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1,025 years of Christianity: Ukraine hosts Orthodox celebrations while questioning its future

The Orthodox Church is celebrating the 1025th anniversary of introduction of Christianity into medieval Russia. Clerical delegations and the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are joining the festivities in Ukraine's capital, Kiev.

The culmination of the celebrations will be a liturgy in Kiev’s central cathedral Kiev Pechersk Laura (Kiev Monastery of the Caves) and a sacred procession carrying the St. Andrew's cross, a symbolic relic that once united the nations on the territory of modern Belarus, Ukraine and European part of Russian Federation over a millennium ago, when Kiev was the main center of the Eastern Slavic world.

Saint Andrew, the first Apostle of Jesus Christ, is believed to be the one who brought Christianity to Eastern Europe. Legends insist he sailed across the Black Sea and landed in the Greek colony of Chersonesus Taurica in Crimea, modern Ukraine. Then he traveled north along the Dnieper River, passing the place where the City of Kiev was founded in the 5th century and allegedly reaching the area not far from the Baltic Sea, where the Russian city of Veliky Novgorod was founded in the 9th century. On his legendary journey, mentioned in the Russian Primary Chronicle, Saint Andrew baptized thousands to new faith.

Nine centuries later, in 988 AD, Prince Vladimir, who ruled in Kiev, one of major cities in the Eastern Slavs' land of Rus, introduced Christianity in his lands,  and was baptized together with his troops and subjects. Rus over centuries grew into the Russian Empire, the USSR and after its collapse the cradle of Orthodox Christianity now lies outside geographical Russia.

The faithful kiss the cross of St. Andrew the First-Called, exhibited in the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, to celebrate the 1025th anniversary of Christianity in the Kievan Rus. (RIA Novosti/Alexei Furman)

Ukraine at crossroads

Together with clerical delegations, many political leaders are paying visits to the celebrations.

One of the issues dominating the agenda is the choice Ukraine is still to make between integrating with the EU or joining the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan to form a Eurasian Union in the near future.

“This day marks the unity of our peoples,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. “We have several common questions we will be able to discuss during these days of celebrations. There will be another meeting tomorrow… where we will talk security.”

Relations between Moscow and Kiev since the fall of the Soviet Union have witnessed many changes. Over the last 20 years, Ukraine has endured an Orange Revolution and several gas conflicts with Russia, yet strong economic and historical ties seem to be prevailing over the divide.

Many also fear that Ukraine – if choosing to part with Russia in search for a better future with the EU – might lose not only its independence to Brussels, but also its national identity.

“Ukraine is destined to strive for favorable relations with Russia for thousands of reasons,” Mikhail Pogrebinsky from the Center for Political and Conflict Studies in Kiev told RT.

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill arrives in the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra to celebrate the 1025th anniversary of Christianity in the Kievan Rus. (RIA Novosti/Alexei Furman)

Over half of the Ukrainian population considers Russian to be their native language and would like to see their country maintain good relations with the neighbor. Moreover, Orthodox Christianity remains a cementing force that kept Russians and Ukrainians inhabiting the territory between Baltic and Black seas together for over 1,000 years.

“It is enough to say that every third Ukrainian has close relatives within Russia,” says Pogrebinsky.

But Ukraine’s elite is moving in the opposite direction to associate Ukraine with the EU, pretending they do not hear the voices of the citizens protesting against solely European orientation, Pogrebinsky said.

Moscow wants to see its neighbor playing a more active role in the regional cooperation, becoming an integral player of the Customs Union. The Ukrainian economy remains highly dependent on Russia, the major market for Ukrainian goods, and also because over 700,000 Ukrainians are working in Russian Federation, according to official statistics.