In Ukraine’s East, A Shrapnel-Scarred Monastery Is Caught Up In War And Religious Rivalry – Analysis


By Aleksander Palikot

(RFE/RL) — The white walls, colorful roofs, and shiny golden domes stand out amid the treetops on the steep slope above the winding Siverskiy Donets River in the Donbas, the swath of southeastern Ukraine marred by war for almost a decade.

The view of the Holy Mountains Monastery is as captivating today as it was before the Donbas conflict erupted in 2014 and before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. But black soot and hundreds of shrapnel marks leave no doubt: The war raging in Ukraine has not bypassed this major Orthodox Christian site, also known as the Svyatohirsk Lavra.

Nor did it leave the town on the other side of the river in peace. Svyatohirsk, which once attracted thousands of pilgrims and tourists, is ruined and half-empty.

Yet to Archimandrite Feofan, a monk and the treasurer of the monastery, which has long been criticized by Kyiv for its alleged connections to Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas, “any war always comes for a reason.”

This war, he told RFE/RL — stressing that he was speaking as a private individual, not on behalf of the monastery — came “to repair a nation.”

In Svyatohirsk and many other places in Ukraine, the effect has been the opposite — death and destruction — and the prospect of real recovery seems distant.

Meanwhile, the monks of the Svyatohirsk Lavra — and what was until recently called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) of the Moscow Patriarchate, to which the monastery belongs — are in a precarious position as a result of Russia’s aggression, unable to convincingly distance themselves from the Russian Orthodox Church, which backs the war.

Early in the invasion, Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the historically Moscow-linked UOC, appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop the war, calling it “a repetition of Cain’s sin.” In line with that statement, Feofan said that he “did not expect the invasion,” adding that he considers the “fratricidal” war “an insanity.”

“It is us and our sins that are to be blamed for this war,” Feofan told RFE/RL in a long conversation late last month. He said an “artificial divide” that had for years been promoted between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians in the Donbas, whom he called “one people,” led to the “terrible trial” that they are going through now.

Such wording mixes suggestions that the invasion is morally wrong with echoes of one of the main false claims Putin has used in his attempts to justify it: that Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same and that war is the result of efforts by the West and the current Kyiv government to set them against each other and use Ukraine to subdue Russia.

‘Safe Haven’ Under Fire

One thing is true: The trial has been terrible indeed.

In early June of last year, less than four months into the full-scale invasion, Russian troops approached Svyatohirsk and forced the Ukrainian Army to withdraw to the south bank of the Siverskiy Donets.

The retreating troops blew up the bridge spanning the river, and the monastery was trapped in the middle as the two sides exchanged fire for four months straight — until Ukraine’s forces took the area back in a lightning counteroffensive in parts of the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions last September.

As the fighting raged, hundreds of refugees from Svyatohirsk and nearby villages rushed to the monastery to seek shelter from artillery fire and the menace of the Russian occupation.

Among the refugees were nuns from a destroyed convent in Bohorodychne, a nearby village, who had come to the monastery in May along with ordinary residents in a column protected by Ukrainian troops.

Used to hosting pilgrims, the Svyatohirsk Lavra was able to house and feed several hundred people amid the melee. Putting in a dig at Kyiv and the local Ukrainian authorities, Feofan said that the monastery “took on the role of the state, which did not manage to help its citizens.”

Anatoliy, a blacksmith who had worked for the monks for decades, told RFE/RL over dinner in the monastery’s dining hall that “countless people who lost everything found a save haven in the monastery” and that “one can only understand this godly place after living here.”

The premises and possessions of the Holy Mountains Monastery were severely damaged throughout the period of active fighting in the area. According to reports from the Ukrainian military, a Russian bomb hit the monastery as early as March 12. On May 4, Russian shelling damaged a dormitory, injuring at least seven people. On May 30 and June 1, artillery fire killed three monks and a nun and wounded at least three other monks. Several buildings belonging to the monastery in the surrounding area were also damaged or destroyed, including the wooden All Saints Hermitage church, the largest wooden church in Ukraine.

Faced with constant danger, more than 50 people staying in the monastery decided to evacuate, according to Volodymyr Rybalkin, a Donbas war veteran who also took part in the fighting that liberated Russian-occupied land in the area last year. He now heads the Svyatohirsk civilian-military administration.

Those who remained at the Lavra lived in an “information vacuum” with no Internet or cell-phone connections, Rybalkin told RFE/RL. “They thought that the whole Donetsk region was already under Russian control and couldn’t believe that trams were operating in nearby Kramatorsk.”

Along with members of the local territorial defense unit, Rybalkin was recording video messages from relatives of people staying at the monastery urging them to go to Ukrainian-controlled territory. The soldiers would sneak into the Lavra, show the videos, and take anyone out who was willing to leave.

In late July, about 10 months after the liberation of Svyatohirsk, some 100 people from the area, including 24 children, were staying in the monastery. Some have lost their homes and some have worked for the monastery and continue to do so.

Brutal Occupation

Outside the monastery, only a fraction of the former residents remain in a now-devastated district sometimes called the “Switzerland of the Donbas” for its tranquil meadows and extensive oak woods, which in the past attracted visitors seeking a respite from industrial cities such as Donetsk and Luhansk.

According to the local authorities, only 950 residents out of the preinvasion population of 5,000 remain in the town of Svyatohirsk, and 2,600 out of more than 9,000 in the wider district. Almost all the hotels, health resorts, and recreation centers that prospered before the invasion are out of business.

Rybalkin gets visibly irritated when confronted with the claim that the Lavra protected people in the absence of state support. He says those who stayed in the monastery did so because “they were close to it before and listened to the advice of the monks.”

“The Lavra would like to be a state within a state, but we are in charge here,” he told RFE/RL.

Since the end of the Russian occupation, the civilian-military administration and volunteers have provided residents with free meals and humanitarian aid. Authorities opened a public bathhouse and laundry in the town, which has no running water. Some businesses have reopened, and Rybalkin said a bank and a gas station will start functioning soon.

The streets of Svyatohirsk have largely been cleared of rubble and shattered glass, but the forests around it remain densely mined.

The menacing backdrop for this hesitant recovery is the fierce fighting on the front line, just 30 kilometers away, where Russian forces have been pushing to gain ground near the cities of Lyman, to the southeast, and Kupyansk, further away to the north. Ukrainian soldiers move in and out of the half-destroyed town, sometimes staying briefly to repair vehicles or do some shopping.

And while Svyatohirsk is slowly coming back to life, it’s a shell of its former self for now, and may be for a long while. Most of its residents left last year, many of them for Russia or Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine — including the ex-mayor, Volodymyr Bandura, who had been a member of the now-banned pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life party.

Olha Kartashova, who coordinates the work of the humanitarian aid center in Svyatohirsk, told RFE/RL that some residents “greeted the occupying Russian forces as if they were liberators,” but that many more just accepted their presence because there was little else they could do, fearing for their lives, their homes, and their possessions.

Kartashova said that she and her daughter were forced to strip naked by Russian soldiers who interrogated them, and that her son-in-law was treated very roughly during questioning. The family spent almost every night of the occupation hiding in a cellar. Their house was shelled twice — when the Russian Army took Svyatohirsk and when Ukrainians retook it.

According to Rybalkin, the Russian forces felt persistent danger as the town was under Ukrainian fire control, and Ukrainian drones constantly monitored their movements.

“Russian soldiers were sometimes wearing civilian clothes and hiding their guns in bags,” he said.

Unable to solidify control, the Russians did not manage to establish an administration in Svyatohirsk, so remaining residents were left at the mercy of the soldiers and had to rely on them for food and other essentials.

After the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) carried out so-called “stabilization measures” following the Russian retreat last autumn, the county’s prosecutor opened a number of investigations into suspected collaboration, separatism, and looting.

The SBU also reported that it had identified a “torture chamber” at a recreation center near the Svyatohirsk Lavra, where the Russian military “forcibly held residents supporting Ukrainian sovereignty.”

Residents who endured the occupation spoke of brutality and chaos.

Retired doctor Tamara Yevdokymova, 82, grows potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables in her little garden, despite the rusty tank turret stuck in her yard — a reminder of the Russian forces’ failed attempt to cross the Siverskiy Donets.

During the fighting last year, she watched her house burn as she hid from cluster munitions and artillery shells exploding all around. She told RFE/RL that a young Russian soldier had beaten her and knocked her teeth out. Her son, a monk, lives in Russia, but she plans to stay put “in the place where I’ve lived all my life and buried my husband.”

“It’s time for me to die,” she said. “I don’t want to live in this madhouse anymore.”

The ‘Donetsk Clan’ And The ‘Russian World

After the Russian retreat, the monks of the Svyatohirsk Lavra also found themselves in a situation that seems like a dead end.

The UOC long dominated Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine, while rival denominations linked to Kyiv rather than Moscow struggled to gain ground. That changed gradually, though, and in 2019 the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was recognized as independent by the spiritual head of all Orthodox Christians: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

Now, as Ukraine itself fights to preserve its independence, the UOC is losing parishioners and facing intense criticism. The Ukrainian authorities accuse the church of maintaining links with Russian security services, advancing pro-Russian narratives, and collaborating with occupying forces in Russian-held parts of Ukraine.

Since late last year, the SBU has conducted searches at numerous UOC places of worship as a part of a “counterintelligence” operation, and the most prominent monastery in Kyiv has been the site of a tense standoff. The SBU has not said publicly whether it has searched the Svyatohirsk Lavra.

In a decree issued on December 28, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy suspended the citizenship of the Svyatohirsk Lavra’s abbot and spiritual leader, Metropolitan Arseniy, and 12 other representatives of the UOC.

Arseniy was at the monastery during a visit in late July, according to Feofan, but declined to speak to RFE/RL. He has repeated Russian narratives many times over the past decade, accusing Ukraine of fueling the war in the Donbas, and has supported Russian-imposed referendums in Crimea and other Ukrainian regions that have been widely dismissed by the international community as illegitimate shams.

In 2014, the anti-Kyiv forces led by Russian former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Igor Girkin, a key figure in the Russian takeover of Crimea and the early stages of the Donbas war, reportedly received a blessing and backing from some of the monks of Holy Mountains Monastery. Later, Girkin said that his “personal guard” at the time had “consisted of spiritual sons, monks, hieromonks of the Svyatohirsk Lavra” and that one of his brigades was “commanded by a novice of the Svyatohirsk Lavra.”

Feofan told RFE/RL that he does not “know anything about that” and asserted that Girkin had not been in the Lavra in 2014, contrary to reports in media outlets of the Russia-backed separatists. At the same time, he asserted that “both sides are responsible for the escalation in 2014” and “it is Ukraine that started shelling Slovyansk” — site of some of the first fighting in the war that erupted that year — “with heavy artillery.”

Tetyana Derkach, a Ukrainian religion reporter and author of the book The Russian Church In The Hybrid War Against Ukraine, described Svyatohirsk Lavra as “the most prominent center of the ideology of the ‘Russian World’ in the Donbas” — a reference to the expansionist sentiments of Russian nationalists who advocate taking over parts of foreign countries populated by Russian speakers.

The Svyatohirsk Lavra is also burdened by its connections to Moscow-friendly political figures such as former President Viktor Yanukovych, who abandoned office and fled to Russia in 2014 under pressure from the Euromaidan protest movement, which erupted in response to evidence of official corruption and his decision to scrap plans for an agreement tightening ties with the European Union.

Yanukovych was a frequent guest of the monastery, handed several public properties to it, and supported it financially. He received its backing during the 2004 presidential election, with worshippers praying for “God’s slave Viktor.”

Derkach called the Svyatohirsk Lavra the “native church” of the so-called “Donetsk clan,” a once-powerful group that included Yanukovych and his prime minister, Mykola Azarov.

The monastery received the status of lavra — a step symbolically elevating its spiritual and cultural significance to the level of Kyiv’s Monastery of the Caves and the Pochayiv monastery in western Ukraine — after Yanukovych negotiated it with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

‘Hybrid War’

According to Derkach, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has done little to change sentiments at the Svyatohirsk Lavra — despite changes in its official rhetoric. In May 2022, the UOC publicly broke with the Russian Orthodox Church, adopting amendments to its statutes that nominally granted it “autonomy and independence.” But critics say these changes have not altered the canonical status of the church and are purely symbolic.

The monks in Svyatohirsk mention Patriarch Kirill during some of their services despite his vocal support for Putin and the invasion. Kirill, a prominent ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has said that Russian soldiers who die in battle are performing “a sacrifice that cleanses away all of that person’s sins.”

Feofan said that the monks of the Lavra “do not listen to Patriarch Kirill” and argued that his name is “conventionally” mentioned in the prayers because “the OCU is now independent of the Russian Orthodox Church, but it is not autocephalous.”

Throughout the conversation, he also voiced several ideas characteristic of UOC rhetoric, saying that “abortions in Ukraine kill more people than the ongoing war” and that COVID-19 pandemic restrictions “distanced people from God and thus facilitated the war.”

Echoing a remark from Russian state-TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, Feofan called the rival OCU a “Turkish church made up of fugitives from canonical church” — a reference to the fact that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is based in Istanbul.

Derkach said that while the UOC condemns the invasion in official statements, it spreads pro-Russian narratives at the local level because it is struggling to maintain unity at a time when some of its parishes are under Russian occupation, where they are actively integrated with the Russian Orthodox Church, and others are on government-held territory.

“The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been an integral part of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine since 2014, so now — when it is suffering from it itself — it can only wait for better times,” she said.

  • Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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