A Different Kind of Decision for Ukraine: Kiev and the 1025th Anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’

July 26, 2013
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

From the standpoint of a political, economic, and social analyst, it is easy to become entrapped in what seem to be the pressing concerns of the day. In the case of the “big issues” facing contemporary Ukraine, and Kiev’s relationships with international partners, the standard list is well known: the competing merits of an association agreement and free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), versus those of membership in the Russia-led Customs Union; the seemingly never-ending budget crisis and the next hoops the International Monetary Fund expects Ukraine to jump through; prospects for increased energy independence through shale gas “fracking,” and how it could impact Ukraine’s reliance on Russian energy; and of course the perennial saga of Yulia Tymoshenko, who evidently is the only Ukrainian anyone in the West has ever heard of.

In contrast, there occasionally comes along a reminder that a country’s identity and national imperatives cannot be reduced to a list of political issues. There are some things that require a longer and deeper look into the values that define a country and its people.

One such reminder is the approaching commemoration of the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’ [Русь]: the decision of Grand Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich’ of Kiev to accept Orthodox Christianity from Constantinople, capital of the East Roman (better known under the misnomer “Byzantine”) Empire, at that time certainly the foremost state in the Christian and European world, perhaps in the entire world. It was an event of not only profound and enduring spiritual consequences for the Slavic tribes and Scandinavian-descent princes (including Vladimir) that constituted the loosely organized Rus’ state, it set the civilizational choice to which modern Ukraine traces its origins.

This is evident in President Viktor Yanukovyuch’s insistence that the anniversary of the Christianization must be celebrated at the highest level, as he stated to members of the organizing committee: “Given the role of Christianity in the spiritual, political and socio-economic progress of Ukraine, we must celebrate the 1025th anniversary of Christianization at the highest level. Christianization of Kievan Rus’ marked a new milestone in the nation’s history. Once and forever it has outlined the civilizational identity of our country. Since the reign of Grand Princes of Kiev – Volodymyr Svyatoslavovych, Yaroslav the Wise, Volodymyr Monomakh – Rus’-Ukraine has become an integral part of Europe.”

Of course, the significance of the anniversary extends beyond Ukraine, since Russia and Belarus trace their state origins to Rus’ no less than does Ukraine. (It is often overlooked that before he was grand prince of Kiev, Vladimir was prince of Novgorod, and that the vaguely defined limits of Rus’ extended as far north as Old Ladoga [Старая/Стара Ладога] and east to Nizhny Novgorod [Нижний/Нижній Новгород].) The commemoration in Kiev will be preceded by events in Moscow, and followed by those in Minsk, accompanied by what is held to be the original X-shaped cross on which the Apostle Andrew – patron of both Ukraine and Russia, as well as of the Patriarchate of Constantinople – was martyred, which has been brought from Greece for the occasion.)

Indeed, the significance of the Kiev gathering extends well beyond the lands descended from Rus’. According to Metropolitan Vladimir, who heads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), confirmed participants in the Divine Liturgy at Kiev-Pechersk Lavra on July 28, and at a prayer service at the St. Vladimir’s Hill at the foot of his statue on July 27, will include, besides Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’ [Патриарх Московский и всея Руси], the Orthodox patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, as well as primates of the Cypriot, Polish and American Orthodox churches. Confirmation is expected of delegations from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and of the Churches of Greece, Albania, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia. In keeping with the church-state cooperation signaled by President Yanukovych, the participation of high state officials, such as Romanian President Traian Băsescu, also is anticipated.

Among the highest profile attendees coming to Kiev is Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition to the multisided public events, the two presidents will hold a bilateral summit, at which the topics will return to more mundane but decidedly serious business. According to a Ukrainian report attributed to an unnamed Russian official source, Putin’s discussions with Yanukovych will run the list, from aviation, aerospace, shipbuilding, and general cooperation (including resumption of normal production of the Antonov-124 “Ruslan” transport aircraft), to preparations for marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko. But his top priority will be to caution that Ukraine’s possible signing of an association agreement with the EU (itself not a done deal because of European concerns, primarily about Tymoshenko’s continued imprisonment) would significantly complicate trade between Ukraine and Customs Union countries – and unnecessarily so, not because Russia wants such a negative impact but because the EU would insist on it. It’s anyone’s guess whether such cautions, well founded in fact, will make much headway and lead Kiev to reconsider its options.

By all public indications, Ukraine’s “pro-Europe” advocates (notably in an Opposition that certainly does not wish Yanukovych well) pushing for a single-minded western orientation are less focused on what the concrete benefits and losses would be for Ukraine than on so-called “European values,” or at least values as Brussels-led “Europe” understands them today. Let me suggest that a good example of such “values” is France’s decision to grant asylum to FEMEN activist Inna Shevchenko (a far cry from Taras of the same surname), to protect her from charges connected with her chain-sawing a cross in Kiev commemorating victims of political oppression.

In the end, perhaps the real decision for those gathered in Kiev, as well as for Ukraine itself, is indeed about values. Let’s ask: who wants to stand with those who cut crosses down? And who stands with those, like Saint Vladimir, who hold the Cross up?