Ukraine, whose ancient center, Kiev, is remembered as the primary location of the “Land of the Rus,’” has produced countless martyrs in testimony to its Christian Faith, rooted there over a thousand years ago. Now it is being tested by Russian protagonists desirous of annexing it, in part if not in whole.
Russia reached northward as history progressed; its capital now is Moscow. Therein we have come to meet not only the nation’s share of anti-heroes, some among them known for morally degenerate actions (Stalin is an unmistakable example), but others becoming almost prophetic voices for the world, writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Soloviev, Nicolai Berdyaev, and (closer to the present age) Alexandr Solzhenitsyn; scientists like Andrei Sakharov; theologians like Pavel Florensky and Georges Flovovsky.
Russia, a traditional view suggests, is not “Europe.” As George Weigel writes in his monumental biography of Karol Wojtyla, some Poles have suggested that “Asia begins at Prezemysl,” which lies on the farthermost eastern border of Poland. But by virtue of John Paul’s reading and reflection, Russia – as well as Ukraine – is definitely “Europe.” Indeed, John Paul often spoke about Europe’s breathing by virtue of two lungs; hence Russia and Ukraine form part of Europe. As Supreme Pastor of the Catholic (Universal) Church, therefore, his understanding of and ministry to Russia and Ukraine were concerns of pastoral outreach and not political in nature.
When the Holy Father today expresses sadness for the shadows that are darkening Russia and Ukraine (Kievan-Rus’), he is speaking the same divine message that Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima uttered, not simply by words but “by the goodness that emanates, like a precious balm,” because (as essayist Maurice Baring once put it) Father Zossima reflected “not only the teaching and the charity,” but also the accent and aura of love that is in the Gospels.” (The Brothers Karamazov)
Recall that Count Tolstoy, having given up his magnificent estate to the peasants, donned a garment of sackcloth and joined the ranks of the Bogoiskateli, those who were “in search of God.”
Russians and Ukrainians are still joining their ranks.
Meanwhile, recall the beginning of Act III of Moussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godounow. While snow is again falling, the village simpleton, alone in a forest overlooking the revolutionaries’ fires, laments in song: “The foe will come and blood will flow; let your tears flow, poor, starving people.”