Crisis in Ukraine

Blood, Faith and Fatalism in Divided Ukraine

Religious divisions contribute to the conflict, now marked by open bloodshed. But ordinary Ukrainians have little faith in the future.


YENAKIYEVO, Ukraine—Followers of the Orthodox faith spread Easter treats on newspapers and towels in front of their church in eastern Ukraine on Sunday: painted eggs, sticks of smoked sausages, sugary “kulich” pies and holiday dishes made of ricotta cheese and raisins. All the food was there to be blessed by Father Andrei Boikov, archpriest of Sviato Pokrovsky Church in Yenakiyevo, the hometown of deposed President Victor Yanukovych. It was a day of religious celebration, to be sure, but the priest said his congregation faced “hostile” times.

The night before, as everybody knew, at least three pro-Russian activists manning a makeshift checkpoint were shot and killed near Slovyansk about 100 miles to the north. The bloodshed heightened the possibility of direct Russian military action to “protect” its partisans. The self-declared “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk openly asked for Moscow to intervene. “Fascists and imperialists are trying to conquer us by killing and injuring civilians,” he said. “They want to make slaves of us.” If Moscow’s tanks do roll into Ukraine, there’s little doubt that both the congregation and clergy in Yenakiyevo would welcome them, but not without reservations.

Across the street from Father Andrei’s church, pro-Russian protesters are occupying the town administration building, waving Russian and “Donetsk Republic” flags. “We fear that this conflict between the pro-Russian population and the new fascist authorities, who understand only physical force and violence, will last not for months but for decades,” Father Andrei told The Daily Beast.

Throughout Ukraine, where 11,000 Orthodox churches serving over 10 million believers answer to the Moscow Patriarchate, priests prayed for peace without a “fascist” and “neo-Nazi” government, as they call the new authorities in Kiev, but also without war and victims.

Yet the leaders of the church hierarchy are drawing their own battle lines in a country divided not only by language and ethnicity, but by the nationalist leanings of the religious patriarchs.

In Kiev, at the height of protests that brought down Yanukovych, Orthodox priests passed through the crowd blessing the demonstrators, and on Easter Sunday there, Patriarch Filaret made a blunt political speech. He described Russia as “evil” and prayed, “Lord, help us resurrect Ukraine.”

In Moscow, Patriarch Kirill addressed an audience that included Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kirill prayed “that peace be restored in the minds and hearts of our brothers and sisters in blood and faith and that the lost ties and cooperation which we all need so much also be restored”—which would sound benign if Putin’s political technicians were not working so hard to shatter peace in Ukraine so the Kremlin can restore “lost ties and cooperation” by invading and annexing the Russian-speaking parts of the country should Putin deem it necessary.

The atmosphere is increasingly ugly. Several priests from the Moscow Patriarchate have received anonymous threats demanding they switch their allegiance to the Kiev patriarch if they want to continue serving in Ukraine.

I asked Father Andrei if Moscow’s Orthodox Church had better times in Ukraine under President Yanukovych. He said he respected the “strong-willed” president, whom he had met personally when the president returned to his hometown on a previous Easter. Yanukovych supported the church, and fixed schools and roads, said Father Andrei. But he did not solve two key problems in the city: The Yenakiyevo metal plant still did not get filters for its smokestacks and pollutes the town so seriously that every building around is soot-stained black, including the Sviato Pokrov Church. And the average salary in the city is less than $200 a month.

“Out of poverty and despair our sons work in illegal coal mines,” one of the Orthodox faithful, Vera Zviagintseva, told me. “They are old abandoned holes in the ground—many boys die every year.”

If one is to untangle the complex emotions driving unrest in eastern Ukraine, it is not enough to blame Kiev’s ideologues or Moscow’s neo-imperialists or the ambitions and invocations of the patriarchs. There is also this hunger for a better life that no one seems able to deliver to the average Ukrainian.

A hope for change was the reason why a school bus driver, Sergei Rudenko, and his two sons took shifts at that checkpoint set up by pro-Russian separatists outside Slovyansk. Between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Easter, four cars approached their position and opened fire on the sleepy militants. Rudenko, 53, died almost instantly when a bullet caught him right between the eyes. I spoke to Rudenko’s sons, who were in mourning outside their wooden house in Bolbasovka village. “We were shot by the Right Sector’s snipers, like in a violent thriller,” said Maksim Rudenko, describing what he called “the horror night.” “One of our 20-year-old guys tried to run away but they shot him in the back of his head,” he said.

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Many questions have been raised in Kiev and elsewhere about the circumstances of the shooting. Two burned-out cars at the site were full of bullet holes fired from the side, not the front. Reporters were shown various documents supposedly belonging to Right Sector members that somehow escaped the incineration of their automobiles. In the deceptive multilayered offensives of what military analysts call “special war,” “false flag” operations meant to thrust blame on a rival are commonplace.

But Rudenko’s sons see him as one of the first victims in what one described as the “big bloody partisan war” that is coming. Several times a day on Easter Sunday, Orthodox priests from the Slovyansk churches came out to bless the mostly unemployed men of the self-recruited “Donbass Army.” By Sunday night, local defenders of two more checkpoints around Slovyansk complained about attacks, and several openly hoped that “Uncle Vova,” President Putin, would send in his forces to defend them. “We had plenty of experience with partisan battles during Word War II,” self-declared “People’s Mayor” Viacheslav Ponomarev told reporters at his press conference on Sunday.

All factions are girding for new battles, and all are being told that God is on their side.