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Serge AApr 22, 2022 (0)
Most Ukrainians are Christian Orthodox much like most of Greece. As a matter of fact a religious reconstruction in Kyiv happened under the influence of the Greek Orthodox church in the 16th century. The clergy began this reform in hopes of modernising and synchronising all religious rituals to what was believed to be true in the nature of Orthodox Christianity. Of course, this followed by mass protests and the old-believers, as they were dubbed back then, were ostracised from society. As a result they lived separately, in segregated villages at their own will just to escape prosecution. The order of the government, back then heavily influenced by the church, tried forcing the people to follow renewed religious rituals. These measures were followed by internal separation of the people as well as many excessive and exacerbated measures from both the believers and those who tried to enforce these new rituals on the people. One must understand why people were not willing to forgo their usual ways of religious activities. What vastly separated the old-believers from the new, was a hefty impact of paganism with the old religious order. It is precisely due to paganism that the old-believers followed signs. The pre-reformed religious leaders instantaneously proclaimed that these changes are signs of acts of satan himself and began a rebellious long-lasting stand. In the end of this extraneous conflict, the old-believers coupled with hopelessness and fear that the devil is actually here on earth, started a ritual that would stain the pages of history books for many years to come - the ritual of self-immolation. This is when people decide to willingly burn themselves alive. The history of self-immolation continued through two centuries. At some point, the Czar ordered his army to stop pursuing the old-believers, but they just continued doing it nevertheless.
Many centuries ago Ukraine formed as the land of the people who wanted to live their own lives, practice their own religion, believe in whatever they wanted to believe and apply themselves as they wished. This of course included the old-believers. It is precisely south of Kyiv where most of the runaways went and formed a community called Zaporoz'ka Sich. It is here where the land was unclaimed and free of oppression and rule. These weren't only people who ran aways from religious prosecution - they were people who were wanted for their political views or people who no longer wanted to be slaves - yes, slaves as a matter of fact. Little is known in the west that slavery was practiced in the Russian Empire and these slaves were called Kristyani. These were people who were permitted to work the land owned by lords for a small amount of rations. Everything that they grew went to the lord. These people were beaten and abused and very often sent to wars to die as cannon meat. Does that sound familiar?
Ghopak with swords.
Youngsters demonstrate physical strength with Ghopak moves.
Sich wasn't an organized government by any means. These people lived in medium to small sized groups. Everyone who would find themselves to one of these places was welcomed but must have had the ability to apply themselves. The very top of the societal level of these villages were Kozaks - the Ukrainian warriors. They were very versatile in their own style of martial arts called Ghopak. The world had learned first about it as a Ukrainian dance. Masking these ancient martial art techniques as a dance was vital for its survival and inheritance for the future generations while under the Russian Czar and later Soviet oppression. It was practiced by combining personal physical ability and melee weaponry.
Ukraine is literally translated. This word means - the land near the edge, because it is precisely here where you can be free from the prying eyes of monarch control and pressure of religious obedience. It is here where people were given a choice. It is here when in time of others attempting to control these lands, the Kozaks fought and died for the ability to be who they wanted to be. As far as becoming a Kozak, one would have to earn it. No one was pushed into battle. After all, there had to be people who farmed and raised livestock. People who would mill wheat in time of harvest to make the bread and who kept the rear when the Kozaks fought. And they sure fought a lot. Centuries of wars with the Turks, Polish and the Orda lead by Chengishan. There is only one thing that has to be noted here. They never fought to capture or expand. They only protected what was theirs for one specific reason - to live the way they wanted.
Christianity was practiced differently here and that's what made this land, the land of the free. One of the most unique religious celebrations for the Ukrainian Christians is a holiday called Ivana Kupala. Scriptures of the first recorded celebrations date back to 1262, which is way before the 16th century of religious oppression. This specific holiday was freely observed here. It is a happy time, with people being together, jumping over fires while holding hands. The girls make head ornaments from flowers and it is believed that it is precisely during this time one can see the future. Take my word for it, it is a lot of fun and it is preserved in its full capacity precisely here in Ukraine.
Head ornaments from flowers worn by girls.
There is one holiday that Ukrainian Christians share with the religions of the three holy books and every branch of it - Easter. Easter is a huge deal for Ukrainians. We have special rituals - where a true believer must spend the whole night in church for service. In the morning the priest blesses the food basket that you have brought and you go home feasting. This is especially amazing as before spending the night in church you were fasting for forty days and now are given the opportunity to enjoy meat and alcohol, which is of course forbidden during the great fast. Ukrainians await Easter as this is the most important church holiday of the nation. It so happens that Easter of 2022 is during war, on our land, again as all those centuries before.
Priest doing the blessing with Holy Water.
Ukrainians were strongly advised not to assemble in a single place for this time. This means that it is unsafe to go to church for the night and stand there as you would for the whole night all those years before. The government advises of the danger of such a large collection of people in a single place as the Russians might use this as a way to hurt the Ukrainian civilians, just as they did in Kramatorsk. The government advises but under no circumstances forbids. This agains makes the free people of Ukraine feeling oppressed by yet another dictator trying to conquer his ambitions. We all know why we fight. We fight to retain and sustain our true nature of the love of freedom. It is most certain that too many people will not follow this advisory and show up to church in big masses and perhaps there will even be tragedy in the making. But, to a true believer, during a holiday as such, death isn't an argument to stay away. So this Sunday is Ukrainian Orthodox Church Easter. We will do our best.
Serge A is of Ukrainian descent, grew up in Brooklyn and is volunteering in Ukraine as a legally armed member of a Territorial Defense Group. He was a columnist for the newspaper at Pace University which he attended as an undergrad.
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