The vertically shot video published last November shows no weapons, battlefield atrocities, or even soldiers. But the sound of a patriotic Russian song echoing through a church on the famous grounds of Kiev’s Lavra Monastery seemed to open a new front in Ukraine’s war with Russia.
The church belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) – which, despite the name, has traditionally been loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church, and whose current leader Patriarch Kiril has openly supported the ruthless invasion of Moscow. The UOC leadership split with Kiril, denounced Russia’s attack and declared independence from Russia last May.
In a sermon days after the split, Patriarch Kiril said he prayed that “no temporary external obstacles will ever destroy the spiritual unity of our people”.
Days after the video surfaced, masked members of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) raided the Lavra – officially, to prevent it from being used for “hiding sabotage and reconnaissance groups” or “storing weapons” .
By December, a handful of church leaders had been sanctioned and dozens of churches across the country had been raided by the SBU – though the searches turned up little more than a few Russian passports, symbols and books.
“There was no mention in the finds of weapons or saboteurs. What they said they found was printed matter, documents, which are not prohibited by Ukrainian law,” UOC Bishop Metropolitan Klyment told CNN in an interview.
However, there is plenty of gray area. In a statement, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) told CNN that it is not illegal to store Russian propaganda, but it is illegal to distribute it. “If such literature is in the library of the diocese or on the shelves of a church store, it is clear that it is intended for mass distribution,” the statement said.
It insisted that the raids on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church “are exclusively aimed at national security issues. This is not a matter of religion.” However, Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, called the searches an “act of intimidation”.
Professor Viktor Yelenskyi, Ukraine’s newly appointed religious freedom watchdog, said the UOC leadership has been “poisoning people with the ideas of the Russian world” for more than 30 years. He defended the SBU raids, comparing them to the post-9/11 crackdown on Islamic extremism. “Ukraine is still a safe haven for religious freedom.”
Still, in late 2022, the government refused to renew the church’s lease on its massive, central Lavra Cathedral, handing over the keys to the eponymous, but completely separate Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). The rival OCU celebrated Orthodox Christmas there for the first time this year (on January 7).
Speaking outside the church on Christmas Day, Alla, who declined to give her last name, said, “I think it should have been done a long time ago.”
“We tolerated this [UOC] angry and closing our eyes because we thought we should be tolerant, but the war brought it all to the surface.”
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church held this year’s Christmas Mass in a smaller church a stone’s throw from the cathedral. Kyrylo Serheyev, a student at the lavra seminary, said this year that he mainly prays for Ukrainian troops. And despite government sanctions and close scrutiny of his church, he insists “our patriotism is not abating.”
Viktoria Vinnyk said she regretted not having a mass in the central cathedral this year. Although she speaks Russian, she has never been to Russia.
“I hope for better in my country. And I hope the situation will change,” she said.
The cathedral is not the only holy place that changes hands. Outside Kiev, in the village of Vita Poshtova, a small church has stood on a hill above the frozen lake since Soviet times. It’s the only one in the village. In September, the congregation voted to convert the church from UOC to the independent OCU. Parishioner Olha Mazurets says she is not comfortable with any connection to Russia.
“It is a matter of identity and self-preservation. We must also identify our enemy,” she told CNN.
Father Pavlo Mityaev, the newly appointed priest, says before the war: “People didn’t pay attention to whether it was a Ukrainian or Russian-speaking church, they came to God. But when the war started, everything changed.”
According to Klyment, up to 400 of the UOC’s 12,000 churches in Ukraine have converted to the OCU since the start of the war.
The security services say that since the start of the large-scale invasion, 19 church clerics have been charged and five convicted.
In December, UOC priest Andriy Pavlenko was sentenced to 12 years for passing on information about Ukrainian battlefield positions in the Donbas to the Russians. A week later, he was sent to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange.
Klyment admits the priest’s guilt, but dismisses other cases — such as the Vinnytsia priest who was indicted this week for spreading pro-Russian propaganda — as hollow accusations. He believes that the wider church is unfairly affected.
“Members of the Ukrainian Orthodox … are citizens of Ukraine, and are sometimes among the best citizens of Ukraine, proving their patriotism with their own lives,” he said, referring to UOC members fighting on the front lines.
In his December 1 night speech, President Volodymyr Zelensky signaled his willingness to go beyond raids — proposing a law to ban churches with “centers of influence” in Russia from operating in Ukraine — all in the name of “spiritual independence’.
“We will never allow anyone to build an empire in the Ukrainian soul,” he said.
But Klyment believes the law would only push his church underground.
“What do you call persecution if not this?” he asked.