George said there had been a lot of talk about the Russians, the Ukrainians and the Land of the Onion Domes, and he had just seen President Joe Biden laying a wreath in honor of Ukrainian soldiers who had fallen in defense of their country, right there in Kyiv in front of a church with those domes and wondered had I any thoughts on the subject, and I said, ‘yes, and they’re not onions.’

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky walk at St. Michaels Golden-Domed Cathedral during an unannounced visit, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 20. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Not only are they not onions, they are not carrots, potatoes, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, white turnips, rutabagas, or kumquats. What they are is church steeples, each indicating an altar directly beneath, so, even from a distance, one can count the number of altars that a church has, without even venturing inside. Count the steeples.

Russian and Ukrainian churches, that is, churches of the Eastern Orthodox version of Christianity differ in several respects from those of the Western or Roman Catholic or Protestant Christian churches. They have no pews, benches, or chairs for the worshipers to sit down. Over there, you stand in the presence of God, and remain standing as a gesture of respect and stand for as long as the service may take.

Musical instruments are not allowed inside the Russian and Ukrainian church. In as much as mankind was made in the image of God, then God is to be praised only through the human voice, a cappella, and not with the noisy screeching, honking or blasting of instruments devised by the devil. The shape of the steeples is another matter.

In the west, we understand the church to be the house of God, as do the Russians and Ukrainians. When seen from a distance against the blue sky, the church appears to be floating on this blue sea of heaven on the tops of the steeples. Therefore, Russian calls these shapes, not “Onion Domes,” but refers to them as keel or hull shaped, or “kilye-obrazny.” They are the transverse section of a sailing ship’s hull, or keel transected, inverted, and turned through 360 degrees, so that the keel, or hull shape can be seen as an inverted ship’s hull from any vantage point.

Rather than having steeples that point a thin finger upward toward God and the heaven in which he abides, as we do in the Western tradition, thus emphasizing the separation between us mortals and the everlasting and all powerful creator way up there, the Russian and Ukrainians see their church as the house of God, to be not only connected to heaven, but is seen to be actually floating on the azure blue sea of God’s heaven, or sky, as we like to call it, while emphasizing their connection with God through his house, the church and its closeness to the supreme being.

Since most of Russia and Ukraine is “up there” where Canada is, but around on the other side, climate limits the amount of vegetables they can grow for themselves, including onions. They do have onions in Russia, but they cook them and eat them. They don’t decorate their churches with onions, or any other variety of fruit or vegetable.

I asked George if he actually saw Russian and Ukrainian church steeples as onions, and he said, “No, not anymore.”

Orrin Frink is a Kennebunkport resident. He can be reached at [email protected]

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