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Russification through the church

Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate. Archival photo: ukrinform,ua
Russification through the church
Article by: Oleksandr Havrosh
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

A solemn evening program marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was held in Uzhhorod recently. In 1517, the Catholic monk Martin Luther nailed his famous theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. Since then, Europe has gone through the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and terrible religious wars before finally recognizing the right to freedom of religion. Today, of the 2.5 billion Christians in the world, about 60%  are Catholics, 28% are Reformed, 12% are Orthodox. It is interesting that in the Zakarpattia Oblast (Tanscarpathia) there is room for all of them.

At the solemn event with the wonderful slogan “From the reformation of the Church to the renewal of the country,” representatives of almost all the Reformed denominations of the Zakarpattia Oblast took part: Baptists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Adventists, Hungarian Reformers, who are followers of the teachings of Calvin, and others. They all noted that one of the main achievements of the Reformation was the possibility of reading the Bible in their native language.

Before Luther, the Holy Scripture was written in Latin and was practically inaccessible for most illiterate people. Martin Luther began his activism with the translation of the Bible into German. The translation of the Bible led to worship services in the native language, which gave a huge impetus to the development of national cultures, languages, literatures, and education. Eventually, it forced the Catholic world to change as well, and in the 20th century it also began to use national languages in church liturgies.

New Christian denominations remain sources of Russification

Unfortunately, 500 years after Luther’s righteous appeal to communicate with people in their native language, the Zakarpattia Oblast still remains a center of archaism and backwardness. This is true even among the same Reformed denominations that consider the Bible a handbook. While Hungarians in Catholic and Reformed churches pray in Hungarian, quite a few Reformed churches read the Bible in Russian, even in the mountain villages. In other words, a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which created one Soviet people that used Russian to communicate, the more recent Christian denominations have remained Russificators of the new generations. And this is happening in regions where almost no Russian is heard in the villages or regional centers. Visitors are the only exception. National and linguistic divisions are rare among the residents of Zakarpattia. Some 98% say their native language is the same as their nationality.

While Viktor Khrypta, bishop of the Evangelical Churches in Ukraine, states that the transition to Ukrainian language services is taking place steadily and that most communities are already praying in Ukrainian, Vasyl Raichynets, senior presbyter of the Union of Free Churches of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, sees nothing strange in the fact that his brothers and sisters are praying in Russian. On regional TV broadcasts, he himself gives interviews in Russian, which is not the native language for the absolute majority of Transcarpathians. Evidently, 500 years of Reformation was not enough to comprehend Luther’s testament. Or perhaps he considers Russian more understandable than the Ukrainian language, which Transcarpathians use to obtain their education and to converse at various levels.

Ukrainians continue to pray in a dead or foreign language

There is no room for the native language in the communities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate. This is the largest religious denomination in the Zakarpattia Oblast, with about 570 places of worship (40% of the total number). Church services and the reading of the Bible are conducted in Church Slavonic, which has been a dead language for a thousand years. Nobody speaks it. With 336 churches, the Mukachevo Greek Catholic Diocese is the second largest denomination. It is not part of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church but is directly subordinate to the Vatican. Worship services are held in four languages: Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and Romanian Most of the communities pray in Church Slavonic, although sermons and the reading of the Bible are conducted in Ukrainian. The Greek Catholics pray in Ukrainian in 80 churches, primarily in Verkhovyna district. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church also hold services in Ukrainian, and together have some 10 churches.

In this fashion, the living national language that Christians should be using to address God in one of the most religious regions in Ukraine is practically excluded from active use in the houses of worship. In the Zakarpattia Oblast, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and Germans have benefitted perfectly from Martin Luther’s thinking, but not Ukrainians. Ukrainians continue to pray in a dead or foreign language. Why?

Oleksandr Havrosh, a native of Uzhhorod, is a Ukrainian writer, poet and journalist, and a regular contributor to Ukrainian and local publications.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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