Andrei Sheptytsky, Righteous Among the Nations and Politician

Olesia Stasiuk, ethnologist and director of the Holodomor Victims Memorial National Museum, discusses an exhibition at the museum in honor of Andrei Sheptytsky.

Iryna Slavinska:  You are listening to Hromadske Radio. My name is Iryna Slavinska, and this is a new episode of the Encounters program. I remind listeners that this project is focused on Ukrainian-Jewish relations, but in very broad terms. We talk about joint experiences of culture, historical experiences, and all the possible exchanges that one can imagine. My guest today is Olesia Stasiuk, general director of the Holodomor Victims Memorial National Museum. Hello.

Olesia Stasiuk:  Hello.

Iryna Slavinska:  Today we will be talking about a lot of things. It is difficult for me to define the topic of our conversation, but let’s begin by noting that this year Ukraine is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Andrei Sheptytsky. This is a very important date, as he is a very prominent figure in Ukrainian history. To begin, I would like to ask you to tell us a bit about this figure and then perhaps clarify why Andrei Sheptytsky is becoming such an important figure today in our narrative of history. I can’t recall that we celebrated him all that energetically in the earlier years of Ukrainian independence.

Olesia Stasiuk:  Yes, that’s true, we didn’t celebrate him. I would also like to add—perhaps you know—that this year the government created twenty named scholarships, each valued at 2,200 hryvnias per month, dedicated to national Ukrainian unity and enlightenment. I think that is why we proclaimed this year as the year of Andrei Sheptytsky and are discussing him so energetically. You know that Sheptytsky was born in Lviv. At the age of thirty-four he became a priest, and after his ordination he embarked on the moral revival of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He introduced very dynamic pastoral and enlightenment activities. He worked both in western Ukraine and in Canada, as well as in the United States, Europe, and Russia, in St. Petersburg. Andrei Sheptytsky is an extraordinarily great and important figure for Ukraine. He united the nationalities living in Ukraine, and he also took part in uniting the churches, which is also very important for us today. So that we too might have a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Iryna Slavinska:  In this context I cannot avoid mentioning a recent conversation, also from the Encounters series of programs, with Taras Voznyak, the Lviv-based culture expert. Mr. Voznyak and I discussed Lviv as a multinational city in which this kind of multiculturalism is inherent. I cannot fail to ask about this in the context of our conversation about Andrei Sheptytsky. Lviv—and generally western Ukraine, like all of Ukraine, but since we are situated currently in a more westerly direction, we will be talking separately about this—is truly a meeting place for people of absolutely different backgrounds, both in ethnic and religious terms. And, of course, this is obvious. There is no point even mentioning it. Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, and Armenians—people of all sorts of backgrounds, who were brought in or who lived the entire time in this city or this region. What is this national unification, this reconciliation, and, obviously, the creation of a political nation through Andrei Sheptytsky’s vision? What helped cement together people with such diverse backgrounds?

Olesia Stasiuk:  You know, his last activities, in 1942, during the Second World War, he wrote an appeal to the Ukrainian people. And in this appeal he says: “Do not kill, do not kill your brother.”  That is, his entire life was aimed at uniting peoples, so that there would be no fratricidal war or any other kind. It is also an interesting fact that, in addition to enlightening, pastoral activities, he was also involved in art. We are getting to know Andrei Sheptytsky a bit from a different side. He became an art patron in Lviv, and thanks to his support the National Museum in Lviv was established in that period. And the government has announced that an Andrei Sheptytsky Museum is now supposed to be built in Ukraine.

Iryna Slavinska:  A very interesting subject is the activities of Andrei Sheptytsky as an individual who rescued Jews during the Holocaust in Ukraine—what we call a Righteous Among the Nations. Officially, as far as I remember my conversation with the chief scholar of Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names, Andrei Sheptytsky is not recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations. Why is that? What is the Ukrainian vision of this process?

Olesia Stasiuk:  The process is ongoing, and I think that in the next few years Andrei Sheptytsky will be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations.

Iryna Slavinska:  Are there some things about him, this figure, which may hinder this? For example, there is a widely-circulated story about the welcome letter that Andrei Sheptytsky supposedly wrote in Hitler’s honor.

Olesia Stasiuk:  At the time, during the Second World War, many people were duped. Thus, at the beginning of the Second World War, in 1939, [the people of] western Ukraine, as we know, thought that they would be liberated from the Soviet occupation by Hitler, but very quickly Andrei Sheptytsky understood that this was even worse terror, that it was even worse than Soviet power. And he himself admitted that he had been duped, and he appealed to Ukrainians to unite and fight against the two countries [Nazi Germany and the USSR].

Iryna Slavinska: Right now, in this context, I imagine that listeners are wondering why we are discussing Andrei Sheptytsky. I am speaking with Olesia Stasiuk, general director of the Holodomor Victims Memorial National Museum. There is indeed a reason for this conversation. An exhibition entitled Our Hope Is in God has opened at the National Museum. Olesia, tell us how it is connected with Andrei Sheptytsky. What is this exhibition about, and what is the connection with the Holodomor?

Olesia Stasiuk:  On 29 July [2015] we all marked the 150th anniversary of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. He made a significant contribution to the international recognition of the Holodomor. Why did this exhibition arise? On 29 October 1933 memorial services were held in Ukraine, in western Ukraine, the first thanks to his support. A people’s assembly was held, condemning the starvation of Ukraine by the Soviet government. Saving themselves from the famine and seeking help, people fled over the Zbruch River [the Soviet border at the time—Ed.] and informed Ukrainians in western Ukraine, particularly Galicia and Volhynia, about what was taking place in Soviet Ukraine. And Galicia and Volhynia—mainly the Greek Catholic Church headed by Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky—became messengers of the world between Soviet Ukraine and the diaspora.

Iryna Slavinska:  And could the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church help, if it helped, people who were living in that part of Ukraine where the Holodomor was taking place?

Olesia Stasiuk:  The Western Ukrainian Bureau in Canada contacted the metropolitan with a request to raise his voice to the world about what was happening in Soviet Ukraine. And his reply was truly lightning-quick, and he issued a proclamation called “Ukraine in Death Throes.” It was translated into many European languages. I would like to mention that the metropolitan knew nine languages. And he contacted the nuncio in Warsaw with a request to translate [his appeal] into Italian. This also was done. And this appeal made a very, very significant and great contribution to the further dissemination of this information. The result of this was the founding of the Civic Relief Committee for Starving Soviet Ukraine in 1933 precisely in Galicia. It was comprised of thirty-five civic organizations. These organizations collected funds in support of the starving. They collected food that they could pass on, and the fundamental point was they disseminated truthful information. You know that the Soviet government denied the genocide and said that everything was fine: There is food, there is grain; on the contrary, we are even selling it. Of course, it was forbidden to send food, and it was forbidden to deliver it. The efforts were complex, but to the extent possible, whatever they could do there, near the Zbruch, they sent.

Iryna Slavinska:  In previous broadcasts of Encounters I have often spoken with various specialists, particularly historians, about a certain unity, if one can put it this way, of the various large-scale catastrophes that took place in the lands of Ukraine. Obviously, the first things that can be mentioned are the Holodomor, the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, and the Holocaust in Ukraine. Three immense catastrophes that took place in different times, but were similar to each other nonetheless. And, if I understand correctly, one of the ways of discussing these things is not by talking in an isolated fashion about each separate tragedy, but by examining them as a whole. After all, the Ukrainians, as a political nation, everyone experienced certain repercussions of these events. So, I can’t help asking you, the general director of the Holodomor Victims Memorial Museum, about this. What is your personal attitude to the idea of reflecting on the parallelisms between the various genocides in Ukraine?

Olesia Stasiuk:  This is in fact why we are talking about Andrei Sheptytsky. Because his activities are an example for us to unite around this issue, to talk about the various tragedies that were experienced by the Ukrainian people. This exhibition is an example of how to unite contemporary Ukraine, because at the present time this is very topical. No matter where we are, in the east, in the south, in the center, we should unite for the sake of our country’s wonderful future.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we cast a glance through the eyes of a historian, abstract ourselves away from modern life, take a look at the past, what lessons or perhaps experiences can be revealed to contemporary Ukrainians by looking into the history of the Holodomor, looking into the history of the Holocaust, looking into the history of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars?

Olesia Stasiuk:  I want to reply with the words of Andrei Sheptytsky with which he addressed the Ukrainian people during the national assembly in 1933, at the beginning of the First World War in 1914, and during the Second World War: “Ukrainian people, wherever you may be, oppose communism, atheism; unite. Whether it be Soviet Ukraine, western [Ukraine], or Ukrainians in the diaspora.”

Iryna Slavinska:  In today’s context, what can a museum that deals with the history of the Holodomor do to realize this exhortation?

Olesia Stasiuk:  Let’s begin with the fact that the museum has been renamed the Holodomor Victims Memorial National Museum.

Iryna Slavinska:  It must be mentioned that previously the plural form of the word “Holodomor” was used.

Olesia Stasiuk:  When we said “Holodomors,” for example, this neutralized the concept of the Holodomor itself, the actual name of the genocide against the Ukrainians, because on the judicial level and the legislative level the famines of 1921–23 and 1946–47 are not recognized as genocides. And when we talk about “Holodomors,” our opponents from Europe, from America, from Russia reproach us [by saying] that the Holodomor was not genocide. That is, you are setting yourselves up when you say that 1932–33 is the Holodomor, when you are naming the three Holodomors. That is why the first step was renaming the museum as the Holodomor Victims Memorial Museum, even though the main activities are the dissemination of information about the Holodomor, about the mass famines of 1921–23, 1946–47, as well as about other repressions and victims of the Stalinist regime. In fact, what work and plans does the museum have? They are the consolidation of the Ukrainian nation, the dissemination of truthful information both in Ukrainian society and abroad, and honoring the victims of the Holodomor and the mass famines and the victims of totalitarianism, so that nothing similar will ever happen again in the world.

Iryna Slavinska:  Do you exchange experience with foreign colleagues? While I was listening to you, I recalled a huge number of programs, both educational and outreach, which Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, has. Are exchanges with colleagues from other countries that have similar traumatic experiences taking place?

Olesia Stasiuk:  Yes, we are starting this work in September. There will also be trips to Ukraine, and our staff members will go there [abroad] in order to acquire more of their experience and to carry out joint projects.

Iryna Slavinska:  Do you mean trips to Yad Vashem?

Olesia Stasiuk:  A museum of the Holodomor and the Holocaust is being built in Yad Vashem and in Canada [sic]. We are also collaborating with the Holodomor Research and Educational Consortium [HREC, Canada].

Iryna Slavinska:  Speaking about the Holodomor, what commemorative strategies connected to such immense human catastrophes can be utilized? I mean already existing elaborations on speaking about other great tragedies.

Olesia Stasiuk:  For example, in speaking about the Holocaust tragedy and the dissemination of information about the Holocaust, we say that if the world had paid attention to the genocide in Ukraine in 1932–33, then something similar would not have happened. There would not have been a repetition of such a thing in history later. Our main work will be aimed at having the Holodomor recognized internationally as a genocide.

Iryna Slavinska:  To conclude, I cannot avoid asking what can be done in this regard. As I understand it, the Holodomor as genocide is a controversial topic. This topic was already raised during an interview for the Encounters project with Timothy Snyder. He also articulated some problematic aspects of recognizing the Holodomor as an act of genocide, although he himself, as a historian, considers this tragedy an act of genocide. What can you say about this?

Olesia Stasiuk:  In this regard I will say, yes, in foreign countries it is very difficult on the state level to acknowledge this question, but we are planning to continue working in this direction.

Iryna Slavinska:  Why is it difficult? What is the stumbling block? Where is it stopped?

Olesia Stasiuk:  I believe it is political will, above all political will. Then we must absolutely hold trials like the one that took place in Ukraine, which recognized the Holodomor as an act of genocide, and the culprits were identified. Such trials should also be held in both Europe and America because political will alone, a political decision alone, has no judicial force.

Iryna Slavinska:  Of course, any decision should lead to certain consequences. This is what I have been discussing with Olesia Stasiuk, general director of the Holodomor Victims Memorial National Museum. We began our conversation with Andrei Sheptytsky, who is regarded de facto as a Righteous Among the Nations. At present he has not been recognized as such by Yad Vashem, but perhaps he may be awarded this title in the future. I would like to remind you that this year Ukraine is celebrating the year of Andrei Sheptytsky, whose birthday 150 years ago is being marked by an immense number of events. We spoke about the exhibition Our Hope Is in God, which opens 29 July in the Holodomor Victims Memorial Museum. This is Iryna Slavinska, and you have been listening to the program Encounters. I remind listeners that this program is focused on Ukrainian-Jewish relations, our joint history, cultural exchanges, and translations of cultures. You are listening to Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.


Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.
Translated by Marta Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.