Sunday Remarks on “Ukrainian Fascism,” Catholicism, and Russian Orthodoxy

Put “Ukraine” and “fascist” into Google (or Bing) and prepare for a torrent of hyperbolic hits, and a few sane ones as well. There is no shortage of “well-sourced stories” from mainstream news sites, Leftist rags, and, of course, Eastern Orthodox web-logs claiming that Ukraine, or at least all of Ukraine except the “Holy Russian” eastern portion of the country, is in the hands of fascists. Take for instance Alex Gordon’s latest contribution to the socialist news source The Morning Star. Although the headline indicates that the article concerns NATO’s role in fostering Ukrainian fascism, the actual product amounts to little more than smear journalism that fails to make elemental distinctions between far-right, fascist, and Neo-Nazi political movements and positions. Granted, in the murky world of Eastern European politics the lines sometimes blur easily, but not so easily that movements which are consciously nationalistic are automatically racist or genocidal. Gordon’s article also contains manifest untruths, such as claiming that Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist hero and Greek Catholic, “murdered thousands of Ukrainian Jews and Poles during World War II.” He did nothing of the sort and was, in fact, interned in a Nazi concentration camp when Ukrainian-backed atrocities took place in the country.

Details, details. That socialists would want to stir up panic over an emerging fascist threat in the world is not entirely surprising. It provides them with an enemy as relatively small and politically marginalized as they are; the liberal-capitalist big boys are just too big, it seems. What is less explicable is how many mainline Western Europeans and Americans, including conservatives, are starting to sweat over Ukrainian fascism. The very word “fascist” strikes fear into their hearts — so much so that they rarely, if ever, consider the main source of the fascist indictment: Russia. Timothy Snyder, author of the equal parts fascinating and horrific Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, observed last year in The New Republic the irony that Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a hub of far-right adoration on both sides of the Atlantic, is the one claiming that Ukraine is too far to the right, and maybe even fascist or Neo-Nazi (distinctions rarely matter to the propagandists). No, the problem with Ukraine isn’t that it is leaning far right; it has begun to lean too close to the West and away from Russia’s sphere of influence.

This is true not only on the political level, but the religious as well. Dedicated to promoting the spiritual-cultral colonization known as “Russian World,” the Russian Orthodox Church, headed up by Moscow Patriarch Kirill and his indefatigable obscurantist Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, cannot contemplate an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Even worse for the Moscow Patriarchate’s ambitions of ecclesial dominance in the region is the perseverance and growth of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) which has bravely resisted the Russian state’s attempts to suppress her for more then 400 years. Alfeyev’s campaign of calumnies against the UGCC is well documented, as is his refusal to admit his church’s role in the slaughter of Catholic clergy and laity in the 1940s. Few of Alfeyev’s fellow Orthodox have been brave enough to call him out on his lies, and many — including Orthodox living in the West — have been prepared to internalize his nonsense, linking “Ukrainian Catholic” and “fascist” (or, again, “Neo-Nazi”) whenever it suits them.

The only thing worse than seeing Orthodox embrace tribalistic loyalty over reality is watching Catholics do it, too. An unsettling number of traditional Catholics, along with others of a broadly conservative bent, remain dedicated to the erroneous belief that contemporary Russia is a beacon of Christendom shining brightly against the darkness of Western liberalism. While the post-Soviet Russian state certainly exhibits far more respect for its (Orthodox) Christian heritage than almost any Western country does for theirs, Catholics should not forget that Russia — and its native church — has exhibited little tolerance toward Eastern Catholicism, especially the UGCC. Catholics should not fall prey to pro-Russian myths at the expense of their brothers and sisters in Christ nor forget that victory for Ukrainian autonomy means securing greater opportunities for the UGCC to continue the dire work of saving souls. And lest some assume that supporting the UGCC means automatically alienating the Orthodox, keep in mind that the two of the three Ukrainian Orthodox churches (the third is under Moscow) continue to maintain close ties with the UGCC, recognizing that there is no future for them or the re-missionizing of Ukraine so long as Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate places raw political power at the center of their ofttimes entangled agendas.

In addition to showing solidarity with the UGCC, faithful Catholics are right to lament what is becoming of Russian Orthodoxy under the present regime. Catholics should not fail to remember the millions of Russian Orthodox who bravely witnessed for Christ during the long decades of Soviet oppression or ignore the rich liturgical, spiritual, and theological treasures housed in the Russian Church. But, as others have warned, the Moscow Patriarchate risks mortgaging its integrity by serving the interests of the sate over the souls entrusted to its care, perhaps destroying Russian Christianity in the process. That possibility alone should give all Christians — Catholic and Orthodox — reason to pause and pray for not only peace in Ukraine, but godly leadership for the region’s Apostolic confessions. The authentic restoration of Christendom in the Slavic East will not come about by the triumph of the UGCC over the Russian Orthodox Church or the Ukrainian Orthodox churches; it will be secured through their reunification in full communion with the Roman Church. Present political conditions, to say nothing of historic animosities, may seem to militate against that possibility, but let no one forget that with God all things are possible.