The eyes of the world are now focused on a region that most Americans could probably not find on a map a few months ago: Ukraine’s Crimea. This region has long been a source of conflict in the region, since it serves as the base for the Russian navy and gives a huge, largely landlocked nation access to the Black Sea.
A History of Oppression
What most Americans know even less about is the history of Ukraine. The recent events in Kyiv (not “Kiev”, the Russian spelling; pronounced “Keev” in Ukrainian) are the latest in a 1,000 year struggle for Ukrainian independence. Since Kyiv was founded around 1000 A.D., the region has been coveted by neighboring nations including Poland, Russia, and the former Soviet Union.
The source of Ukraine-lust has been its vast natural resources. Originally that resource was considered agricultural: much of their soil is a rich black color and has vast (mostly untapped) potential to yield great crops. Ukraine was considered the “bread basket” of the Soviet Union. If you’ve ever been in a Ukrainian street market and seen what they can do without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, it is simply astonishing. Their produce is nearly flawless and huge. Under the Soviet regime the potential was squandered because in collective farming, each “farmer” was taught to do only one job. One man knew how to plow the field. One man knew how to mend fences. And so on. When Communism collapsed with no one to coordinate the farms they sat (and in most cases continue to sit) vacant while that beautiful soil does nothing. Throughout history, neighboring powers have battled for control of these resources. It’s been said that if the natural resources of Ukraine were rightly utilized, it would be the wealthiest nation in Europe.
Ukraine has only had real independence since 1991 when the Iron Curtain came down. Prior to that, they were a part of the Soviet Union and there is no love lost from the Ukrainians toward the Russians for that period of their history. In the 1930’s Stalin created a forced famine in Ukraine that resulted in millions of Ukrainians starving to death in the midst of a productive harvest. Soviet troops and officials raided communities where communal farms were in operation and not only took the harvest from the farms, but even went house to house searching for grain hidden in the roofs or in hidden compartments. Bodies lay in the streets over the winter. I have met Ukrainians in the Vinnitsia oblast who remember eating birch bark and twigs to survive.
In World War Two, Germany invaded Ukraine and Hitler set up a massive underground bunker near Vinnitsia where the locals claim that he directed the war on the Eastern front. It took about 10,000 slave laborers to build the bunker, mostly from other parts of Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland, former Yugoslavia). When the bunker was completed the slave laborers were executed and buried in a mass grave. Hitler did not want the secrets of his bunker to be known by the enemy so he took no chances. When the Nazis fled Ukraine as they retreated from the Eastern front, Hitler had the bunker destroyed with aircraft bombs. Pieces of concrete the size of large automobiles flew several hundred yards in each direction. The only part of the bunker which survives intact is the former swimming pool, where you can stand on the same deck as Hitler and his Eastern front commanders once stood. It’s an eerie place, inhabited now by snakes. Poetic justice, that. It was inhabited by another kind of snake before.
With World War Two came the murder of the Jewish people of Ukraine. The Holocaust there looked a bit different than in Western Europe. In Western Europe the Holocaust was hidden away in death camps. In Ukraine, the Holocaust included death camps but also included mass executions and burials as well as the seclusion of Jewish villages in a particular zone (ghettos) where access to food and the economy were limited by Nazi control. In Kyiv I have stood on the ground of a ravine called Babi Yar (loosely translated, “Grandmother’s Ravine”). In a two day stretch in September 1941, tens of thousands (estimates range as high as 100,000) Jewish residents of Kyiv and the surrounding area were told to meet there to be shipped to the Holy Land. The Jewish people were instructed to leave their possessions in one location and were marched off to the ravine where they were lined up and machine gunned into the ravine. A large monument stands there now, erected by Jewish people of other nations. I will never forget the feeling as we stood on the floor of the ravine, which, I was told, is now only half as deep as it used to be because of all of the remains that are buried underneath. The Ukrainians are embarrassed by the location. They would rather forget.
During and since World War Two, the Soviet regime oppressed Christianity aggressively. Pastor Vasiliy Riabetz told me that his father and father-in-law were both arrested under Stalin’s regime and sent to a camp in Siberia and sentenced to the typical “tener” (a ten year term of slave labor). As with most who were so sentenced, neither of them survived. Their crimes? They were pastors in evangelical Baptist churches. Accounts abound of the infamous “black Marias” coming in the middle of the night, the KGB bursting into apartments and taking away pastors and other church leaders. Some were shipped off to Siberia after facing kangaroo courts. Others were simply executed in KGB offices without a trial. They would be ushered into a room with nothing but a chair against a wall. Once they sat down in the chair, their head would be resting against a hole in the wall. On the other side of the wall? A KGB officer with a gun would execute them through the back of the head.
In Ukraine, you cannot meet a family that was not affected by Stalin’s regime in some way. In every family tree there is someone who died in Siberia or disappeared in the night. They may not have all been religious leaders; many were political. And as Solzhenitsyn reports in his classic “The Gulag Archipelago”, some did nothing more than surrender to the German army when they were overrun in World War Two. In the Russian mindset of the time, that was tantamount to betrayal.
Ukraine is a graveyard. It is also a battlefield. In spite of the history of violence in this land, I have found the people to be a peace loving people. They do not want war. They would like nothing more than to make a bit more than the $100 a month they now get and keep on growing their food in their family gardens, keep on raising their families and loving God.
What is playing out right now is a struggle for political allegiance. Ukraine’s former, now deposed, president has always been known as pro-Russian. Since the Orange Revolution of 2004 when a peaceful demonstration established a pro-European, pro-American government, forces in Ukraine sought to depose that government and succeeded by trumping up charges against its leaders.
The nation is divided along East\West lines. In the east and north, closest to Russia, the preferred language is Russian and the political allegiances are largely Russian. To the west and south, the allegiances (with the exception of Crimea where many ethnic Russians live, and perhaps Odessa) the preferred language is Ukrainian and the political allegiances follow suit. Ethnic Russians are currently demonstrating in Crimea and in other cities where there are large Russian populations. Of course, it is likely that this is instigated and funded by pro-Russian money coming directly from Russia. Ironically Russia has long viewed Ukraine as “Russia South” even though Slavic culture is historically more based in Kyiv than Moscow. There is no equivalent anywhere in Russia to St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv where portions of the original structure dating from 1000A.D. can be seen. In spite of this, when the Soviet Union came to power, they banned the Ukrainian language and sought to destroy Ukrainian culture and literature.
What we are seeing right now in Ukraine is simply the DNA of the Russian mindset playing itself out in regards to Ukraine. Putin’s youth organization, NASHI, has long taken the party line about Ukraine, stating that Ukraine IS Russia long before the recent drama began playing itself out. [There’s an excellent documentary on NASHI playing on Netflix right now called “Putin’s Kiss.”] Anyone who has been paying attention knows this, which is why someone as inexperienced at foreign policy as Sarah Palin could see this coming as recently as 2008. Russia has NEVER (no, never) seen Ukraine’s border as legitimate in spite of their political gamesmanship. If you look into their eyes as they look at Ukraine, you will see dollar signs. Believers in Ukraine have long suspected that the peace there was fragile and that it was only a matter of time before Russia staked a claim again.
Add to all of this that since the 1990’s the natural gas pipeline in Ukraine has been the hot button issue. Russia’s natural gas, mostly produced by Gazprom is piped across Ukraine. Ukraine obviously expects payment for services rendered, which is fair. However, it turned out that Ukraine’s gas company Naftohaz had been siphoning off some of the gas intended for Europe and not paying for gas they contracted with Gazprom. In 2006 and 2009 Russia cut the flow to Ukraine to teach them a lesson. Truthfully, no one could blame them. Naftohaz’s irresponsible actions have contributed greatly to the recent stress . Now, Gazprom expects payment of 1.8 billion dollars from Ukraine. Add this volatile situation to a long history of Russian self-importance and you have a classic formula for conflict.
Why Should We Care?
Why should American Christians care about what’s happening over there? Ukraine has been the scene of what can only be described as a revival since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Ukrainian evangelical church is incredibly evangelistic, and not in an American “easy believism” sort of way. Most pastors in the Baptist Union pastor not just one, but several churches. I’ve heard of men pastoring as few as three and as many as seven churches in the Baptist Union. They spend their weekends driving beat up Lada’s across the countryside and holding services in little village gatherings called “Houses of Prayer.” Ukrainian seminaries are training missionary church planters to go across the former Soviet Union (where Russian is still the predominant language) with the gospel. Russian language Christian television literally blankets Ukraine.
I have had the honor of participating in an evangelistic crusade in a small village near the border of Moldava. I preached the gospel in a former Soviet community center (they have a name for these, but it slips my mind at the moment). An old Communist slogan on a placard lay upside down in the orchestra pit while I preached. A former leading Communist official for the village came and heckled me (one of my first experiences with a real heckler). Representatives from nearly every household in the small village showed up. That same year we helped build a church building from the concrete and stone of an old Soviet collective farm. The next year we did a Vacation Bible school for the same village and had about 200 in attendance. The local Orthodox priests accused us of poisoning the drinking water with some American drug that caused this reaction. In my teenage class, about 40% of my students were atheist but they came anyway. By the end of the week, many were repentant. In Ukraine church growth has been explosive, but not because they are using American techniques. They have been preaching repentance, not a man-centered gospel. What’s happening there is not the result of marketing, but a move of the Spirit of God that was 70+ years in the making under Communism.
The fruit of this revival has extended as far up as the interim president of Ukraine. He is an ordained Baptist preacher in an evangelical Baptist church in Kyiv. An evangelical mission to the former Soviet states reports that Ukrainian parliament members were holding a Bible study and prayer meeting prior to the recent uprising. In that study they were also encouraging the reading of newly translated Puritan works.
What Should the US Do?
For emotional reasons, I would love nothing more than to see the USA mobilize our troops and help Ukraine kick the invading horde out of their nation. Ukraine’s military is a shambles while Russia has used Ukrainian money to build their own military into a force to be reckoned with. The truth is, without intervention, Russia will do whatever it wants, including marching into Independence Square in Kyiv and placing the puppet president, Yanukovich, back in power.
The question for Christians and all politicians should be, “Is that just?” Because of our recent sordid history with Iraq, which was invaded on pretense and with bad information, no one wants to support Ukraine. Biblically speaking, the question is “Do we have a responsibility to bear the sword against the evil doer” in this situation?
A closely related question is, “What is our responsibility before God regarding treaties?” Does the Word of God provide any guidance in this situation?
Not surprisingly, it does.
First of all, it says to Ukraine, “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15). Yes, their economy is a wreck, perhaps because of Russia’s direct involvement, but Ukraine owes 1.8 billion in natural gas alone. If the new interim president wants to demonstrate a Biblical government, his first order of business should be leading his nation in repentance for their sin against God. True repentance would look something like Zaccheus’, which seems to be based on Exodus 22:1-15. Rather than paying just the 1.8 billion, perhaps they should restore what they stole four or five-fold. Perhaps more reasonable and just as applicable, Leviticus 6:2-7 would be an appropriate text to consider, which states that a neighbor who “lies in which was delivered him” he should restore it in the principle and add a fifth part to it. If Ukraine were to offer that with a way to back it up with a plan that works, perhaps relations with Russia would sweeten.
Theft is practically part of the post-Soviet national fabric of Ukraine. You cannot get out of the parking lot in the airport in Kyiv without bribing the gate keeper and it doesn’t get any better as you go. Border officials will take bribes IN the airport to help you avoid going through customs. Ukrainian police are often paid at the roadside for traffic violations rather than in court. In building projects, contractors often will reneg on their previous commitments on prices for materials and labor and government officials will create new building permits with unexpected fees built in once they discover American money is behind a building project. Thieves are not a part of the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Second, to the United States, it does say that we have a responsibility to our allies and to our word. Part of that responsibility should be to put pressure on Ukraine to honor its debts, although that puts us in the awkward situation of being hypocrites. Along the way we should actually stop being fiscally irresponsible as well. The other part of that responsibility means honoring the Ukrainian border as we claimed we would in the Budapest memorandum in 1994.
At this point I can imagine my readers saying, “No, it’s their business and not ours and the last thing we need is to be dragged into another nation’s problems.” In a sense, I agree. Except for one little issue: the Word of God.
Jesus said that we should let our yes be yes and our no be no (Matthew 5:37). We should honor our word even when it is painful or the agreement was ill advised to begin with. This is not just a good idea for people in church, but for nations. In Joshua 9 the Gibeonites deceived the people of Israel into thinking that they were from a far land rather than the Promised Land. The people of Israel unwisely entered into a covenant with the Gibeonites, not knowing the full truth. Three days later they discovered that they had been deceived. The populace of Israel grumbled against their leaders because they did not wipe out the Gibeonites. The rulers responded, “We have sworn unto them by the LORD God of Israel: now therefore we may not touch them” (Joshua 9:19). The Gibeonites were specially beholden to the Israelites since from that point forward they became their wood cutters and water boys (Joshua 9:20-21).
Ukraine did not deceive the United States into signing the Budapest memorandum, so we don’t have precedent to make Ukraine our water boys. However, Ukraine does have the right to expect us to come to their aid when their borders are invaded. Those who experience real relationship with God are those who “swear to his own hurt and change not” (Psalm 15:4). Whether that aid should be military depends largely on what Ukraine is willing to do for itself.
Ukraine, you’ve been invaded. Putin does not intend on honoring your decision to replace your government with one that represents Ukraine’s interests. Armed soldiers are surrounding your military bases, the Russian navy has blockaded your navy into its own bay, and random groups of Russians are patrolling the streets in Crimea, demanding that those who fly in have their luggage searched. You have guns. You have an airforce. And you have a navy. Use them. If you expect other nations to come to your aid, you need to demonstrate that you care enough about your own to defend yourselves. Repel them: pitchforks and torches if necessary.
Self defense is your right. Russia is the aggressor here and everyone in the world knows it. The Law of God makes it clear in Exodus 22:2-3: if a thief breaks in and you kill him in the process there is no bloodguilt. A thief has broken in. This thief intends on stealing your dignity, your territory, and perhaps your freedom. If you roll over and become the France of Eastern Europe, do not expect anyone to respect your national sovereignty.
My prayer is that all parties involved would do what is right: that Ukraine would repent of her thievery, that Russia would repent of her bullying, that the United States would repent of all of her national sins. Part of that repentance in the case of the USA would be a return to the Law of God as a standard for the rule of law and not the “whatever is right in our own eyes” version that we’ve been subscribing to for too long.
N.B. For more information on the history of Ukraine, I recommend Andrew Wilson’s “The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation” published by Yale University Press .