Ukrainians in Pittsburgh area yearn for democracy, but worry about safety, stability


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The Rev. Vasyl Polyak arrived in the United States from western Ukraine last week, hoping to learn more about ministering in a democratic society and gain experience he eventually can take back to his native land.

He said the recent revolution and military confrontation with Russia grow out of the nation's same desire for democracy and rule of law. But with his country in tumult and Russia occupying its Crimea region, his more immediate concern is for its safety and stability.

"I worry about my country, I worry about my family and I pray for them," said Father Polyak, who is currently based at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of SS. Cyril and Methodius on Perrysville Avenue as he prepares to do parish work here.

"Freedom is a gift from God," he added. "If God gave us freedom, nobody can take it, but if somebody would like to take it, it would be stealing. It's a sin."

Similar hopes and fears are being voiced by other area Ukrainians and Americans with close ties to Ukraine -- the ancestral roots to thousands of residents and scores of churches in the Tri-state region.

"Right now Ukraine is going on a pilgrimage from the empire of fear to the kingdom of dignity," said the Rev. Yuriy Sakvuk, head of the pastoral department at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. He spoke in an interview earlier this week during a visit that included talks at parishes in Pittsburgh and at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Although Lviv is far to the west in Ukraine, Father Sakvuk and many Ukrainian Catholic University students and faculty traveled to Kiev to join the demonstrators in recent months, protesting the decision by since-deposed president Viktor Yanukovych to tilt toward Russia and away from the country's strengthening of ties with the European Union.

Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic priests joined with the demonstrators, who "were happy to see people with cassocks," Father Sakvuk said. "They were inspired that the church is with us."

Fathers Polyak and Sakvuk belong to branches of Eastern Catholicism, which follow Orthodox-style liturgies while being loyal to papal authority and Catholic dogma. In their home region of western Ukraine, the population supports closer ties with the European Union. Both are married with children back home, as is common for Eastern Catholic priests in Europe, and while they are far from Crimea or other trouble spots, they are concerned about growing instability.

Their concerns also are also shared by Ukrainian Orthodox, with historic roots in Kiev.

The Rev. Steve Repa of St. Peter and St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie said he has often visited relatives and friends in Ukraine and fears for their safety -- and economic security, given the destabilizing effect of the unrest on the value of local currency.

"Ukraine historically has always been Cinderella," Father Repa said, citing its historic subjugation by the Soviet Union and other powers. "She got the inheritance and title" to independence but also the "wicked stepmother with her daughters."

The country is often described as divided between a pro-Russian population, allied with political movements and churches in eastern Ukraine, and nationalist Ukrainians to the west. Some are hoping the country can forge unity out of the current crisis.

"We have a big wall, maybe not like Germany, but culturally it's the same," said Father Polyak. "Now it's a very good opportunity to destroy this cultural wall."

Fueling the revolution is citizen disgust with pervasive corruption, say those involved.

"This is not political revolution. This is revolution of dignity," said Father Sakvuk.

Added Father Repa: "You have to pay everybody off in order to do something or buy something. Corruption is the rule, not the exception."

Alexander Sich, a professor of physics at Franciscan University of Steubenville who lived and worked several years in Ukraine, helping on the Chernobyl cleanup and other nuclear-related projects, was scheduled to travel there on Thursday and has been keeping close tabs on events through the Internet with his contacts there.

"People may think the Ukrainians are looking to the West to be their saviors," he said. "They're not. They don't want to run into the arms of the West. There's lots of things they don't like about the West. But what they really do believe in is Western ideals" such as "human rights, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of movement."

What Ukrainians do want from the West is strong moral support.

"When they see the West vacillating and see a strong [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, they're kind of wondering, 'West, do you guys actually believe the ideals you keep espousing?' " Mr. Sich said.

Father Sakvuk said Ukrainians "don't want to be enemies to anyone, even to Russia. They want to be friends with Russia. They want to be good neighbors."

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, is scheduled to hold a discussion on events in Ukraine at 9:30 a.m. today in the lower hall of St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 200 Walnut St., Carnegie. The event will include leaders of area Ukrainian parishes and organizations.


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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