The inhabitants of Bucha stood in front of a white church with a golden dome. The site had become the site of a mass grave of their neighbors.
“I come here every year at Easter, but especially this year. Because I lived. They shot at me,” Tatiana said. She then started to cry, unable to say more.
This Orthodox Easter — typically a colorful occasion with frosted cakes and painted eggs — was a bleak but challenging one in Ukraine. It marked the 60th day of a bloody war.
Perhaps there is no place in Ukraine that symbolizes the country’s suffering more than Bucha, a town about 30 minutes outside of Kiev where Russian soldiers tortured and murdered hundreds of residents. But streets covered with Ukrainian bodies and destroyed Russian military equipment were clean on Sunday morning. People who had to leave their homes, some of which are now destroyed, returned.
Bucha’s Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints, which had been turned into a cemetery, welcomed guests in that same field.
Easter service was an act of resilience and a time to come together with a community that understands how impossible it feels now to return to normal. Archpriest Andriy Galavin condemned the actions of Russian soldiers in his sermon and urged believers “don’t get angry when you fight evil”.
He smiled as he passed through a line of people outside the church who had put their baskets on the floor for them. He blessed everyone and watered both the food and the person with water. Some laughed as the drops splashed over their faces.
How Russia’s War in Ukraine Divides the Orthodox Christian World
For Anna Podolyanko, the day was bittersweet. It was the first time she’d seen her father, Viktor, a native of Bucha, since Russian troops withdrew from the city three weeks ago. She had never been to St Andrew’s, but it felt like a suitable place to spend the holidays with her family. After dozens of bodies were exhumed nearby, the Easter service here was a reminder of what was lost and also a show of survival.
“I wanted to hug my father and I wanted to cry,” said Podolyanko.
A day usually reserved for celebrations was marked by anger and loss. In Odessa, a strategic port on the Black Sea, rocket attacks killed at least eight people on Saturday, including a 3-month-old child, and injured 18, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, before adding in horror: “What we’ve had a great Easter break.” Zelensky called Russian soldiers “bastards.”
Some cities have previously imposed curfews for the weekend, amid concerns that civilian areas could be deliberately attacked by the Russian military during the festivities.
In his Easter message, Metropolitan Epiphanius, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, said: “Despite the sanctity of Holy Week and the Resurrection of Christ for all Christians, the Russian troops not only have not stopped their crimes, but they, as if inspired by Satan himself, multiplied the bloodshed.
“During Lent, Russia, which sees itself as a stronghold of true Christianity, destroyed our towns and villages, murdered innocent people and destroyed everything it could,” he added.
In Chernihiv — a town near Ukraine’s border with Belarus, where more than 700 people, both military and civilian, were killed in the Russian invasion, according to local officials — hundreds of worshipers visited St. Catherine’s Church, a 307 year old structure topped with five golden domes.
Yurii and Taisia, a married couple from the region who refused to share their last name for security reasons, said they left their own Russian Orthodox church at the start of the war and decided never to return after seeing images of Russian soldiers. violence against civilians. They grew up with a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian, but learned to speak only Ukrainian after the massive invasion of Moscow.
“We used to be indifferent because we felt that God was for everyone,” Taisia said. “But we changed our minds after we saw the atrocities committed by the Russians.”
Tensions between the Russian wing of the Orthodox Church, with its pro-Kremlin patriarch, and Orthodox leaders in Ukraine predate this war. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is “self-governing” but remains under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. That is separate from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is three years old and was founded as a direct result of the nascent movement to break away from the Russian Orthodox Church and create a purely independent ecclesiastical entity for Ukraine.
Evstratiy Zoria, the Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop of Chernihiv and Nizhyn, said in an interview that “what has happened to Russian Orthodoxy over the past three decades is the fruit of propaganda – the idea that Russia is something bigger than the state, that Ukraine really doesn’t exist and is just part of the great ‘Russian world’.”
Zoria’s hope is that the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches can coexist in Ukraine as long as they agree on a rejection of the Russian Federation’s territorial ambitions.
“All those who understood that the ‘Russian world’ is a lie should share their knowledge with other parishioners,” said Zoria, “and I believe that we can slowly spread this understanding and that we will have peaceful, fruitful and real unity without only enforcement. We are a democratic country.”
In Irpin, a suburb of Kiev where some of the heaviest fighting between Ukrainian and Russian soldiers took place, the damaged church of Archpriest Volodymyr Molnar had few visitors Sunday morning.
“If you wanted to see a lot of people, you should have come last year,” he said in an interview.
His church was the first thing many evacuees saw as they carefully made their way around the ruins of a bridge that Ukrainian troops destroyed to stop the Russian army’s advance towards Kiev. Many were dehydrated and hadn’t eaten for days. For some people escaping the fighting in the city, the basement of a small wooden chapel on the property became a shelter for the night – before fleeing further in the morning.
Molnar built it all himself three years ago. When he had to evacuate to a neighbor’s house, he said, leaving the church felt like abandoning a child. When he returned, the window was shattered. Walls that were a crisp white color have smoke stains and shrapnel holes. The house on the property, where he lived with his wife and three children, was reduced to rubble.
The chapel that had served as a temporary refuge caught fire after artillery hit it and burned to the ground.
“We will live,” said Molnar. “Somehow we will resume and live our lives. Right now it’s just important to be at peace.”
Klemko reported from Chernihiv, Ukraine. Serhii Korolchuk in Chernihiv and Erin Cunningham in Washington contributed to this report.