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Sylenko’s Runvira and Russia

The Pagan leaders’ views of Russia are shaped by the larger historical contexts of their personal lives and are based on their creative interpretations of history and old Slavic traditions. There is evidence that Lev Sylenko (1921-2008) was a student of Volodymyr Shaian (1908-1974), who took the first steps in reviving the polytheistic faith of the old Slavs in 1934, under the influence of the idea of Aryan origin that was popular at the time (Ivakhiv 2005a: 11). Although Sylenko eventually parted with Shaian, Shaian’s influence on the founder of RUNVira is evident.

Shaian was a highly educated Ukrainian patriot who was forced to leave Ukraine during the Second World War because of his political convictions.

His alternative religious views, which were developed as the basis for Ukrainian nationhood, are filled with personal frustration regarding the colonialist politics in his home country. Shaian opposed the notion of cosmopolitanism, associating it with universalist ideas linked, in turn, to expansionist forces, among which Russia occupied a prominent position. Shaian (1987: 878) viewed Russia as a dangerous political player “that strive[d] to swallow other nations with the help of its ‘universalist program’.” Shaian (1987: 877-78) metaphorically compared Russia’s politics to the intentions of the Catholic church that, in his opinion, was another expansionist force that strived to blend all nations into “one flock of sheep under one pastor in Rome.” Shaian (1987: 877-78) further connected these interpretations with Ukraine’s position in the Soviet Union ruled by Russia, where “the Ukrainian nation ha[d] to blend in such a foreign stable,” even though this stable was not Christian but Marxist and consisted of “collective farms, where Ukrainians [we]re constantly being disciplined by the [Russian] supervisors.”

The influence of Shaian’s thinking, reinforced by his personal tragic experiences, is clear in Sylenko’s teachings. Sylenko witnessed the Holodomor [famine] in eastern Ukraine during the Stalin era. His own father was a victim of the mass-scale repressions of the same period, and was attacked for having been an independent farmer or kulak and sent to Siberia. These events interfered with Sylenko’s further postgraduate studies, when he himself was persecuted for being a son of “an enemy of the people” (Lysenko 1996: 38-39). Escaping the Communist regime, Sylenko ended up in the German refugee camps after the Second World War, eventually emigrating to North America where he resided for periods of time in both Canada and the USA.

In the diaspora, Sylenko founded RUNVira, a monotheistic religion based on his reconstruction of old Slavic polytheism. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, RUNVira communities were established across the USA and Canada. Sylenko’s faith further spread to Ukrainians in Australia, England and New Zealand (Sylenko 1996: 6), reaching Ukraine shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. As of 1 January 2015, RUNVira had 62 registered communities, 53 spiritual leaders, 4 schools, and 3 periodicals in Ukraine.

Sylenko, like Shaian, sharply criticizes the universalist principles adopted by ruling powers such as Russia. For example, in his voluminous Maha Vira, a book that lays the foundations of RUNVira, Sylenko (2005: 699) asks: “Why ... muscovite-nationalists propagate internationalism everywhere and consider themselves to be internationalists?” He answers this question by sarcastically interpreting some of the most popular ideological slogans and messages that circulated in Soviet Ukraine:

The calls of internationalism help to conveniently exploit captive nations, lull their self-defending national feeling to sleep, and slacken their national consciousness. (And these calls have to carry such attractive messages as “the unification of the two brotherly peoples [of Russia and Ukraine]” and “nations-brothers who are made happy by Lenin’s teachings and became brothers in the eternal union of sister republics”). (Sylenko 2005: 699)

Sylenko’s RUNVira was initially introduced as a creative weapon to resist this type of politics. Thus, his Maha Vira (Sylenko 2005), the foundational sacred text of this religion, is full of historical episodes accompanied by Sylenko’s interpretations of Ukraine’s political enemies, among which Russia occupies perhaps the most prominent place. Readings from Maha Vira are the central mandatory component of all RUNVira rituals, including those rituals whose names do not suggest any political connotation. Furthermore, the RUNVira calendar created by Lev Sylenko (1991) includes a special Den Narodnoho Hnivu (The Day of People’s Anger) that falls on November 5. Based on Sylenko’s argument that “one who feels no hatred towards one’s enemies does not love one’s native land,” this day is meant to acknowledge the historic oppression of Ukraine.

Sylenko was an eager learner, predominantly self-taught. He traveled extensively, obtaining access to international educational institutions and resources, where in a creatively comparative manner he collected materials for the foundation of his RUNVira. Svitoslava Lysenko (1996: 184), a biographer of Sylenko, mentions in this regard:

Lev Sylenko has worked in the biggest libraries of the various countries of the world, including France, Germany, Canada, England, Syria, Great Britain, Greece, and India. While studying Hindu philosophy, he began to learn Sanskrit. He familiarized himself with a history of the Aryans’ coming to India. He researched the Vedas (“the most ancient monument of the human mind”) and was surprised by his own discovery: Sanskrit (the language of the Vedas) includes many words that exist in contemporary Ukrainian. He was convinced that Avestan, the language Zoroaster spoke, indeed was the language of the later Trypillians.6

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