But if Putin wishes to reunite “ancient Rus” around a strengthened Orthodox communion, the way he’s gone about doing it has backfired horribly. In the past weeks, hundreds of Ukrainian priests have demanded that Mr Kirill be tried by a church council for giving his blessing to the war. There are calls to expel the Moscow-led church from the World Council of Churches.
Taras Kurylko, a 21-year old student from the village of Khvativ, explains that under the communists, the Orthodox in his community had kept the faith, yet they also developed a strong aversion to Moscow politics. “We remember our history, that there wasn’t any way to go to the liturgy in the open under the Soviets. Children were baptised in secret. There were lots of spies, looking at who is praying, who is a priest. Our village remembers those strict times.”
So, when Ukraine gained its independence, many Orthodox believers wanted to replicate that blow for freedom in religious terms too – hence the establishment in 2018 of an autonomous church affiliated to Constantinople rather than Moscow, a schism that has been condemned by both Mr Kirill and Putin who, in time-honoured fashion, has accused it of being proto-fascist. Mr Zelensky has supported the UOC.
Tiny at first, it has enjoyed a spark in growth thanks to the invasion – and the war has compelled Orthodox priests to test their consciences.
Fr Shestak explains: “On the first day of the war, a lot of parishes recorded videos asking for the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to break its communion [with Moscow]… Churches in Ukraine [initially] decided not to pray for Kirill and the Moscow hierarchy in their services” to signal their discomfort.
Those prayers are trickling back, particularly in the Carpathians and the east of Ukraine; some priests are preaching Mr Kirill’s line that this is a civil war, not an invasion, and that therefore both sides should lay down their arms.
Student Kurylko describes this as a “mental invasion”. One might certainly call it an attempt at neutrality that doesn’t reflect the reality of mass graves. The conflict is a test, “of who is Ukrainian and who is not, and where the grey is. Are you on the white side or the black side? There is no middle-zone.”
Ultimately, says Fr Shestak, most believers will eventually choose independence. “Sixty days of war has totally changed the mentality” of the average citizen, religious or otherwise. They are no longer arguing about what language should be spoken – Ukrainian or Russian – “they are connected to each other by the war and want peace. They are ready to make this change, not to be connected to Moscow.”
Fr Myhailo agrees. Standing in a church transfigured by candle-light, the air thick with incense, he quietly predicts that more and more parishes will join the autonomous church. Even if Putin were successful, even if the whole country fell, which everyone insists is impossible, “Most of my parishioners have a clear understanding of what to do. We will decide to stay free even if it costs us our life.”