Donbass Priests between Heaven and the Abyss


Any war that breaks out on the Earth in fact begins long before it in heaven, in the world which is invisible to physical eyes. This battle never stops; here, in the material world, we see only its shades, its glimpses, however ruthless they may seem to us.

Like any trial sent by God to mankind, war weeds out the unfaithful and the hesitant and strengthens the faithful, taking their souls to the new heaven. One look at the events in Ukraine is enough to understand that it is not so much the Russian world of the Crimea and Donbass and the “Ukrainian patriotism” of Galicia (nurtured by the West) that are battling, but adversaries on a far greater scale. Amid this bloody Maidan medley, the attacks on the Russian Orthodox Church is seen as only one of the numerous “features” of the general picture. But satan’s main lie is that he is invisible at first sight. The point is pushed to the sidelines, disappearing in the mass of countless varying details; the truth is obscured, becoming “petty” and of minor importance. When Christ spoke about His abode on the Earth—the Church—that the gates of hell will not prevail against Her, He meant not only direct confrontation, but, perfectly knowing the nature of the father of lies, He also implied the substitution of notions, the subtle net of diabolical temptation which is difficult to discern even by spiritually experienced people. These two stories, telling how the civil war in Ukraine has affected the lives of Orthodox clergy in the Lugansk region, indicate to what extent the gates of hell have drawn nearer to the souls in this spot on the Earth…

Father Dimitry’s sunny smile

Fr. Dimitry. A portrait. Fr. Dimitry. A portrait.

Every time Father Dimitry Lutsenko—young, fair-haired, with Paschal joy on his face—entered St. Nicholas Church in Stanitsa (Cossack village) Luganskaya, old women would immediately put aside their work, leave their candles, packets and bags, rise from their seats and run towards him to receive his blessing. At that time I lived in Lugansk and attended my parish church; from time to time I visited the stanitsa (ten kilometers or c. 6.21 miles from the city), which then was an idyllic place, because we were looking for a house, and I dropped in at its church. And that priest’s smile really stunned and captivated me—peaceful, bright, and kind. An amiable smile on his radiant face left anybody with a feeling of brightness in his heart, as if it were an icon lamp. Its charm won all the parishioners over: They loved the young priest naively and with open hearts, the way village residents can love.

The “Anti-terrorist Operation” against Donbass declared by Ukraine, made many of our residents leave their homes. But the authorities did not hesitate and struck the stanitsa (where ninety-five per cent of the population came to the referendum and ninety per cent voted in favor of decentralization) unmercifully: They dropped bombs on it from aircrafts, used heavy artillery, Grad (“Hail”) rocket launchers, and mortared. They were approaching Luhansk and ignoring the casualties. It was a terrible period, with shock and horror, when one could hardly believe what was going on. Many residents fled together with their families, taking only the bare necessities with them. Among those who vanished in these troubled times was Fr. Dimitry. There was a mass departure of people then, so nobody attached importance to Fr. Dimitry’s absence. There was a real exodus, but the young priest had a wife and a little daughter… Another priest, Father Alexei, remained with us along with a handful of parishioners at church, and the rector, Father George, who had a family in Lugansk and, struggling to cope with everything at once, visited the stanitsa to encourage his flock there. He had to overcome such formidable obstacles—but that’s another story. We wanted to believe that all these horrors would not last. And we hoped that our smiling Fr. Dimitry would return together with others.

In 2014 the streets of Stanitsa Luganskaya were deserted and empty of people—all were hiding in basements. There was shelling without warning day and night, which caused fires. All was in ruins, everything was out of order, we were short of money and were not supplied with food for several months. There was no electricity from May till October and throughout November, which means that refrigeration units in shops were out of operation. In August, members of the volunteer corps fell back over the river, the settlement was occupied by Ukrainians, with the River Severskiy Donets becoming the borderline between Ukraine and the [still unrecognized] Lugansk People’s Republic. Church services stopped for a week; when mortar shells exploded in the yard, stained glass windows were shattered, plaster and shrapnel began to fall all around with people inside the church…

We had to go through many terrible tribulations…

But one of the worst blows was later, when we started restoring communication, including the internet.

I saw a familiar face on one of the “patriotic” Ukrainian websites. But our Fr. Dimitry was already not “ours”—the interviewee was an adherent of the so-called “Kyiv Patriarchate”…

And it did not matter to me how he “poured out his heart” in a confused manner to a Kyiv newswoman, thirsty for sensations and “heroes” of Ukraine, telling her for quite a while about his path to “the right God”—this newly-appointed chaplain of the Fifty-sixth Brigade of the Twenty-first Volunteer Battalion “Sarmat”, who had left “a frozen trench just for a few hours to visit the peaceful city” of Mariupol…

Several key moments can be singled out among his reflections on the disagreement between the official and unofficial positions of the Church on the conflict in Donbass, among the stories of his native Stanitsa Luganskaya and his family (with some contempt), among the statements like “Local people are mostly pro-Russian and all feel nostalgic for the Soviet Union,” and, “For a long time I couldn’t abandon this deep-rooted idea of the ‘rightness’, of the ‘grace’ dwelling in the Moscow Church. Now I realize that it is all nonsense, this is all mere politics.” As it turned out, the twenty-nine-year-old priest firmly decided to join the “Kyiv Patriarchate” after a conversation with the schismatic Philaret Denisenko—the head of this “Patriarchate” who was defrocked and anathematized by the Church long ago—to whom the young man had been introduced. By the way, the entire interview was conducted exclusively in “Mova” [the Russian slang word for “the Ukrainian language”.—Trans.]. Then he served under Philaret in Poltava which was followed by his appointment as a chaplain to “Sarmat”. This is a territorial volunteer battalion that accomplishes missions in the M Sector—it is similar to the notorious punitive battalions, such as “Azov”, “Donbass”, “Aydar”, “Tornado”. And here is the logical conclusion: “When the guys go into action, I give them my blessing. It is not killing that I bless, but defense.” And further: “Our guys who take up arms by no means invade someone else’s territories. [Yes, these are “their territories” where they have killed thousands of people, have ruined the health of those who have survived, deprived them of their homes, and now are keeping them in fear by the force of arms.—Auth.]. They are in their land. And they are defending their territory. It is their sacred duty. I cannot help but bless them to perform this duty.” No wonder, given the infamous statement of the leader of the “Kyiv Patriarchate” Philaret Denisenko that, “it is not a sin” to slaughter the Donbass population. Well, that’s all…

Though there is one more phrase from the interview that shook the parishioners: “It seems to me that betrayal causes the greatest distress to our men. And not the betrayal of the commanders or the powers that be, but that of their own brothers, of those whom they trusted one hundred percent.” One hundred percent indeed! This is how we trusted our former priest. And this is why, when we now remember him, we feel as if a warm heart were removed from our chest and replaced with a lump of ice. We feel pain and cold, and fear, as if we were on the brink of a precipice…

An abbot from Chuginka

Abbot Mitrofan Abbot Mitrofan

You will not find a single believer in the Lugansk region who has not heard about Archimandrite Bartholomew (Kuznetsov), Abbot of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in the Chuginka village of the Stanitsa Luhanskaya district. He was tonsured a monk at the age of seventeen and came to believe in God in early childhood, when he felt the grace of God at the Church for the first time and has never left the Church since. Many people from his inner circle thought that it was a youthful whim and wouldn’t last long. The young monk had poor health, but his unshakable faith and confidence in the rightness of his chosen path astonished even experienced priests and monks. He received the tonsure from Metropolitan Ioanniky of Lugansk and Starobilsk. Denis Kuznetsov, still a very young man, took his monastic vows with the name Bartholomew and was ordained a hierodeacon and then a hieromonk.

Afterwards, Fr. Bartholomew carried out his pastoral ministry in the cathedral churches of the city of Lugansk: the Cathedrals of Sts. Peter and Paul and of St. Vladimir. And in 2007 the Holy Synod of the UOC-MP decreed to transform the parish Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Chuginka village of the Stanitsa Luganskaya district into a monastery for men. Archimandrite Bartholomew was appointed the father superior of the monastery.

He together with five other monks arrived to the place of their ministry; the church was in a small house, a wreck, and no end of work. And the work was in full swing: before the beginning of the war in Donbass they had managed to build a Church-Chapel of St. Seraphim of Sarov, a bell-tower along with a Gateway Church of the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God, and construction of the main Church of St. John the Baptist had commenced. Now several dozen monks live there. Apart from their principal obedience—unceasing prayer and Church services—the brethren also work in the refectory, the brethren’s buildings, in the vineyard (by the way, they grow about fifty varieties of fine grapes), the vegetable garden, the candle workshop, and doing construction work. But, most importantly, it is the spiritual heart of the Lugansk region. And people, feeling this, before the war flocked here to attend services, give Confession, receive Communion, and to feel at peace—they came for the Divine grace. Pilgrims used to come here in buses and cars not only from all over the Lugansk region, but also from neighboring regions and Russia. The place was simply packed—services were often celebrated in the open air because there was not enough room inside the church for all the worshippers. The magnetic personality of the monastery’s abbot and spiritual father drew many people to him.

For Abbot Bartholomew, the most important thing is the human soul. In order to save it from evil he is ready to descend to hell after Christ. Any conversation with him, even a short one, invigorates, awakens the forgotten sense of union with God, fills your heart with light and your mind with an understanding of the providence of God. All becomes easy and clear, your energy recovers, love for every living creature awakens. The father superior repeats the words of St. John of Kronstadt: “The path of priesthood, ordained by the Almighty, is the path of self-sacrifice: walk it with the fear of God and the feeling of a deep gratitude to Him. Be holy, pure, meek, humble, merciful, temperate, industrious, and patient—and your prayer will always reach the Heavens, they will be answered and fulfilled. A presbyter himself should experience the power of faith, the sweetness of prayer, the forgiveness of sins, the sorrows of soul, and consolation through Divine grace. A pastor should be a physical and a spiritual doctor, a comforter of the unhappy and sufferers, a protector of the unfairly persecuted, and a helper to all.” And Fr. Bartholomew lives according to this rule. Wherever he appears—tall, thin, always quiet, gentle and placid—he is surrounded by people everywhere he goes. Even if he is in a hurry, he will always hear you out and say a few words to everybody.

After the launch of the “Anti-terrorist Operation” in Donbass many people who wanted to emigrate came to him, seeking his blessing. But he refused to give them his blessing, telling them not to resist the will of God, to stay and pray here, to ask with humility for peace and the cessation of the fratricidal war, to repent of the sins for which these troubles have been allowed to happen. “If all residents leave, who will remain to pray here?” he used to say. However, many then disobeyed the abbot and did it their way. But they travelled to foreign lands and spent all their savings, and nevertheless had to return to their native land (those of them whose homes had not been destroyed).

When in October 2015 representatives of the so-called “Kyiv Patriarchate” attempted to fraudulently take over the St. Nicholas Church in the Raigorodka village of the Novoaidar Deanery of the UOC-MP’s Lugansk Diocese and transfer it to the jurisdiction of the uncanonical “Church”, Abbot of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist Archimandrite Bartholomew (Kuznetsov) together with head of the Novoaidar Deanery Archpriest Vasily Popov and the church rector Archpriest Vladimir Puzanov staunchly stood up in defense of the church. Fearing neither a “bishop” of “the Kyiv Patriarchate” nor the Ukrainian soldiers that accompanied him, the people and clergy went out to the yard, locked the door behind them and prevented the seizure of their temple, which has remained in the jurisdiction of the canonical Church.

Throughout the war, Archimandrite Bartholomew has not left his flock—bewildered, worn-out and frightened—for a single day. He received refugees at his monastery in Chuginka, asked the faithful to give them temporary shelter at their homes. Neither the shelling, nor the blockade of the road to Lugansk for a long time, nor a great number of armed men around could hinder him in his ministry. Services, conferences for the 1000th anniversary of the presence of Russian monasticism on Mt. Athos, appearances on television, visits to numerous churches of the diocese, meetings with various delegations, processions of the cross, monastic tonsures, charity work, and people, people, people… And all of this is being done during a war, when one’s life can end at any moment and any trivial issues become complicated. It seems that even three men would not have the strength to do what he has been doing… But he succeeds, and the serene, blue sky can be seen in his eyes, as if the bustle of this world does not concern the abbot. Glory to God for this pastor who was nurtured in our land, whose spiritual maturity has coincided with the time of the terrible trials, and who has become a support to many. We are fearlessly following him, knowing that our common path lies through thorns and thistle, war, suffering and temptations, towards the gates of Paradise, the Heavenly Kingdom.

The photos are by the author,, the Diocese of Luhansk and Alchevsk of the UOC-MP.

Svetlana Rayskaya
Translation by Dmitry Lapa

14 марта 2017 г.

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