Archbishop Borys Gudziak is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparch of Philadelphia — leader of the 50,000 Ukrainian Catholics in the United States.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church is an Eastern Catholic Church — part of the communion of the Catholic Church, with a distinct liturgical, spiritual, and cultural tradition. Most of the 4.1 million members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church live in Ukraine, where Archbishop Gudziak spent two decades in priestly ministry.
As Russian troops amass on the Ukrainian border, and the prospect of open warfare becomes more likely, Archbishop Gudziak talked with The Pillar about what’s really happening in Ukraine, and why.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Archbishop, can you tell us what is happening between Russia and Ukraine? We know that Russia has more than 100,000 troops amassed along the border, that Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and invaded eastern Ukraine, that there was a presumably Russian cyberattack on Ukraine’s government last week.
What exactly is happening, and why?
Why did Russia annex part of Ukraine and invade another part? And why is it threatening invasion now?
It’s a question of life or death for maybe tens of thousands of people. And it's very important to know what stands behind what is happening.
The history is long, and there's kind of a remote and proximate explanation to all of it. And there’s great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding about all this.
But there is one fundamental reason why this is happening.
It’s not the question of a Black Sea Navy port for Russia.
It’s not the question of defending Russian language speakers in Ukraine — because Russian language speakers comprise a majority of the army that is defending Ukraine. And Russian language speakers, including volunteers are being killed by the Russian rockets and snipers. And a majority of the 14,000 people who have been killed in the eight years of this war are Russian speakers. So it’s not that Russian speakers are being defended.
It’s not about defending the Russian Orthodox Church, because many of those people who were killed were baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Russians are killing Russian speakers, they’re killing members of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the reason is because Ukraine is a nascent and, in many ways, a vibrant democracy.
Ukraine has had tumultuous elections, but it has had democratic elections, certifiably democratic elections, and it has had six presidents elected in 30 years. Power changes from one party to another, from one leader to another. Very different parties, very different leaders.
Ukraine has a free press — the printed press, radio, internet, television — they’re free. And they express all possible vectors of public opinion.
Ukraine has freedom of religion, and no church is favored by the state. No church, legally, is limited in its activity, as is the case in Russia.
And having these kinds of policies at the border of an authoritarian state, a state which is moving in the direction of totalitarianism — this is a great threat to the Russian status quo.
Now [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has repeated that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he wants to reconstitute it.
Soviet Union means empire. It means the land expands for nine time zones. The Soviet Union also stands for totalitarianism, and for the merciless murder of millions, tens of millions of people.
And that history is now being revisited. So the achievements of Stalin are being stressed, and the repressive institutions of which President Putin is a proud scion are being again glorified and given maximum power in society.
So the corruption and the authoritarianism, which is drifting towards totalitarianism, the post-truth disinformation in propaganda, all of that is threatened by vibrant democracy — by a public discussion that searches for the facts and arguments that lead to objective reality. It's threatened by a society where people are free.
When Ukraine had the Orange Revolution, and in 2013 and 2014, when there was the Revolution of Dignity, Putin endured his greatest failures.
Right now, he wants to be sure that democracy doesn’t spread to Belarus, where thousands of people were beaten and remain incarcerated. And probably thousands of people were killed in recent weeks in the protests in Kazakhstan — the reports say hundreds, but probably that means that many, many more were killed.
There is, deeply ingrained in the human heart, a God-given sense of dignity and freedom. And that dignity and freedom is a threat to authoritarian rulers and corrupt rulers.
A country that is struggling, on a pilgrimage from the fear of totalitarianism to freedom and dignity, is something that, [for Putin] cannot happen, and cannot be allowed to flavor, stimulate, or catalyze social processes in Russia itself. And so it needs to be quashed outside of Russia so it doesn’t get into the country.
Putin has sometimes argued that the Ukrainian and Russian people are culturally, ethnically, and linguistically tied, and so there is a certain cultural desire for political unity between the two countries, which is misunderstood by the West. Is that accurate?
Well, it's as unified as the French, Italians, and Spanish are, sure. Those are three members of the Romance language group, just as Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish are all Slavic languages. So yes, there are cultural and linguistic affinities and relations.
But that is besides the point when a society, a culture, a country, says “We want to be free. We don't want to be under Russia. We don't want to be under a regime that historically has destroyed our churches, rendered them illegal, forbidden our language, trampled our culture, and negated our political and national freedom.”
And Ukrainians in 1991 voted — 91% of the population — voted for independence. Also Ukraine in 1991 at the time of independence had the third biggest nuclear arsenal in the world. More than China, England, and France combined. And in 1994, pursuing peace Ukraine became the first country in human history to unilaterally disarm its nuclear arsenal, under the condition that its territorial integrity would be guaranteed by the West and by Russia. Russia agreed to that, and now we see what has happened.
So what is happening is shaking the foundations of the system of international law. It’s shaking the identity of Europe. And it’s causing untold human suffering.
There is ongoing disinformation about Ukraine today. Arguments about the supposed illiberalism of Ukraine, or the danger Russians or Russian speakers face in Ukraine, they’re canards.
Really, there is unity in Ukraine. There’s toleration. Ukraine today has a Jewish president, and in the summer and fall of 2019, both the president and the prime minister were Jewish — the only country besides Israel where the head of state and head of government were Jewish was Ukraine. Ukraine has Russian schools, the Russian Orthodox Church has thousands of parishes there. By comparison, there are hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in Russia, and they do not have a single legally registered parish. Ukrainians in Russia, who number between four and six million, do not have a single Ukrainian language school.
At a time in human history where responsible world powers are revisiting their policies of colonialism and repenting for the sins committed by empires — when they’re trying to heal the wounds caused by enslavement — that the Russian Orthodox Church walks arm in arm with an aggressive military assault on a democratic country and society is really astounding.
It was under Patriarch Kirill that the “Russian-world,” the Russkiy-mir ideological construct was generated, which says basically that everywhere where the Russian Empire was present, and with it the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church, is the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. And other confessions should steer clear.
What is the humanitarian situation right now in Ukraine? What has happened as a result of this long conflict with Russia?
There are 1.5 million internally displaced refugees in the Ukraine right now. Nobody recognizes that reality — refugees from the Russian speaking east going to the center and to the Ukrainian speaking west.
I travel to Ukraine often. I was there four times in the last year, and I lived there for 20 years.
I am astounded at the resilience of this people. Approximately 15 million residents of Ukrainian territory were killed in the 20th century. There was one genocidal wave after another. Between 1932 and 1945, Ukraine was the most dangerous piece of land in the world — you were most likely to be killed if you were in Ukraine in those years. But in the soul and psyche of this people, there's a will to survive, to live.
Many people have been forced to leave the country — millions of people have left Ukraine over the last 20 years. The population has dropped from 50 to 40 million. That’s a 20% drop in population.
And when the war broke out, when the Russians annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, it had a devastating impact on the Ukrainian economy. Ukrainian currency lost two-thirds of its buying power. Industries were disrupted — agriculture, coal, energy, all disrupted.
The direct casualties of war number in the tens of thousands. But you have hundreds of thousands of people who live in post-traumatic shock.
We know in the United States what it's like to have one terrorist attack, or a moment of gunfire, a tragic shooting in some circumstance. That has been going on day in and day out on the eastern border of Ukraine for eight years. And it is somebody’s son or daughter, wife, husband, or parents that are being killed, basically on a daily basis.
I know one bishop who has conducted 100 funerals of Ukrainian soldiers. And if you think of the days of grief, of counseling. He’s spent years immersed in the funerals of young men and women. And the entire society is shaken, and in some ways deeply wounded — but by now, also numbed, because it just is there. Some observers who come to Ukraine are surprised that the whole country isn't panicked. But the people are hardened.
What is the mandate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in this situation? What is your mandate?
Well, it’s basically a ministry of solidarity — listening to people, touching the wounds of people, trying to feed the hungry, giving clothes and housing to those who have lost their homes. And we try to give hope.
Hope has concrete sacraments and sacramentals, concrete signs. Hope is the cup of water, the evangelical cup of water. But it is also eschatological hope. It’s a spiritual hope.
It’s a sense of awareness that our Lord is there. Our Lord, who is born into Bethlehem, who then is besieged by a murderer, and our Lord who becomes a refugee. Our Lord, who is homeless, our Lord who ultimately is rejected, who is subjected to misinformation, propaganda, lies, and in the end, crucified.
Our hope is one that we want to share through charity; it’s a hope in the Kingdom of God.
Archbishop, in the United States, as you know, there are Catholic intellectuals who have become increasingly critical of secular liberal democracy as a form of government.
When you talk about Ukraine as a ‘free country,’ you seem to be using that term in a way that draws from the ideas of philosophical political liberalism — talking about a free press, freedom of religion and so on, in contrast to a more restrictive form of government.
It seems like your experience with Ukraine may have led you to think about the kind of philosophical-political debates that some are beginning in the West.
Well, you know, it’s easy to think through some of these issues when the alternative to liberalism is a gun barrel pointed at your head. It’s easy to look towards Europe when you’re invaded by a ruler who has nostalgia for Stalinist grandeur.
Some things become clearer, you know, when you’re in a do-or-die situation. And much of the world is in this kind of situation.
Now that doesn’t — I'm a Catholic bishop, and I find that there are profound cultural problems in Western democracies. But this interview is not about Western democracies. It’s about a society that is under threat of a huge escalation of war.
I find it flabbergasting to see conservative Catholics look to Putin or to Russia as a bastion of traditional values. Russia has the highest abortion rate in the world. Russia has an astronomical alcoholism rate. The suicides are among the highest, and so is the degree of corruption.
Corruption of political lies and evil is in the fabric of society, at all levels.
How this kind of regime that crushes human dignity, that poisons dissidents, or has them shot in the capital of the country —How this can be a source of interest and hope or inspiration for people with traditional Christian values is completely beyond me.
Archbishop, as an American yourself, what do you think the United States government ought to understand, or to do, for that matter, about the situation for Ukraine?
The United States government, along with the governments of other countries, needs to realize that if there’s an invasion, there will be two, three, or even four million refugees flooding into the European Union, which will make the influx from Syria look like a prelude.
If Ukraine falls into Russia, then Russia becomes, again, a superpower.
Ukraine is 40 million people, who are highly educated. Ukraine produces the biggest airplane in the world, it’s the third biggest outsourcing country for computer programming. It has some of the most fertile land in the world, and all of this will become part and parcel of an imperial agenda that has a very clear precedent.
Putin says that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. He wants to rebuild that, and what the Cold War cost the U.S. and other democracies is what it will cost again if Ukraine falls.
Ukraine is fighting the free world’s fight for democracy today.
I think most Ukrainians have little illusion that there will be foreign troops that will arrive to keep Ukraine free. But I think it is incumbent upon democratic countries to do everything in their power to make sure that Ukraine does remain free.
I’m not a strategist. I’m not a politician. And even more so, I am not, you know, a military person. But I would like to bring the story of a long suffering people, a culture that is non-aggressive, socially inclusive and tolerant, committed to its heritage, with vibrant Church life. A culture that wants to preserve the God-given human dignity that all of us are endowed with.
There has been over the last year a lot of fractious disagreement among the U.S. bishops, as you know. As you look at the needs of the Church in Ukraine, and then the intramural debates among the U.S. bishops, you see obviously two very different ecclesiastical realities. How do you navigate between those two worlds?
Well, you know, there are many important issues [in the Church] and they can’t be swept under the rug.
For myself, I find some of the most heart wrenching struggles are the struggles of the poor — of families, of children growing up in broken homes, of people living their lives with no clear direction, and no clear goals.
And I find that in trying to pray, and reflect on the example of Our Lord, that Jesus tried to be with the people that were before him. And as an intellectual and a historian I've expressed myself, and continue to do so, on many issues. I don’t consider myself an expert on all, but I also understand that my hope and my peace and my joy is when I can live with charity and speak with charity to those to whom I am sent.
Maybe it’s a state in life now. My vocation in the Church has bounced me around from one country and one continent to another, and I find that many people in the Church — many priests, religious, and many faithful Catholics, what they want the most from a priest and a bishop is a good pastor. A healer. It’s not always the words that are the instruments of healing, but it’s some kind of presence and solidarity, and just respect.
I am very much trying to understand how the Lord is calling us to minister.
I have food to eat. I have a roof over my head. I have no want for daily survival. And I think I'm called to do whatever I can to help those who are in need.
How can Catholics in the United States help the people in Ukraine?
There are three things that people can do.
First, please pray for peace and justice in Ukraine.
Second, be informed. The goal of propagandists is not to convince you of their position, but to sow doubt that truth is intelligible. And that’s what the propagandists from Russia are trying to get global populations to experience: To think that it’s so complicated in Ukraine you can’t know what to make of it. And that totally demotivates and paralyzes — stops people from responding.
And the third way to help is to address the humanitarian needs.
One thing that I would suggest is the American bishops’ conference fund for the help of the church in Eastern Europe — a collection that is done throughout the country, which is very well-organized and very efficient. In the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, we’ve been collecting funds to help people in Ukraine, and this encourages us to create a special fund for this situation.
We are never wrong when we help a person in need. And that’s what the Lord encouraged us to do. And Americans have done that and American Catholics have done that very generously. And for that, on behalf of Ukrainians, I want to thank American Catholics, and good-willed Americans in general.