Gina Christian

Some of the first words I heard regarding Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine were those of Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak, head of Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S.

During a phone interview from Paris, where he was attending meetings when Russian forces launched their Feb. 24 attacks, the archbishop simply said – with stark, biblical clarity – “Ukraine is being crucified.”

I have never forgotten those words. And I never will.

This past week, exactly six months after that call, I stood in a crowd of more than 300, watching as the flag of Ukraine was lifted at Philadelphia’s City Hall to mark the war-torn nation’s Aug. 24 Independence Day. While the iconic blue and gold bands unfurled in the breeze, I heard another statement that will stay with me forever.

“Nations who are independent for many years, for centuries, do not understand as we do how fragile independence is,” said Mariana Karapinka, the chief communications officer for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia.

She knew firsthand: she had been born in Ukraine when it was still part of the former Soviet Union, which fell when she was 10 years old. 

“I came into the kitchen in the morning, and my mom said, ‘Now we are free,’” she recalled.

But liberty is intolerable to an authoritarian regime like that of Russia; even the prospect represents too great a threat, which is why dissent is fiercely silenced. Those who oppose Russian president Vladimir Putin and his administration often find themselves poisoned, as did Alexander Litvinenko and Alexei Navalny; shot, as was Boris Nemtsov; or jailed, as are Navalny and, since Feb. 24, more than 16,400 Russians who have protested the war, according to the human rights organization OVD-Info.

In this nation, we largely take freedom for granted; Karapinka told me she almost wished she could spend her country’s Independence Day at a lighthearted barbeque, but the war precluded that – and indeed, I wonder if she and the global Ukrainian community will ever be able to observe the occasion so blithely.

And that’s because they know all too well what’s at stake – just as Christ knew all too well what was at stake when he stretched out his arms on the cross. The battle lines had been drawn in eternity, and – to quote Ukrainian Catholic activist Josyp Terelya, long imprisoned by Soviets – “there can be no detente with the devil.”

From the earliest days of the current invasion – which continues Russian attacks launched in 2014 with the attempted annexation of Crimea and the backing of separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk – Archbishop Gudziak and his fellow Ukrainian Catholic bishops have said this war is one of profound moral clarity, an existential fight between good and evil. 

The same observation has been made by secular analysts, who have roundly disproven claims that Russia attacked Ukraine to counter NATO expansion or to “rescue” Russian-speaking Ukrainians from nonexistent “neo-Nazis.” 

Indeed, the Putin regime has – in the textbook manner of sexual and domestic violence abusers – projected all of its dysfunction onto Ukraine, blaming the victim for the atrocities of which Russia, as the sole aggressor here, is guilty.

Every single day, Russian forces summarily target, execute, rape, torture, detain and deport Ukrainian civilians – including infants and children – while stealing their property and ravaging Ukrainian infrastructure and land. New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights have, in a joint report, documented that Russia’s campaign qualifies as genocide according to the terms defined in the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which both Russia and the U.S. are signatories.

The Putin administration has endangered Europe and indeed the world through its reckless seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (Europe’s largest), forcing its Ukrainian staff to work at gunpoint, and shelling the area relentlessly. On Aug. 24, the plant was briefly and for the first time disconnected from the power grid, risking what Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky called a “radiation disaster.”

Russia’s war has placed an estimated 44 million in 38 countries at risk for hunger, by trapping wheat and other cereal grains destined for export from Ukraine.

As if such crimes were insufficient, Russia’s massive propaganda machine – described by the Rand Corporation as a “firehose of falsehood” – sows lies and confusion worldwide in multiple languages, including English, Spanish and Arabic, seeking to obscure its genocide of Ukrainians.

With the full evil of Russia’s regime revealed, Ukraine is indeed being crucified. 

And Ukraine knows exactly what freedom means, and why compromise is impossible. Placating an aggressor who has repeatedly insisted that “Russia has no borders” will only invite more violence, as anyone who has tried to make concessions with an abuser (myself included) can affirm.

But in Ukraine’s crucifixion, and at unspeakable cost to the Ukrainian people, is a revelation of hope for humanity.

As Archbishop Gudziak noted in a recent interview, Ukrainians – with their very blood – attest that “there is something after death, there is something more important than my life. I have faith in God, I have faith in truth, and that truth is lifegiving and it is life.”

Christ himself made manifest that very conviction, surrendering his body as an offering to the Father that we might be set free from sin and its slavery. 

There can therefore be no “comfortable Christianity” because there can be no other choice except that between life and death (Deuteronomy 30:19) – and to choose life always, though our fallen flesh detests the exigency, requires sacrifice.

As Ukrainians continue to witness to lasting truth, may we embrace the divine gift of authentic freedom and all of its attendant responsibilities – and may we have the courage to join Ukraine at the cross, knowing we shall ultimately rejoice in the Resurrection.

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina