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On the cover
¹7 (2014)
Tunnelling Towards Hope

28 February - 6 March 2014

Ukraine History

A Stronghold of Rulers and Rebels

With the recent death toll jumping to nearly 100 and 1,000 injured, Hrushevskoho Street, one of the strongholds of EuroMaidan’s three-month-long protests, made headlines around the globe. It was here, on 19 January the country’s stand against government corruption, abuse of power, and the violation of human rights turned from peaceful protest to all-out revolution. Having witnessed much over the years, Hrushevskoho is a street with a history, and not only care of recent days.


Ukraine Today
Acelebrity using their status and intelligence to influence public views and opinion is rarely seen in modern society, even less so in Ukraine. Here, the majority of celebs use their time, effort, and money to enhance or further their career rather than put their name to something that can do good for others. However, as EuroMaidan intensifies, some are making themselves heard – and they fall either side of the EuroMaidan divide.
It used to be that when rebellion and revolution occurred, the intellectual, creative, and spiritual elite would be front and centre.


Ukrainian Culture

When Walls Can Talk

People have been writing on walls since the dawn of civilisation, we call it graffiti, and ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. Sometimes it is merely the creator wanting to leave his or her mark; sometimes there is an underlying social or political reason. And it is due to the latter that graffiti has exploded across Kyiv in recent months. Anti dictator messages aside, we peel back a few layers of paint to look at graffiti in the city in general.


Kyiv Traditions

Kyiv's Pagan People

The 7 July is known throughout Ukraine as Ivana Kupala. Technically a feastday in honour of John the Baptist the holiday is a time for locals to indulge in simple pagan pleasures such as jumping over fires and getting back to nature. Paganism is historically strong in Ukraine and on the rise, with groups gathering to pay homage to the mysterious cosmos.

Like many Christian holidays, and those belonging to the Orthodox Church in particular, Ivana Kupala’s roots are planted firmly in the pagan past. In ancient Ukraine it was an occasion to celebrate the summer solstice and  to cleanse the soul with fire and water. The idea of purification through water is similar to the idea of baptism so the early priesthood decided to use this existing festival as the time to celebrate John the Baptist, hence the name, Ivana Kupala. Yet the holiday retains many outwardly pagan motifs, and every 7 July tourists and locals  head out to the countryside and green spaces with the aim of indulging in some pagan pleasures; young girls make wreathes of flowers and float them on the nearby river, stream, or pond and, according to tradition, whichever young man picks up a wreath with a lit candle will be that girl’s partner. Another Ivana Kupala practice is to jump over a burning fire whilst holding your partner’s hand -  an act which symbolizes the purging of the soul.   

Such practices of rites are a remnant of Ukraine’s pagan past which the Orthodox Church was never completely successful in stamping out. In a letter to the Ukrainian writer Gogol, Belinsky wrote that the local peasantry was full of pious reverence ‘But he utters the name of God while scratching his backside. And he says about the icon “It’s good for praying – and you can cover the pots with it as well.” Look carefully and you will see that the Russians are by nature an atheistic people with many superstitions but not the slightest trace of religiosity.’ One of the main reasons for the continued prevalence of pagan practices through the centuries was the state of the parish priesthood. Most were themselves sons of priests who received little education outside of the local seminary. Nor were local priests respected. They were seen as servants of the gentry and supported their meager salaries through smallholdings and charging fees for their services and it was not unheard of for bodies to remain unburied for days or weddings to be postponed until the necessary fee could be raised. In such a position, the priest was forced to live between the Church’s idea of faith, which he was hardly well versed in, and the semi-pagan beliefs of the peasantry, which never really went away. Consequently out of both economic necessity and lack of education country priests used icons, candles and the cross to cast out evil spirits who the peasantry believed would cast spells on their crops and cattle, bring disease and cause infertility amongst women. In short, Christianity was nothing more than the icing on a very pagan cake. Most of the illiterate peasantry knew little of the Gospels and the Ten Commandments were virtually unknown. The saints and the natural gods were thought of as actual physical beings and were frequently confused. The goddess of the harvest, Poludnista, was honoured by the placing of a sheaf of rye behind the house icon while Vlas, the protector of the herds, went on to become St Vlasius. Then there was Lada, the goddess of fortune, who appeared side by side with St George and St Nicholas in peasant wedding songs. Christian rituals also had a strong pagan feel. As in the West, Slavic processions of the move in clockwise circles with the Sun but it has been argued that in the Ukrainian and Russian case this was first done in imitation of the pagan circle dance (khorovod) which moved in the sun’s direction in order to capture its magical force. Nature motifs were particularly common both in church and the peasant household and the Ukrainian National Art Museum boasts many examples of seventeenth and eighteenth century icons where Christ is depicted wrapped in a vine. Admittedly, it was a common enough motif  throughout this period of time, but is further evidence as to how pagan beliefs and ideals continued to thrive. Ukraine has several other pagan holidays which continue to be marked to this day, including ‘Spas’. The ancient Ukrainians used to call the beginning of August Spasivska. It was timed to coincide with the annual harvest and grateful peasants would offer fruit, berries, vegetables, grain and honey to the gods, whom Ukrainian pagans referred to as ‘Spasy’. Spasivka has three stages. The first is Makoviy (from the word ‘mak’ for poppy) which is celebrated on 14 August. In Ukraine the poppy is a sign of fertility and protection against evil and on this day it is traditional to eat dishes with poppy seeds. On this day it was customary for locals to honour the water goddess Mokosha by swimming in river to cleanse themselves of evil and this practice was continued after the introduction of Christianity. The day was officially made a holiday by Andriy Boholybubsky after a victory over the Bulgarians in 1164. ‘Apple Spas’ takes place on August 19 and is part of the pagan tradition of sanctifying the first fruits so as to yield a bountiful crop. It was this day that the Church used to mark the transfiguration of Christ. The third part of Spasy, ‘Corny Spas’ is marked on 29 August and is a result of crop gathering and sowing crops. On 29 August housewives baked bread using grains gathered from the first crops harvested. Christian tradition used this festival as a way in which people could remember the Muslims returning a miracle working icon of Christ in 944, which was believed to be the cause of sick Byzantine Emperor’s recovery. Though such traditions are less adheared to in the city they remain strong in the countryside where village dwellers preserve age old customs and to be honest, have little else to occupy themselves entertainment wise.
Ironically, one group notably absent from all the fun and frivolity of 7 July are the members of Ukraine’s some 100 pagan associations. Instead, these New Age groups mark Ivana Kupala  on 21 June, the holiday’s date according to the Julian Calendar. Paganism is on the rise in Ukraine; Kyiv has no less than 22 such communities, after which comes Vinnitsa with 14 and Zaporizhya with 10. Around 600 followers of the Vidychne Pravoslavia pagan school of thought turned out for the annual Sacred Procession last year, with more expected to join in the future. The question is why? Just what is it about paganism which appeals to well read, sophisticated city slickers? To answer this question it is necessary to examine just what it is that Ukrainian pagans of the twenty-first century believe in and practice. Contrary to public opinion, cavorting around naked atop of mountains, sinister sacrifices, and taking part in orgies are not the order of the day, at least according to Arsenia Gai, the spokesperson for the pagan group Rodove Vognyshe (‘Family Fire’). Arsenia explains that paganism is a vestige of a system of beliefs which existed and was practiced throughout Euroasia over seven thousand years ago. As such rather than being some anarchic heresy, paganism is in fact a sophisticated set of beliefs which is spiritually related to Hinduism and Buddhism. The pagan system of Ridna Pravoslavna Vira, of which Arsenia is a card carrying subscriber to, provides a good example of this. At the centre of Ridna Pravoslavna Vira is the omnipresent deity Rod who is manifest in eight other gods which are somehow closer to the earthly plane. Arsenia stresses that this spiritual structure is similar to that of Hinduism, in which the three embodiments of Brahman - Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, manifest themselves through a whole plethora of deities and even living beings and entities. Those belonging to the Vidychne Pravoslavia on the other hand, believe that the universe is divided into the three spheres of Yava, Neyava, and Prava. Much like the concept of ‘Samsara’ in Buddihism, Vidychne Pravoslavia teaches that people are continue to be reincarnated into the world of  Yava, derived from the word ‘yav’ meaning reality, until their soul finally attains ‘Yasna’, a state of unconscious bliss and tranquility comparable with Nirvana. Good and evil are represented in Vidychne Provoslavia by the gods Bilobog and Chornobog (the ‘White God’ and the ‘Black God’) though unlike Christianity these two forces are not in moral binary opposition but are in a state of constant flux. Like Khali, the godess of death and destruction in Hinduism, Chornobog is acknowledged as an integral part of the universe, and praised as such. Ukrainian pagans even have something akin to their own holy scriptures, the Velesova Knyga, which narrates the history of the world from the twelfth century BC to the nineth century AD in eighteen concise paragraphs, and the Karby Vidannya.  

The collapse of the Soviet UNI0N left a spiritual vacuum here in Ukraine. People may have only paid lip service to communism, but nevertheless there was a belief system still in place. The celebration of the worker, industry, and the revolution of the proletariat body came crashing down with the Berlin Wall. People needed something to fill the gap; many returned to the fold of the Orthodox Church, with congregations booming in the early nineties. Others looked towards Protestantism, and a number of newly established evangelical churches. But others, the more curious and the more fashionable, began to explore the cultures of the Far East; students, PR managers, and ladies of leisure, sat under pyramids, and meditated with candles in their bedrooms. Yoga is big business in the Ukrainian capital these days, and fitness clubs do a roaring trade in rubbing people down with special rocks and gems with apparent healing properties. What paganism offers, it appears, is the fashionable thought of India, Japan, and China, coupled with local tradition of which there has been a huge surge of interest in since Ukrainian independence, and following the Orange Revolution in particular. Echoing Belinsky, Arsenia argues that there is something inherent in the soul of Ukrainians which makes paganism appealing; “Ukraine on the whole is hardly compatible with those social and political systems based on hierarchy” she says, “particularly when those systems are headed by a figure like the Tsar. Instead Ukrainians find it natural to live according to the will of a ‘viche’ (the ancient name given to a public meeting - Ed).” Implicit in this statement is the idea that Ukraine is an ancient land, distinct and separate from its neighbours, and Russia in particular. To be a pagan is to support the idea of an independent Ukraine and to glory in the country’s past; its freedom loving cossacks, its legends, its languages, its folklore, and its myths. It would be fascinating to poll the country’s pagans as to who they vote for in elections, but even without doing so it is a fair bet that few of them are making their cross next to the likes of Yanukovich and Vitrenko. Despite what the followers of Rod, Bilobog, and Chornobog might say, paganism in Ukraine is a very contemporary phenomenon; a combination of a rediscovery of national pride and a growing interest in the religion of other cultures, though pagans of course insist that these cultures are in fact intrinsically linked.

Twenty-first century Pagans also have to operate in the real world and many groups have registered with the state as official religious organizations. It may go against the grain somewhat, but the country’s pagans are a pragmatic bunch. Though the individual’s relationship with the cosmos is at the centre of paganism, groups do have leaders, with perhaps the most high profile being Volodymyr Kurovsky, the Supreme Volhv or ‘Magus’ who is descended from a long line of pagan priests. Kurovsky is in high demand, and spends much of his time on the road, visiting pagan communities the length and breadth of Ukraine. That paganism attracts the financially well off can also be seen by the construction of a new temple by the Rodove Vognyshe sect on Kyiv’s Khorevytsya Hill. A vast, imposing structure, it stands as a monument to the Ukrainian people’s ancient faith, and the rather more modern fascination with Eastern cultures.
Yulia Volfovska

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    Ukraine Truth
    Rights We Didn’t Know We Had

    Throughout EuroMaidan much has been made of Ukrainians making a stand for their rights. What exactly those rights are were never clearly defined. Ukraine ratified the Univer­sal Declaration of Human Rights in 1952. The first article of the Declaration states all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, they are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The ousted and overthrown Ukrainian government showed to the world they don’t understand the meaning of these words.

    Kyiv Culture

    Pulling Strings
    Located on Hrushevskoho Street – the epicentre of EuroMaidan violence, home to battles, blazes and barricades – children’s favourite the Academic Puppet Theatre had to shut down in February. Nevertheless, it is getting ready to reopen this March with a renewed repertoire to bring some laughter back to a scene of tragedy. Operating (not manipulating) puppets is a subtle art that can make kids laugh and adults cry. What’s On meets Mykola Petrenko, art director of the Theatre, to learn more about those who pull the strings behind the show.


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