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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

In memory of Metropolitan Ilarion

27 March, 2007 - 00:00

This year marks the 125th and the 35th anniversaries of the birth (1882) and death (1972) of Metropolitan Ilarion (Ivan Ohienko), the prominent scholar, writer, civic and religious figure, indefatigable researcher, and defender and promoter of the Ukrainian language and culture. He was a wonderful personality — one of those individuals who came along once a century. He was fantastically talented and intrepid, with an astonishing memory and erudition, as well as a poet, novelist, polyglot, and political journalist. He dedicated his entire long and difficult life to Ukraine and Ukrainians, who did not always reciprocate his feelings.

The number of books, articles, sermons, and dictionaries produced by Ohienko is awe-inspiring: he authored more than a thousand. Apart from writing numerous scholarly papers, Ohienko completed the difficult and painstaking job of translating the Holy Scriptures into Ukrainian, which took him a few decades. Ohienko’s 1,529-page complete translation of The Bible or the Holy Scriptures’ Old and New Testament Books was published in 1962 in London, much to the appreciation of the exacting Biblical Society.

In the Soviet era, Ohienko was, predictably, persona non grata. His books were banned, and he was only occasionally mentioned as none other than a “bourgeois nationalist.” It was not until the late 1980s that Ohienko’s works began to appear in Ukraine. Almost all of them are devoted to the history of Ukraine and its language as well as the Ukrainian Church.

One of the first new publications of the perestroika period was Ukrainian Culture (published by Abrys) which Ohienko wrote in 1918 on the crest of the wave of Ukraine’s revolutionary aspirations for independence. It reads, among other things, “Now that we ourselves are creating a free life, when we have put the question of our autonomy pointblank, when this issue has assumed such an acute form, this is the right time to stop, look back, and cast a glance at the long way that we have come. Do we really have the right to live a free life, which we have been persistently trying to achieve for more than two centuries? Do our people have a real history of their own? Do we really need separate Ukrainian-language schools and separate universities, or is this just wishful thinking, as some backward people are saying today?” As we know, these issues are still being debated in Ukraine today.

Below are some excerpts from Ukrainian Culture. The Muscovite Church began to exert pressure on the Kyivan Church immediately after the “unification” in 1686, in an attempt to “force the Ukrainians to abandon their mother tongue and embrace the Muscovite one.” Ohienko writes: “The Moscow Council of 1690 condemned the books of Polotsky, Mohyla, Galiatovsky, Baranovych and other 17th-century scholars of our church. Their books were not merely condemned: a curse and an anathema were pronounced on them ‘not once but many times,’ although the tsarist ukase of 1685 on the rights of the Ukrainian Church allowed the printing of books.

The Synod even ordered the confiscation of primers that were already in circulation. (Apparently, 17th-century Kyivites used to buy more Ukrainian books than we do now.) Churches were told that priests and deacons should read prayers and recite the liturgy “in a voice typical of the Russian language.” The same continued under all the other Russian tsars, including Nicholas II. Ohienko offers the following example: “In 1899 Kyiv hosted an archeological congress, where scholars were allowed to read their essays in all Slavonic languages except Ukrainian.” Also noteworthy was an event that took place in 1903: speeches in Ukrainian were not allowed during the unveiling of a monument to Kotliarevsky in Poltava. There was also a very “clever” theatrical system that allowed Ukrainian-language productions only if there were no intellectuals among the characters, the idea being that an educated person was not supposed to speak in a peasants’ dialect.

Ohienko studied the Ukrainian language throughout his life and wrote numerous works on the subject. His History of the Standard Ukrainian Language was published recently in Kyiv by Nasha Kultura i Nauka. He writes, for example, “Among the Slavonic languages, ours is the richest in vocabulary and synonyms and has the most expressive syntax. For example, the word ‘hovoryty’ (‘speak’) has such synonyms as ‘kazaty, balakaty, movyty, hutoryty, povidaty, torochyty, bazikaty, tsvenkaty, bubonity, lepetaty, zhebonity, versty, plesty, hyhotaty, and bormotaty.’ And each of these words has its particular nuance.”

Wherever Ohienko resided, he worked indefatigably, founding journals (occasionally even when he had no place to live), publishing books, and establishing contacts with Ukrainian writers. Time took its natural course: Ohienko’s wife died in 1937 and shortly afterwards he took his monastic vows. After being ordained a bishop, he was invited by the Ukrainian of Canada to head the Orthodox Church. Thus, he became Ilarion, Metropolitan of Winnipeg and All Canada. Ohienko chose the religious name Ilarion in honor of the metropolitan who head the Kyivan diocese in the age of Yaroslav the Wise.

In Canada, the metropolitan radically improved the theological education of Orthodox Ukrainians: in particular, he transformed the School of Theology at the University of Manitoba into St. Andrew’s College, where he worked until his death.

The distinguished hierarch and scholar donated his huge archive and library to his native land on condition that Ukraine and its church were free. In the opinion of Ukrainian Canadians, the current situation in Ukraine still militates against the transfer of Metropolitan Ilarion’s legacy.

By Klara GUDZYK, The Day