Father Sergei Dmitriev meets us at a hospital in Kiev where he has been admitted for two weeks suffering from kidney problems. We suggest holding our interview in the garden of the hospital’s church, just a few metres away. The Father refuses, sternly but politely. He will “never set foot” on the ground of the Church, he says, accusing it of “using propaganda to cover up Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict”.
The Church he is referring to is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy which is ultimately governed by the patriarch of the Russian Church, who is accused of being an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Moscow Patriarchy is different from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchy, which was established after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. And the two churches are perceived as taking very different positions on the current conflict.
Before the conflict, a divided Church had hardly been an issue for Ukrainians. Worshippers would usually choose which church to attend for prayers and services based on where they were and their personal preference for the individual priests.
But that began to change when the conflict broke out and some Ukrainians found themselves questioning the supposed pro-Russian position of the Moscow Patriarchy.
At least 50 churches – as well as many followers and priests – responded by switching from the Moscow Patriarchy to the Kiev one.
Father Dmitriev was one of them. The 40-year-old was born and raised in the Russian city of Murmansk by a Ukrainian mother and a Lithuanian father. He had served the Moscow Patriarchy for 20 years before he made the switch.
“For me the time came when I said this Church [the Moscow Patriarchy] is not an Orthodox [Christian] one and has nothing to do with Christianity,” he explained.
“Being with the Moscow Patriarchy now means being [a] participant … [in] the murders of Ukrainian citizens that Russia is carrying out. I don’t want to be a part of that. So I came out for the Mass in front of my followers and told them this is the situation [that he was joining the Kiev Patriarchy].”
Leaving the Moscow Patriarchy
When Father Dmitriev switched to the Kiev Patriachy, so too did the church he had led for years – the St Barbara church, which is associated with Trapina Hospital in the Ukrainian city of Kherson.
Father Dmitriev explains how his disagreements with the Moscow Patriarchy began when he organised a rally in Kherson city in support of anti-government protesters who, at the time, were being shot at by the riot police of the then pro-Russian government at Kiev’s Maidan Square, after demonstrations broke out there in November 2013.
He said he was warned against “being draped in the Ukrainian flag”, but wasn’t fired because they feared the negative publicity that would bring.
As the demonstrations led to the ousting of the government and armed conflict broke out in the east of the country, Father Dmitriev became more involved on the Ukrainian side, embedding himself with the 30th battalion of the country’s army for several months.
The photos on his iPad from that period show the dogs and cats he gave to the servicemen to help distract them from the misery of the conflict, the men giving his wife flowers in appreciation for her help during her occasional visits to the base, and the soldiers and him gathered at a dinner table in Artemovsk, near the frontline, re-enacting Christ’s last supper with his 12 disciples. But in their version, they omitted Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, he points out.
During his stay with the battalion, he says he earned the respect of the soldiers by serving the needs of not only the Orthodox Christians but also of the Catholics and Muslims.
“Now I no longer feel ashamed when the killed Ukrainian soldiers are being honoured in the parliament [when members of the parliament stand in silence] and the Moscow Patriarchy representatives keep sitting,” he says.
‘Praising God in Ukrainian’
In the sleepy village of Velyka Sevastianivka, in Ukraine’s Cherkasy region, about 200km from the capital, Kiev, the congregation ousted a pro-Russian priest after more than 25 years of service and requested that the parish be taken under the leadership of the Kiev Patriarchy.
A group of mainly elderly women in colourful headscarves who had just parked their bicycles in the garden of the Church of Exaltation of the Holy Cross – the only church in the village – explained how they were the driving force behind the switch.
“Father Ivan [Stets] used to call [the] anti-Russian protesters of Maidan drunkards and drug addicts,” said one of them, describing how the conflict played out in its own, much smaller, way in their parish.
Sitting among the women is the parish’s new priest, 23-year-old Father Nazarii Chaikovskii, who refuses to talk or be photographed without the women present.
“We used to hardly understand the religious ceremonies as Father Ivan prayed in Old Slavonic [ancient Russian],” explained another woman in a white headscarf. “Now at last we can praise God in Ukrainian.”
The old church in the centre of the village became the scene of the parishioner’s uprising when their former priest started to refuse to give blessings to those families who had relatives fighting against the pro-Russian rebels in the east.
At least 16 young men from the village are serving in the government forces, including five volunteers.
They also say Father Stets refused the villagers’ request to put a donation box in the church that would collect money for the pro-Ukrainian volunteer fighters.
“When in our churches not our but another – hostile – country’s political figures are glorified, many people start waking up and questioning the place of [the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of] the Moscow Patriarchy,” said Vasilii Pavlovich Polishchuk, the head of the village council, who said the residents approached him with a request to help organise a vote on the future of the church.
According to the official results of the February 12, 2015 poll, only 18 out of the roughly 500 residents objected to replacing the priest and joining the Kiev Patriarchy.
“Why should somebody else decide what is going on in our church? We should do it ourselves, they thought,” said Polishchuk, sitting outside the church, which has had a far from uneventful history. Turned into a cultural centre during Soviet rule, when the practice of religion was forbidden, it was then blown up by unidentified men in 1972.
The building that was resurrected on the foundations of the one destroyed by the explosion became a place where villagers proudly celebrated the country’s independence, as the Soviet Union collapsed, and worshipped openly.
But, shortly after, it came under the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchy.
When it switched, Moscow reacted strongly, calling the move “a seizure by extremists”.
It’s all a bit too much for softly-spoken 26-year-old Nadia Iaremchuk.
She takes us to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a historic Orthodox Christian monastery that was founded in 1051 and became the centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. The monastery is under the Moscow Patriarchy.
“I love to come here because it is where our roots are. This is the place where we were all united,” said Lavra, who started a process of spiritual self-exploration when working as a religious news journalist for FOMA magazine in Kiev. A year and a half ago she decided to dedicate her life to the Church; she went to visit the grave of Jesus and volunteered with the Sisterhood of Mercy – a religious charity foundation – praying and working alongside the nuns for three months.
After returning to Kiev, she was asked to open a local branch of the Sisterhood, which she is now leading. Among other things, her organisation helps the children of Ukraine’s Internally Displaced People, who have fled the conflict in the east, and provides medicine and spiritual support to injured soldiers.
However, the Church Nadia has chosen to follow does not support the cause for which these soldiers have suffered. Although she is Ukrainian, she says she does not follow the independent Ukrainian church. According to her, the Kiev Patriarchy is illegitimate as it was created as an act of political rebellion. And that, she believes, is unacceptable for a religious establishment.
“Dividing the Church after the collapse of the Soviet Union was a very political matter,” she says. “The leader of the Kiev Patriarchy is not even allowed to lead a prayer at the grave of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem as he is not canonised.”
For her, the question of which Church she should go to is settled “whatever happens in my country”.
“We can debate about some political processes in the country from a religious point of view, but the question of [the] Kiev Patriarchy and [the] Moscow Patriarchy is settled for a truly religious person because he understands what canonised Church means and knows how [the] Kiev Patriarchy was established in Ukraine. They will keep following the canonised Church not because it is called Moscow Patriarchy but exactly because it is canonised.”
Nadia says the time when she started to go to the church regularly coincided with the Maidan demonstrations that were aimed at breaking away from Russian influence. The atmosphere in the country made her question whether it was right to follow an institution that was led by the Russian Patriarch.
“OK, I am Ukrainian,” she says, adding: “What does that mean? What does Ukraine mean? These questions were giving me a headache during the revolution.
“But then I realised that the issue of Ukraine’s identity versus spirituality comes up when people are trying to politicise your faith.
“People should be going to the church to praise God and not just to support someone who all of a sudden under some political influence decided to establish his own institution.”
Follow Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter @tamila87v
Follow Rabii Kalboussi on Instagram @rabiikalboussi