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12 March, 2012  ▪  Viktor Yelensky

Privatization Targets Culture

The Party of power us looking at museums, cultural heritage and “sects”

Two years after the presidential election, it dawned on the ruling party that though it seemed everything in the country had been completely privatized, there were still two huge promising assets left. The first one is, of course, land, and the powers-that-be are already doing the groundwork to get that in their hands. The second is Ukraine’s historical-architectural gems and cultural masterpieces that span centuries. Therefore, in order to rectify this unfortunate situation, a three-pronged campaign was launched in early 2012.


The first step was to purge museums. The directors of the Kyiv Pechersk Preserve, St. Sophia of Kyiv, National Art Museum, National Taras Shevchenko Museum, National Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Living, etc. were dismissed with one fell swoop. The Minister of Culture failed to provide any adequate argument to justify the pogrom. In short, you can “figure out the rest yourselves,” as the president advised all of us with inimitable charm several months ago. While the “unfinished intelligentsia” was trying to “figure it out” and come to itself, it was hit with a new blow: the people installed in the vacated offices were so far removed from the fine and sensitive art of managing museums that the most impressionable historians and culture specialists nearly fainted. Timid inquiries from confused specialists about possible strategies for growth, a programme or at least prospects as seen by the newly appointed directors drowned in happy giggling. But journalist Tetiana Chornovil convincingly exposed the likeliest strategy for “protecting” historical artifacts: she recently found ancient cannons dating back to the Crimean War that were stolen from a quay in Sevastopol. They were discovered in a resort area privatized by the same people who obtained the infamous Mezhyhiria estate from the state, which they now possess.


But this was just the beginning. In January 2012, Party of Regions MPs submitted a bill to parliament which would remove over 130 entities located in the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra and the Pochayiv Lavra from the List of Outstanding Specimens of Cultural Heritage not Subject to Privatization. Their explanatory note used some convoluted language with references to “the annual increase in the number of Ukrainian citizens who … consider themselves believers,” “instilling moral and spiritual values” and “the need for further legislative provision of the citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of consciousness.” However, the religious buildings mentioned in the bill are now being used by a church. Do the sponsors of the bill not understand the difference between using sacral buildings for their original purpose and privatization? What does a permit to privatize church buildings in which people pray have to do with restoring justice? What is the special connection between “instilling moral and spiritual values” and transferring a 1888 bathhouse to private property? How can “the ruins of the 11th-century Dormition Cathedral” be privatized in principle? What about the Near and Far Caves? Cloistral walls? If you think these are emotions and fantasies, I urge you to read an addendum to Bill No. 9690. Party of Regions MP Vasyl Horbal, a co-sponsor of the bill and a member of the Presidium of the Inter-Council Presence of the Russian Orthodox Church, assured the Euronews channel that “it was not about privatization” and that such arguments were invented by those who had never read the bill. Nevertheless, the bill is aimed at precisely that – making all listed objects available for privatization, from the Gate Church of the Trinity (1106) to the buttressing wall of the Upper Lavra, from the Belfry (which is a landmark of Kyiv) to the sundial and the chapel standing over the crypt of a governor general. In a word, it is a large-scale scheme that will cause irreparable damage to Ukrainian culture and will inevitably aggravate both the civic and religious confrontation in the country.


Both pogroms – of museums and of the two lavras – are so impudent that the attention of the public concerned about culture had to be directed elsewhere. So at the exact time that the museums were being purged and the privatization of Old Rus’ masterpieces was being prepared, a number of media outlets uttered a concerted cry about ominous sects from which Ukraine allegedly had to be freed. The “sectarian threat” is a seasonal topic. It pops up before every election. MPs whip up a furore as they register asinine “antisectarian” bills and then quietly withdraw them, as did MPs Ihor Rybakov and  Vladyslav Lukianov last time. This topic can be twisted to fit anyone’s agenda, because both “misguided” Orthodox Christians and Evangelical Christians, whose brethren in faith are leaders of the world’s most developed countries, have been branded as “sectarians.” At the same time, this topic is mean, mendacious and doomed to failure.

It is mean because it is part of the overall strategy aimed at splitting the country. It is a tool and technology similar to well-timed despair over the Russian language, the UPA or NATO. It is mendacious because the targets of this year’s “winter campaign” are Evangelical Christians, Baptists and Christians of the Evangelical Faith who are no sectarians even according to an absolutely neutral sociological typology. The reason is that they do not escape from the world but want to improve it based on Evangelical foundations. They unite hundreds of millions of people in different countries (hundreds of thousands in Ukraine) and are active in political, economic, civic and cultural life. Here are a few figures. The Pentecostals, who are portrayed as a bugbear by newspapers, keep 18 orphanages and 6 family-type children’s homes and provide aid to 46 government-run boarding houses. They also finance 56 highly efficient rehabilitation centers for drug and alcohol addicts and pay for resort trips for over 10,000 orphans, children from underprivileged and large families. The list goes on.

In order to label these people (or other Protestants) “sectarians,” a person must have the same level of knowledge, legal awareness and conscience as Inna Bohoslovska who at one point earnestly questioned Oleksandr Turchynov about the canonicity of his “sect” before a stunned TV audience.

Finally, the antisectarian theme is doomed to failure. An attempt to set citizens against people of other faiths, “sectarians,” etc. crashes against Ukrainians' traditionally high religious tolerance which reaches back to the era of Kyiv Rus. Over 75% of the respondents polled by the Razumkov Center in 2011 believe that “any religion that proclaims the ideals of the good, love and mercy and does not threaten the lives of other people has the right to exist” and/or that “all religions have the right to exist as different ways to God.”

The takeaway from this campaign is as follows. First, the Strategy for Developing the Cultural Sphere, which Viktor Yanukovych urged to be elaborated in November 2011, is already being implemented. There will be no other. The text that will be published on official websites one day can be ignored – it will have nothing to do with reality.

Second, the only thing that can stop our national heritage from being embezzled, our society from being split, our citizens from being set against each other and interdenominational relationships from being aggravated is organized civil resistance. Ukraine’s churches and religious organizations have a special place in this movement. At one time, they were able to avert a large-scale interdenominational clash in Ukraine, reach certain understanding and even build real, albeit fragile, models of cooperation. They also succeeded in sustaining pressure exerted on parishioners to make them switch to another church. They did not keet intact the system of relations between the state and the church in Ukraine and preserved religious freedom which the current leadership attempted to destroy with special vigour throughout 2010. Similar or even bigger tests from the “friendly” government lie ahead.

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