Commentary: Shifting identities of friends and enemies in Ukraine

Mary Raber
September 1, 2017
Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite Mission Network
Portrait of woman in front of trees
Blue church against blue sky
Stone crosses in a meadow
Odessa, Ukraine

Many people ask me “how things are” in Ukraine. When I think of the complex history of the country, I sometimes wonder how to respond.

One luminous evening in May, friends took me to visit a bright blue nineteenth-century Orthodox church on a hill in the western village of Broniki. Beside it, rows of crosses mark a World War II military memorial. They aren’t traditional Orthodox crosses with their three crossbars. Instead, the square-cut stone crosses represent a party of invading German soldiers. While bathing in a nearby stream one day in July, 1941, they were ambushed by Soviet partisans. Their mutilated bodies were hastily buried in a common grave.

Fifty years later, newly-independent Ukraine allowed German representatives to locate and memorialize thousands of their lost soldiers. The ambushed soldiers were reburied near the Orthodox church.

Still further up the road is another memorial. This one commemorates the war dead on the Soviet side.

Ironically, the Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) is the caretaker of the German memorial, while the Broniki village council – who may not be happy to acknowledge their past Soviet connections – oversees the Soviet memorial.

Broniki is in the province of Volhynia. It was here that the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), dedicated to the creation of an independent, single-ethnicity Ukrainian state, cruelly murdered up to 100,000 Polish civilians between 1943 and 1945. Fighting continued between Poland and the UPA until 1947. Ominously, memories of that conflict linger in the present day political and military struggles.

Meanwhile, a plaque on the wall of a nearby village club explains that the building was originally a Czech Brethren meetinghouse. When the Soviets took over at the end of World War II, they closed it down and commandeered the building. The displaced church moved to the home of my friends’ grandparents. The original house now lies in ruin, but in their present home, my friends’ mother still proudly preserves a pew and other artifacts rescued from the church. The family attributes their present-day Christian faith to their Czech neighbors.

This are just some examples of the confusing jumble of changing populations, crisscrossing boundary lines, and shifting identities of friends and enemies that characterize Ukraine.

Photo Credits: 
Mennonite Mission Network, Olga Dyatlik