Easter in Ukraine
By: Constantin Sigov
April 14, 2022
Constantin Sigov, Ukrainian philosopher and director of the European Center at the University of Kyiv, has decided to stay in Ukraine as a witness. In this interview he reflects on the time he left the USSR, the war in Ukraine, and what Easter means at this critical time.
Sigov is director of the European Center for Research in the Humanities at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and consultant on religious questions for the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience.
My brother and I were not baptized as children. My parents were scientists, my mother taught mathematics, and my father held a university chair in computer science. His father, my grandfather, was also great scientist, director of the Kyiv Institute of Physics. I came to faith over time and with a particular appetite. My generation was hungry to read the Bible because we had not had access to these texts during our childhood. Because of Soviet censorship, the Bible was banned from publication in the USSR. It was even forbidden to possess copies. But we were able to find them somehow.
One day in the 1980s, when I was in my twenties, I was able to leave the USSR, thanks to a student exchange with Prague and Bratislava (Czechoslovakia at the time). When I arrived, I rushed to a church. That's actually the first thing I did! Learning that I was from Kyiv, the priest offered me a Bible. That’s the greatest gift I've ever received and since then I’ve been able to share it with other people. I immersed myself in it immediately, but it's obviously not a book that you read in a week. To have a personal copy, with notes and bookmarks—that is to say, to nourish a constant dialogue with the text or, as Paul Ricoeur writes, to "understand oneself before it"—took me several years. This was just before the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. I asked for baptism two years later, as perestroika was underway. My wife, son and I were baptized the same day. My mother followed our example, and then it was my father's turn. At that time, it was not the parents who proposed the option to the children but the opposite...
I also owe much to St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, "the house of houses.” I can spend hours there. It's very beautiful, very quiet, and always more or less empty. Contemplating the mosaics of the eleventh century evokes in me a familiar, almost a "family" emotion. I strongly feel that all this beauty is the expression of the absolutely infinite universe, like the mosaics of Ravenna, Venice, Constantinople, and Rome. Everything is connected. The masters of Constantinople came to Kyiv to produce the mosaics of the cathedral and the very name of "Sofia" refers to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, with its massive dome.
This space of mosaics and frescoes tells a striking and breathtaking story that I cannot pull myself away from, a little like when you are captivated by your favorite television series. I could evoke their exceptional dramaturgy and wonderful beauty, which contrasted so much with the Soviet surroundings. But my attachment was less the product of a contrast with the ugly Soviet so-called art than the fruit of amazement and wonder, a human emotion before nature transfigured by space, light, and sonority. Hagia Sophia has always been like an embassy of another realm. In Soviet times, we wanted to know more about this realm before us, for which the biblical text constituted its very space and topology.
Another work was decisive for me, a brilliant work of the nineteenth century artist Nikolai Gay entitled "What is truth?” It represents Pilate, his figure illuminated, at the moment when he asks the famous question of Jesus, who stands in the shadows. In the midst of the war and all the manipulations of the truth that we have witnessed over several years, with the Kremlin's propaganda and its refusal not only to judge Soviet crimes but also to rehabilitate the memory of the Stalinist period, this question has become extremely topical today. Some interpreters hear an irony in the words of this Roman military officer, much like when Stalin derided the Vatican's military strength by asking: "How many divisions does the pope have?" I believe Pilate is troubled and poses the question sincerely. Perhaps he senses that a mistake is going to be made and that the enigmatic person of Jesus both attracts him and challenges him. Observing the canvas, I can hear the silence that descends after his question.
The painting depicts the answer solely on the face of Jesus; there is no discourse or definition of the truth. Jesus is content to look at the one who faces him, who has the power and who cannot dispense with violence. Whoever exercises violence is deprived of the truth, not only because he bears responsibility for murder, but also because he denies himself access to the truth. He blocks it. Instead of light and life, he chooses violence and death. This is a fatal mistake.
"I am the Way, the Truth and the Life," Christ says. If we do not try to heal our language, all the institutions of the world, including the most ancient, will be compromised. While some begin a work of liberation, refusing collaborations that risk turning into the kind familiar from the Second World War, others remain servile, slaves of the tyrant who continually offers the world the spectacle of his tyranny. Bombs are raining down on Kyiv and Ukraine. Hell is a serious thing, not emotional, not sentimental. It is not a slogan. The one who cold-bloodedly dropped bombs on a maternity ward in the middle of the night seems to have come out of the Inferno of Dante, who, as we know, was not a sentimental author. This military was equipped with a sophisticated telescope that allowed it to aim in the dark, but it was blind.
What is truth? Where is it? In the struggle that is currently taking place, we are called to make clear choices. Pascal wrote five centuries ago: "It is a strange and long war in which violence tries to oppress the truth. All the efforts of violence cannot weaken the truth, and only serve to raise it further. All the lights of truth can do nothing to stop the violence and can only irritate it even more.” Unlike Pascal, who affirmed the triumph of truth in the balance of his reflection, we cannot allow ourselves such assurances at the present moment. In fact truth has not been fully told about the millions of deaths in the gulag and the Stalinist crimes. The Putin regime maintains a culture of amnesia, taking up the ancient principle of damnatio memoriae—the condemnation to oblivion—to which it adds propaganda. In this sense, the Russian mass media has become a weapon of war. Can we stop this war without changing the mechanisms of spreading lies and violence?
Many cultured people make great and beautiful speeches about peace, but if we do not first acknowledge that we are living in war between two sovereign states—the Russian aggressor state with its tyrannical regime, and the assaulted Ukrainian state, with its democratic regime—if justice is not done and judgement does not take place, if we cut corners, we are complicit in the ongoing violence. We become anachronistic in the wrong sense of the word. And we continue to condone the lie that lasts because the USSR, unlike Nazi Germany, did not have its Nuremberg trials. We can call for peace as long as we want, but are we then living in a fantasy world, or do we still exit amidst the strange and long war that Pascal spoke of?
Let us return to the Bible, which speaks very clear language. In the Bible, it is not a question of diplomatic dance but of the reality of war. The prophet Isaiah (chapter 10) evokes the death of the Assyrian tyrant who boasted of violating borders between peoples, which is the project of the current tyrant. Then he refers (chapter 14) to the "satirical song about the king of Babylon," the man "who made the earth tremble," and who finds himself thrown into Sheol, the world of the dead. It is a righteous word, a word of God, consonant with our courage. At a certain point a spiritual skeleton appears.
It is not for us to judge the naivety of comparisons with the situation we are experiencing. At a basic level these references allow you to stand upright and to keep your back straight. That’s what Easter is for us. We fear the worst, we witness hellish scenes, but we know that Easter is coming and that the empire of evil must give way.
This interview originally appeared in French in Les Essentiels.