In view of our coming fund raiser for Ukraine on Sunday (Fundraiser for Ukraine. Lecture on “Who Killed Jesus? And Why?” | The Bart Ehrman Blog) a long-time blog member and one of my blog advisors, Doug Wadeson, has provided this moving and informative recollection of his times there.
We are all distressed by the events in Ukraine. My wife and I feel a particular connection to this situation as we have visited Ukraine a number of times and still have friends there. A missionary friend ran a language college in Simferopol, Crimea although his ultimate goal was to teach Christian values to people raised in officially atheistic communism. Each year he sponsored a symposium bringing together Ukrainians, Russians, Americans and Europeans in an east-meets-west sort of multidisciplinary meeting where we each presented a paper for discussion and debate, on any number of subjects, but with a particular worldview in mind, usually Christian or atheist. As a medical doctor I offered to participate. He also arranged for me to speak at various medical facilities and schools. It led to some lively discussions and some wonderful sightseeing.
Crimea is a beautiful place, with picturesque mountains sloping down towards the beautiful blue waters of the Black Sea. It was the only part of Ukraine with a majority of ethnically Russian people. Yalta to the south is home to the Livadia Palace, summer home to the czars and site of the famous meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in WW2. Along the west coast they are excavating ruins that date back to the early Christian era and have unearthed early Christian mosaics and what appears to be a basement church. The most interesting site is a baptismal pool that is said to be where Prince Vladimir was baptized in 988, officially bringing Christianity to the Kyivan Rus empire.
At the time of our visits the Ukrainian government was plagued by corruption and many residents of Crimea were openly pro-Russian, some missing the (relative) stability they had under communism. We witnessed a number of pro-Communism rallies there. The co-chairman of the symposium was a former member of the Party and made no secret of his pro-Russian feelings. So, although disappointed I was not surprised when Russia annexed Crimea without much resistance (compared to now).
Obviously, not everyone welcomed this change. In particular the Tatar people. The Tatars are indigenous, primarily Muslim people of the land who were abused by the Communists and then deported out of Crimea by Stalin in 1944. They began to return to Crimea after the Soviet Union fell. One of our acquaintances there came from a Muslim background, but he was afflicted with a disorder like the famous Elephant Man of England. American churches raised money for him to have a number of surgeries that have allowed him to live a normal life. He is now a devout Christian, not surprisingly. He and his mother blessed us with a wonderful traditional Tatar dinner – loved the plof! However, the Russian annexation again brought intimidation and oppression of the Tatars and many have since left, while Russians move in to displace them. Our friend has been able to stay, so far. Perhaps his Christian affiliation will spare him from the abuse of the Russians.
The impact on other residents of Crimea is mixed. A few of our friends stayed because of family roots; at least they seem to be safe from the current conflict, but who knows if that will last. Our missionary friend could not continue his collaborative work between America and Crimea at the college, although he remains tightly connected to his people there. Some of our friends moved to western Ukraine. One dear couple has sent their two daughters to a friend in Poland for safety while they stay to help the resistance. Another acquaintance already lost his wonderful wife to an earlier battle: she succumbed to Covid last year. Now he and their son face this new challenge. Life is anything but fair, but they are bravely facing the future, strengthened by their faith.
Kyiv (Kiev) the capital was our entry point to the country, and we would always arrange some time to visit before heading south. It is a beautiful city, and much more “Ukrainian” than Crimea, although Russia’s influence is still quite palpable. The plaza with the tall independence monument you often see in the news shots was a vibrant place, with throngs of people just gathering, shopping the kiosks, or enjoying events like live music. There is a beautiful opera house and on one visit we were able to attend a performance of Madama Butterfly for the equivalent of only a few American dollars. There is a large arch which was built to symbolize friendship between Russia and Ukraine: Putin has made a mockery of that. The Motherland Monument towers taller than our Statue of Liberty, commemorating the war effort of WW2. The war was another devastating event in Ukraine’s history, following the Stalin-induced famine less than a decade earlier that killed 4 million Ukrainians. The 20th Century was not kind to Ukraine.
The most melancholic place we visited is in a beautiful setting. Babyn Yar is a ravine in Kyiv covered with green grass and flowers and trees that belies what is hidden beneath. The ravine was used as a mass grave by the Nazis in 1941 during their persecution of Ukrainian Jews. 33,000 were killed in the first two days of the massacre; eventually over 100,000 were buried there. What a sad memorial to humankind’s prejudice and intolerance. Heartbreaking to think that in the coming days more mass graves may be needed. Humans are slow to learn from their history.
The most beautiful features in Kyiv are the Orthodox churches. The soul of the people and the Orthodox Church are closely intertwined. I have never been partial to the Orthodox religion, but there is no denying the beauty of their buildings. On my first visit to Kyiv it happened to be Orthodox Easter. I entered one of the churches where the service was underway, having started the previous night (no seats, you have to stand!). The walls were covered with every major scene from the Bible. When you go to the center of the domed church you look up, and high above you see God the Father sitting on His throne, looking down on Jesus, hanging on the cross. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it is a moving scene. All of their churches and monastery have such artwork; that alone is worth the visit. I can only hope they will survive the present barrage.
One of our most interesting experiences was also the creepiest. In one of the monasteries you can buy a candle and take the narrow stairway that descends to the catacombs below. There in niches in the walls you will find the glass caskets of various Ukrainian saints and holy people, the bodies covered by decorative sheets and shrouds. The Orthodox faithful will pray before the saints, often kissing the casket. The flickering light and stuffy air while viewing these tombs make for a strange sensation. Oddly, I would do it again, simply to share in the human experience of these long-suffering people.
They have a legend that the apostle Andrew traveled through the area preaching the gospel; his statue can be found in the heart of Kyiv, and there is a stunningly beautiful church named for him. On the same site is a statue of Princess Olga and the two brothers Cyril and Methodius, known as Apostles to the Slavs. Olga was converted to Christianity around 957 and worked to spread Christianity in the Kyivan Rus empire, although it was her previously mentioned grandson Vladimir who made it official. Ukraine and Russia share not only much political history but also an intense religious heritage. It makes the present conflict all the more saddening, and maddening.
The religious atmosphere of Ukraine presents some paradoxes. Orthodoxy is clearly the religion of the majority, at least in name. People will identify themselves as “Christian” and then talk about astrology. The cab driver has an icon of a saint hanging from his mirror even though he doesn’t know anything about the Bible. I suppose that is really not much different than America. The missionary efforts going on in Crimea and Ukraine are primarily evangelical in nature, and are not necessarily welcomed by the Orthodox churches, who see themselves as the true religion of Ukraine. Pentecostal churches were particularly viewed with suspicion, as I recall. But such competition among similar religious groups is nothing new: you can see it in the Gospels.
Ukraine is a beautiful land, rich in resources, full of history, with amazing sights and wonderful people. The land has seen too much conflict and not enough peace. Now, when Ukraine seemed ready to grow as a peaceful independent nation, that has been shattered by the lust for power and resources of a new prince Vladimir – Putin of Russia – bringing the old creed of war and destruction. Let us hope for and look forward to the day Ukraine can resume its growth toward peace and prosperity. And let us help in whatever way we can.
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (James 2:15,16)
And the King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of Mine, you did it for Me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Religious or not, these are true and worthy sentiments.
 The name “Black” Sea has nothing to do with the appearance of the water.
 Andrew is the patron saint of both Ukraine and Russia.