Opinion: Shifting alliances in Ukraine

Identities of friends, enemies have changed over time

Sep 25, 2017 by , and

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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 evening in May, friends took me to visit a bright blue 19th-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 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, the newly independent Ukraine allowed German representatives to locate and memorialize thousands of their lost soldiers. The ambushed soldiers were reburied near the Orthodox church.

Rows of crosses mark a World War II German military memorial beside 19th-century Orthodox church in the village of Broniki, Ukraine. — Olga Dyatlik

Rows of crosses mark a World War II German military memorial beside 19th-century Orthodox church in the village of Broniki, Ukraine. — Olga Dyatlik

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 — which may not be happy to acknowledge its past Soviet connections — oversees the German memorial.

Broniki is in the province of Volhynia. It was here that the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or 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 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.

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

Mary Raber serves in Ukraine with Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Mission Network.


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  • Berry Friesen

    A curiously oblique response, isn’t it? Yet subtley informative too. How does one begin to provide an honest update from Ukraine for Mennonites passionate about their heritage there (Volhynia, Crimea, etc) and largely ignorant of current political realities there (because of misinformation from Western media)? Raber’s reminder of the still unhealed wounds of war, fascism and Communism is a small start.

  • Rainer Moeller

    Who are these “Czech Brethren”? They could be mainstream Czech Protestants (but this church is normally not missionary, so why in Ukraine). They could be Baptists. Or perhaps this is a mistranslation for “Bohemian Brethren” in which case they might be Herrnhuters (Bohemian cultural background, but German ethnicity).

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