Up Front and Personal

The Thirst for Freedom In the Ukraine

by Father Michael A. Perry

I’m writing this on July 3, perhaps with a sense of nostalgia because l am not home to celebrate our Independence Day with my people. I’m in Ukraine, where my ancestors came from 100 years ago.

l just had lunch with some university students who have the same hunger and thirst for freedom from the Russians that Americans back in 1776 had when they cut themselves away from England. What an inspiration these students are as they face a future that they know depends on them.

They are aware that their peers are fighting and being killed in Eastern Ukraine as they are working at their desks in Lviv. They are aware that many of their classmates will choose to graduate and leave Ukraine to make money, but as one student told me, “My friends and l are staying to make history.”

And they will. Their energy is positive, and their spirit is young. On their Independence Day a few years ago, I asked a young man, “Independence from whom?” And he told me, “Anyone who would make us slaves again.”

The history of Ukraine is similar to the history of Ireland. What Russia did to Ukraine, England did to Ireland. The demeaning prejudice suffered by the Ukrainian people, whose country the Russians insisted on calling “Little Russia,” is still perpetuated, and the religious persecution of the Catholic Church by the Soviets in Ukraine produced martyrs well into the 20th century.

Not until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the world allowed to become aware of the “Holodomor,” Stalin’s deliberate starvation of 12 million Ukrainians, an atrocity that the Russians kept secret for more than 50 years. Those who survived were declared insane or sent to prison or murdered. Fortunately, some have lived long enough to tell the truth.

There is a large Ukrainian-American and a large Ukrainian immigrant population in our country. Most of them are Christians, though many are Jews. Among the Christians, some are Catholic, united to Rome and faithful to the pope, and others are Orthodox. Both use the Byzantine rite and represent what St. John Paul II called “the other lung of the church.”

Ukrainians are best known for their Easter eggs, embroidery, their folk dances and costumes, and their pierogis and kielbasa. Google any of those to see some wonderful surprises.

But Ukrainian culture goes much deeper than those traditional crafts. Ukraine has a long history of culture in music and literature, in architecture and intellect. In June, the University of Notre Dame honored Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and the Ukrainian Catholic university he ushered into its present magnificent form for their unique contribution to the country at the very center of the European continent where it stands as a pivot for the future of democracy.

We Americans have what most Ukrainians want. Too often we take it for granted, and not often enough are we aware of people like the heroes who are fighting for more than their freedom. They are fighting for their identity.

It is not hard to hear in the battlegrounds of the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine echoes of Yankee soldiers shouting their battle cry of: Live free or die!

God bless America! Slava Ukraina!

Father Perry is pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Refuge parish in Flatbush.

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