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Saturday, 31 March 2012

   Lubni had no street lighting, responsibility for which our driver laid at the door of corrupt local officials. After visiting a shop where my offer to pay for some cans of beer was brushed aside, we drove about a mile along a narrow, very bumpy dirt track, with dwellings on either side, to his older brother’s place. Some water was heated specially so that i could wash, then over beer and a glass or two of vodka we had a most interesting and amusing conversation, helped by the fact that my host was a keen football supporter. He showed me a photograph of him with his arms outstretched next to the Eiffel Tower in 1998, where he was following that year’s World Cup, and explained that this picture was the inspiration for Stephen Spielberg and the film ‘Titanic’ – no matter that, as i pointed out to him, the director of Titanic was James Cameron! And although Russian was his first language (likewise the other two), he very strongly identified himself as Ukrainian, and was a mine of information about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. When Russians use the preposition ‘na’ (on), rather than ‘v’ (in) Ukraine, it implies a certain condescension, as if they are discussing a region (the “frontier land”) rather than a fully independent country.* This is perhaps a vestige of the Tsarist Russian outlook, when Ukraine was referred to as “Little Russia” (NB i would strongly caution anyone against calling it that nowadays). But in Ukrainians’ view of Russia i was somewhat reminded of the attitude of Scotland towards England. Ukrainians feel that Russia would never have amounted to very much without them; not least they believe that Russia has repeatedly depended on Ukrainian arms for success in battle. Historically Russia’s Tsars traced their ancestry to the Princes of Kiev – and it’s even true that a disproportionate number of soviet rulers were Ukrainian or had strong Ukrainian links (cf. Krushchev, Brezhnev). The Ukrainian coat of arms, which appears on their coins and elsewhere, known as ‘St Vladimir’s Trident’, cements their identification with the aristocratic forbears of Russia. More contentiously, but nevertheless intriguing, my host was explaining to me that by virtue of this exalted lineage, Ukrainians consider themselves to be less Russian and more Scandinavian, descended from the Vikings**. On this reading, the blue and yellow of Ukraine’s flag, usually seen as representing golden crops under a blue sky, is actually supposed to deliberately echo the blue and yellow of Sweden’s national flag (more on this later).

   The next day, Divine Mercy Sunday, known as St Thomas Sunday in the Orthodox Church since the Gospel is Our Lord’s appearance to the ‘twin’, falling that year on the 1st of May, was the day when Pope John Paul II was beatified in Rome. It would be naive and unhelpful for Catholics to overstate the importance of the life and work of Karol Wojtyla, aka Pope John Paul II. One can’t simply proclaim him “Human Being of the Millennium” or “most important figure in the entire history of Europe”. All we can really say, without much fear of contradiction, is that he was the greatest man of the 20th century. Above all, this acclamation rests on the decisive part he played in administering a non-violent, Christian remedy to the infirmity of communist totalitarianism in eastern and central Europe. As St Joan of Arc was instrumental in delivering France from subjection to the English, so Blessed John Paul II was the primary agent in liberating Poland from the clutches of soviet Russia. This undertaking began in earnest at the moment when, addressing his countrymen as Pope for the first time at a Mass in Warsaw on June 10th 1979, he opened his homily with the words:

“Do not be afraid.”

To describe him as “a poor man’s Winston Churchill” is perhaps to get an inkling of the scale of his contribution to human history. More than anyone else, we have him to thank for warding off the threat posed to human civilization by the bomb – but in confronting this threat, he recognised the need to insist without compromise on the absolute sanctity of human life from the womb to the tomb.

*a parallel here is the tendency in English to refer to ‘the Ukraine’, the definitive article being more usually associated with regions than sovereign countries, hence better to refer simply to ‘Ukraine’.
**Rurik (died c. 879), inhabiting an almost Arthurian twilight zone between history and legend, is believed to have been a Varangian (Viking), who founded the dynasty which ruled Russia until the 17th century.

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