Battered by Russian Shells, a Monastery Remains Loyal to Moscow

The monks and nuns cloistered in a monastery complex in eastern Ukraine absorb daily bombardments from Russian artillery. And yet they remain loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church.

SVIATOHIRSK, Ukraine — Of the hundreds of battle sites all across Ukraine, the Sviatohirsk Monastery of the Caves surely ranks among the most incongruous.

The sprawling complex of onion-domed churches built into a high bank of the Siversky Donets River is considered one of the five holiest sites in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet it is directly in the line of fire of the Russian Army in its advance in eastern Ukraine.

Russian shells aimed at Ukrainian troop positions regularly go astray and strike the monastery, with terrifying shrieks and metallic booms that echo through the churchyards. They tear through building walls and leave gaping holes in the grounds; at least four monks, priests or nuns have been killed, Ukrainian police say.

The shelling is yet another example of the collateral damage the Russians are inflicting with errant or indiscriminate artillery strikes. And it has forced the monks and nuns cloistered here into a form of wartime rationalization.

Along with many of the hundreds of displaced people who sought safety in the complex, they are faithful in the Russian church and loyal to its leader in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill, who has blessed the Russian invasion. But the constant bombardment by the Russian Army presents a contradiction that they are forced to reconcile.

“Yes, they shell the monastery but they are probably just following orders,” one nun, Sister Ioanna, said of the Russian soldiers. “We pray for them, too, asking that they realize what they are doing.”

Sister Ioanna was praying in the corridor of a monastery building last Tuesday morning — reciting the Psalms of the Sixth Catechism, she recalled — when a shell struck, exploding a wall. Bricks and shrapnel flew about.

A brick wounded her on the head, she said later in an interview in a hospital. A monk beside her was struck with shrapnel in his stomach and died before he could be evacuated, Sister Ioanna said.

During a recent visit to the monastery, shells striking the grounds threw up columns of dirt and smoke, followed a few seconds later by the pattering noise of debris falling down on the church domes. Monks ran for cover, their black robes flapping.

Those who did not survive earlier barrages are now buried in fresh-cut graves in a courtyard.

Around the site, the whitewashed walls are pocked from shrapnel spray, windows are blown out. Holes blown in walls and craters in the churchyards attest to direct hits.

Inside the buildings, the basement walls are festooned with Orthodox icons. The people huddling there crossed themselves with each shuddering thud outside. Many had come seeking shelter from shelling in their own villages.

“I feel God will protect me here,” said Volodymyr Slipuchenko.

But as the booms echoed, Mr. Slipuchenko added hesitantly, “I don’t know if it’s really safe.”

A woman crossed herself and muttered, “God save us.”

On Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said that about 300 civilians, including about 60 children, were sheltering in the monastery. The regional police say they cannot evacuate the children because the access road is regularly shelled.

The destruction at the site is likely to reverberate in Orthodox Christian politics.

The post-Soviet schism of the Russian and Ukrainian churches has been a religious backdrop to the war. Ukraine’s church has asserted independence but thousands of parishes in Ukraine remain loyal to Kirill, the Patriarch in Moscow. If Ukraine wins, the Russian church will almost certainly be expelled for good.

But not the monks in the Sviatohirsk monastery; they remain aligned with Russia. Indeed, this has been seen for years as the most Russian-oriented of the major religious sites in Ukraine.

“They justify themselves and try to avoid facing the reality, which is that Russia invaded Ukraine” and is striking their monastery, said Ihor Kozlovsky, a theologian and authority on Orthodox churches in Ukraine.

Over the past week or so, the frontline around the town of Sviatohirsk advanced to within about a mile of the monastery gates. Russian artillery appears to be targeting a bridge over the Siversky Donets River — only 15 to 20 yards from the wall of the monastery — and Ukrainian positions nearby. But predictably with unguided projectiles, there are wayward shots that hit the monastery instead.

Ukrainian officials accuse Russian forces of being reckless and careless in their shelling.

“Nothing is sacred for them,” Anton Gerashchenko, a deputy minister of the interior, said of the destruction of the monastery. “They could go around, but they decided to shoot their way through instead.”

On Saturday, the fighting started a fire that burned the wooden All Saints Hermitage church, the largest wooden church in Ukraine, Ukrainian officials said. Russia blamed Ukrainian forces for the fire.

The monastery, dating to the 16th century, is a historically, culturally and religiously important site for both Russians and Ukrainians.

“It is a gem of Orthodoxy,” Mr. Kozlovsky, the theologian, said.

It has also been a place difficult for the Ukrainian government to balance religious freedom against loyalty in wartime.

The monastery’s monks, who are viewed as traitors by Ukrainian nationalists, have for years been staunchly pro-Russian, asserting they have a right to follow the religious path of their choosing even if their country is at war.

The monastery’s leadership, for example, has subordinated itself to a senior cleric in Donetsk, the capital of one of the two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. They “explain the war by saying that it is God’s plan, but not the plan of the Russian army,” said Mr. Kozlovsky.

On Monday, the day before Sister Ionna was wounded, artillery killed a priest, a monk and a nun, according to Ukrainian police. The monks have been burying the dead in graves in the churchyards.

Authorities say it would be dangerous now to evacuate those sheltering at the site. A precarious, winding road leads to the monastery, running through the Holy Mountain Wilderness, a national park of dense broad-leaved trees, and then onto a high, grassy plateau. There, smoke from fresh artillery strikes rises in many separate columns, as if someone had been lighting campfires on the plain.

The pavement on this road is pocked in places with shell craters. Closer to the monastery, the route is lined with boarded-up stands that once sold icons and holy water to the pilgrims who arrived in peacetime.

After Russia invaded in February, believers came expecting safety. The monastery had been sheltering internally displaced people for years, dating to Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists that started in 2014. “This is what they thought,” said Col. Svyatoslav Zagorsky, a regional police chief. “But look, as we see, experience is showing us exactly the opposite.”

The Russian military first fired artillery that struck the monastery in March. But the most intensive bombardments began two weeks ago.

Among the buildings that have been damaged is the Church of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin, according to a list of strikes on the site provided by the Ukrainian government.

During the visit on Friday by a reporter and photographer, artillery shells slammed with a deafening bang into a park bordering the monastery, landscaped with yellow roses near the riverbank.

A horrible sensation of pressure waves from the explosions rippled through the churches.

Some monks gathered in the stairway to a basement, sweating and wide-eyed and seeking safety. But while they wished for the hostilities to stop, they declined to condemn the Russian army.

One monk, Brother Prokhor, said, “We pray for peace in the whole world, so nobody shoots anywhere.”

But asked what he thought of the Russians shelling the monastery, he was hesitant to answer. “I don’t know who is firing,” he said. “They shoot from far away — I cannot see them.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.

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