Olena Dzhedzhora, historian and senior professor of the History Department of the UCU Humanities Faculty, was the keynote speaker for graduates at the UCU 2024 commencement ceremonies. She herself stood near the sources of the revival of the activities of the Lviv Theological Academy and, eventually, UCU. She is the author of the book “Readings in the History of European Civilization” and producer of the project “Little Stories of a Big War.”

Here follows the full text of her speech:

Recent years have been full of jubilees. Among them, especially dear to us is the 30th anniversary of the revival of the Theological Academy in Lviv, whose history reaches back into the last century (it was founded in the late 1920s), to another government (because at that time it was on the territory of interwar Poland), and to another era and circumstances (those were times of totalitarianism, Nazism, Communism, and the horrors of war, which affected the whole world). In addition, 25 years have passed since the LTA-UCU had its first graduating class.

Olena Dzhedzhora

But I want to approach our jubilee and your particular holiday from afar and turn your attention to another jubilee. Forty years ago, Milan Kundera, a Czech-French writer of worldwide fame, wrote a small but exceptionally important text called “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” which can be read in Ukrainian translation on the site zbruc.eu. Though the name speaks of “Central Europe,” it speaks about a tragedy which happened throughout Europe during the 20th century, about a change in its outlines, the destruction of its very idea. Ukraine has little presence in this text, but the subject directly relates to us. Forty years have passed since the text appeared, and we see truly how little things have changed, though Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has maximally accentuated Europe’s internal defects.

Kundera writes, in particular:

“In Central Europe, at the eastern border of The West, each nation was particularly sensitive to the threat of Russian power.”

“The countries of Central Europe feel that the changes in their fate which happened after 1945 were not simply a political catastrophe: this was also an attack on their civilization.”

“Nothing can be so foreign to Central Europe and its passion for variety as Russia, a uniform mass which unites and centralizes all, full of the determination to transform all the nations of its empire (Ukrainians, Belarusians, Armenians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and others) into a single Russian nation (or, as it was usually expressed in that century of generalized verbal mystification, into “a single Soviet nation.”) End of quote

You and I, as no one else, know that, asserting its dominance, Russia, first of all, destroys the culture of its subjects and destroys ties and continuity. Why is there such aggression against culture? I quote again: “This destruction has three meanings: First, it destroys the center of opposition; second, it destroys the nation’s identity and creates favorable conditions for absorbing it into Russian civilization; third, it allows the ending of the modern era, in which culture, after all, represented the realization of the highest values.”

Western Europe for a long time has not even noticed that the threat of the disappearance or destruction of some of its parts has arisen. Why? Kundera thus responds: “Europe has not noticed the disappearance of its cultural center because it no more accepts its unity as a union of cultures.”

Already at that time, Central Europe “passionately desired to be a condensed variant of Europe itself in all its cultural variety – a small, super-European Europe, a reduced model of Europe that would be composed of governments created according to one rule: the most variety in the boundaries of the smallest space.”

And so Milan Kundera emphasizes: what happened in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw, just as now in Kyiv, Mariupol, Bucha, and Kharkiv, is not only a tragedy of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Bloc, and Communism. This is a tragedy of the West, “of that very West which, robbed and displaced, still insists on the idea that it is defending its own identity.” And then the fight for this general European identity is happening right here, on Europe’s eastern boundaries, today, in Ukraine.

And so it has happened, and, to a greater extent this relates to Ukraine, that Russia has deprived nations of their identity, taking away their culture, stealing their historical memory, by this transforming their history into tragedy.

People threated with absorption have resisted. And this resistance often is manifested in culture itself.

Again I quote: “The identity of a people, the identity of a civilization is reflected and concentrated in what the intellect has created, in what is known as ‘culture.’ If extinction threatens this identity, cultural life becomes correspondingly more intense, and, when culture itself becomes a living value, people gather around it. This is why in each of the disturbances in Central Europe, collective cultural memory and modern creative competitions have taken on such a great and decisive role, significantly more decisive than in any other European mass upheaval.” You and I see this phenomenon in the daily explosion of Ukrainian creative energy, which we observe in literature, art, music, cinematography, and theater.

What does all this mean for us? Why is Kundera’s text so important for us today? Because it reminds us that, as at that time, so today, the preservation of one’s own history and cultural inheritance is the single guarantee against destruction. It alone allows one to make a return transformation: transforming a tragedy of history into a drama (as Yaroslav Hrytsak has metaphorically expressed it). But drama then does not mean an unavoidable, fatal ending. A drama has hope.

 

 

 

 

What I have just spoken about is very consonant with the history of the LTA-UCU, because our 30-year history is a triumph of hope over experiences and circumstances. This is a revival of continuity and historical memory. It means the transformation of tragedy into drama, which has many possible endings, which can be triumphant.

Our history has wonderful pages, unique events, full of true heroism but heroism with a human face.

All this was not easy. It was often a challenge. The attitude of people you have encountered here calls forth wonder, because it contrasts modern tendencies.

Because today’s world is a world of dependencies, dependencies on narcotics or alcohol, on social media or comfort, on ambitions or circumstances. It has countless problems which seem impossible to solve. For millions of people, this calls forth rejection, social apathy, and a lack of trust. And they call this freedom. But this is not freedom.

Now I want to quote the farewell letter of Iryna Tsybukh: “In order to have freedom, other values are necessary. One needs to understand one’s self, to know well who you are for yourself, what personal happiness means, and how to achieve it. Among the answers to these questions, the most important remains: to keep on going.”

Freedom demands maturity. I love this word, because in it we hear not only an appeal to internal self-awareness, integrity, but also to the ability to notice, to see, to distinguish. This is what we try to foster in this community.

And this also is not simple. Very often an anti-motivator of actions or a justification for the lack of activity of the contemporary person is the expression: “We’re still not ready.” Not ready to take responsibility, to bring children into the world, not ready to risk one’s own life…

But ask (and all these questions are rather rhetorical): Were those first ones ready to become creators of a university out of nothing, without experience? Was Archbishop Borys ready 30-35 years ago to refuse the possibility of having his own family and children? Was he ready 12 years ago to leave this university, which had become like his own child? Was Yaroslav Hrytsak ready to hear the accusation of his own children: “You never have time for us”?

Was Ihor Skochylias ready to take responsibility for a faculty? Was Nataliya Klymovska ready to conduct global fundraising to the sum of millions of dollars for decades?

Were your professors ready to donate a part of their already not so impressive salaries for charity, to create scholarship funds for their students?

Was Myroslav Marynovych ready to sit in prison? Was Fr. Mykhailo Dymyd ready to bury his dear son? Was the young Bohdan Solchanyk ready to perish? Was Ihor Krupno ready to lose both legs or Zakhar Biryukov both arms, legs, and an eye? Are all our men ready to risk their lives to defend you and me? Today the Gospel truth “many are called but few are chosen” is heard with particular poignance…

If they had waited until they were ready, nothing would have happened. There would be no UCU. And perhaps there would be no Ukraine.

The truth is simple: We are never ready, so it’s senseless to delay. We don’t wait for the right moment: we create it. We simply go ahead, because we have a goal, because we’re called.

It’s the same with our students. The first students came to us not because of a “brand,” not for a diploma, not for comfort, not for a safe environment. Because there was none of this. They accepted the challenge as an internal call. They had faith.

 

The 39 first graduates of the LTA received their diplomas a quarter century ago, in 1999. At that time, their diplomas were not recognized in Ukraine, and for a long time after that. And this graduating class was marked by yet one more new reality, which earlier did not seem possible: for the first time in our country, women received diplomas in theology.

You can hear about many of these graduates, and perhaps you often meet them: Viktor Zhukovskyi, Petro Didula, Stepan Dmytryshyn, Taras Tymo, Roman Zaviyskyy, Lyuba Dubkovetska, Sister Avhustyna Kostereva, Sister Klara Kobelyuk, Yuriy Sakvuk, Taras Khomych, Sister Bonifatiya Dyakiv, Ulyana Subotina, Lesya Hladysh, Fr. Ruslan Hrekh, and others. They are unique.

But you also are unique. You are our 25th jubilee graduating class. In the four years of your university life, you have encountered incredible challenges, the most difficult of which were the isolation of the pandemic time and a full-scale war. You have now survived 850 days of this war. You have already demonstrated exceptional resilience.

Today you have joined the almost 5000 members of the ‘army’ of UCU graduates. And I sincerely congratulate you for this. We need you, because a university is composed, to a great extent, of those who graduated from it; because, without you, we will not become better.

Difficult times stand before you. We continue the fight for the right to our existence. But it’s most important to remember: “In order to fight not only in life but to the death, you need to have the certainty that God is on your side.” We have such certainty.

And so we have the strength to continue, repeating with Bohdan-Ihor Antonych:

“Oh, life has a thousand charms,

even when it’s gray and sad,

just one thing:

to gather grapes in God’s vineyard.”

Today you begin a new stage.  Some of you, perhaps, naively expect that, finally, you will never again hear about the two “M”s and three “S”s [“witness, serve, communicate, with their Ukrainian initial letters] about which they talked to you here endlessly.

But that’s not correct, because you are called to Witness, Serve, and Communicate your whole lives.

So, take care of your garden. And may UCU’s most important lesson, which, I expect, you will take with yourselves on the road, help you: the impossible is possible.