Today is God’s day, and this morning, before I commenced by duties as an aid worker, I went to an 8am church service in the centre of Mykolaïv. It was an Orthodox service; I could not easily find a service within my denomination close at hand. The church was full, albeit notable by the absence of young men. They are all at the front line, on hand to fight. It was a devout and conservative affair. In the Ukrainian tradition, women universally cover their heads when entering an Orthodox Church. As is usual, we stood while the priests passed by waving incense and chanting. You pray standing up. In Ukraine, the traditional Orthodox stricture that men stand on one side of the church and women on the other is typically not observed as rigidly, at least during services. This was a large and busy service in a major Mykolaïv cathedral.
It is conventional that military fatigues are not worn when attending church, and as a courtesy I removed mine. The greater majority of the congregation were elderly women, but not exclusively. Everyone has reason to be concerned and worried at this time in Ukraine, and church services are attended by all sectors of society who are not otherwise preoccupied with the war effort. For the most part the Russian Armed Forces have refrained from bombardment of religious buildings, with some notorious exceptions such as the cathedral in Odessa. The cathedral in Mykolaïv is in tact, and it remains an ornate and beautiful building with a serene atmosphere. Outside, virtually every building on the street opposite the cathedral has suffered from war damage, with windows and doors boarded up. The centre of Mykolaïv feels rather sad. It is still recognisable, with all the same shops, bars and restaurants that I recall in place; but many of the older buildings have been damaged in some way or other, or they have been boarded up as a precaution so that they do not suffer war damage.
Outside the church, a disabled man in a wheelchair begged for money but nobody had much to give him. Cash is short in southern Ukraine - indeed in the whole of Ukraine. The war economy means that every last state resource is devoted to driving the efforts on the front line, and little funds are left by way of social security. Because many wealthier Ukrainians have left, the once vibrant hospitality sectors have dried up. A noticed a soldier and his wife or girlfriend, sitting on a bench together, enjoying a coffee, presumably before he went back to the front line. They may or may not see each other again, I thought. The streets still roar with traffic early on a Sunday morning, but Mykolaïv’s central pedestrian precinct is empty.
Religion plays a hugely important part in contemporary Ukraine, and the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia extends back far further than the beginning of the current war in 2022, at least to the Maidan Revolution in February 2014 that deposed the Russian-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich who had been elected into office with the support of the Russian-speaking populations in southern and eastern Ukraine. Then Russia started annexing Ukrainian territory, starting with Crimea and proceeding to the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region. This was the beginning of the first war between Russia and Ukraine in recent times, and the ongoing friction between the two countries has had significant religious consequences as well.
The most important of these was when, in October 2018, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephalous status: that is to say, independence in the governance and management of its affairs. This followed complaint by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that it had been subject to interference by the Moscow Patriarchate, which had exerted de jure authority over the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine within the Orthodox system and had been using that influence, so Ukrainian Orthodox Church leaders complained, to peddle political ideologies useful to Moscow through the pulpits of the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church granted independence, and this led to a schism between the Moscow Patriarchate and the broader Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church now sits on its own, formally outside the Orthodox Church system in principle based in Constantinople (now Istanbul), while the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine, as it is known, retains its independence by virtue of its autocephalous status.
The net result is that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has become a symbol of Ukrainian independence from the influence of Russia and her malign contemporary politics. The Russian Orthodox Church is an institution that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been careful to cultivate and indeed to manipulate and control. That is why the Moscow Patriarchate was using its influence to peddle Putin’s influence via pulpits in Ukraine. Now church attendance in Ukraine is undergoing a renaissance, as people more openly wear religious symbols in public and adherence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is seen as a means of expressing one’s patriotism and unity.
In one sense the split between the Russian Orthodox Church and the broader Orthodox Church is tragic, because one would hope that religion does not become so politicised that it becomes a weapon of ideology and propaganda. Unfortunately with the Moscow Patriarchate falling under the increasingly firm control of Vladimir Putin and his array of domestic security and intelligence officials, this is precisely what happened. Dictatorships, in particular totalitarian ones that seek to control the way people think (and that is arguably what we see in Vladimir Putin’s modern Russia), often adopt religious institutions to encourage people to think in the ways that they consider desirable. This is profoundly disturbing, as one would hope that a healthy and independent church and ecclesiastical system might curb some of the worst excesses of totalitarian rule. Unfortunately Nazi Germany in the 1930’s involved the established churches seeing a similar fate of government influence and control; those priests who did not want to pursue the political line they were mandated with when preaching from the pulpits found themselves in queer street, and there is some evidence of similar trends in modern Russia.
After a sobering and reflective church service. I road the early morning marshrutka (private mini-van plying public bus routes for a mild premium) back to my ghost ship of an empty hotel. I bought a small but poignant icon in the cathedral shop. It was of Sveti Luka: Luke the evangelist, the patron saint of scholars, artists, literature and several other of the fine arts, the appreciation of which is often lost in war. Here it will rest, on my hotel room table, while I head off to pursue the day’s work caring for the poor and dispossessed.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.