dependent on the local Roman Catholic clergy, who although well-meaning do not fully understand our specifically Ukrainian Eastern Spirituality that has made us so resilient, productive and enhancive throughout the ages on so many levels.

Both the Russian Establishment as well as the Russian Orthodox Church are not only missing out on a golden opportunity” but are also doing a grave disservice to themselves by impeding and persecuting the dynamism and spirituality that in spite of their animosity and enmity has already given them so much.