Dr Ivan Almes: “The network of Basilian monasteries was like a Ruthenian blood circulation system with a heart in Vilnius”

Conversation with dr. Ivan Almes, associate professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University (Lviv), historian, who on January 25 in the Church Heritage Museum will give a lecture “Vilnius-Kyiv-Maniava Skete: Monastery Reforms in the Kyivan Metropolitanate of Early Modern Time” and will present the history of early modern Kyivan tradition monastery reforms.

You are a professor of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and you are exploring religion and cultural history. What else could you tell about yourself for a wider presentation: what subjects do you explore, what your main interest fields?

What bonds and themes connect you with Lithuania, Vilnius?

My last book was about the history of monk’s reading that was published in 2021 in Lviv. The question was: did monks (Orthodox and Basilians) read and for what reasons? And I looked for these issues at more than 500 pages in the book. At the UKU I coordinate the Kyivan Christianity Research Program and head the Ihor Skochylias Center for Religious Culture. The mentioned institutions provide conferences, publishing series that consist already almost 30 volumes about religious history of Kyivan Metropolitanate.

In 2016-2018 I assisted to the common research project of Vilnius University and Ukrainian Catholic University generously supported by both Lithuanian and Ukrainian states ministers of education and research. Project results in two languages book and a few conferences about Vilnius Basilian monastery under the title “At the crossroads”. Then I was a PhD candidate at UKU. I don’t know Lithuanian but it’s easy to network with Lithuanian scholars. And it’s not about language as such. You are really friends for us. That’s the point.

Ukrainian Catholic University. Wikimedia Commons photo

What is the situation of your University during war in Ukraine, what conditions do you have to continue your work? Are you in Lviv? What is the situation there now?

What is the situation of your academic community now, students and prodessors? Are you continuing your work, teaching?

My University faced war with dignity. That is not just words. Fear and dismay at the beginning did not get in the way for volunteering, teaching, research etc. All tried to be at their front. UKU ensures the educational process at all levels online or at the campus. We just must study. It is our front now. To name some examples of research activity. During the war time Kyivan Christianity Research Program published five books and prepared two more volumes for printing. Of course, there are permanent alerts, sometimes explosions are heard, but we need to work even more for one clear reason – for victory.

Most of time I work and teach in Lviv, but at the beginning of war I was outside the city in the village because of safety reasons. You get used to it over time with the fact of alerts and that from time to time just a Russian rocket can hit your home.

Your lecture is a part of a cycle Kyiv Cristianity Readings which will take place during 2023 in our Museum; we are also commemorating the 400th anniversary of Saint Josaphat Kuntsevych‘s martyrdom. Could you briefly present the fields of your interest and announce which subjects you are going to talk about during your lecture?

Josaphat Kuntsevych was a monk in the Vilnius St. Trinity Basilian monastery. It was he who enlivened life in the monk’s community. I’m going to concentrate on the monastic reforms of the Kyivan Metropolitanate that reached out from Vilnius on the north to Manyava Skete on the south near Romania now. At the same time, in the 1610s–1630s, Job Kniahynytskyi reformed monasticism in its southern eparchies (in centers of Lviv and Peremyśl), Petro Mohyla – in central eparchies (in the center of Kyiv), and Joseph Velyamin Rutskyi – in the northern (in center of Vilnius). All three presented models of monastic life – Vilnius, Kyiv, and Scythian – were formally based on the same rules of St. Basil the Great but experienced different experiences borrowed from the Latin West and the Byzantine East (or, more precisely, the Orthodox South).

Józef Simmler, “The Martyrdom of Josaphat Kuntsevych” (c. 1861). An exhibit of the National Museum in Warsaw. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

How would you present Basilian order, Uniates, to a large audience? We have Saint Trinity monastery and a few monks in Vilnius and we can hear about them more often now, when Ukrainian war refugees settle in Vilnius, but we know very little or nothing about this community.

Basilians were elite of the Ruthenian Uniate Church in the 17-18th centuries. The huge ecclesiastical structure named Kyivan Metropolitanate replaced in some ways a state for Ukrainians in that time. Basilians were the “lungs” or “engine” of this machine (sorry for such comparison). Center of Basilians stand in Vilnius St. Trinity monastery. Not only Kyiv but Vilnius was really a considerable religious and cultural center for Ruthenians (Ukrainians) at the early modern time. It is very easy to realize this fact if you look and feel the grandiose of St. Trinity cathedral of Basilians. The network of Basilian monasteries in Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth was as blood vessels for Ruthenians with its heart in Vilnius. And in modern time St. Trinity monastery became more as symbolical place. Place of the strength of Ukrainian-Lithuanian friendship.

This year is announced by our Parliament as the year of Saint Josaphat Kuntsevych, one of the founders of Basilian order. How does this Saint, this personnality unite Lithuania and Ukraine, what is important to know about him? In what way is he interesting in our days? Is he known in Ukraine?

How are you commemorating the 400 anniversary of his martyrdom in Ukraine, if you are?

I’m a historian that is why my answers mostly connects with academic activities. Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church commemorates the 400 anniversary of his martyrdom in Ukraine. His Beatitude Sviatoslav, the Head of UGKC, opened the jubilee year by Holy Mess in St. Peter Cathedral in Rome last November. Of course, UGKC provide ecclesiastical and liturgical commemoration of Josaphat Kuntsevych.

Kyivan Christianity Research Program organize together with international partners a few international scholar conferences in Lithuania (Vilnius), Poland (Supraśl), and Italy (Rome). Actually, we started year of Josaphat Kuntsevych at the UKU by academic event on 20 December. And the international team of researches are working on volume (more that 500 pages) of unknown documents and new interpretations about Josaphat Kuntsevych. We are going to present this book on the October Conference this year in Vilnius.

If return to you question: how does the person of Josaphat Kuntsevych unite Lithuania and Ukraine? My short answer can be, his person symbolicaly unites both states. But this question is one of which we are going to talk on the already mentioned October Conference in Vilnius.

How would you comment – maybe in the war context – the slogan chosen by Saint Josapath „May all be one!“ (John 17:21)? How does it speak to us today, in what way can it be actual?

Evangelical words „May all be one!“ have a great ecumenical sense. But as historian I see more practical meaning that these words more than fit for today’s war in Ukraine. If „May all be one!“, all European friends and democratic world with Ukraine, – victory become soon.

Thank you for your answers.