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From the Baltic to the Black Sea: things get out of control


“What really scares us is the prospect of civil war”… Father Iuri, tonsured in the 1970s and Abbot of the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, took another sip. The eighteenth century monastery of Saints Peter and Paul is in Nezhin (Nizhyn) on the river Oster, a town of approximately one-hundred thousand inhabitants a few hours by train east of Kiev (Kyiv). Nezhin itself is something of a Cambridge for the Left-Bank of the Ukraine with its elegant eighteenth and early nineteenth century architecture and a university established by Prince Bezborodko, one of Catherine II’s chancellors, who was a native of the town. Nikolai Gogol was educated here, and it was in this town that he burnt his first manuscripts, including a satirical description of the mores of the local merchant bourgeoisie.


A few words with the Monastery’s congregation following vespers revealed sentiments that are not exactly pro-European. “The westerners are trying to uproot us from our traditions” explains a young woman. Such attitudes are perhaps unsurprising given that the Monastery belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Though Nezhin is mainly Ukrainian speaking, and elections here usually produce a relative majority for independently minded but broadly pro-western candidates, the churches loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate (Patriarch Kyril today) have a larger flock than those loyal to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (Philaret).


A lecture I delivered at Nezhin University on the War of Independence and the construction of a Greek nation ended with a comment by one student: “here in Ukraine we have no national idea”. My conversation with the Abbot and his flock occurred in 2004, that with the student shortly thereafter; needless to say, the Abbot and the student’s views should not be considered typical. I can however count many similar conversations with Ukrainians in eastern and southern Ukraine over the course of the last decade.

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