I returned from Kyiv, Ukraine, last week as part of a team that is working to strengthen a partnership with a Christian seminary there. As we met with various program heads within the school, I asked a few questions about how ethics are taught, and what bioethical issues the Ukrainian people face. Some of the answers were surprising.
Ukraine, of course, is the long-suffering nation to the west of Russia, most often remembered as the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union, as the nation where millions starved to death in Stalin’s effort to break the farmers that resisted collectivization, as a nation where much of the fighting—and death—from World War II occurred, and as the location of the horrific Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, some seventy miles north of Kyiv. Ukrainians know what it means to endure; their national anthem is “Ukraine Is Not Yet Dead.” Ukraine’s history has witnessed many affronts to human dignity, perhaps one most chillingly on display at the “Museum of the Great Patriotic War” (a.k.a., World War II) where gloves made of human skin and a bar of soap made from human fat show just what human beings are capable of doing to each other. The Ukrainian people were saved from the atrocities of the Nazis to be dominated by the Soviets, exchanging one form of tyranny for another.
Years of communist rule still leave their mark on Ukraine. Something especially notable when out and about in Kyiv is the utter absence of physically-challenged people, the handicapped, on the city’s streets. It isn’t that they don’t exist. But communism in the Soviet Union served to create an “ideal society,” free of suffering and disability, filled with “perfect” people. In reality, this meant warehousing the mentally and physically-handicapped—and orphans—into hidden-away institutions. This mindset has been slow to change. Handicapped access is limited, to be charitable, and it is hard to imagine that a shopping trip would be anything but excruciating for anyone in a wheelchair. As much as I groan at some of the excesses, as I perceive them, in our “Americans with Disabilities” Act, I’ll probably now more gladly accept its quirks and demands as a way of affirming the dignity of those who suffer challenges I have yet to face in my own life.
It is easy to criticize the post-Soviet outlook, this vestigial communist view of human beings, as an American. But how much do we sanitize the pursuit of perfection here? What are enhancement technologies but a reflection that we have a need to be free of problems, to be our “best selves?” We tuck away our dying elders in nursing homes so that the inevitability of decline and death don’t confront our pursuit of happiness.
A member of our team wryly reflected that, in Ukraine, their faces are from the West but their minds are from the East. As I mentally checked off the list of bioethical issues we face in the West—challenges with assisted reproductive technologies and pre-implantation genetic testing, with use of technologies for human enhancement, and with limitation of burdensome treatment at the end of life—it became clear in discussing bioethics with the seminary faculty in Kyiv that most of these issues are completely off the radar of the vast majority of Ukrainians. Abortion is still hideously common as a method of birth control in Ukraine, as it is in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. But the idea that we would use medicine to end life with physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, or spend scandalous amounts of financial treasure on cheating the aging and dying process, seem arcane in Ukraine. One director even noted that the people of his country don’t have time to be depressed (even as they have faced generations of addictions) because they are too busy just surviving. A study in contrasts, this nation, where children are forgotten in orphanages and old women, the babushkas, may beg for money to supplement their meager pensions, but where children are bundled for warmth with the smallest hint of chilly air and people give up their seats on crowded buses for the elderly and for women with small children. These are a people acquainted with suffering and sorrow, and they have a certain respect for those who have suffered for more years than most (the elderly) and for those who hold the eternal promise of a better future (the children). A rather elegant ethic there: respect and promise.
Wiser minds than mine have delved into the mystery that, within the crucible of suffering, we may be best equipped to find evidence of grace in daily life. It was a visit to a church in Kyiv that I could best see this illustrated. There is, in Ukraine, a national church that had been suppressed, harassed, and persecuted at every turn, one that has survived communism and the economic anarchy that followed, and today sends workers into other former Soviet republics. It is, in fact, a joyful and beautiful place. It is a church that is ministering to orphans and the mentally and physically handicapped, bringing them out of the shadows to which communism relegated them. Ukrainian bioethics is more, forgive the awful word here, “primitive” in a sense, because the technologies that are such qualified blessings in the West have yet to meet this part of the world. But it is the church that is leading the way toward negotiating the ethical issues in a society in transition and embracing the notion of human dignity, a church that just may impact the course of a nation that is, indeed, not yet dead.