In Feature Articles, Ukraine

 

Original Piece By Slava Myrolub

March 29 is the deadline given by Zelensky regime to the monks of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery (Ukrainian Orthodox Church) to evacuate the premises. This day could be the beginning of another civil war in Ukraine, this time a religious one. The monks, priests, and parishioners of Lavra have vowed to defend their holy place through peaceful resistance.

Lavra, in orthodox terminology, means a large, men only monastery that has a special historical and spiritual importance, while the adjective pecherska (of the caves) comes from the noun pechera – a cave. The Holy Dormition Kyiv-Caves Lavra is the first and the most ancient monastery within the borders of present-day Ukraine. It remains a holy site and a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of orthodox believers in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and beyond.

Today the monastery with all its land legally belongs to the Ukrainian state under the name of Kyiv-Pechersk national historical and cultural preserve (sanctuary). The National Historical and Cultural Preserve is located in the grounds of the Upper Lavra. It includes the Dormition Cathedral and the Refectory Church of the Saints Anthony and Theodosius where the brethren of the monastery regularly served the divine liturgies up to the end of 2022 when the Ukrainian state suddenly ended the lease and forbade the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) priests to serve masses there.  

The Holy Dormition Kyiv-Pechersk monastery itself is situated in the Lower Lavra. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the residence of the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, the Kyiv Theological Academy and Seminary are also in the grounds of the Lower Lavra. The Lavra community is under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and as of July 2018, 220 monks live in the monastery.

The monastery came into existence in 1051, during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise. It is believed that Anthony of Kyiv, a saint who had a vision of the Holy Mother of God on Mount Athos, came to the hills of Dnipro River and dug the first cave. Through pious deeds and prayers, he became widely known in the city and locals would come to him to receive blessings and spiritual advice. Among the visitors were Iziaslav, the son of Yaroslav the Wise, and the nobles of Kyiv. 

When the caves could no longer accommodate the rapidly increasing number of brethren, they financed the construction of the above-ground church and monastic cells. Monks worshipped, studied, and lived in a series of underground catacombs. When they died, their bodies were naturally preserved and mummified by the cold and dry conditions of the caves. The relics of the saint brothers can be seen today in the glass covered boxes along the walls of the Lavra underground passages and caves.

Throughout its millennium-long history the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra has been a centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism and religious life, the spiritual, social, cultural, and educational centre of East Slavic Lands. In Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, Nestor the Chronicler, wrote the Rus Primary Chronicle, the first written source in Old Russian about the Kievan Rus.  Buried in the caves of the monastery is the famous warrior Ilya Muromets, who took monastic vows and whose amazing feats of strength are recounted in Russian folk tales (Chronicle of the Holy Dormition Kiev-Pechersk Lavra — Kyiv Holy Dormition Caves Lavra).

They moved here in 1988, when on the 1000th Anniversary of the Christianization of Kievan Rus, the Soviet state granted the permission to reopen the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra as a monastery and leased to the newly created caves’ community the lower part of the Lavra, with all its above-ground buildings and the Far Caves. In February 1990, the Near Caves were also leased to Lavra’s brethren. Since 1988, the monks of the Lavra through tireless and hard work have restored the buildings and churches of the Lavra monastery, which were in decrepit state.

And yet now they are being asked to vacate the monastery in which they have been living and praying for 35 years. But this is just the latest attack by the Zelensky regime on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The post-Euromaidan authorities in Ukraine have embraced a nationalist ideology and practices. In this new Ukraine, the UOC with its canonical and spiritual ties to the Russian Orthodox Church has been a thorn in the flesh of the Ukrainian state’s endeavours to build a country with one language, one army, and one faith – to use the slogan of Poroshenko the president. When Ukraine became independent in 1990, the UOC obtained administrative autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) but kept the canonical ties. For example, the Metropolitan of the UOC was a member of the Holy Synod of the ROC; the Council of Bishops of the UOC based its activities on the Regulations of Councils of the ROC; the Patriarch of the ROC confirmed by his blessing the Primate of the UOC upon its election by the bishops of the UOC; the name of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ was commemorated in all churches and monasteries of the UOC during divine services.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, the Council of the UOC severed all canonical ties with the ROC in May of the same year. They removed ‘any provisions that at least somehow hinted at or indicated the connection with Moscow’, as stated by the Head of the Legal Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Archpriest Oleksandr Bachov. At the same Council the clergy of the UOC condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine as a violation of God’s commandment “Thou shalt not kill!” and expressed its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’ support of the Russin war on Ukraine.

Since the beginning of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, the UOC has been supporting the Ukrainian people not only in words, but also in deeds. Priests, monks, and parishioners work as volunteers, provide shelter to displaced persons, collecting hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid, raising significant financial support, helping in every way they can. Thousands of believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are fighting on the frontline.  

And yet none of it is enough to wash away the sin of the alleged pro-Russianness of the UOC in Zelensky’s and his regime’s eyes. He called the illegal decision to evict the Kiev-Pechersk monks the strengthening of the Ukrainian ‘spiritual independence’. He falsely claims that the Ukrainian people approve his acts, and he vows to continue taking steps in that direction. He recently said: ‘We will not allow the terrorist state [Russia] to have a slightest opportunity to manipulate the spirituality of our people, to destroy Ukrainian holy places – our monasteries – or steal any valuables from them.”

Zelensky, the president of all Ukrainians, arrogantly dismisses the pleas of the fathers of the UOC to repeal the eviction decision. When the highest clerical leadership of the UOC came to the door of Zelensky’s office on March 20 asking to meet with him in person and deliver the plea, he refused. The elderly priests, including the 78-old Primate of the Church, Metropolitan Onufriy, stood waiting patiently for four hours for the condescending Zelensky to grant them an audience but Mister President could not spare a minute from his very busy agenda to listen to representatives from the largest church in Ukraine, who had come to his headquarters in the name of millions of Ukrainians. By his refusal to talk to the reverend fathers, Zelensky showed his disdain and disregard both for the faith and the devotion of millions of his compatriots. He gave a clear sign that they are second class citizens who do not have the same rights as the ‘true’ and ‘patriotic’ Ukrainians who belong to the ‘right’ churches and speak the ‘right’ language.

Zelensky is repeating the mistake of the post-Euromaidan government that alienated millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians by repealing the law that granted Russian language a special status in Ukraine. This was the first act of that government in sending a clear and loud Russophobic message to all. And Donbass rebelled.

The post-Euromaidan Ukrainian state not only eliminated the Russian language from the public space in Ukraine, they also continued with their attempts to create a new Orthodox Church that would be a viable alternative to the one and only canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Under the presidency of  Petro Poroshenko, a faithful member of the UOC, an Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was created in December 2018 from the merger of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church and the schismatic unrecognized Orthodox Church of the so-called Kyiv Patriarchate, which broke from the UOC in 1992. The newly created OCU received the status of an autocephalous church in January 2019 from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The then President, Poroshenko, went to extraordinary measures to obtain this recognition. The Moscow Patriarchate and the UOC within it broke off the Eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, not recognizing its actions.

Since the creation of the OCU, the attacks on the churches and the parishioners of the UOC have intensified, with the indifference of the police and state officials. While some parishes of the UOC decided to switch allegiance and join the OCU, other members of the new OCU would raid the churches of the UOC, aggress the priests, forcefully occupy and take away churches of the UOC. The new OCU needed shrines and believers. And what better way than to take them away from the out-of-grace UOC, especially when you enjoy the support of the Ukrainian State?

In September 2022, Zelensky’s regime launched a repressive campaign against the UOC. Searches were carried out under false pretexts in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra; illegal criminal cases were open against some monks; sanctions were imposed on the Vicegerent of the Lavra; and the process of forcible transfer of churches to the OCU began.

From 1961 to 1988 Lavra was a historical and cultural preserve and all religious activities were forbidden on its grounds.

At the instigation of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, on January 1, 2023, the management of the Kiev-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Preserve unilaterally terminated the lease agreements for the Assumption Cathedral and the Refectory Church with the UOC (both temples are located on the grounds of the Upper Lavra). Then, on January 7, 2023, in the Assumption Cathedral, guarded by more than three thousand security forces, the head of the OCU Epiphaniy (Dumenko) held a liturgy attended by the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Ruslan Stefanchuk and other high officials. In the speech he made during the liturgy, Dumenko made it clear that the OCU intends to take control of the entire Lavra and called on the brethren of the monastery to convert to the OCU.

Under the current decision to evict the brethren from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, those monks who decide to switch allegiance and betray their church will be allowed to remain in the monastery. This decision is based on the alleged violations of the terms of the lease agreement that were “discovered” by the interdepartmental working group formed at the order of President Zelensky. Based on the findings of this working group, the Ministry of Culture sent a warning letter to the brethren of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra stating that the Ministry is unilaterally terminating the lease and the monks are to evacuate the Lavra and its grounds by March 29. However, as the Information and Education Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church notes, the letter does not evoke any legal grounds for such decision, while the conclusions of the working commissions are not concretized.

All of this clearly shows that the Zelensky regime’s intentions are to delegitimize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and to discredit it in the eyes of Ukrainian society as part of the ‘Russian world’; to dispossess it of the oldest monasteries on Ukrainian soil; and to hound its monks into leaving the holy caves. Zelensky’s regime openly expresses their disregard for Ukrainian Orthodox believers and tramples on their human rights. This is not the way a democratic government functions, even in the difficult conditions of war. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church stands with the Ukrainian people in the Russian-Ukrainian war. 

Let us hope that Zelensky comes to his senses, otherwise blood will be shed: the monks have already said they will not leave Lavra, and the believers and the priests of the UOC and of Lavra have recorded many videos saying that they will protect Lavra when the fateful day comes. If Zelensky dares to send the police to Lavra, he will initiate a war against his own people. And neither people, nor history, nor his own conscience, if he has one, will ever forgive him for that. It is not by alienating a large part of its own people that one brings peace to its land. 

*****

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