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Kyiv's Latest Battle
Two months after my last trip to Ukraine, I am back in Kyiv. Part of the aim of coming is to organise our autumn charity project, Wild Bear Vets 2023, which will bring wounded Ukrainian veterans to Canada for wilderness skills training. But, on returning to the capital - and amid religious chanting, women wielding crosses, and the waft of beeswax candles - I also found a battle brewing that goes to the heart of Ukrainian national and religious identity.
A year after Kyiv saw off columns of Russian tanks and attack helicopters dispatched to bring it back under Moscow’s yoke, a new quieter battle is underway in the Ukrainian capital.
Amid 70 acres of ornately-painted churches, gilt domes and medieval monasteries built into caves overlooking the Dniepr River, rival crowds chant, shout insults and sing defiantly at each other.
Inside the gates of the religious complex known as Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, one of the oldest and most decorous in the Orthodox world, bearded priests in cassocks and ladies in headscarves hold up crosses and intone prayers.
Arrayed against them outside young, urban and patriotic Kyivans chant “Glory to Ukraine” and “Glory to the heroes.”
They are furious that what they see as a nest of Moscow’s spies and sympathisers are still living in their midst even as the east of their country is being pulverized by Russian armour.
Their anger has only grown amid allegations that priests formally allied to Moscow’s religious leaders have stashed Russian passports and cash and that, in areas of the occupied east, they have sometimes switched sides and supported Putin’s armies.
“These people say they are religious, but they are bastards,” Bohdan, 33, said of the Orthodox priests and believers gathered inside the Lavra Pechersk monastery. “They are defenders of Russia, they supported the invasion, and they even call in air strikes against us.”
Religious tensions in Kyiv have long simmered. For hundreds of years the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was subordinate to Moscow. But in the chaotic years after the Bolshevik revolution it split.
Parts of it later became the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, better known as the Kyiv Patriarchate. The other half continued to cleave to the Moscow Patriarchate.
In 2019, five years after Putin invaded eastern Ukraine and with casualties and anti-Russian sentiment mounting, the Kyiv Patriarchate applied for and was granted permission by the spiritual head of all Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew of Constantinople, to formally cut all ties with Moscow. It became its own church.
The Moscow Patriarchate, meanwhile, continued to recognize the authority of Patriarch Kirill, a former KGB collaborator and full-bore supporter of Vladimir Putin. But after last year’s invasion of Ukraine began, it too declared against the war.
Many Ukrainians, nevertheless, still regard the Moscow Patriarchate with intense suspicion.
Critics point to the expensive limousine driven by its leader, Patriarch Pavel, known by the sobriquet Pavel Mercedes in much of the Ukrainian press, and his designer accessories, as evidence that he is secretly funded by Moscow.
Now tensions have come to a head after Kyiv authorities served Pavel with an eviction order.
In response his followers have blocked one of the main entrances to the compound, vowing to peacefully oppose any attempt to remove them.
Those inside the compound say that accusations that they are in cahoots with Moscow are baseless.
Anastasia, a 26-year-old historian who is on maternity leave, came to Lavra Pechersk at the weekend to protest the eviction order. She said that the real division was between believers and non-believers.
“This war is killing our children too,” she said. “At least we pray for the dead, they don’t even know how to pray.”
Yulia, an 18-year-old student of tourism, said that she should be free to choose which religious leader she followed and rejected the idea that she was making a political choice.
She said: “We want victory for Ukraine and an end to all this war. We have no relationship to Putin or Kirill.”
The setting for the conflict, on a sprawling hillside above Kyiv, could hardly be more steeped in symbolism. The Lavra Pechersk Monastery was founded nearly 1,000 years ago when monks were granted permission to settle the caves above the Dniepr.
At the time Prince Yaroslav the Wise ruled Kyivan Rus, a country that is seen as the spiritual ancestor of both modern-day Russia and Ukraine.
The monastery developed over time and today makes up an ornate and muralled complex and is home to dormitories, crypts and chapels, some carved deep into the rock.
President Volodymyr Zelensky – originally elected on a platform of improving ties with Moscow - has trodden carefully on the issue. He has left the decision of whether to evict to the courts. Kyiv authorities have said they will not use force to impose an eviction.
At the crux of the dispute is a complex web of identity and historical allegiance.
Many in the west see Ukraine as a country split into two mutually-antagonistic parts - one that speaks Ukrainian, wants to join Europe, and prays, if at all, at Ukrainian churches; and another, the eastern part, where people speak Russian and follow Moscow’s religious leaders.
As for Russia, the spiritual dimension of its invasion of Ukraine – an attempt not just to reunite lands it sees as historically Russian but also different branches of the Orthodox Church – has received little coverage, but is an important plank of Putin’s justification at home.
In reality the divisions are complex and lines of political allegiance, language use, and religious affiliation often do not overlap.
But for Oleksei, 35, who had joined the crowd to demand that the eviction goes ahead, the issue was simple. “These people don’t even accept that Ukraine exists,” he said. “It’s time to take this place back.”
LINKS & MORE
+ I haven’t forgotten that I promised a dispatch on going into battle with the Kurds in Iraq to mark the 20th anniversary of the American-led invasion. It is on the back-burner and will emerge, ready for consumption, soonish I hope.
+ Our Wild Bear Vets 2023 programme is on track and we are currently interviewing potential participants in Ukraine. We spoke to a young man called Serhii this week, who is in hospital after being badly wounded in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine only a week ago, and is keen to join us in Canada in September.
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