Activities

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Photos: British Ukrainian Society (c) 2018

Ukraine and the West: what unites us in times of great change

05 November 2018

On 29 October the British Ukrainian Society presented another speech from its lecture series which was organised at the Portcullis House.

Bishop Borys Gudziak, Eparch of the Paris Eparchy of Saint Vladimir-Le-Grand, and President of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, gave a talk entitled, ‘Ukraine and the West: what unites us in times of great change‘.

Lord Oxford introduced Bishop Borys and moderated the Q&A session afterwards.

During his talk, Bishop Borys discussed the grand scale of change that has effected Ukraine over the last 25 years, and the shared challenges that Ukraine and the West currently face from populist political movements, technological advances and shifting worldviews that diverge from the established order that has prevailed since WWII.

During the Q&A after his speech, Bishop Borys was asked for his views on emigration from Ukraine, about the decision to grant Ukraine its own orthodox church independent of Russia’s patriarchate, and whether he feels the West’s understanding of Ukraine as an independent country have kept up with the realities that Ukraine faces today.

Bishop Borys’ talk was part of a weeklong trip to London that included private meetings, interviews with various news outlets and a speaking engagement at the Ukrainian Institute in London.

 

A transcript of Bishop Borys’ talk can be found below:

It’s a great honour to be here and to speak in London at the British parliament – the centre of parliamentary history and the cradle of modern democracy.

In this place which is full of extensive expertise, verified information and profound analysis, I will not pretend that I can offer unique political and economic insight or revelations on international affairs.  Nevertheless, all those things directly concern what I wish to share with you today.

As an educator and pastor, I observe events through the prism of my students and my parishoners. With this perspective, I invite you to walk with me to discuss the deep aspects of life in Ukraine, about life in the wider world and what unites them in times of great change.

Change is great, and in Ukraine in particular.  Some of you can cast your mind back in time with me, let’s say 30 years.  Then, as an American graduate student, I spent six months in Kyiv when huge changes were happening then in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had been in power for three years, perestroika had been launched and there were some significant freedoms being experienced by the Soviet people.

In fact the change that has happened over the last 27 years since Ukraine became an independent country is mind boggling.  It is quite difficult for young people in Ukraine today to imagine the life of their parents – life beyond the Iron Curtain.  In 1988 I was the only American doctoral student in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on an official scholarly exchange.  When I went once a month to call my parents in the US, in the post office in the Maidan area, I had to wait a long time to get a connection. The third time I went there I asked them, ‘Why does it take so long?’ and the lady told me, ‘Comrade, there’s only 28 international phone lines for this republic’. Imagine – 28 international telephone lines for 50 million people.  Occasionally I ask 50 and 60 year olds in Ukraine, ‘do you remember your youth?  Did you or anybody in your family ever make an international phone call in the 1970s or 80s?’  Most people never thought about making an international phone call.  In the Soviet Union almost everybody knew that they would never travel internationally. They wouldn’t learn a foreign language because there was really no use for it – you couldn’t read anything, you couldn’t see or listen to anything in that language and you definitely could not travel to a foreign country.  Today, in a typical Ukrainian classroom with 15 students, there will most likely be more than 28 international phone lines in their pockets or purses.

Five days ago, I was at a conference on higher education in Vienna, organised by the Ukrainian Catholic University in partnership with the International Theological Institute of Trumau. Suddenly I saw five 18 year olds standing out in an assembly of senior university faculty.  During the break I went up to them and then sat down to have lunch with them.  They were all first and second year UCU students from different faculties.  On Sunday night they saw an open invitation to the conference in their dormitory in Lviv.  By Tuesday they had made arrangements for bus tickets: they took three different buses – one to the border, another into Poland and from there to Vienna.  They travelled all of Tuesday night to be at the conference on Wednesday morning, and they were leaving on Thursday to be back in class on Friday. They came not to see Vienna, but to attend the conference.  Only in the evening did they go out to see Vienna.  Why is that surprising?

In the 1990s, almost every exchange programme involving students from Ukraine had an 80% attrition rate at least, in the sense that most students simply did not return. Students on exchange did not come back because they could not dare to lose the possibilities that the West offered – they didn’t trust that they could ever come back.  Today, thanks to the visa-free programme within the Schengen Area, young Ukrainians can go in and out.  For a western European that doesn’t sound like much.  But the freedom to travel and the freedom to communicate, to make an international phone call, to exchange thoughts and express yourself not only quietly in the family kitchen but globally on social media – it’s an incredible change.  In fact, such a change in such a short time is not easy to digest.  It’s a beautiful change, but it also brings many challenges.

On Wednesday I will be speaking at the Ukrainian Institute in London about a sociological survey that we conducted in Paris about Ukrainian immigrants in Europe – Ukrainians who made a conscious choice to come to the West.  Most of them occupy the lowers rungs of Parisian society – they do the work that citizens of France don’t want to do.  Yet most of them are happy about their choice.  Most of them function and contribute in a very particular way to the city of Paris.  You may be surprised to learn that even though they are illegal immigrants, the local authorities look away because of the positive way in which they work in their local communities – despite their status, they are appreciated and recognised. The numbers of Ukrainians that are resident in the European Union – probably 3 million – is an incredible change. Each of their journeys and interactions will have fostered relationships, and quite likely better mutual understanding.

This situation also poses questions.

Ukrainians no longer have to live in fear generated by a totalitarian system.  After communism fell, a technological and communication revolution followed.  New possibilities multiplied in a way that was completely unpredictable.

I consider it one of the great privileges of my life to have been a witness to this process where the shackles of fear are slowly loosened.  Where dignity is claimed and people are free to communicate and engage with each other.  To create solidarity in defense of human dignity.

Dignity. Freedom.  Solidarity.  None of these are not taken for granted in Ukraine.  They are qualities that are not fully realised.  These values are so fresh that many Ukrainians are willing to die for them.  And they are dying – over 10,000 Ukrainians in the last five years – not only in defense of Ukraine’s territorial integrity but I am convinced in protecting Europe also. Many people in Europe take for granted that which the West won through great sacrifice.  Many in Europe have forgotten, but that sacrifice is still happening in Ukraine.

At this time of great change, when the whole relationship between time and distance has been so radically altered, when we live in a Nescafe culture — powder, boiling water, instant gratification, if it’s not fast then it’s not good enough – there are new opportunities but also new challenges.

And in fact, they are analogous in Ukraine and in the West.

Yaroslav Hrytsak, a historian, colleague and a public intellectual, developed a thesis that today young people in Ukraine have more in common with their peers in other countries than they do with older generations at home.  That’s not the first time in history when commonality extends across geographical borders more than it does vertically and horizontally through a society.  In pre-modern times nobilities and royalties often lived and acted in an international and interethnic stratum completely disconnected from the general population.

Today young Ukrainians eat and drink the same things that people do elsewhere.  McDonald’s hamburgers are the same in Ukraine as they are the world over.  Artifacts of culture are homogenized and globalised. Contemporary Japanese, Argentinian, Sicilian, and Irish art is almost indistinguishable.  Global pop music has similar rhythms.  Clothes – business suits and ties, running shoes and sunglasses – are global.

As the commonalities have grown we also have seen new challenges arise.  In this room there will be different opinions on Brexit, on European integration, etc.  But I think there will be agreement with the statement that there is an increased polarisation in society.  The political centre-left and the-centre right have lost their traditional dominance in European affairs.  The political makeup of parties, of governments, of voting patterns that guided Europe since the Second World War is rapidly changing.

We’ve seen the shakeup in the United States.  We’ve witnessed the radical shift in votes in Brazil.  We can add many countries and places to this list.

Today Ukraine and the West share the challenge.

Questions of corruption are not only questions of the post-Soviet states.  Today, in my Catholic church, there is a torrid discussion about corruption in various processes.  Even in the church the polarisation is taking hold day by day.  And so, what I submit for your reflection and a brief discussion if time allows, is that Ukraine and the West, in this time of great change, is united by their challenges.

We have received great gifts.  We are saying farewell to the last of the great generation that won the war with Nazi Germany, that stood up to the spread of communism and that built the modern economies of the post-war period.  These people are our parents and grandparents who through great industry and great sacrifice gave so much to their children and grandchildren – a prosperity the world has never known, and liberties and guarantees that are unprecedented in human history.  The challenge, I submit, is not the fact that democratic liberties and social guaranties come at great sacrifice made by tens of millions of people, the challenge is that they are maintained through hard work, and this is not always understood today. In fact, in some ways, in new democracies like Ukraine, the price may well be better understood because it is being paid every day in the here and now.

Events of recent days – the violence against Jews in Pittsburg, the rhetoric of elections – show that we are playing with fire.  The populist appeals to negative emotions, the quest for victimhood and the exploitation of wounds and of the rage of the population – these simplistic appeals sell well politically.  Popular referendums are more appealing than engagement in the sophisticated, complicated processes – dialogue and discussion – that democracy entails. Consequently democracy, social guarantees and liberties that post-Soviet countries like Ukraine are trying to establish are, in fact, in danger in other places.

Today, in the United States, there are journalists that walk around with bodyguards because they receive threats for their commentary.  There is an open discussion about whether the rhetoric of politicians is not inciting violence in the population.

Ukraine also has elections coming up.  There is a dearth of leaders that command moral authority. Instead of leading by virtue of an authentic moral stature political Lilliputians cynically appeal to people’s lower instincts and apply populist methods making bombastic, simplistic and ultimately unrealisable promises.  Candy canes, cotton candy – sugar coated, instantly stimulating, quickly gratifying but not part and parcel of the delicate, sophisticated diet of democracy, of economic building, of reform, of conversion. Unfortunately, many of our fellow citizens are taken in. Alas, with time a nasty indigestion may be the result.

I think the encounter of Ukraine and the West is a good place to look at these questions.  It’s a laboratory where interesting responses can be formulated.  I look at those five young students, who spent all their savings to make that trip to Vienna not to escape, not just for a good time but to attend a high-powered conference with international participants on the topic of higher education – in the seventh week of their university experience!  These young people want something.  They’re hungry.  All people are hungry.  I think now is a time when leaders are called to help their followers understand what good food for their hunger is.  Not the sugar-coated variety that we don’t give our children before a meal.

In this place that is a cradle of democracy for the world, I share some of these thoughts with you and invite you for discussion.  I invite you also to Ukraine, to see a land where these issues are being debated. They are fresh, being seen in a society that is moving very quickly in this time of change.  Quickly, and with energy.

Thank you for your attention.

 

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