In the book The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief, Larry Alex Taunton describes the process that he and his wife, Lauri, had to endure while adopting Sasha, a special-needs girl from Orphanage No. 17, in Odessa, Ukraine. They faced months of bureaucratic inertia, expectations of bribery, and callousness to the miserable plight of orphans under the state’s soul-deadening “care.”
Sasha and the other children lived in a Spartan setting. Actually, Larry says, they lived amid a “grassless, treeless, lunar landscape.” Sasha’s spiritual state was similarly barren. Larry and Lauri discovered this in a variety of ways after they adopted her. Once, Sasha carelessly broke some dishes, and Lauri scolded her—then thought better of it and apologized.
“That’s okay,” Sasha replied. “You don’t have to apologize to me. I’m different.” Thanks to a life under atheism, the child had come to see herself as unworthy of consideration, as a cog in a larger, mindless machine.
It’s a feeling many of Sasha’s countrymen have experienced after a lifetime of being under Soviet and now Russian domination. Now a brave vanguard of Ukrainians is risking all to break out of this control in a quest for political and economic freedom. Time will tell if they succeed not only in this, but in finding the kind of spiritual freedom so necessary to transform their lives and their society.
Ukraine’s endemic corruption is legendary. Transparency International ranks the nation of 46 million as No. 144 of 177 countries on the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. The country garners a score of just 25 of 100 possible points in battling corruption. Much of the corruption, of course, is a hangover from communist domination.
“Communism fell two decades ago, but its effects are still deeply felt,” says Operation World, the global prayer guide. “The market economy has actually driven many to poverty while lining the pockets of the elite. Corruption reaches to the highest levels while pensioners, teachers, doctors and other state employees struggle economically. The moral vacuum of post-Communist freedom led to rapidly increasing levels of alcoholism and AIDS.”
According to Operation World, Ukraine’s annual income per person is a paltry $3,910, or just 8 percent of the United States—this in a nation that was formerly known as the breadbasket of Europe and which today features a literacy rate of 99.4 percent. (The U.S. has a similar literacy rate of 99 percent, but a functional literacy rate of just 85 percent.) No wonder increasing numbers of Ukrainians are dissatisfied with the status quo and willing to risk life and limb on the streets of Kiev and in other cities.
The current unrest is not entirely unique for the country since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. While a succession of former communist leaders (or at least those subservient to Russia) has run the country since then, the so-called Orange Revolution of 2005 first brought hope and then disappointment. Operation World says the reform movement “won Ukrainians national dignity, press freedoms and open political mechanisms.”
Progress, however, was short-lived. Viktor Yushchenko, a favorite of many reform-minded Christians, was the leader of the opposition movement. In late 2004 he was the victim of an assassination attempt through poisoning. Yushchenko survived but was disfigured. He ran for the presidency but lost in a vote that the country’s highest court said was tainted. Then he won in runoff against Viktor Yanukovych. Yushchenko’s idealistic movement subsequently faded.
Today Yanukovych is president. Last November, under pressure from Vladimir Putin of Russia, Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union and is leaning toward a customs agreement with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Pro-Western activists see this as a return to the irresistible embrace of the Russian bear and took to the streets.
On December 8, they took the highly symbolic step of smashing a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Kiev—inflaming pro-Russia populations in the country’s south and east. The protests have grown over the last couple of months, sparking a brutal government crackdown that so far has left scores of demonstrators—men and women—dead in the streets.
The country is nominally 79 percent Christian, with most people in either Orthodox or Catholic churches. Protestants, however, with just 3.8 percent of the population, are growing at a comparatively healthy 3.1 percent annual rate. “Ukraine has a strong Christian legacy,” Operation World says, “and evangelicals emerged stronger and more numerous from 130 years of sustained persecution in which Christians were killed.”
The movement has been bolstered in recent years via the growth of more African and also Western-style churches, which, understandably, have ruffled some traditionalist feathers. Ukrainian-run ministries have been multiplying in areas such as evangelism, media, literature, and children’s work. Western groups remain in the country, serving alongside their Ukrainian counterparts.
Summer camps for kids have been a popular and fruitful form of outreach, although the current instability is causing some ministry leaders to rethink their current plans. Operation World says leadership training is the biggest need of the churches—a common refrain in countries where the gospel is bearing fruit.
Ukraine’s current challenges have been decades in the making and, unfortunately, are unlikely to be solved by a few months of street protests. The country’s political future appears dark to many observers. But its spiritual prospects appear to be brighter than they have been in a very long time.
Whatever happens in the current showdown, Ukraine’s freedom-seeking people are no different than anyone else. They need and deserve our fervent intercession for their spiritual liberty.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know, as well as coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://www.stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: February 20, 2014