Under the Shadow of War, Kyiv Celebrates Orthodox Easter

Hundreds of Orthodox Christians lined up outside a cathedral in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after a service on Sunday as they waited for a priest to bless them with a spray of water as part of an Easter tradition.

They carried baskets packed with candles, delicately dyed eggs, paskha cake, chunks of cured pork fat known as salo, and sweet Ukrainian wine called Kagor. As the priest came down the line, some flinched or burst into giggles as the water caught their faces.

Alisa Kupchyn, 18, who stood in the half circle of people outside the church, the Holy Dormition Cathedral, said she wasn’t normally a churchgoer but she respected holy days.

“I just moved to Kyiv and wanted to visit the famous church,” she said, having arrived from the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine for medical studies.

It is the second year that the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine have celebrated Holy Week in the shadow of war, but much has changed for residents of Kyiv since last Easter. In the weeks before then, Ukrainian forces had driven Moscow’s troops from the area around the capital, and the scale of the atrocities that emerged in the wake of the Russian retreat was still becoming apparent.

In addition, the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year prompted an exodus from the capital. Though Easter week fell in late April after a semblance of normality had started to return, many of the city’s residents remained absent.

This year, thousands of men, women and children flocked to services for Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday at the large Orthodox churches in the capital and surrounding areas. The increased crowds are a reflection of the reality that, though fighting rages in eastern Ukraine, a relative calm has returned to the capital.

“On this day a year ago, we all prayed that Ukraine would endure,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in an overnight speech. “Today — for Ukraine to win.”

He filmed the speech at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, a network of churches that overlooks the Dnipro River and is a cradle of Christian Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe.

In recent months, the authorities have moved against a branch of the church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. It is linked to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has praised the war in Ukraine launched by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Ukraine’s government has ordered the Moscow Patriarchate church to quit the parts of the Lavra that it uses, leading to a standoff at the site with protesters on both sides. The growing primacy of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox church made Easter even more significant for some worshipers there.

In one example, the Moscow Patriarchate church relinquished control of the Holy Dormition Cathedral to the government in January, and, on Sunday, Ukraine’s independent church held its first-ever Easter service there.

“I’m not very religious, but this year is special,” said Oleksandr Trokhymets, 40, a lawyer and a military officer who had come to a service at the cathedral with his daughter. “I want on this day to be here with Ukrainian people and Ukrainian priests.”

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