‘As long as her hands are held up in prayer, the city will not fall’: Russia's invasion of Ukraine
The past few days have been surreal. We have tried to reflect on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At first, we could not. We had no words. We were paralyzed – not so much with fear, but with the inability to think or feel.
In our paralysis, one of our members thought, by way of sheer free association, of the story of St Elias’ Church in Brampton, Ontario. It had burned to the ground in 2014. Another member of our fellowship says he distinctly remembers being on the Maidan in Kyiv when he read that it had happened. Thankfully, the cause of the fire turned out not to be malicious – there was of course unfounded speculation because of the timing – though its effects were no less devastating for its congregation. Though it had nothing to do with the Maidan, the opportunity for parallel theological reflection was also striking.
After two years, St Elias’ members rebuilt their building. At the consecration of the new building in 2016, Patriarch Sviatoslav explained in his homily why he had personally come. He said that as soon as he heard that the temple had burned down in 2014, he had then flown over to Brampton to be with its devastated membership. Then and there, he promised that when the temple was rebuilt, he would personally return to consecrate it. Then he returned to Ukraine. He realized upon returning that he did not know if he would even be alive for much longer, let alone return to Canada. Following the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan in 2013-4, pro-Russian forces in Crimea and Donbas, backed by the Russian military, declared these regions to be independent of the Ukrainian state and the civil society that had been mobilized, which they framed as ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘fascist.’ The war that is finally now recognized as an invasion in the last few days started then, eight years ago. Even then, the Patriarch recognized that – with the leaders and people of Ukraine framed as ‘fascists’ and with the long-standing slur against our church as ‘uniate’ – he might not have long to live.
But Patriarch Sviatoslav did come back for the consecration in 2016. He said in his homily that he had been comforted during the dark days because of the Oranta that stands in the apse of St Sophia’s Cathedral, the Mother of God with her hands held high in prayer. There is a legend, he told the congregation, that as long as her hands are held up in prayer, the city will not fall. Though it is a popular formulation in our church, it was the first time that this member of our fellowship heard that story.
It is now Kyiv that burns, and our Patriarch is there, living in a bomb shelter with our people. The war that started in 2014 continues now, intensified by a full-scale invasion beyond Crimea and Donbas and into Kyiv, via Chornobyl, itself. The story that the Patriarch told of the upraised arms of the Oranta will, it seems, be put to the test. Will the city fall? the question seems to be.
As we reflect as a fellowship, we think about how the story of the Oranta and her Protecting Mantle has a presence in our work in Chicago as well. There is in fact an icon of the Protecting Mantle of the Theotokos covering St Nicholas’ Cathedral, with which Patriarch Sviatoslav blessed the eparchy on one of his visits. In 2020, another one of our members joined a demonstration for Black Lives Matter. Taking the banner of the Theotokos to the protest, he found himself in a situation when the mayor of the city, who favored a violent crackdown on dissent, closed the bridges that led downtown, effectively trapping those crying out for justice in a confrontation with militarized police. For this member of our fellowship, clinging on to the Protecting Mantle of the Theotokos reminded him of his time on the Maidan in Kyiv in 2013-4, when armed police also violently attacked those gathered in the square to demand a Revolution of Dignity.
As we watch Kyiv under attack by Russian forces, all of these memories that we have personally experienced in the life of our global church flood back, whether or not they are directly relevant. In our own cities, the story of the Protecting Mantle of the Theotokos has become familiar to us. As we weep over the city of our mother church, we find ourselves called to reflect on what our faith in this sign actually means. Does it really mean that built infrastructure will not actually burn to the ground? Does it mean that those who dream of a society built on a foundation of justice will not still be locked in confrontation with militarized forces with a real threat to their lives? Does it mean that if the city is really taken, then our faith will have been in vain?
In our reflections, we muse that Kyiv as a city has in fact fallen many times since the Oranta’s hands have been raised – to the Mongols, to the Poles, to the Tsarists, to the Soviets. Now Putin’s forces are there too. Ukrainians are valiantly defending the city, the government leadership is all still there, and our Patriarch calls for action from the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection there as well.
We cannot predict the future. We do not know if Kyiv will fall to Putin’s forces. But our reflection is that the question of whether the city will fall depends on what we mean by the city. Is the city just the buildings, the temples, the infrastructure? Those are now being shelled, bombed, and set on fire. The death toll on all sides now runs into the thousands.
But is this really all that the city is, all that Kyiv stands for? We draw strength as we contemplate the history of Ukraine. Colonized by empire after fallen empire, Ukrainians have maintained a sense of peoplehood, democratic self-governance, and multicultural civil society even in exile, diaspora, and the underground. The editors of The Nihilist, a magazine of critical social justice bent in Ukraine, remind us that what is worth defending in Kyiv – and Ukraine, more generally – is a society that has become more open in its more formal attempts to implement structures of democracy. Ukraine, the theorist Slavoj Žižek reminded the readers of the London Review of Books just as the invasions began in 2014, reminds Europe of everything Europe wishes it actually were: an open society marked by the practices of democratic deliberation and social justice. It is for these reasons that our Patriarch now calls for an armed defence of the city. What is being defended is not just what is visible. It is also the spirit of Ukraine as a democratic people where dreams of glory manifest in the open emergence of a deliberative civil society with institutions marked by the rule of law, fair economic distribution, and multicultural recognition.
This city – the Kyiv of the underground, with its social dream to formalize itself into the structural institutions of a visible urban society, accompanied by churches that bear the arms of the Mother of God high in prayer just like Aaron and Hur did for Moses as the Israelites faced down the Amalekites – has never fallen. This city, we joyfully affirm, is not one claimed by any single church. It is open to friends and neighbours of all religions, traditions, and spiritual practices, as a democratic, deliberative, and diverse civil society should be. Its theological origins should not constrict its development. But the openness of this society, we also note, remains theologically constituted, its dreams shot through with a story that presumes that the human person is fundamentally a moral being whose deepest desire is justice and care for one’s neighbour, such that the wellbeing of the other is integral to the health of one’s own self.
In the spirit of our Patriarch’s own contemplations of what he calls Kyivan ‘sophianic civilization,’ we are reflecting as a fellowship on this more hidden understanding of Kyivan urban life as the gift of the Theotokos. In the theological terms of our tradition, the reason we understand the Oranta as the guarantor that Kyiv cannot fall and will not fall is because Kyivan spirituality has received her Protecting Mantle as a sign of our conversion. In times past before the baptism of Ukraine in 989, it is we who were the aggressor, our pirates threatening the holy city of Constantinople. There in the Church of Blachernae, St Andrew Fool-for-Christ saw the Theotokos descend from the dome and walk to the ambo. Tearfully, she took off her mantle and threw it over the people. With that, the city was saved – and a century later, we too were converted from invading aggressors to a people whose works are marked by institutions of social justice and a culture of peaceful deliberation.
The sign of the Oranta in St Sophia’s Cathedral points to this conversion, our own passage from darkness to light, our turning away from the immoral values of greed and the desire to possess the other toward a moral vision in which we seek justice, peace, freedom, and dignity for all. The city that has come to stand for this social dream of ours, Kyiv herself, now burns. But what makes up Kyiv, just like our experience in the cities around the world where the members of our fellowship find themselves located, are the people – indeed, the heroes – who will not die. Even if the city physically burns to the ground and even if the civil society that Ukrainians have worked to build since the Maidan goes into the underground – and even if our own church must go back into the catacombs, like we did after the Pseudo-Synod of Lviv in 1946 until we were freed by the end of the Soviet Union – the city will not have fallen. Our faith in the Protecting Mantle of the Theotokos is part of the spirituality of our Kyivan Caves. From the beginning of our Kyivan Church, our monastics lived underground. They were not driven there by imperial forces. They went there because it is as if they were joining the Theotokos in her Dormition, in the falling asleep of her body in preparation for her rising to new life.
If the body of the one whose mantle protects us was herself once buried in a grave, then the meaning of a city that will not fall takes on new theological significance. In our experience of many imperial invasions – including this one – our people have been scattered the world over, rendered stateless as refugees, and lived as exiles in our global diaspora. Our institutions have time and again been driven beneath the earth as if to join the Theotokos in her Dormition. But heroes never die. We have always maintained the civil society we have dreamed of since the time of our conversion, and we will continue to do so in the face of this invasion. The falling asleep of the Mother of God was not her end. It was her beginning. Just as she rises from the grave to new life, we will rebuild the visible city from the ashes of its trauma. The shattering of our dreams in the night will lead to a day when we will bring them to fulfillment. Just as we have come out of the underground and rebuilt before, so we will do so again.
As a fellowship, we thus join in the calls for prayer for an end to war and in the calls for action for a robust defence of Ukraine against military invasion. But as people of faith and social justice, we also know that as long as the hands of the Oranta are held high, the city will also never fall. This conversion of ours must be worked out in fear and trembling. The mothers and fathers of our underground tradition maintained the dream of a socially just society that we have seen glimpses of in our Revolution of Dignity. The vision of a democratic, deliberative, and diverse social order is what has kept us going in the face of violent repression in the many cities of our global diaspora. Our faith therefore demands that we support the defense of Ukraine by any means necessary. Most Holy Theotokos, save us.