22.08.2009 | Halya Coynash

The Politics of Traditional Values


A seminar took place in Kyiv on 13 July – quietly, no political scandals or brawls. For all the lack of breaking news, it is a shame that the media and public paid virtually no attention to a truly surreal event, and the document which was enthusiastically discussed – the Ukrainian version of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights . One National Deputy [MP] was so taken with it that he has already submitted a draft Resolution to the Verkhovna Rada “On adopting a Verkhovna Rada Declaration on Human Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights”, based very closely on the “Basic Teachings”. All sounds delightful and entirely innocuous but hold fire with such conclusions.

How the organizers decided who to invite to the presentation of the “Basic Teachings” in Ukrainian on 13 July is not known. Certainly the organizations which make up the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union only learned of the event from the scant information in the press and a rather odd press release, apparently from the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Secretariat yet only, for some reason, in English. The event was co-chaired by the Metropolitan of Simferopol and the Crimea Lazar, and the Ombudsperson Nina Karpachova, who stated that the document was “of civilization significance”. The Ombudsperson’s comments in general suggest that the staggering dissonance between the “Basic Teachings” and Ukraine’s constitutional norms and the human rights which she is called upon to defend bothers her no more than it does Kolisnychenko.

The event was also attended by former President Leonid Kuchma, the above-mentioned National Deputy, some highly-placed public officials, a representative of the UN who was there for less than 2 hours and did not take part (there being no simultaneous translation) and some representatives of human rights organizations, including from Amnesty International in Ukraine.

This “document of civilization significance” was thus by no means only discussed by representatives of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. We can hope that parliament will deal swiftly with Mr Kolishnychenko’s draft resolution which would render meaningless more than one constitutional norm, yet the enthusiasm of some and silence of others can only bemuse.

I normally like to look up quotes given from the Gospels or other texts. It’s as though for a fleeting moment or two you are sharing a path which is otherwise long and lonely. Yet here the words are the same and yet the path and landscape seem quite different. Christ who spoke to each individual has somehow disappeared and we’re left with only sin on which human dignity is directly dependent. And what we should understand as sin, and therefore, what is needed for purification, also arouses serious reservations. One has the impression that moral purity depends effectively on sexual orientation and behaviour, on being law-abiding, etc. It is not only Christ of the Gospels who seems of little interest to the authors, but also the weakness and bitter repentance of Peter who indeed “before the rooster crowed twice” denied Christ three times (Mark 14:71-72) Strange lack of interest for any society, church or in fact for any individual from a post-Soviet country.

It is hard not to recall Soviet times since the accusations against “the West” and some unnamed, yet of course dangerous human rights norms are painfully familiar. Whether they really have got the essence of human rights so catastrophically wrong I would not like to say, however unfortunately the reader of this document can get seriously confused. If I wax indignant and begin arguing why vegetarians are not deviants, many readers will decide that somebody really made such an absurd accusation. When we read the following: “Human rights cannot be superior to the values of the spiritual world” not everybody will think to ask who precisely suggested anything to the contrary. Or, even more nonsensical: “Human rights cannot be a reason for coercing Christians into violation of God’s commandments”.

            Something obviously mesmerized the Ukrainian public officials however it can hardly have been the power of argumentation. It remains unclear to the end what exactly is seen as wrong with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms aside from Soviet clichés about everything “from there” being bad. We read, for example: “Some civilizations ought not to impose their own way of life on other civilizations under the pretext of human rights protection. Human rights activity should not be used to serve the interests of particular countries”. All of this is so reminiscent of the evermore aggressive rhetoric coming from Russian imperialists that one is appalled at the obvious desire evinced by Vadim Kolisnychenko and the Human Rights Ombudsperson to join in that chorus. The National Deputy got totally carried away with his criticism: “the contemporary system of so-called “universal human rights”, reflected in the majority of international documents and enshrined in the Constitution and a number of laws of Ukraine, was formed largely on the basis of the liberal-protestant western tradition with its inherent human-centeredness and extreme individualism, does not work properly on Ukrainian soil.”

            Some words have, most regrettably, taken on some kind of magic force. Like the expression “traditional values” which all politicians and public officials, including the Human Rights Ombudsperson, are hurtling to defend, yet in no hurry to define, or at very least itemize. Under the present regime in the Russian Federation, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate [ROC MP] is more and more actively consolidating its position as the “State religion”. Yet what about in Ukraine where there are a considerable number of followers of different denominations or faiths, as well, of course, as non-believers? , Is concern about their rights to be considered the “corrupting influence of the West”? Those citizens have all grounds for asking who they should turn to when they read that “the Human Rights Ombudsperson Nina Karpachova noted the relevance and need to understand human rights from the church point of view. She assured her listeners that her position coincided with the position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [of the Moscow Patriarchate]”

            The claim, made on many occasions in the “Basic Teachings” that the concept of sin and virtue, as opposed to that of human rights, is unchanging has no substance to it. Even if we look only at different Christian denominations, there is no united position on a number of the issues which the ROC MP is entirely categorical about. It is not so much human rights that the “Basic Teachings” are so vehemently against, as the principles of life in a pluralist democracy where you can’t foist your own understanding of sin on others. The authors don’t find this to their liking however they should not resort to wild exaggeration, oversimplification of complex life situations and fairytales about persecution or coercion of believers. Nobody would force a believer to commit what he or she considers a sin. However not everybody has the same view. Have we really not all suffered enough from regimes foisting their “one and only truth”?

There are some lessons that the ROC MP leadership stubbornly refuse to learn. In the “Basic Teachings” individual rights are subordinate to those of the group, and the individual is effectively just a component part of the whole which he or she should serve. We do not know when the authors of the document and their Ukrainian supporters last read the Gospels, however it is difficult to rid oneself of the feeling that for them Christ’s words should also take second place to political interests. For all the absurdity of the reference to the Book of Genesis which is talking of God’s creation of a female companion for Adam, there is more that is sinister than comical in the following:

Human rights should not contradict love for one’s homeland and neighbours. The Creator laid down in human nature the need for communication and unity, saying, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18)

“One’s human rights cannot be set against the values and interests of one’s homeland, community and family”

And when the regime uses tanks against its own citizens as in 1991, or to crush civilians of “brother nations” as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968? Valery Marchenko, Vasyl Stus, Yury Lytvyn and Oleksa Tykhy died in a political labour camp where they’d been sent for “anti-Soviet activities”. Following the logic of the “Basic Teachings” which reflect the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, they all should have been silent about the stifling of freedom, oppression of their people and about the crimes of the regime. Silence, it would seem, is not just golden, but a positive virtue.

With such views it is totally clear why relations between the ROC MP and the Russian authorities are blooming however it would be good to hear, this time without rhetoric or hypnotic mantras, where the Ukrainian Ombudsperson and a deputy of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada saw the “civilization significance” in such a view. Have they so forgotten the recent past as to not be disturbed by the following?

“Public speeches and statements must not promote the spread of sin, perpetuate discord or disorder in society”.

Who is to decide what promotes such things, and what to do with people who don’t agree with such judgments? The questions are clearly rhetorical. It will all be decided by the regime which the Moscow Patriarchate, this time quite voluntarily, is serving.

However who those public officials in Ukraine that not only praised the “Basic Teachings”, but are trying to “incorporate them into the public life” of democratic Ukraine, are serving is anything but a rhetorical question.

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