As Ukraine celebrated the high point of the Orthodox year, the capital’s Pechersk Lavra – a monastery complex that has allegiance to the Moscow Patriarch – held an Easter service under unusually strained circumstances.
Normally, streets across Ukraine on the night before Easter Sunday would be dotted with Orthodox believers walking to church. Easter services in the Orthodox world start the night before and end at dawn on Sunday – to symbolise Jesus rising from the dead.
But in wartime Ukraine, every city is subject to strict curfews that usually start in the mid-evening and last until early morning.
To allow for Easter celebrations, a few Kyiv churches, including the Unesco-protected Pechersk Lavra, were granted permission to hold lock-ins. Instead of coming and going as they pleased, believers had to stay inside the historic walled complex from 11pm on Saturday until 5am on Sunday.
For more than 400 years, the only Orthodox church in Ukraine recognised by Constantinople was the Ukrainian Orthodox church, aligned with the Moscow Patriarch. But in 2018, after decades of campaigning, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is viewed as the leading authority for the world’s 300 million Orthodox worshippers, granted Ukraine the right to an independent church.
Hundreds of Ukrainian parishes voted to switch, though thousands more remained with the Moscow Patriarch. Key historic sites around Ukraine, the birthplace of eastern European Orthodoxy, are now controlled by priests of different affiliations.
The Pechersk Lavra is one that remained with the Moscow Patriarch (the 1,000-year-old St Sophia’s Cathedral is controlled by the Kyiv Patriarch), and until recently Ukrainian intelligence services deemed its religious leaders to be agents of the Kremlin for their Moscow links. The clerics now say they are independent of Moscow and have come out against “Russia’s war against Ukraine”, earning the support of advisers to Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
On invitation from one of Pechersk Lavra’s senior priests, the Guardian was let into the hand-painted interior of the 18th-century Trapezniy church – one of the 12 churches of the monastery, which sits on Kyiv’s riverbanks – for its night-time service.
In the main part of the church, believers were saving their places for a long night around the altar. On the other end of the church, a line of believers had formed for confession, which in Orthodoxy is achieved by kissing an icon with a priest standing over the believer, covering the believer’s head with his stole. The service was broadcast live for those who could not attend.
But less than an hour later, the priests at the altar stopped chanting to issue an unscheduled notice: “It is forbidden to photograph, would the person photographing please stop now.” The cleric Metropolitan Pavel, who was leading the Easter service and whom the Ukrainian authorities have investigated under charges of whipping up religious hatred, said we had to leave.
“You have to understand the [Ukrainian] ministry of culture won’t like there being lots of people here,” said an assistant cleric. “We don’t want them to close down the Lavra.”
The official live broadcast was allowed because the church video cameras were placed in such a way as to obscure the number of believers, the assistant explained.
“We don’t want anyone to know [how many came],” he said. Showing the live broadcast of a lock-in service being held by the “others” at the independent Ukrainian Mykhailivsky Cathedral in Kyiv, he pointed out that there were fewer people in attendance.
“No one wants to be photographed,” said a second assistant, who lamented the fact that before the war, hundreds of journalists would attend the Easter service.
The first assistant said the ministry of culture had restricted the number of believers who could attend the lock-in and that even by holding the services, they were breaking the law – though, a priest at Mykhailivsky Cathedral whom the Guardian spoke with said there were no such restrictions.
“We live in a rightwing state,” said the first assistant. “The president supports us but there are people who want to take the Lavra away from us – physically take it away.”
Asked who he meant, he named the far-right Ukrainian battalion Right Sector, which formed to fight Russian-backed separatists in 2014. Since then, Kremlin propaganda has exaggerated the power and popularity of the group in Ukraine and repeatedly accused Ukrainians who have come out against Moscow of being Right Sector members. “This war is a mistake,” said the assistant.
Vladimir Putin has used Moscow’s historical dominance over churches in Ukraine as a key argument for Russia’s right to control the country and was angered when Kyiv was granted independence. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Moscow Patriarch, Kirill, has portrayed it as a holy war and has been a vocal supporter of Russian soldiers’ work in Ukraine.
But during an Easter Saturday service, Patriarch Kirill was notably more restrained. He appeared to have ditched his pro-violence stance and called for an end to the conflict – though he did not criticise it.
The Metropolitans’ assistants said it was not their place to comment on Patriarch Kirill’s position. “We have helped lots of refugees – housed them in our dormitory in the Lavra. Ten of our priests are travelling right now to Mariupol to oversee funerals,” one said.
“Metropolitan Onufriy [the head representative in Kyiv of the Moscow Patriarch Church in Ukraine] has called it Russian aggression but some people in the authorities have put us in a box.”