Today I visited the Sviatohirsk Lavra Holy Mountains monastery just north of Sloviansk, in the once peaceful and harmonious hilly hamlet of Sviatohirsk. This monastery was and is one of the principal holy places in all of Ukraine and the village once housed a series of relaxing restaurants and a hotel where you can enjoy the serene and holy atmosphere while the Monks resided in quarters in quiet contemplation of the divine. I had been invited to spend the night there by a friend in his parents’ friends’ hotel and I was looking forward to the visit. However I knew there was something ominously wrong when the taxi driver didn’t know where it was and told me blankly that nobody goes there anymore. Further, he told me, it is closed now and can’t received visitors. Undeterred, I assumed he must be bluffing because he didn’t want to go there. A search of the internet didn’t reveal anything necessarily amiss, save that the Russians had attempted to seize Sviatohirsk during the initial stages of their further invasion of Donbas in 2022 and they had been rebuffed. I was not ready for what I saw, which left me shocked and appalled.
The Monastery and all of its churches, chapels, residential quarters and ancillary buildings lay in ruins, scarred and pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holdings. The buildings had been gutted by fire. The windows had been smashed with pieces of sharp metal and the bronze and copper domes of these historical structures had been set ablaze melted or been stolen. Everything had been robbed and ruined. What sort of God is this, that permits such desecration of a holy place?
The Monastery is in the perfectly peaceful valley, down a long straight lane from the main road and has a long and distinguished history, dating at least from its first mention in the historical literature in 1627. It had always been the centre of the Sviatohirsk community, a quiet rural environment away from the plains of tundra that are commonplace in the Donbas. This riverside community served as an idyllic environment for centuries in which the most exquisite values of Ukrainian rural pride could be embraced.
And then along came the October Revolution in 1917 and ruined the peace and harmony. In 1917 there were some 600 Monks in residence; between 1917 and 1922 the Russians, at that time in the form of the Bolsheviks, beat and murdered the majority of them and demolished many of the buildings. Then they closed the site in its entirety and, in true communist fashion, turned it into a sanitarium for the communist elites. The Soviets were cultural barbarians, just as the Russians have proven themselves to be in the context of the latest conflict. This is, after all, an Orthodox monastery and in March 2022 the Russians started shelling it after it had reopened in 1991 and was prospering as an isolated religious and rural community once again.
The reason the Russians started shelling and ultimately destroyed the entire complex is because the Monastery started taking in refugees and displaced persons from the surrounding Donbas region in the context of population movements of the kind that bedevilled the region and indeed all of Ukraine at the beginning of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. In exchange for humanitarian and divine instincts on the parts of the Monks, caring for their fellow human beings in times of war and suffering, the Russians demolished the site and the surrounding hamlet, raping and pillaging as they did so. They never actually captured Sviatohirsk; this was irrelevant strategically and difficult to capture because unlike the majority of the Donbas it is not a flat region. Instead they just inflicted wanton cultural damage on Ukrainian history and they destroyed something they did not like for no better reason than the Russian Armed Forces’ contempt for the Ukrainian people and their cultural traditions. This is the sort of enemy we are dealing with: animals reduced to barbarism, who care not a jot for their fellow man. Vladimir Putin’s protestations of cultural and historical harmony between Russians and Ukrainians are belied in their entirety by this sort of wanton cultural trashing of historical artefacts and treasures.
Now all that is left is rubble and trash. There are no Monks at the site at all; nobody was able to tell me what had happened to them. The ancient wooden buildings had been burned to the ground and the stone buildings had pieces of masonry casually falling out of them. I was horrified that such things could happen.
This was no angry battle, like the battle for Bakhmut or Mykolaïv, in which an element of damage to civilian infrastructure is inevitable in the context of heavily contested military operations. Instead it is destruction of a people’s cultural history and an attempt to demolish or erase their national identity. It is a disgrace and it classifies as a war crime under the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. Let us hope that the perpetrators are one day brought to justice.
I left the site saddened and humbled, but still feeling in the air that I breathed the beautify and romance, and indeed the divinity, of this unique spot that once housed such extraordinary religiosity. My friend and I have committed to establishing a charity, perhaps part of the Ukraine Development Trust, www.development-foundation.org, to rebuild this wondrous complex and enable the holy Monks who once populated it and served this tiny community to return. Every side path needs to be rebuilt; every building needs comprehensive reconstruction. It can be done, but first we need peace because just on the other side of the valley there is Russian-controlled territory and we must ensure that the international peacekeeping forces, under the banner of NATO, are in place in this value and all the way along the Donbas front line to ensure that there can be no repetition of this sort of wanton cultural vandalism and so reprehensible an attack upon Ukraine’s cultural heritage.