Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 30, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow visit the exhibition, "Memory of Generations: the Great Patriotic War in Pictorial Arts," on the National Unity Day in Moscow in this Nov. 4, 2019, file photo. (CNS photo/Shamil Zhumatov, Reuters pool)

In this exclusive interview with America, David Nazar, S.J., a Canadian Jesuit born in Toronto to a family of Ukrainian origin, spoke about the background of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. From 1996 to 2002, Father Nazar served as the provincial of the Jesuits in the English Canada Province. He then served as the provincial of the Jesuits in Ukraine from 2002 to 2015, a time of major political upheavals in the country. In 2015, Pope Francis appointed him as rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

Father Nazar discussed President Vladimir Putin’s history of interference in Ukraine, the role played by Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church in the conflict and Pope Francis’ recent virtual meeting with the patriarch.

As rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, Father Nazar has closely followed events in Russia, which he has visited 15 times, and in Ukraine. The Pontifical Oriental Institute came into being following the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a graduate school of research and higher education to serve all Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, with special attention to Russia. The Ukrainian churches sent many students to study at the institute, especially since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Today Ukrainians constitute one of the largest groups among the student body. Father Nazar remains deeply informed of events in Ukraine as I learned during a 90-minute conversation with him the day after Pope Francis’ virtual meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia.

Vladimir Putin

I began by asking Father Nazar if he had seen the war coming. “No one saw the war coming, but everything short of war, everyone knew was there already,” he said.

He explained that Mr. Putin already had “a long history of interference in Ukraine. There was always an attempt to suppress anything that smacked of independence by rather brutal trade [tactics] and so on. For example, if he saw that Ukraine was trying to integrate into the European economy, he would suddenly forbid milk and cheese products from coming into Russia from Ukraine, as happened in 2004-05.” In recent years, Father Nazar said there have been cyberattacks in different parts of the country. Mr. Putin’s aim was always “to put Ukraine on its knees,” he said.

I began by asking Father Nazar if he had seen the war coming. “No one saw the war coming, but everything short of war, everyone knew was there already,” he said.

“There’s no need to interpret Putin’s actions,” Father Nazar said. “It’s sufficient to quote things he said, such as, ‘I can’t understand why Ukrainians want to speak Ukrainian when they can speak Russian!’ He always sought to deny the Ukrainian identity and language. He denigrates Ukraine by referring to it as ‘little Russia.’”

He recalled that just before the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Mr. Putin stated publicly that “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union.” But, Father Nazar said, “nobody in Ukraine, Poland or other states of the former Soviet Union believe that.”

“Putin’s political perspective has always been clear,” he said. He recalled that Mr. Putin tried to create an economic zone of the former Soviet countries, but Ukraine didn’t want to be part of it. Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe, rich in agricultural and mineral resources as well as metallurgy and metal industries, he said, and in Soviet times, Ukraine counted for 25 percent of the total production of the Soviet Union. He recalled that President Yanukovych suspended the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement in favor of closer economic ties with Russia, which led to the Ukrainian revolt at the Maidan, Kyiv’s Independence Square. Mr. Putin sent in paratroopers and sharpshooters, and over 100 people were killed, but Mr. Yanukovych was ultimately ousted.

When the revolt ended, Mr. Putin annexed Crimea. “It was takeable because a large percent of its two million [person] population was Russian,” Father Nazar said. The West imposed sanctions that are still in place, but they did not stop Mr. Putin.

“[Putin] always sought to deny the Ukrainian identity and language. He denigrates Ukraine by referring to it as ‘little Russia.’”

Father Nazar recalled that less than a month later, Mr. Putin sent Russian armed groups to the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which is economically significant for its coal deposits as well as being a mineral and metallurgy zone. Its two main cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, “were built from zero” during the Soviet period and populated with Russians. Mr. Putin put Russians in charge of the government of the cities and then claimed they wanted to separate from Ukraine. But the people in the villages in the greater part of the region are Ukrainian and want to remain so.

Mr. Putin claimed in 2014 that he sent in “peace keepers” to the allegedly separatist areas of Donbas. Since then, Father Nazar said, there has been conflict in the region, causing 15,000 deaths and countless thousands to be injured and even more displaced.

“Western leaders, anxious for trade, always gave Putin the benefit of the doubt,” Father Nazar said, “in contrast to most East European leaders, who knew his ideology and never trusted him.”

Ukraine, for its part, “never lost the desire for European integration, but this happened mostly on the economic level,” he said. They also desired to join NATO as protection from Russia, but this never happened.

On Feb. 21, 2022, President Putin formally recognized the two separatist republics in Donbas as independent states, and on Feb. 24, he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, calling it “a special military operation.”

“Western leaders, anxious for trade, always gave Putin the benefit of the doubt,” Father Nazar said, “in contrast to most East European leaders, who knew his ideology and never trusted him.”

Father Nazar attributed Mr. Putin’s decision to “opportunism.” He objected to Ukraine’s refusal to give up Crimea, its quest for increased integration with Europe and its desire to join NATO. “Putin, 69, felt things were going badly for Russia and its 140 million people, and that he had to act.” Moreover, he said, Mr. Putin “hates” Western Ukraine and its close association with Europe and “thought he had a good chance of success with the invasion because the dominant language in the Donbas region was Russian. He believed, ‘Once we’re there, they will want us.’”

“Putin badly miscalculated,” Father Nazar stated. “The people’s identity is Ukrainian. They resisted in the Donbas in 2014 and rejected his overtures in Odessa. Now he’s encountering total resistance. Ukrainians prefer to die rather than be under Russian domination again.”

He said Mr. Putin has a small group of ideologues around him and that anyone who isn’t like-minded risks jail time or death. Father Nazar sees a resemblance to Stalin in the way Mr. Putin behaves and recalled that “Putin transformed Stalin from a vile figure in Russian history to a hero who created modern Russia and made it great again.”

At the time of writing, many thousands of people have been killed, including thousands of soldiers on both sides as well as 135 children. Ten million Ukrainians have been forced to leave their homes because of the war; six million are internally displaced, and almost four million have sought refuge in neighboring European countries. Cities, in the words of Pope Francis, have been reduced to cemeteries.

The Russian Orthodox Church

Despite the death, destruction and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church have not denounced this war of aggression, nor have they called for a ceasefire. On the contrary, the patriarch has supported this “military operation”; he never calls it a “war” or “invasion.” When I asked Father Nazar to explain this, he responded: “I have a lot of compassion for the Russian Orthodox Church because, like everything else in Russia, it is under the thumb of the government. To explain this simply, I sometimes say that if Putin says something on Tuesday, the Russian Patriarch has to say the same thing on Wednesday but just putting the word ‘God’ into the sentence.”

Father Nazar said that “because the Russian Orthodox Church, like Vladimir Putin, makes absolute claims to all of Ukraine, there is little fruitful conversation between that church and all the other churches in Ukraine. It claims an authority that it never had. In fact, we hear Putin argue that Ukraine is trying to destroy the Russian church in Ukraine as an added argument for the current invasion. Ironically, with the invasion, Putin is destroying the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.”

“The truth is that by Putin’s political adventurism, the Russian Orthodox Church lost many parishes in Ukraine,” he said.

“If Putin says something on Tuesday, the Russian Patriarch has to say the same thing on Wednesday but just putting the word ‘God’ into the sentence.”

Moreover, he said, “appeals for peace” from the Moscow Patriarchate, “which Ukrainians are expected to accept because in the eyes of the patriarch they are all of the same ethnic and religious family, are appeals to accept Russian authority; they are not appeals for justice.”

He said such appeals “were for the most part not accepted” at the time of the Maidan uprising and especially with the annexation of Crimea. “Indeed, many Russian Orthodox parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine left the Russian Orthodox communion and entered the Orthodox communion based in Kyiv because the people’s identity is Ukrainian, not Russian.”

He added, “Even more parishes and two bishops” switched their allegiance after the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I “took the logical theological and proper decision” on Jan. 5, 2019, that officially recognized and established the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and granted it autocephaly (self-governorship). “The Ukrainians left in big numbers then,” and “this has resulted in the loss of influence of Russia in Ukraine.”

“With the current invasion, for the first time, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine strongly and publicly disagreed with the patriarch of Moscow and condemned the unjust Russian invasion of a sovereign Ukraine and its innocent people.”

“The truth is that by Putin’s political adventurism, the Russian Orthodox Church lost many parishes in Ukraine,” he said.

Father Nazar said he learned “from authoritative sources” that 46 percent of the Russian Orthodox Church is in Ukraine. Moreover, “whereas Ukrainians go to church in big numbers, in Moscow—among those who say they are Orthodox—only 2 percent go to church on Sunday, and this is partly due to a certain discrediting of the Russian Orthodox Church that goes back to [the time of] Dostoyevsky.”

He explained that “the Russian Orthodox Church has always been too aligned with the authorities in Russia, whether it was the czars or those in power during the Soviet Union period and now with Putin.” He said, “It’s a church that runs services, but has no prophetic power because it is under pressure to be absolutely aligned with the state.” Moreover, “the Russian Orthodox Church gets its money from the state, not from the people, and so it cannot take risks, nor can it be a prophetic church.”

Furthermore, he said, even though Kirill, before becoming patriarch, spent much time in the West, his statements after the war “are assaults against democracy and Ukraine’s desire for democracy,” which “he claims leads to gay parades and such like.” Father Nazar said all of this “appeals to a certain anti-West sentiment in Russian society and the view that corruption comes from the West.”

The pope and the patriarch

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill conversed together for 40 minutes, by Zoom, on the afternoon of March 16, an encounter that Francis had greatly desired.

According to the press communiques issued separately by the two sides, Francis and Kirill discussed in depth the situation in Ukraine, the tremendous suffering of its people, the great humanitarian crisis and the urgent need for humanitarian corridors. Significantly, the patriarchate’s statement never used the word “war,” while the Vatican statement quoted Francis using the word many times. Even more significantly, there was no mention of the call for a ceasefire.

When I asked Father Nazar what he thought was the rationale for these omissions, he responded: “Even if Kirill wanted to say, ‘Let’s stop the war in Ukraine,’ he can’t do it without Putin’s permission. Putin could jail him if he did so, and a part of the Russian Orthodox clergy (perhaps 30 percent) would disown him, and so he would have a revolt within his own country and church.”

“Even if Kirill wanted to say, ‘Let’s stop the war in Ukraine,’ he can’t do it without Putin’s permission. Putin could jail him if he did so.”

Father Nazar believes that “Patriarch Kirill [takes] risks among his own faithful by speaking with the pope because some 30 percent of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia think the pope is the Antichrist.” He recalled that Francis’ meeting with Kirill—the first-ever meeting between a pope and a patriarch of Moscow—had to take place in Havana, far away from Russia, because otherwise there would have been a huge reaction within the Russian Orthodox Church and especially among the monks. According to Russian media, he said, because of the Havana meeting about 30 percent of the monasteries no longer mentioned Kirill’s name in the liturgy—“the highest insult that you can have in the Orthodox Church.”

“So, it took a lot [of courage] for Kirill to talk with Francis on March 16,” he said. “He took the risk because he believed in Francis’ friendly approach and trusted that he would not embarrass or hurt him in any way. Furthermore, the fact that Francis had not called out Russia or Putin by name enabled him to join the conversation.”

Father Nazar knows that some people inside and outside the Catholic Church are critical of Francis’ approach and would prefer the pope condemn Mr. Putin and Russia publicly over the war in Ukraine. But, he said, Francis “is taking a different approach, which politically, in the good sense, is deft, artful. He’s coming as a friend, trying to find some accord with Kirill, in line with the Gospel, in the face of the terrible suffering of the Ukrainian people. He was trying to invite Kirill to some form of collaboration in the face of this humanitarian crisis. It was a good and honest invitation, without putting any pressure on him.” He acknowledges that “while in the public forum nothing new was said, I would not discredit the significance of this friendship for the longer term.”

“It took a lot [of courage] for Kirill to talk with Francis on March 16,” he said. “He took the risk because he believed in Francis’ friendly approach.”

He did not expect the Russian media to report the pope’s words as presented in the Vatican’s statement after his virtual conversation with Kirill. Moreover, given what has happened during the war, he does not expect Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill to meet again anytime soon. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I find it hard to imagine such a meeting taking place.”

For his part, Father Nazar affirmed the right of Ukrainians to defend themselves. “I am in favor of arms going to Ukraine because how else can it defend itself? If someone is coming in to kill my children, it would be odd for me to just stand there and watch.”

He did not see any immediate end to the war, he said, “because it is very difficult for Putin to withdraw troops because of pride. But it happened once in Afghanistan, and that is perhaps the best comparison for the situation today.”

Father David Nazar concluded:

The moral and material support of Ukraine is key, not only for Ukraine. As [Russian novelist Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn used to say of the Soviet Union, it needs constant moral pressure backed up with concrete measures, not war, to bring it down. Ukraine needs food and material supplies and military support to continue its battle against the aggressor. I think it would be an error for other countries to enter into the war without having been first attacked. The international support for Ukraine is obviously key, and it could have the same effect on Russia that the Afghanistan war eventually had.

The latest from america

Granting an exception to canon law, Pope Francis said men’s communities that are made up of both priests and brothers can choose one of the brothers to be a provincial superior or even the superior general.
Doctors have prescribed a wheelchair, cane and physical therapy. Pope Francis quipped that what he really needs for the pain is a shot of tequila.
Cardinals in scarlet vestments leave the Pro Eligendo Pontiface Mass prior to the Conclave, March 12, 2013, at the Vatican.
Before he dies or retires, Pope Francis needs to make changes in the process of electing a new pope to avoid the possibility of a deadlocked conclave.
The Corner of North Ave. and Holton St. in Milwaukee, Wis.
Sometimes, standing in a spot and truly acknowledging pain may be the best thing we can do.
Jon M. SweeneyMay 18, 2022