‘This war has united believers like never before’

The battle lines are drawn across Ukrainian soil, and apparently in the heavens above it, in which more than two-thirds of the country’s population believe

After a special service to mark the Transfiguration, Fr Vasily Vyrozub emerges from the Church of the Holy Trinity in Odesa to find most of the congregation which had packed the interior already waiting for him.

They departed the inner church to form a circle around the little square outside, each with a basket of apples – sometimes other fruit – they had brought with them, which now await his blessing as is customary to mark Christ’s bedazzling of Peter, James and John on the mountainside.

Fr Vasily opens his sung sanctification in a four-square bass-baritone voice, worthy of an operatic stage. Then he makes his way around the flock wielding a sort of mop, which he dips into blessed water, splashing the fruit, and shouting the lines of his conferral with joyful abandon, as every year.

But this is stolen joy. Russian warships patrol the coast, their guns are entrenched in Crimea across the water and in occupied Kherson to the east, in battle against counter-attacking Ukrainian forces.


Accordingly, much of Fr Vasily’s invocations during the service were of this kind: “Lord, we pray for Ukraine, for our city and for every city and village in Ukraine. For our military and those who fight for our freedom. We pray for those who have sacrificed their lives…”

Now that Russian president Vladimir Putin has decreed a mobilisation of 300,000 Russians to fortify his invasion of Ukraine, people like Fr Vasily are on the front line of the deepest schism within the Orthodox churches for centuries. The man who was his spiritual leader until recently, Patriarch Kirill I, head of the Moscow Patriarchate, responded on Friday to his ally Putin’s call by saying to the prospective Russian fighters, in stark counterpoint to Vasily’s prayers: “Go bravely to fulfil your military duty. And remember that if you die for your country, you will be with God in his kingdom, glory and eternal life.”

The battle lines are drawn across Ukrainian soil, and apparently in the heavens above it, in which more than two-thirds of the country’s population believe.

Ukraine counts as the world’s third-biggest Orthodox congregation, after Russia and Ethiopia; 71 per cent of the population identify as believers, of whom 67 per cent are Orthodox. But the current crisis and invasion have caused one of the biggest fractures within Orthodoxy since the epic schism a thousand years ago with Catholicism – a schism within the schism.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church had for centuries owed allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian mother church. But after the annexations of 2014, Ukrainian priests, congregations and their leader, the Metropolitan of Kyiv, Epiphanus I, rebelled against the jurisdiction of Kyrill I, after he repeatedly blessed Russian troops.

The Russians couldn’t understand why we prayed together, coming from such different branches of the faith. They kept asking: Why? I replied that there is nothing to divide us, and we are united against this war

—  Fr Vasily Vyrozub

In October 2018, the Ukrainian church officially split from its Russian counterpart, and its secession was ratified by a Tomos, edict, on Orthodox Christmas Eve, 2019, by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, “first among equals” of the world’s Orthodox churches. The split was formalised on May 27th, when the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine switched its adherence directly to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The split reduces the authority of the Russian church by about a third.

Fr Vasily, also a military chaplain, was himself a prisoner of the Russians for 70 days. He was captured aboard a naval vessel docked at Snake Island, seized by Vladimir Putin’s forces on the first day of the war, and held a prisoner of war with two other clerics – a Lutheran and Evangelical pastor – plus a doctor and 18 crew. He was freed during a prisoner exchange in early May.

Sitting to talk, Fr Vasily has an ebullient, jocular presence, for all the gravity of his discourse. “It was very tough being imprisoned; we were among few survivors of the seizure of Snake Island. We were taken to Sevastopol, then to ‘filtration camps’, near Belgorod [in Russia]. The first 11 days were the worst – kneeling with our arms above our heads while they beat us, and we feared for your lives. This was the beginning of the war, when our army had hit them in the teeth.”

Fr Vasily told his captors he needed to return to Snake Island, to bury the bodies of Ukrainian dead. “They said: ‘Are you crazy, are you immortal?’ And I replied: ‘I am a priest, and I have to bury the dead.’ They just couldn’t understand. They’re the kind of people who will bury their injured in a mass grave.” The request was not granted.

Probably because when Fr Vasily’s captors found photographs of him “with an Admiral and a General”, they presumed that “if you are a military chaplain with the Ukrainian church, you must be working for the secret services”. Fr Vasily shows pictures of his fellow captives: “This is where we prayed, myself and the two Protestants – the Russians couldn’t understand why we prayed together, coming from such different branches of the faith. They kept asking: Why? I replied that there is nothing to divide us, and we are united against this war.”

From 2014 onwards, says Fr Vasily, “our patriarch and individual priests began talking to Constantinople, and Constantinople gave us all the right indications. We knew we left the Moscow Patriarchy with blessing from above – in every sense!

“How could a patriarch bless murder and rape?” wonders Fr Vasily. Across Ukraine, he says, “some areas have now banned the Moscow Patriarchy, but they still operate everywhere. They pray for the ‘Russian Peace’, so-called, and I wonder what those priests are really doing. You have to ask: are they Christians or politicians?”

There is a further ingredient in Ukraine’s Christian landscape: the “Uniate” or Greco-Catholic church which sought to bridge the early medieval schism theologically by adhering to papal authority, but retaining Orthodox rite. There are four million Greco-Catholics in Ukraine, mostly in the west.

“The war has brought the Greco-Catholics closer to our fold than ever,” says Fr Vasily. “This war has united believers like never before. In one trench against the Russians, we have Orthodox, Greco- and Roman Catholics, all kinds of Protestants, Jews and Muslims. We’ve started to share holidays, and visit each other’s churches. At Easter, we blessed bread together. If I’m chaplain to a unit, and there’s a soldier of a different church who needs Confession with no priest available, I’ll take it myself.”

The rift is felt equally on the other side. In the centre of Odesa, on Pushkin Street, is the Pushkin Museum, where the great writer lived for a month in 1823, before moving to accommodation he preferred. The brief sojourn is sufficient for a statue to beckon visitors inside to inspect correspondence and dedications by, and portrayals of, the master – until war closed the museum.

But, as curator Alla Mikaelovna Nirsha, explains, Pushkin is at the centre of a cultural war: no one knows for how much longer Pushkin Street will be called that – elsewhere streets dedicated to the writer have been renamed, along with other tributes to Russian culture. Nirsha shows a picture of herself in Brussels with Alexander Pushkin, the last living descendant, but also statues of the writer now removed from public spaces in Mikolayiv, Cherniv, Zaporizhzhia, Nikopol and elsewhere. “I’m sure his work will survive this vandalism,” she says.

Nirsha turns instinctively to religion: “I am Orthodox”, she says, “and I have stayed with the rightful Patriarch of Moscow, against [what she calls] this Uniate schism. So that now I have to look for enemies all around me. There’s nothing theological about it – this is pure politics, and we have been divided to death by this breakaway schism. It is all so different now: I find that Jews and Catholics are my friends, but no one who worships at one of the Constantinople churches.”

The largest residential order in Odesa is female, in the Archangel Michael Convent, and two things strike one upon entering this sanctuary: silence and cats. The silence is serene, sacred – and the cats are everywhere. There’s even a 5kph speed limit sign at the entrance, with a cat above it.

While waiting for Abbess Seraphima to join us, young nuns, who seem to float rather than walk, lay a copious spread of fruit, cakes and sweetmeats; when the Abbess enters, smiling, she explains: “We took in 500 refugees, mostly from Mariupol, Donbas, Kherson and Kharkiv but that was expected of us. We were also concerned for the cats left hungry by those who left, or came to the city in flight from the fighting, scared by explosions and missiles. So we took in about a thousand of them too – with a team of volunteers who also help our nuns run a veterinary clinic and maternity ward for kittens.”

Abbess Seraphima is Ukraine’s most influential female spiritual figure, held in high regard across the Orthodox Churches. A framed letter of thanks from the Ukrainian military for the convent’s war effort affirms her alignment over the schism without having to ask.

The Abbess is at once impressive, but intimately chatty. She opens our conversation with a hug. “It is a time of life cycles”, she says, “blessing of the wheatsheaf, and of apples, a time of harvest – but we cannot export our food to the world.”

Many people, she says, “turn to the church in this time of war. A number of people who are not even believers come for some sense of security and protection. But we are divided into religious camps, between those loyal to the Moscow Patriarchy, and those who now rightly refuse it. We have a number of refugees from the occupied lands who tell me they no longer wanted to go to their churches under the Moscow Patriarchy.” The Moscow-led church, she says, “keeps blaming us, calling us separatists”.

What does their peace look like? We ask them: what is ‘Russian Peace’? It is the subjugation of Ukraine and its people

—  Abbess Seraphima

The biggest problem is in occupied Donbas, says the Abbess, where a controversial referendum was under way, and where “we have communications with people with no option but to worship at Moscow churches. We have a lot of novices here from Donbas, in constant touch; we send our prayers, and urge them to be with us in spirit.”

The Abbess lists a number of pro-Moscow senior clergy whom she thinks are “positioning themselves politically”, while until the split “some wonderful clergy were discarded by the Patriarchy for defending Ukraine – they were thrown away”. But backstage contacts remain, and Abbess Seraphima played a direct role in the release of Fr Vasily Vyrozub, in the prisoner exchange on May 5th. “I made a personal call to them in Belgorod: treat them well, and ensure they are on the next exchange, and they were.”

Now, the schism with Moscow and general bonding in war have forged a new ecumenism between confessions: Echoing Fr Vasily, the Abbess says: “Our churches are now hand in hand: ourselves, Greco-Catholics, Roman Catholics and Protestants. On the one hand we are closer now than ever, despite our theological differences. On the other hand, the split with the Moscow Patriarchy is so deep it will outlive the war, and endure into the peace, even though there is no doctrinal dispute. What does their peace look like? We ask them: what is ‘Russian Peace’? It is the subjugation of Ukraine and its people.”

The conversation takes an unexpected twist: Abbess Seraphima was born more than 10,000km from here, in Vladivostok, Russia: “I am half-Russian on my father’s side”, she says, “and after 10 years of life, I came to the motherland of my mother. This is partly why the situation is so personally painful for me.”

The Abbess accordingly posits a line contrary to a received wisdom prevalent in Ukraine that there is something inherently barbaric in Russian culture. “How can a country with such a deep culture of literature and music unleash something so primitive and barbarian?” she wonders. “The destiny of Russia is not a matter of indifference to me. I want Russia to be healed of itself.

“But I am calm”, concludes Abbess Seraphima, just that, “because Europe needs this victory as much as we do; deals are being done under the carpet, and our soldiers have surprised the world. The West will choke the bear in its den, while we in Ukraine enact the Book of Samuel – David and Goliath.”