Sophia’s Story

Allow me to introduce you to one of my dearest Ukrainian friends: Sophia. Everyone on the base loves her. She is our Ukrainian grandma. She loves playing with the kids and even helps out in the kitchen sometimes! She is always finding ways to help and take care of us. She is patient and kind and doesn’t mind using Google translate when we run into a language barrier. We met Sophia when her family first arrived from Ukraine and we all lived in the guest house together. As a result, we saw them often and started building a relationship. Sophia graciously allowed me to interview her and tell me her life story. I told her I wanted to start telling people’s stories, to help people get a glimpse of what life was like in Ukraine before the war. She was of course very eager to help out! This is Sophia’s story.

Her grandparents on her mother’s side were Kulaks, the wealthiest class of peasants. Kulaks owned several acres of land and usually could hire laborers and lease land. In some cases, these small farms resembled a capitalist system. By 1917, Kulaks made up 12.2% of peasant households. Sophia’s grandparents had started with little but worked hard together until they had rightfully earned the title. But following the revolution and rise of communism, Kulak farms were taken in the name of collectivism. Sophia’s grandparents lost everything they had worked so hard for and ended up moving to the town in Kharkiv region Kupiansk to start their lives over.

Sophia was born in 1953 in a small town called Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region. Her mother was married once before and had a daughter from her first marriage. Unfortunately, her husband did not return home from WWII, so she remarried and went on to have a son and four more girls. Yes, Sophia was one of SIX children. She remembers a happy childhood with her siblings, although none of them liked waking up early and do housework. Some things never change, right? They worked in the fields, growing vegetables and grain crops, and helped graze cows and pigs. She also went to a Ukrainian school, not a common occurrence in the Soviet Union. As a result, she grew up speaking Sourjek, a blend of Russian and Ukrainian grammar and vocabulary. She and one of her sisters were left-handed like their mother, but were hit on the hands in school if they didn’t use their right hand. But it wasn’t all work. The kids enjoyed playing sports, particularly volleyball. Her and her siblings made up five out of the six players in the local team. Sophia also enjoyed competitive cycling and skiing.

Love of sports runs in the family. Sophia’s daughter Svitlana and granddaughter Leera are third and 4th from the left.

Like her grandparents, Sophia’s parents were hard workers. When she was 8, they were able to build a bigger house with 4 bedrooms: one for her parents, one for her brother, and the other two for the girls. Remember this would have been 1961, still in the height of communism. This was a big deal, a luxury most people didn’t have.

Although Orthodoxy and religion were suppressed under communism, it still existed. Sophia’s family has always been Orthodox, as far back as her great-grandparents at least. She remembers going to church frequently. Her mom sewed all the girls matching dresses for Easter. Sophia smiles as she talks about her family and childhood; you can tell she has many fond memories.

She continued doing cross-country cycling competition, and even placed 1st in some of the city-wide competitions. She went on to represent Ukraine in a competition with other Soviet Union countries, although she said she didn’t do as well in those races. When she met her eventual husband, he didn’t think her sports were very lady-like, so she had to stop.

She picked up competitive shooting instead.

Sophia married in 1977, on the same day (albeit different year) that Yuri Gagarin went to space for the first time. She will never forget that date, she laughed. Both she and her husband worked in a chemical factory in Severodonetsk (Luhansk region). She managed the water-pump cooling station working in 3 shifts: one in the morning, one starting at 4pm, and one at night. It was extremely difficult and dangerous work, especially once her daughter Svitlana was born in 1979. Next year Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, died and when Svitlana had her first birthday they couldn’t celebrate properly because of the mourning around the Soviet union. So they hung thick curtains at the windows and celebrated quietly, in private.

But like her grandparents and parents before her, she worked her way up. Sophia started studying economics and got a better position at the factory as an economist. The factory did have free apartments for their employees, although there was a waiting list. At this point Sophia and her husband had divorced, so they each got a separate apartment and Svitlana was still able to see her father.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed. I asked Sophia what it was like.

“There were a lot of negative emotions. Of course, nobody wants the Soviet Union anymore, but at the time it was hard.”

Svitlana was turning 11 that year. 

When they split the republics, most of the resources ended up going to Moscow so it was very hard to rebuild. Ukraine has a lot of factories and a good climate for growing food, but for the factories to continue working, they had to import supplies, usually from other countries of the Soviet union. And to buy some good clothes, people saved up money to travel to Moscow to buy things because they didn’t have good quality or prices in Ukraine. At the factory where Sophia worked, there wasn’t always the money to get paid. Store shelves were empty. Sophia said she and her family felt very strongly Ukrainian, and they wanted to be independent. But times were hard, and they were still heavily dependent on Russia. Many people had gotten used to their free apartments and cheap gas, water, and electric. Nobody wanted to change, and many wished the Soviet Union would return, a sentiment that is still around today, though not as many hold that belief.

In a sense, life had to start over again. Most people couldn’t afford what was considered simple things like a TV, car, washing machine, or take a vacation.

Meanwhile, her daughter Svitlana had finished her secondary schooling (up to 9th grade), and was studying medicine, originally wanting to be a nurse. When she was a witness for her cousin’s wedding, she met her husband, a best man. They married in 1998 when she was 18 and her daughter Valeriia was born two years later.

Svitlana and her husband.
Svitlana and Leera in Odessa a few years ago.

Around the same time, Sophia was able to retire early from the factory due to the dangerous nature of her earlier job and decided to go to Moscow to work. For five years she stayed in Moscow working as a nanny, an elderly caretaker, and held a job at the market.

Svitlana worked as a histologist laboratory assistant at the pathoanatomical department after finishing her studies. In 2002 she went to university. Her university was in Donbass, but she was able to do correspondence course and only go in for exams. She graduated with a degree in technological engineering, and began working at pharmaceutical companies. She started out simply packing the medicine, then worked her way up to overseeing quality assurance. But it wasn’t easy, especially with a young baby.

“Mom, I need you.”

Sophia made the arrangements immediately and moved back to Kharkiv in 2005. They sold their respective properties and were able to rent an apartment together. Sophia took care of Lera until she was old enough to go to school, then started nannying in the city. They have lived there ever since. Sophia’s siblings also still lived in the Kharkiv region, Kupiansk, and Donbass.

“A large part of our life is connected to Donbass and Kharkiv.”

When the war started, they debated on what they should do. Lera’s father thought they should stay. Nobody knew how long it would last. But Lera insisted that they should leave. The final point came when they all got sick. Sophia and Lera both had high fevers, but they couldn’t find medicine anywhere. So reluctantly, they left their home after 10 days of the war. Looking back, they are glad now that they got sick when they did. They don’t know what would have happened if they had stayed. Donbass and a part of Kharkiv region are now occupied. Nobody can live there anymore. 

Svitlana and Lera are able to continue working remotely from Romania. Lera’s father is currently safe in Lviv and working too, but unable to join his family. Because he is living in the west of Ukraine, he has learnt to speak more fluently in Ukrainian, and even thinks in Ukrainian now. Sophia, Svitlana, and Lera are trying to switch too, but it is difficult. They can understand and speak both, but Russian has been their primary language. For now, their house is ok. But they don’t know what will be waiting for them when they go back.

“Life is now divided before and after war. Our whole life was destroyed by the war.”

The emotion is still real, even 6 months later. But there are still smiles. There is still laughter. There is still hope. In the end, they’ll figure it out and make it work and win. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again. That resilience is in their blood.

They’re Ukrainian.

Many thanks to Sophia, Svitlana, and Leera for sharing their story. And special thanks to Leera for translating and helping me make sure I got all of the details right. It was such an honor to sit with them and talk.

Ukrainian Decal Stickers

My dad organized this awesome fundraiser for us! These Stand With Ukraine decal stickers are beautiful and full of symbolism. But if you’re not familiar with Ukrainian culture and history, it’s a little harder to understand. So I’ve broken it down, letter by letter.

U: Wheat Fields

Starting with the letter U we can see the outline of Ukraine, some hearts, and stalks of wheat. The rich, black soil has been the envy of eastern Europe for thousands of years, and wheat is a huge part of the culture. Ukraine is #8 on world wheat production, coming in at 24,912,350 tons in 2020, producing 9% of the world’s wheat. Despite the dangers of war, Ukrainian farmers still managed to get out and plant lots of wheat this season. The problem now is distributing it to where it’s needed.

K: Ukrainian flag and St. Sophia monastery

The Ukrainian flag is simple in its design but reflects the landscape of Ukraine. The yellow represents the wheat fields, and the blue is the sky overhead. Just before harvest time you can see this all over the country and it’s beautiful. A few years ago, my grandparents bought me a painting for a fundraiser for orphans in Ukraine (https://wandering-ancient-paths.com/2018/04/06/2018-4-5-house-of-hope/). I chose this one because of the flag theme. It was quintessentially Ukrainian, and I have brought it with me almost everywhere we moved (except overseas cause that gets complicated. I miss it though). It always reminded me of where I had been and what I was working towards.

St. Sophia’s monastery is located in the heart of Kyiv. Construction is believed to have started around 1011, under the rule of St. Vladimir, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus. It took 2 decades to complete but fell into a state of disrepair during the Mongol invasion in 1240. It was later restored and then was even spared a second destruction in Communist times due to its historic value. It was taken over by the government and turned into a museum. To this day there are still no regular services, mostly due to the different schisms within the Orthodox and even Greek-Catholic church who all tried to lay claim to the building. The green domes that top the white buildings are striking, and the blue bell tower out front is iconic (sadly not included on the stickers). We’ve never been inside St. Sophia’s before, but I would like to visit the museum when we go back. Hopefully it withstands this invasion as it has for over a thousand years.

R: Strong Arm and Easter Eggs

Ukraine is tough and stronger than anyone realized. The whole world thought that Russia would overrun and control the entire country within 3 days. Instead, over 3 months later, they are not only holding their ground but driving the Russians back in some places. It’s really a testament to their will to survive. Only 30 years of independence in their entire existence since evolving as a separate nation and people from the Kievan Rus, yet the Ukrainian culture is alive and well.

And then you have the iconic, elaborately decorated easter eggs known as pysanka. They’re made with a combination of pencil work, beeswax, colored dye, and an incredible amount of skill that blows my mind every time I look at them. (More about how they are made and how you can make your own: https://mymodernmet.com/pysanky-ukrainian-easter-egg/ ) The tradition has been around for possibly thousands of years. Although many legends and beliefs about the uses of eggs were rooted in paganism, when Christianity came around the meanings of the different symbols were changed to reflect the new worldview. Over time these myths faded to leave the art form we know today. This article explains it in more detail and it is absolutely fascinating: https://aleteia.org/2022/04/17/the-fascinating-history-of-ukrainian-easter-eggs/

A: Windmills, Flower Crowns, and Blenchiky

Fun fact that I didn’t know until some research: windmills are often used to symbolize life, hope, serenity, and resilience. I’m not sure if this was the intention behind adding a windmill to the collection of symbols, but it does seem fitting in the current situation. There are also several old, wooden windmills across the country, including a collection in Pirogovo, Kyiv, where I got this picture from.

The gorgeous, towering flower crowns (called vinoks) from Ukraine are certainly a sight to behold! Most of the ones worn today are typically smaller and in the form of simple headbands with fake, embellished flowers. The ancient tradition can be traced all the way back to Sumerian and Byzantine cultures, and over time Ukrainians made it their own. Much like a bouquet of flowers can tell a story, so can a flower crown. Each flower and ribbon symbolized something different. Young women wore them as a symbol of purity, growing the volume and style when she was ready for a courtship. The most impressive crowns were designed for weddings. After the wedding a woman would never again wear a flower wreath, instead adopting modest headscarves. The flower crowns were one of the inspirations I had for using a flower crown instead of a veil for my own wedding (more on that in the next post). But I opted to go with a simple version; I didn’t think I could handle all that extra weight on my head! I highly suggest doing a google search to see more designs. There are far too many for one post!

And finally, Ukrainian pancakes, known as blenchiky. We were very confused the first time our Ukrainian friend offered to make “pancakes.” They were definitely not what we were used to as Americans. The batter is more like a crepe consistency, and it’s not very sweet on its own. The fillings can be anything from jam, nutella, sour cream, cheese, or even meat. Blinchiky can be savory as well as sweet!

I: Sunflowers

The sunflower: another one of Ukraine’s major crops. It’s the top producer of sunflower oil in the world, and the second largest for sunflower seeds. Sunflower oil is the most common cooking oil in Ukraine; vegetable oil was hard to find. Olive oil is expensive and only for special occasions. If you’re Orthodox it’s a good substitution for butter and lard during fasting periods. Semichki (sunflower seeds) are also a very popular snack.

But it’s also the national flower of Ukraine. Since the start of the war most people have grown familiar with the use of sunflowers to symbolize support of Ukraine. It started with the famous story of the woman giving Russian soldiers sunflower seeds so at least sunflowers would grow where they died. A story that perfectly encapsulates the Ukrainian fighting spirit. But it also represents peace. Sunflowers were planted at Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. You know, the one in 1996 where leaders from Ukraine, Russia, and the United States promised peace and protection for their children and grandchildren. Ukrainians also planted sunflowers after the Chernobyl disaster to help clean toxins from the air. There is so much historic meaning here that it’s really no surprise that the symbols took off.

When we were planning our wedding, we wanted to include a nod to Ukraine, since that’s where we met. I chose sunflowers as the main flower for the bouquets (complimented by cornflowers, a popular but lesser known symbol of Ukraine). My bridesmaid dresses were blue, so our color theme matched the flag. It was my favorite thing we did at the wedding.

N: Vareniki and Storks

Vareniki is probably one of our favorite Ukrainian foods. The delicious potato dumplings are similar to the Polish perogi, but I don’t think they taste quite the same. The potatoes can also be mixed with other fillings for different flavors, most commonly cheese, mushrooms, cabbage, or cherries to make it a dessert. (If it’s made with meat instead of potatoes, it’s called pelmini and is formed in a different shape so you know what’s inside.) There is nothing better than homemade vareniki, and a few weeks ago our friend’s mother made some for us! I got to help form the pelmini since she had already finished with the vareniki. I think I did 3-4 while she did 20 in the same time. 😂

The stork is the national bird, mostly living in western and central Ukraine and migrating to Africa for the winter. Like the vinok, there is a long history of myths and symbolism. They were said to be amulets to protect a house from evil, prosperous and happy. It stands for spring, family, babies, peace, luck, well-being, and love of the land. And now, for many Ukrainians they represent freedom. The freedom to fly away from all of the war and destruction. And now they are returning to the west, which many believe is a good sign.

E: Kolach and Maidan Square

Kolach is a traditional holiday bread typically eaten at Christmas. It is typically woven in a circle, leaving the middle hollow for a candle. Often 3 sizes of kolach are prepared and stacked to represent the trinity. It is also considered a symbol of good luck, eternity, prosperity, and often used at funerals. In the Kyiv region it was also customary for a midwife to gift parents a freshly baked kolach for fertility.

Maidan Square has become an important symbol of freedom since 2014. The official name is Maidan Nezalezhnosti, but it is usually shortened to Maidan Nez (the pronunciation sounds closer to Netz). It’s the largest public square in Kyiv, and the most important. Since 1876, it has undergone various names based on the regimes in power, but always remained of political importance. Many protests have been held in the square over the years. In 1991, when Ukraine became its own nation, it was given its current name, which translates to Independent Square. And in 2001 it underwent re/construction to it’s current state. There are a lot of cool features in the square, including the underground mall and the towering independence monument, but that’s not the reason Maidan Square is now famous.

(This is a rough summary of events. Please watch Winter on Fire on Netflix for a better understanding of the Euromaidan revolution and the start of the war with Russia.)

In late November 2013, the government under the rule of President Victor Yanukovych rejected signing the Ukrainian-European Union Association Agreement. This agreement would have brought Ukraine closer to the EU, and is something the majority of people had voted for. Instead, Yanukovych started seeking closer relations with Russia. This rejection was seen as the final straw of corruption and abuse of power within the government. People gathered at Maidan Square to protest. At first it was peaceful. Then the police began trying to react against them violently. Instead of fleeing, the people hunkered down and fought back. Then the government sent the Berkut troops, a specialized police force known for its brutality and illegal activities against civilians, to clear out the square and end the protests. The nearby church St. Michael’s ended up playing a historical role. The bells in the church tower were typically rung at different times to signal different services, but one of the priests had an idea. In the year 1240, St. Michael’s had rung all the bells at once to warn the city of a Mongol invasion. And on the night of December 11th, 2013, with the blessing of the bishop, all of the bells rang once again to warn Kyiv about the brutal fight for freedom. People answered the call.

At the height of the protests as many 400,000 to 800,000 gathered in the square. On average there were around 50,000 to 200,000 people. Overall, the people stayed in a siege position for 3 months and 2 days. Other protests sparked across the country, although none quite as large as Maidan. Soviet and Russian monuments were toppled. They fought against their corrupt government, they fought against ties with Russia. They fought for partnership with the EU, they fought for freedom. Finally, on February 21st, an agreement was signed to form a new interim government, pass constitutional reforms, and officially ended the protests. Both the president and prime minister ended up resigning, and president Yanukovych fled to Russia the very next day, stealing money from the Ukrainian treasury and delivering a devastating blow to their economy. Around 100 people had died as a result of the protest, known as the Heavenly Hundred. Nearly 2,000 people were injured, and around 150-300 people went missing. But at the end of the day, the Ukrainian people had won. The protests transformed Ukraine from a lost country in a cultural identity crisis to a strong, united Ukraine. It reignited patriotism and brought back many old Ukrainian symbols that had previously been pushed aside.

But it wasn’t over yet. Most of the protests across the country were primarily pro-Europe and anti-government. But in Donetsk and Crimea, the majority were pro-government and pro-Russian. There were still people fighting for Ukraine, but they were out numbered. Shortly after the protests ended, the Crimean parliament stated that it wanted to join Russia, and Russia quickly annexed the region, driving out the Ukrainian military. Similar protests broke out in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, but here Ukraine was able to hold its ground against the Russian-backed separatists. This fighting has continued since 2014, and is understood as the true beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That is why Ukraine is fighting so hard right now.

Get your sticker here for $10 to help support our ministry serving Ukrainians: https://www.jonathankriggs.com/support-my-daughter-with-these-stand-with-ukraine-stickers/

Fighting Russian Propaganda

When the war first started, I made a video series on some of the biggest lies that Russia was telling its people. Unfortunately, these stories have crept into American media as well, which is why I am continuing to fight it by spreading the truth. I’ve turned those videos into a blogpost so it’s easier to go through and updated some of the information as we’ve learned more. Please feel free to share.

Lie #1: Ukraine Has Been Oppressing and Killing People Who Speak Russian, Especially in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, but many people still speak Russian as a result of centuries of oppression against the Ukrainian language. This is especially true the further east you travel, closer to the Russian border. It has been a hot topic and at times controversial issue in the past as to what language you choose to speak and/or learn. But for the most part, people understand the history and know that older generations especially will mostly speak Russian. Back in DTS, my roommate from Kyiv only spoke Russian, so that’s the language we choose to learn. Occasionally we’ve gotten some slack for it, but after explaining the situation most people understand. And certainly, nobody is being killed for speaking Russian. The Ukrainian constitution guarantees the right of its citizens to learn and speak any language they choose. This was important to them since Russians had been killing them for speaking Ukrainian for centuries.

Lie #2: Russia is Liberating Ukraine From Nazis

This is based in a small truth. Ukraine has been called a trouble spot for anti-semitism activities in the past. And the Azov Battalion of Ukraine did have a group of Nazis. But since then, especially since Zelensky was elected, they have worked very hard on clearing this type of ideology from both their ranks and other areas of Ukrainian culture. Many people in Ukraine were shocked when they heard this lie because there really isn’t a huge problem anymore. And it’s not like they’re sending in a force to take out a specific group; they’re bombing the entire country and specifically targeting President Zelensky, who is Jewish. Ukraine is the only country outside of Israel for their two most powerful members of government (president and prime minister) to be Jewish. Once people started pointing out this fact, Russia tried to defend their actions by claiming that even Hitler had Jewish blood. This outlandish declaration caused Israel to increase their aid to Ukraine, and their relationship with Russia is extremely rocky at the moment. Russia has further tried to say that Zelensky is gay, which again is very much not true, nor a valid reason to attack another country.

President Zelensky and his family during happier times.

Lie #3: Russia is Not Firing on Civilian Targets (And if it Does it was Accidental)

Pretty much everyone knows by now that this is false. The Geneva Convention specifically prohibits attacks on civilians, hospitals, nuclear power plants, and more. There are currently over 10,000 individual cases being investigated as war crimes, most of which includes firing on civilians. This isn’t just a bomb dropped from a plane that blew off target either. This is tanks firing directly at civilian apartments, kindergartens, bomb shelters, and blood banks. This is soldiers shooting people and cars trying to escape. This is shelling maternity hospitals across the country, resulting in many deaths of women and newborn babies. This is hundreds of cases from Bucha of people reporting they were raped and tortured, with even more bodies found in mass graves with evidence of the same. Including children and toddlers. There is proof that the Russian soldiers physically blocked and prohibited ambulances from reaching injured and dying civilians. They have repeatedly broken the ceasefire and prevented safe evacuation from Mariupol for weeks now. There are hundreds of video evidence by now that you can find on the internet. If you say you haven’t seen any, you aren’t looking. We have plenty that we can show you if you’re really in denial about this, including some graphic ones that are clearly not photoshopped or deep-faked.

Lie #4: Ukraine is Bombing Itself

First of all, products from Russia look very different from Ukrainian products. This includes the military uniforms, weapons, food, and other supplies. We have found evidence of many products that are only manufactured in Russia. There are several code words the army uses to tell a soldier’s nationality because Russians cannot pronounce certain Ukrainian words with their accents. We know Russian soldiers have entered Ukraine. That’s not really contested by this point. Secondly, Ukraine has only been its own country for about 30 years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economy was devastated. And they were just starting to get it rebuilt when their corrupt president stole money from the treasury and fled to Russia. They don’t have a lot of money to waste on bombing their own infrastructure, forcing shops to close for safety, preventing tourists from visiting, and causing millions to be displaced or forced to leave the country altogether. It’s not a ploy to get Russia to pay either; that takes a lot of time and evidence of war crimes to get retribution. And even if they do get a large sum rather quickly, it will still take decades to rebuild and repair the damages done in only a few months.

There are clear differences in how the Ukrainian soldiers act vs the Russian soldiers. The Ukrainians protect and risk their lives, even for pets and animals. In Bucha and Irpin they have found evidence of dogs and chickens senselessly slaughtered for fun. Russian soldiers rape, torture, and murder civilians and captured soldiers. Ukrainian soldiers treat their wounds, let them call home, and treat them with dignity. And then there’s how they treat nuclear power plants. Apparently, some Russian soldiers don’t even know about the Chornobyl disaster, including the ones who actually took over the plant and believed that it was safe. They went to the worst radioactive zones despite warnings from the staff. Many have already died from radiation poisoning, and the rest probably will die shortly if they haven’t already. Not to mention the carelessness of bombs and missiles that fly over the nuclear power plants like Zaporizhzhia across the country, and some skirmishes that have resulted in fires at the plants themselves. Ukraine knows how much of an impact a nuclear disaster can have, and they won’t risk it again.

Sweet baby Sashenko. You didn’t deserve what they did to you.

Lie #5: Ukraine Wants to Be Part of Russia Again (At Least Some Regions)

Like I explained in my Texas Analogy video, there are some people who have conflicted feelings, especially along the border. Especially when you have family on both sides or grew up ethnically Russian but living in Ukrainian territory, it’s bound to be complicated. They didn’t get to choose where the border was drawn. There was a small separatist movement that has been fighting to be reunified with Russia since 2014, but honestly at this point we don’t even know how many are actually from Ukraine and how many are actually Russian agents. For the most part, Ukrainians absolutely do not want to be a part of Russia again. Look at how hard they’re fighting! Even in Russian-speaking cities like Kherson, which are mostly under occupational control at this point, people are continuing to protest. They march with Ukrainian flags and stare down soldiers at gunpoint. They know what it’s like to be under Russian control and they DO. NOT. WANT. THAT. AGAIN.

A small snapshot of a much larger protest. The sign reads “Kherson is Ukraine. Ukraine United! Glory to Ukraine!”

Lie#6: Ukraine Attacked and Provoked Russia (Russia was Just Defending Itself)

This is only true if you believe that Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea, and other contested areas belong equivocally to Russia and Russia alone. While it is hard to draw the lines of countries and make everyone happy (ok, that’s impossible), those regions were assigned to Ukrainian territory. They belonged to Ukraine. Putin had no right to declare Donetsk and Luhansk as independent territories, and even then, it didn’t make it Russian land. Ukraine defended its territory. We also know that there were some false flag operations staged by Russia to make it look like Ukraine had attacked them. But Ukraine did not attack Russian land prior to February 24th, 2022. What Ukrainians have always wanted is to just live a normal, peaceful life without war and oppression. That is why they wanted to join NATO and the EU. They wanted protection from Russia, because all throughout their history Russia has attacked them. Putin claims that their wanting to join NATO is what provoked the attack, but the truth is, if he hadn’t been bullying Ukraine for over 8 years now, they wouldn’t have needed to seek out protection. Ukraine is only a threat to Russia because they are living and thriving freely outside of Putin’s control.

Lie #7: This is All the United States/the West’s Fault (Thanks Biden)

Did the United States, especially the media, make the situation worse in the beginning, when everyone was speculating on when Putin would attack? Possibly. But I think this is exactly what Putin wanted them to do. I think he wanted them to “provoke” so he could have a good excuse. He also knew that he could probably get away with a good bit with Biden as president. Biden was VP during the 2014 invasion, and he didn’t handle the situation very well. But ultimately, the U.S. didn’t hold a gun to Putin’s head and force him to give the order to attack. This war is based in a very long history of oppression against Ukraine. The United States is not to blame for this. Neither is NATO. And certainly not Ukraine. Russia is the only one responsible for this.

Lie #8: Ukraine is Corrupt and Therefore is Not Worth Saving

Of course, Ukraine struggles with corruption. I am not denying that fact. So does pretty much every other country in the world. And especially post-Soviet countries who are still trying to get out of decades of Soviet-era ideals and behaviors. But Ukraine has been really, really trying to change this. Even we have seen improvements since we first went there in 2017. Either way, this is not a reason to invade another country. Russia has just as much if not more corruption within their own land. They should maybe think about removing the stick from their own eye before removing the log from their brother’s.

Tulsi Gabbard also released a video early on in the war days talking about President Zelensky. I won’t do her the satisfaction of linking her video here, but basically, she claimed that Zelensky threw his political opponent in jail in order to win the election and also shut down 3 news stations that were against him politically. Every time I bring this up to a Ukrainian friend, they look at me like I’m crazy, because these statements are absolutely ludicrous…but they are rooted in some truth, which is why they’re so confusing and damaging. Zelensky’s political opponent was Poroshenko, who had already served one term in office. They were the 2 candidates with the most votes after the first round of the election, so they went head-to-head for round 2. Zelensky won with an astonishing and unheard of 73.22% of the vote! People in Ukraine were thrilled, and it was very clear they supported him. They were tired of politicians and thought comedian and actor Zelensky would be the best chance at fighting corruption. After he won the election and got into office, he hammered down hard on investigations trying to weed out the corruption. And in the process, people discovered that Poroshenko had done some illegal deals with none other than Russia. So, he was placed on house arrest and was awaiting trial when the war broke out. And as for the TV stations, they were all spouting pro-Russian propaganda and wanting one of the old presidents (you know, the one who stole money from the treasury) to return to power. Zelensky considered it to be dangerous wartime propaganda (since Russia had attacked in 2014) and shut them down. It was more than “we don’t like you,” it was a security risk. You can’t be angry at the corruption in a country and then also be angry when people are held accountable for that.

These are some of the biggest lies that have come from Russia. Check out my list of reliable sources for news. Let me know if you’d like to learn more about these or if you’ve heard of other things that you would like addressed. And please share. Ukraine needs it. The truth deserves to be told.

Bittersweet Pascha

Today, Orthodox Christians around the globe celebrate Pascha, or Easter. Actually the services started yesterday, vigils held at midnight. Lent is over, fasting is broken, and Christ is Risen! This is always, always Good News.

From our church in Montana. Oh how we miss them.

And yet there is a pervasive, bittersweet sorrow among Ukrainians who celebrate today. It has been 60 days of war. Exactly 2 months since Russia started bombing. For many, Lent was nearly impossible to participate in. Normally this includes abstaining from meat, eggs, dairy, olive oil, and other indulgent foods. There is grace if you are unable to fast for reasons like pregnancy, sickness, dietary restrictions, travel, or age (either the young children or the elderly). War certainly falls in that category. On February 23rd people were starting to prepare for Lent, making plans and mentally preparing for the strict 40 day fast. And then the bombs fell. And we all went into survival mode. Food was not always easy to find, if you were at a shelter you had no control over the menu, and depending on where you were, it wasn’t safe to attend church.

Lord, have mercy.

Between the hiding, traveling, sickness, and other circumstances outside our control, we have not been able to attend church regularly since February (hopefully that will change soon). The only food group we truly were able to fast from was alcohol. Not like that’s a big deal for us to give up. Not like we had much opportunity anyway. We have watched the videos posted by our local church back home. And last night, our friend from the convent in Kyiv sent us a video with clips from the Saturday services. Thankfully the convent had not been damaged, and it was beautiful to see. Oh how we wish we could be there in person with her.

Lord, have mercy.

Holy Protection convent in Kyiv. One of our favorites to attend.

In Romania the schools have enjoyed spring break, starting on the western Good Friday so that both Easter weekends could be enjoyed no matter when you celebrate. I watched people with suitcases joyfully get in taxis and head off for holiday. They smiled, knowing what was ahead and knowing when they would return. I’m used to seeing suitcases coupled with fear and crying, a whole life packed away in one little box. If they were lucky enough to have time to pack.

Lord, have mercy.

President Zelensky and churches of all denominations implored Russia for a brief ceasefire these past two weekends to allow people to celebrate. Not just the Ukrainians, but the Russian soldiers too. Russia refused, and the past two weekends have been more intense than the recent fighting. Yesterday they fired missiles on Odessa. A 3-month old baby was killed as a result.

Lord, have mercy.

Valerya and her daughter (name not released) were both killed yesterday as the result of the attack. Her husband posted their pictures so they would be remembered.
Another one of the victims from Bucha. Sweet Sasha, aged 2. I cannot even describe the conditions they found him in. It makes my blood boil.

People are grieving the loss of their loved ones. They are separated from family. They don’t know if their friends in the east are still alive, or even still in Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians have been forcibly evacuated from Mariupol into remote towns in Russia, on the Pacific coast, cut off from everyone and not knowing if Ukraine still exists or not. This is not the Pascha that any of us thought.

Lord, have mercy.

Our hearts are heavy today. We mourn for what is lost and we feel the pain, as Jesus wept for Lazarus. And yet we still celebrate, because we know that one day God’s divine justice will triumph overall. After the darkness of Friday and Saturday comes the light of Sunday. We believe that the victims of those war, those brutally murdered, especially the children, are in the arms of Jesus our great comforter. And in that we find our comfort, hope, and peace.

Easter lunch with our new friend from YWAM Marta and her family.

Christ is risen. Христос воскрес.

Joyous Pascha.

The Best Class I Took in College

Way back in the Spring semester of 2019, before the war, before the pandemic, and before we even got married, I took a class called Russian History at Trevecca Nazarene University. I had to argue why I should take a specialized upper level history course instead of the basic world history requirement. But thankfully, after I explained that I planned to be a missionary in that part of the world, my professors, advisors, and the Dean approved the substitution. I’m so glad they did. Dr. Hohman’s course became one of my favorites and arguably one of the best I took at TNU. She helped us dive deep into Russia’s history and the impact it had on its eastern European neighbors, specifically Ukraine. To the tired juniors and seniors who were starting to wear thin on the multiple intensive history classes, I’m sure my enthusiasm in class could be a little annoying at times. But I thrived. And of course, all my papers and projects had a Ukrainian angle as I sought to understand the history and culture between the two. I expected to get a little glimpse of insight into the current conflict, but thought I probably wouldn’t find much. I knew there must be some roots to the history, as every major political conflict had.

I didn’t expect to see the exact same story repeated for over a thousand years. The papers and books that we read could have just as easily been written in 2022, 2014, 1924, 1917, and 1876, just to list off a few of the major dates.

Recently I found a copy of my final analysis paper I turned in for the class, which focused on the oppression of the Ukrainian language. I made a few edits, but for the most part it remains the same as it did from 2019. Unfortunately I did not have the time or space to dive deep into the Holodomor as I wanted (yes, I’m the type of person who doesn’t like page limits on essays, although I understand why they exist), so it is only mentioned briefly. But I plan on doing a more in-depth post and/or video on that later. In the meantime, please read this summary of the Ukrainian language, its oppression, and its re-emergence.

The old Ukrainian village homes we stayed in for a week during DTS. No running water and limited electricity, even in 2017.

The Power of Language

Language is one of the most crucial elements in forming a national identity. Without a unifying language with which to communicate, a country cannot progress and evolve. Having multiple languages, dialects, and cultures represented within a country enhances its beauty. On the other hand, a national language is what binds the people together. This becomes especially important when an oppressed ethnic group is not allowed their own freedom or autonomy. Ukraine is a country with a long and tired history with barely thirty years of recognized independence. Over the centuries, its rich agricultural soil was the envy of more arid, inhospitable nations, and changed boundaries and empires several times. In addition, their access to the Black Sea made it a prime target for landlocked nations such as Russia and Poland. Their language developed from the roots of Russian and, to a lesser extent, Polish, but over time diverged from both. For the Ukrainians, their language was a symbol of their freedom and tied directly to their national movements. Those who ruled over them soon realized the power that language holds, and often outlawed both spoken and written forms of Ukrainian. But given the tiniest bit of freedom, Ukrainian exploded in full force. Even today, as Russia attempts to overtake “the bread-basket of Europe (Reid, pp 224),” the country struggles with their language and identity. And as seen again and again in the past, they are using language to express their independence. 

Describing the emergence of a distinct ethnic group is a difficult task when sharing a common ancestry with its neighbors. It is especially complicated when a country such as Ukraine has only known true independence for barely three decades. Many Eastern European ethnicities descended from the Kievan-Rus, which took root within the modern borders of Ukraine. This resulted in an intricately woven, interconnected, yet often disputed history (Applebaum, introduction). One of the earliest recorded times Ukrainians are dissimilar from their Russian neighbors is in 1654. After living for three-hundred years under Polish-Lithuanian rule, they were re-integrated into Russia. During their time in Poland-Lithuania, the Ukrainian mindset had shifted toward Western European ideals. In addition, religious differences had also set in. Russia had rejected the Greek Orthodox church for what they believed to be heresy in asking the Pope for help against the attacking Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Ukrainians living in Poland-Lithuania were dealing with their own drama and retained a more traditional Greek Orthodoxy (Reid, pp 27-30). Despite these differences, neither Russia nor Poland recognized them as a separate people group. Both viewed the territory as backward and primitive, lessening its importance. Any voice Ukraine might have raised was immediately dismissed, stripped of its dignity. Poland recognized that Ukrainians were different both culturally and linguistically, yet still claimed ownership of “their [Polish] Ukrainian lands (Applebaum, Introduction).” Russia called the area “Little Russia,” acknowledging the differences without giving validation. They considered the Ukrainians as a tribe and their language as a dialect, both under their supremacy (Valuev, fos. 4 verso-5). Unlike other non-Russian languages, Ukrainian was not taught in schools (Applebaum, Introduction). 

Estimated map of the Kievan-Rus territory over time. Sorry for the small text.

By the late Middle Ages, Ukrainian had developed its own diverse language, a blend of Russian, Polish, and their own creative spin. At one point there were 21 dialects of Ukrainian within borders the size of Texas. Many Ukrainians can understand spoken Polish due to corresponding grammar and vocabulary, though they are unable to read it. This is due to the fact that Polish uses the Latin alphabet—plus a few extra letters– whereas Ukrainian is Cyrillic. As Russian also uses a Cyrillic alphabet, it looks almost identical to the untrained eye. The key difference here is that Ukraine adds three additional letters to their alphabet, the “i”, “ï”, and “ґ.” This results in a nuanced pronunciation system, even when words are otherwise the same (Applebaum, Introduction). For example, the word for “please” in Russian is “pozhaluysta” whereas in Ukrainian it is “byd’laska.” In addition, they both have their own grammar systems. The endings or “cases” of the words are also particular to the language. To this day, people continue to group the languages together, taking on the Russian viewpoint. However, it is better compared to Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, which share the same roots but still have clear differences.

The first significant instance of linguistic oppression occurred under Tsar Alexander II. A debate concerning which language to teach in schools had been discussed for quite some time. A letter to the St Petersburg Literacy Committee in March 1862, described the Ukrainians as the indigenous people of South Russia. The letter urged inclusion for the native language in schools, while acknowledging it as different. Although school children could read in Russian, they were unable to summarize what they had learned in Ukrainian (Konys’kyi). “Pupils’ development can be achieved only by permitting the people’s language [but] may be greatly hindered by completely excluding it from teaching (Kiev Censorship Committee).” Yet Alexander, known as the “Liberator Tsar” for freeing the serfs, and the “Good Tsar” for granting Finland autonomy, ignored them both. As Ukrainians experienced a surge of national identity, the use of their language denoted their opposition to the current establishment (Applebaum, Anne. Introduction). In a speech made to the deputies of Polish nobility in charge of overseeing Ukraine, Alexander proclaimed, “Gentlemen, let us have no dreams! (Morfill, pp 429).” The Tsar wanted a cultish population which would follow him, one without any individuality. The 1876 Edict of Ems banned the usage of the Ukrainian language, including books, concerts, lectures, teaching, and public health notices (Reid, pp. 68). The impact in Ukraine was profound. Having access to a Russian education and speaking fluent Russian was the only way one could get a job. When schools switched to Russian, many Ukrainians could not continue their education. Their education system collapsed, leaving a vast portion of the country illiterate (Applebaum, Introduction). The peasants continued to speak Ukrainian in secret at home and in villages, yearning to have the freedom to be themselves. 

One of my favorite pictures I took on DTS. Sunset at an ancient Orthodox monastery that was over 1,000 years old, overlooking the border of Ukraine and Moldova.

Historians mark 1917-1918 as the first serious beginning of Ukraine’s national journey. By the 1900s, the Russian people were growing disenchanted with the monarchy and their Tsars. The Women’s Bread March protest in early 1917 forced Nicholas Romanov to abdicate his throne and the reign of the Tsars was finally over. Emboldened by the successful revolution, the Ukrainian movement gained momentum. They declared themselves a free nation detached from Russia: Ukrainian People’s Republic (Mace, pp 1). Ukrainian became the national language, and people spoke it unashamedly. Major world powers such as France, England, and even the infant Soviet Union recognized the new Ukrainian government (Applebaum, Chapter 1). Unfortunately, this new freedom lasted only a year. 

As the Soviet Union gained more power, Vladimir Lenin tried to unite the country using language as the main weapon. A civil war raged as the White Army—consisting of Cossacks, communist deserters, and allied forces—tried to keep the Bolsheviks of the Red Army from taking over the country. As usual, Ukraine’s fertile fields became a prime target. Every time the Bolsheviks took Kiev, they changed the street signs to Russian and shot Ukrainian speakers in public. But with the Bolsheviks driven out, Ukrainian street signs reappeared. In the words of Anne Applebaum, “the deep connection between language and power was driven home to the residents of Kiev once again (Chapter 1).” Whoever was in power used language to assert their dominance and the Ukrainians retaliated by keeping their language alive. As Gareth Jones remarked in his diary, “Literature is a weapon of class warfare (pp 116).”

After several attempts, The Bolsheviks realized that they were unable to subjugate the Ukrainian people. So, Lenin tried a new tactic. Ukrainization: a chance for the people to develop their culture in exchange for becoming Soviet citizens. The Soviets put Ukrainian communists to oversee the process, believing they would guide the people to develop the country. However, this compromise backfired. Without meaning to, the Soviets had given the Ukrainians validation they craved. Influenced by Western Europe, a cultural revival burst forth independent from Russia, which caught Soviet leaders completely off guard (Mace, pp 1-3). 

The Holodomor monument in Kyiv.

Tactics changed once again in 1924. By this time, Lenin had suffered two strokes which took his life, and Joseph Stalin came to power. As Stalin began enacting his Five-Year Plans in 1928, he started to crack down on the growing Ukrainian movement. Stalin abandoned Ukrainization, forbid the language and history, and disbanded Ukrainian institutions (Mace, pp 5; Jones, pp 192). Suicide was not uncommon. The Commissar of Education, accused of over-Ukrainisation, committed suicide in 1933 (Jones, pp 194-195). To make matters worse, the Bolsheviks stole food and livestock from the people in a forced collectivization. It is estimated that nearly seven million people, including more than half the male population and a quarter of the female population, perished in what is now known as the Holodomor (Krawchenko, pp. 23). In a small but vital victory for Ukraine to reclaim its history, the term derives from Ukrainian. “Holod” comes from the Ukrainian word for hunger, and “mor” the word for extermination, (Applebaum, Preface). Stalin censored the region’s news and censuses, denying the famine’s existence (Carynnyk, pp 110). (Sound familiar?) Forbidden to speak about the famine, Ukrainians passed on an oral history for generations (Applebaum, chapter 15). Through this persecution, the Ukrainians grew to hate the Soviets with a passion. Though for now, they were powerless (Krawchenko, pp 22-23; Jones pp 190). “The Ukrainian Village was silenced and never again rose in opposition to the Soviet regime (Krawchenko, pp 23).” After the famine, they were too weak to stand up for themselves, illiterate, starving, and feeling more oppressed than ever before.

In 1991, Ukraine finally gained its independence, and the majority were overwhelmed with joy and relief. However, not everyone was happy with the new arrangement. The people were a colorful mosaic of cultures, sharing a common ancestry yet painted with specific customs. Several spoke Russian, had family on the other side of the border, and identified as Russians. Many did not view themselves as Ukrainian, an opinion sometimes shared across a particular region such as Crimea. Others who identified as native Ukrainians had grown up only with Russian, a result of the frequent repressions. Those who did speak a little Ukrainian had poor language skills and found that Russian was easier to learn. It was a time of confusion as the country tried to sort out their new identity (Reid, pp 171-174). It was not until the revolution of 2014 that the people truly came together (Winter on Fire, Netflix). Still, Ukrainian emerged from the shadows and once again began to be spoken in public. However, there were still those who preferred to stick with Russian. 

Geographically, the closer one lived to Russia in cities like Donetsk, the more Russian you and your family spoke. The further west you traveled, in cities such as Lviv, you would hear a purer form of Ukrainian. In the middle of the country, a semi-dialect now known as “Soujik” emerged as a mixture of the two languages. It is common for most citizens to use Russian grammar with Ukrainian words, or Ukrainian words with Russian cases, or vice versa. It is almost impossible to understand unless you have a knowledge of both Ukrainian and Russian (Reid, pp 222-223).

One of my favorite pictures of me and Sasha, from 2017 on our DTS.

In light of the recent Russo-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea, language has become a tricky and often sensitive topic. Part of this is due to Russian separatists, who identify as Russians and think that Ukraine should merge back into Russia. They refuse to speak Ukrainian as some Ukrainian nationalists refuse to speak Russian. But overall these appear to be minority opinions. Most are caught in the middle, like my friend Sasha. Although she identifies as Ukrainian, her native language is Russian. She grew up speaking Russian in the city of Kyiv, and while she understands Ukrainian when read or spoken to her, she is unable to respond in true Ukrainian. We learned Russian in order to communicate with her. While we have certainly received some questions and mild disappointment when people learn that foreigners have come to Ukraine and learned Russian, most understand and are nice about it. We have never been discriminated against for choosing Russian. They are grateful that we are learning such a difficult language at all so that we can communicate. 

Today, as Russia repeats history in trying to take back Ukraine, the Ukrainian people want to signify their differences. They are a unique, beautiful blend of the surrounding cultures, neither Asian nor Western European, neither Russian nor Polish. While Poland has left Ukraine in relative peace, Russia continues to oppress their neighbors. For the Ukrainians, it feels much like a repeat of the 1917-1918 revolution. Over one hundred years later, they are still forced to fight for their right as a recognized and legitimate country, people, and language. The Ukrainian language has re-emerged as the foundation to claim the Ukrainian identity. It is a powerful tool that has divided a land in the throes of self-discovery and freedom. 

Maidan Square, Kyiv, braced for a Russian attack in March 2022.

Bibliography:

Morfill, William. A History of Russia: From the Birth of Peter the Great to Nicholas II. James Pott, Nabu Press, 2011. 

Applebaum, Anne. Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Red Famine. Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.

Serbyn, Roman and Krawchenko, Bohdan, editors. Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933. Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1986. 

  • Mace, James E. “The Man-Made Famine of 1933 in Soviet Ukraine.” Serbyn and Krawchenko, pp 1-14. 
  • Krawchenko, Bohdan. “The Man-Made Famine of 1932-1933 and Collectivization in Soviet Ukraine.” Serbyn and Krawchenko, pp 15-26. 
  • Carynnyk, Marco. “Blind Eye to Murder: Britain, the United States and the Ukrainian Famine of 1933.” Serbyn and Krawchenko, pp 109-138. 

Reid, Anna. Borderland. A Journey through the history of Ukraine. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997. 

Saunders, David. Russia and Ukraine under Alexander II: The Valuev Edict of 1863. Taylor and Francis, Ltd., 1995.

  • Memo by Konys’kyi, V.  Loboda, and D.P. Pyl’chykov to St Petersburg Literacy Committee, 10 March 1862, RGIA, f. 398, op. 26, d. 9979, fos 2-3.
  • Kiev Censorship Committee to Valuev, RGIA, f. 775, op. 1, d. 188, fos 9.
  • P.A. Valuev, “On Books Published for the People in the Little Russian Dialect,” memo, 11 July 1863, ibid., fos. 4-8.

Jones, Garreth. “Tell them we are starving.” The 1933 Soviet Diaries of Gareth Jones. Edited by Lubomyr Y. Luciuk.

Controversy in the Orthodox Church

One of the questions we often get now that we are baptized is “what type of Orthodox Church do you belong to? Is it the same as Greek Orthodox?” And with the war between Ukraine and Russia, these have expanded into “Were you going to Russian Orthodox Churches? What’s up with the split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church? Why is the Russian Orthodox Church siding with Putin and not condemning the war? Is Putin Orthodox?” Given all these new questions, I thought it was time to dig a little deeper into these issues to hopefully bring people a little more clarity.

Disclaimer: Whole books could be written on these subjects. To try and summarize it in a a few paragraphs grossly over-simplifies the issue and leaves out a lot of nuances and history. I love Ukraine and I will stand by it. But there has been an unfair amount of anti-Russia sentiment pointed in the wrong direction over the years. I have seen it myself, and it grieves me. Unfortunately I cannot cover it all in this blogpost, so I have tried to link sources that give more detail. They are linked both to individual points and listed altogether at the end. I would highly encourage you to read through most of them as they are typically short 5-8 minute reads and will give a lot more context than I can provide here.

Organization of the Church

There is one Orthodox Church, which holds to the same general beliefs and Traditions (big T). But within the The Church are organized groups of Churches, geographical and cultural, stemming from their place of origin. While there are small differences between their practices traditions (little t), at their core they are all the same Orthodox Church. While the Catholic Church was only doing services in Latin, the Orthodox Church was translating liturgy into the native language and allowing small differences to develop according to the culture. For example, many of the Russian Orthodox Churches (ROC) we have attended have their sermon or homily at the end of Liturgy after communion. The Serbian churches we have visited typically have the homily in between the Gospel reading and communion. The songs may have the same lyrics, but the tune is more fitting of the culture and style of the country of origin. But one of the beautiful things about it is that we can walk into almost any Orthodox Church all over the world, without knowing the language, and figure out approximately what’s going on in the service. And it feels like coming home every time.

The Churches are further categorized as either autocephalous (self-headed) or autonomous (self-governed). Both are still independent, but autonomous churches are still under the head of an autocephalous church. The difference is explained succinctly here. I like to think of autonomous dioceses as a sub church or under a mentor church. There are now 16 autocephalous churches of Orthodoxy: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Georgia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, Greece, Poland, Romania, Albania, America, and the “Czech Republic and Slovakia” under one. And the most recent addition is the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019. Some articles still reference 14 or 15 autocephalous churches since the last 2 are so recent, and Ukraine is surrounded with controversy.

The History and Spirituality

St. Vladimir monument, Kyiv.

Both Russia and Ukraine can trace their Orthodox history to Prince Vladimir’s baptism in 988 AD, with their common ancestors the Kyivan-Rus. At the time, Kyiv was the strong central city over the land. The first reference to Moscow as its own city wasn’t until 1147 AD, nearly 160 years later. Kyiv was the center of spirituality, where the Patriarch resided. But in the year 1240 AD, Kyiv was attacked by the Mongols, and began an unfortunate decline in power and strength. In 1686, Russia conquered Kyiv and eastern Ukraine and forcibly moved the Patriarch to Moscow, where the position has remained ever since. There were many more ups and downs, including communism and the persecution of the church in Ukraine and Russia. But since Ukraine finally gained true independence in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) was autonomous. It was independent and self-governed, but under the head of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Despite abuse in the past, this was spiritually normal for Orthodoxy. We don’t like to have schisms and splits, even if we are still one Orthodox Church. The most recent Orthodox Churches to gain autocephalous status were Czech Republic and Slovakia in 2016, America in 1970, and Albania in 1937. It doesn’t just happen every few years or so. Among many Orthodox across the globe, there was not a good spiritual reason for Ukraine to split from the ROC. They believed it was purely politically motivated.

The Political Side:

St. Basil’s cathedral, Moscow.

When people hear the word Orthodoxy, if they don’t think of Greece, they think of Russia. The history stretches back 1,032 years, it contains the largest Orthodox population for any one country, and it’s colorful domed churches are iconic. Exactly how many people are Orthodox is somewhat debated. Some claim up to 70% are Orthodox, but a more practical number of practicing Orthodox Christians seem to lie around 40%. Tragically, the history of Orthodoxy in Russia has been marred by communism…and it still hasn’t recovered. Under communism, devotion to Lenin and then Stalin replaced devotion to God. They tried to wipe religion out, knowing it was a threat to their power. So much common knowledge was lost during that time as people were unable to speak freely. Priests were required to report anyone who came to them for confession to the authorities to be arrested, which developed a deep distrust of the church. Even today, according to some of our friends who have close ties to the ROC, they are less likely to partake in confession and communion (these are generalizations from the stories we have heard coming out of Russia, and do not necessarily apply to all. We have also heard of good, faithful people within the church as well). They also appear more reserved and less knowledgeable about the history, meaning of liturgy and traditions, and most shockingly, the Bible itself. Or perhaps it is not so shocking after all. After all, as much as religion can be seen as a threat to some, it is also a weapon of control in the wrong hands.

The reversal of this communist effect seems to have partially originated from Putin’s rise to power. He came to power in 2000, and in the past 2 decades Orthodoxy has been steadily increasing. On the surface level, that would seem like a good thing, right? People were returning to the church again. But his goals were political. He used the church to tie people’s identity to Russia, and the history to justify reclaiming Ukraine. This is what the Ukrainian people did not like. They did not like being under the headship of people who denied their very existence.

The Split and Controversy

St. Jonah’s monastery in Kyiv, which we visited several times, is under the ROC, and did not break away in 2019.

(Again, please remember that this is vastly over-simplified, and even the articles that I link do not go over everything. I wanted to show sources from both sides but struggled to find some from a Russian perspective.)

Ukraine has tried and failed in the past to create their own autocephalous church, in 1921, 1942, and in 1992. None were successfully recognized by any of the existing autocephalous churches. What it did create was confusion and disunity among the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. At one point there were two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, and the ROC in Ukraine. This was not ideal. Especially after the conflict in 2014 began (see Winter on Fire on Netflix for more details on when the war really started), the movement to break away from the ROC grew stronger. In an attempt to unify the churches, President Poroshenko worked with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and combined the two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches into one UOC that became autocephalous in 2018-2019. The decision was recognized by the autocephalous churches of Alexandria, Greece, and Cyprus. This was more support than previous attempts, but it was still controversial. Russia then split away from the Church of Constantinople, refusing mutual communion between them. Individual churches in Ukraine could choose which patriarch they wanted to be under: Kyiv or Moscow. It is estimated that around a third of the Ukrainian Churches under the Moscow Patriarchate switched to the Kyiv Patriarchate. It was still controversial and not entirely a “popular” decision. The majority stayed with Moscow. But now, with the full scale invasion, many more are splitting away.

This is what our priest, Father Pan, said on this complex matter: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate has the right to intervene in places, and as its spokespeople would relate, the authority to institute Churches when there’s an appeal made to them. The ROC however, having embraced those lands as her own cannot accept letting them go on the basis of administrative policy and jurisdiction. These are real people with real priests and Bishops taking care of them in the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (of ROC in this case). It remains to be determined if canonical rights over established unity are the best safeguards for Church peace and the continuation of Church life.”

The Current War

Russian Patriarch Kirill also has gotten very dangerously political in his speeches and homilies (sermons), especially since the war began. At first I thought they must all be brainwashed…but then I learned more details. Some people within the church are definitely brainwashed and believe the lies about Russian-speaking persecution and N*zi activity. But others are part of the brainwashing process. Tragically, Patriarch Kirill has refused to recognize the Ukrainians as a separate people group, and even stated that the cathedral stood not just for the glory of God but the might of the Russian army. At the same time, the Russian army has bombed and destroyed many Ukrainian churches, some with people hiding inside. This was not just churches under the UOC. They also bombed a monastery in Donetsk which was under the ROC, also housing refugees.

Another Orthodox Church bombed by Russian planes in Malyn, Ukraine. Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/EPA

This sickens me not just for my heart for Ukraine, but also the Orthodox Church around the world. It is already vastly misunderstood in the western and Protestant world. And now everyone is focused on the ROC as the example for Orthodoxy. And that hurts, because it is not a true representation as we have seen in every church we have been to throughout Ukraine and the United States. Yes, there is one Orthodox Church. But what the Russians are doing, specifically the ROC, has been condemned by many other Orthodox. This article lays out specific details about why what Patriarch Kirill and Putin are saying and doing are NOT aligned with Orthodox beliefs, and what directly CONTRADICTS their actions and words. The Church is in turmoil, trying to figure out how to handle this terrible situation. Some are calling for the Patriarch to be deposed and removed from power. Even some priests and bishops that are Russian Orthodox but live outside of Russia have symbolically cut ties by refusing to pray and bless Patriarch Kirill at the appropriate time during liturgy. On this particular point, we do not agree. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 says we should pray for our leaders. We believe this is especially true when we think they are making unwise, unbiblical, or harmful decisions. It is under those circumstances that we should pray for them most, that God would work within their hearts and they would repent. We can still do this even while practically helping Ukraine in other ways. Kyiv Metropolitan Onufriy (ROC but serves in Kyiv) has tried to set a good example of this by calling for an “immediate end to the fratricidal war” but not condemning the Russian church altogether.

Others have condoned the death and destruction and called for peace, but have humbly admitted that since they do not know the intricacies of the history and politics between Russia and Ukraine. It is for these reasons that they do not immediately condemn one side or another, trying to avoid making quick judgements. While it can be frustrating when the aggressor does seem to be so clearly cut, these words reflect the Orthodox humility, patience, and peace that we have come to love.

Orthodox study Bible translation.

Our Opinion

We are still new to Orthodoxy. Our home church in America is under the Serbian Orthodox Church. Our priest is Greek Orthodox. We have been to Russian Orthodox Churches, and we have been to Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. Soon we will attend a Romanian Orthodox service for the first time. There are still a lot of nuances that we are learning. At different points we have understood both sides of the church split, both spiritually and politically. Here in Romania we serve Ukrainians who speak Russian and Ukrainian. We have friends from Russia that we pray for. We try to live our lives as Christ showed us: eating with tax collectors and Pharisees, healing the Samaritan woman and the centurion, sparing the adulterous woman’s life, forgiving the thief on the cross, and washing Judas’ feet.

The upheaval among Orthodox churches is a complex issue. I don’t know if we have formed a fully settled opinion on that issue yet. Neither have many in the Orthodox Church. Father Pan summed it up beautifully: “It is crucial for each one of us to have the courage to simply say ‘I do not know’ when we are confronted with difficult questions that are not only complex but also the true domain of God’s grace operating in ways beyond our comprehension. […] The honest answer is that the Church doesn’t have an actual response to the war in Ukraine, but it does have a response to what war might actually mean – like any other calamity. The Church doesn’t know war. The Church knows the Gospel, the Church is the body of Christ with Christ at the head, The Church knows the Sacraments. The Church knows forgiveness. The Church prays for rulers, good or bad, prays for peace, for unity… these are the promises of the eschaton (the end, return of Christ) already experienced in the Church now as an image of the kingdom.”

We are simply trying to share both sides of the story, so that those outside of Orthodoxy can have a fuller understanding. What we do know, and that we humbly ask, is this: please do not judge all of Orthodoxy by the words and actions of the ROC and Patriarch Kirill. They are not the sole representatives. We do not have a single human head of the Church. Christ is the head, and we follow as best as we are able.

All Sources:

Obviously the sources that we have provided are biased, defending one point or another. That is to be expected during times like these. But I know that for many outside the Orthodox Church, the different vocabulary, terms, and traditions can seem overwhelming, making it hard to find sources. If you are interested or have further questions about particular topics, please do not hesitate to let us know. We can connect you to resources that will answer better than we can.

https://www.bible.ca/orthodox-church-autocephalous-hierarchy-organization.htm

https://www.oca.org/questions/autocephaly/autocephalous-autonomous

https://orthodoxhistory.org/2020/07/08/how-many-orthodox-christians-are-in-the-world/

https://www.heritage.org/europe/commentary/how-putin-uses-russian-orthodoxy-grow-his-empire?fbclid=IwAR1EPv-lnvnQDLQKXBHjsesp0VPElj63jYTCeexkYFVGW2LvDfaO16NX9co

https://religionnews.com/2022/02/09/why-church-conflict-in-ukraine-reflects-historic-russian-ukrainian-tensions/

https://religiondispatches.org/the-russian-patriarch-just-gave-his-most-dangerous-speech-yet-and-almost-no-one-in-the-west-has-noticed/?fbclid=IwAR2tqNqq-7CzxsRrHWW36l0V2lrWnZjGqKJnSiPnErg1QBaXg0HFE3x0vGI

https://publicorthodoxy.org/2022/03/13/a-declaration-on-the-russian-world-russkii-mir-teaching/

https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-invasion-splits-orthodox-church-isolates-russian-patriarch-2022-03-14/

https://emerging-europe.com/news/the-explainer-the-split-in-ukraines-orthodox-church/

https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2022/14-april/news/world/churches-make-fresh-appeals-for-peace-in-ukraine

https://epthinktank.eu/2022/04/04/russias-war-on-ukraine-the-religious-dimension/

Why I Love Ukraine

I could write a book about the many reasons I love Ukraine, the country that stole my heart 5 years ago and is breaking it now. I could go on and on about the culture, the food, the landscape, the history, the architecture, the churches and the art. But the biggest reason I fell in love with a country that is not my own is the people.

I’ll be honest. When I first came to DTS in 2017, my only exposure to Ukraine was through the orphans I had fundraised for. I had a burning passion for children with special needs (I still do) and the history of their abandonment in institutions. Somewhere in my subconscious, I thought the people must not care about these children and adults. But I saw that they did! I saw (most of) the caretakers at Plyskiv genuinely smiling and enjoying being around these adults, despite the challenges. I saw families keeping their children with Down Syndrome and pushing their children in wheelchairs around the streets of Vinnytsia. I didn’t see it often, but I saw it enough that it surprised me. God brought my internal biases crashing down. I realized that it wasn’t a lack of love and care, but a lack of resources that meant children with special needs were still surrendered to orphanages.

And then I learned it went further than that. Ukrainians are passionate people. They are hospitable. Every church we went to, every rehab we served, every person we visited welcomed us with open arms. It is expected etiquette to bring something to add to the table if you visit people, whether for a meal or coffee/chai. They were so happy to hear that we liked visiting their country, which at the time most people barely knew where it was on a map.

Maidan Square in Kyiv, just a few weeks ago.

Ukrainians care deeply about their country. This has never been more evident. Nearly 150,000 people have returned to Ukraine since the war began, most of them men coming to fight! Before Russia invaded, people fully expected Putin’s mighty army to swoop in and destroy Ukraine within days. But the Ukrainian soldiers said Go F*** Yourselves! They have defended Ukraine valiantly, holding off a country more than SEVEN times its geographical size and FOUR times its military size. This of course was estimated before many untrained civilians volunteered to join the territorial reserve.

But it runs deeper than that. People in western Ukraine began opening their homes to complete strangers fleeing from Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, and Kyiv. Overnight, everyone became family. Everyone united to help each other, and Ukraine became stronger than ever. There was always an initial shock and grief, of course. But then they picked themselves up and got busy. They helped clean the shelters. They made tea. They carried on. They are Ukrainian.

A Ukrainian family I met in Romania. The grandmother next to me, Valya, is deaf and we had fun learning each other’s sign language. They have now moved on to Belgium.

Here in Romania, our YWAM team has been busy cooking hot meals 6 days a week for nearly a month. We rotate through volunteers and occasionally local restaurants donate a meal or two. And so do the Ukrainians. If they aren’t moving on to another country to reunite with family, if they stay here, some volunteer right along with us. They help cook meals with a Ukrainian flavor. And boy oh boy does it bring everyone comfort, hope, and joy.

They have lost everything. When you only have room for one suitcase a piece, when you only have time to run with the clothes on your back, you can’t bring much. Maybe your grandmother’s scarf that she knit you. Maybe the family Bible. Maybe a baptismal cross or a small icon. But even that isn’t guaranteed. They have nothing. Some of them from Luhansk, Donetsk, and now Kharkiv and Mariupol don’t plan on returning. Their cities have been reduced to rubble. But many still have hope that one day they will return. One day they will rebuild. Ukraine is the only thing they haven’t lost. Not really, not yet. Ukraine is the one thing they are holding onto with a death grip. That, and each other.

Lunch with Sasha, shortly before the invasion began.

And that is why I love Ukraine.

One Week of War

Originally written on March 3rd, 2022. Pictures are from the first 2 weeks.

I have not brushed my hair in a week. For some reason in the early morning chaos of last Thursday, I looked at my hairbrush for a split second and thought: “that’s not really necessary, I can get another one wherever we’re going.” Spoiler: I should have grabbed the hairbrush. I think about our apartment. Will we ever go back? If we do, will it still be standing? Or is everything lost forever? Our fridge is going to be a biochemical hazard by that point. I had just bought chicken to make food for the youth group on Saturday. We still had a giant pot of borscht. It’s all gone bad at this point.

Refugees pile into a van. As many as can fit. It is hard to find transport. Nobody cares about seats. They ride like this for hours.

I got a sinus infection from hiding in the moldy, half flooded basement for so long. If that is the worst thing that happened to me I’ll take it.

The cafe in our village is now gone.

The thing that makes us all pause and hold our breath? Car alarms. Because last time we heard them was when the bombing started. The shock waves set off all the car alarms and for some of us, that’s really what woke us up. There is a lot of construction around us too. Whatever they do cause loud noises that send vibrations through the ground. We pause for a second, listening. It doesn’t take long to figure out what it is. We know what a real bomb sounds like now.

Sleeping arrangements at one of the shelters we stayed at.

We are trying to settle into a new routine. Even in war, life marches on. Among our team had a birthday (10 yr old) and an anniversary (3 years) this week. We got the 10 year old a cake. Otherwise it wasn’t much like a typical celebration. Overall we are in relatively good spirits.

An emotional goodbye.

Yesterday we went to a medical training. We learned how to carry wounded people out of danger and how to take care of different kinds of wounds. I never thought I would ever need to know this.

The little ones don’t really understand what’s happening. They’re not even scared most of the times. They don’t associate the loud booming outside with the destruction of war. They haven’t seen war films. They have nothing to compare it to. But they are frustrated. They are frustrated that they aren’t getting as much attention. They are frustrated and don’t understand why we moved. They are also struggling; they just don’t understand why. We are all tired. We are safe for now, but there are still a lot of unknowns in the future. We all just want this war to end.

This quote from MASH hits hard.

Theophany and Baptism

About 2 weeks ago, we got baptized and chrismated in the Orthodox Church! It was a beautiful service and a special time. We posted earlier about how we became catechumens of the church. It’s frequently put this way: becoming catechumens is the engagement, and being baptized and chrismated is the wedding.

The first prayer and anointing before the baptism.

Not everyone who enters the church as an adult is required to be baptized. It depends on your personal history. In Orthodoxy, we believe in a full immersion baptism, three times, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If you have been baptized before, you meet with your priest and discuss your experience, the church you grew up in, and the beliefs surrounding baptism. The priest then confers with the Bishop and together they decide the course of action. If it aligns closely to the Orthodox belief, you do not have to get baptized again, and instead just do the chrismation part of the service. But if the circumstances were different, if you did not do a full immersion, if it was not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if the church beliefs are deemed heretical, or if baptism was viewed with a different level of sacredness, then you must get baptized in the proper way. This tradition comes from the early ecumenical councils who had to decide what to do if a Christian had been baptized under a heretical clergy, for example, someone who claimed Christ was not fully man or another heresy surrounding the nature of the Trinity.

Blessing of the waters.

It was decided that both of us would have a full baptism and chrismation service. We were very excited about this as we had wanted to partake communion in the church for awhile, and were unable to due to the fact that we had not been baptized. Orthodoxy has a closed communion, meaning that unless you are baptized into the church, you are not able to partake. This is because they want to make sure that we can actually commune together and that we hold the same beliefs. Not just for their sake, but also so that no condemnation may come upon the person for being unworthy to partake, based on 1 Corinthians 11:27-29.

“Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgement to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”

Icon of Holy Theophany, painted by our friend Holly!

Baptisms in the Orthodox Church typically occur around two feast days. The first and most common is around Resurrection Sunday, or Pascha as it is called. Baptisms usually take place on the weekend before Pascha, so that the first time newly illumined partake in communion is while celebrating the feast of the resurrection. The other common time is Theophany, or the feast of Jesus’ baptism. This is the one we chose. And how wonderful it is to be baptized while celebrating the baptism of Christ during the same week!

And so the day of baptism finally came! Our friends Buck and Holly, and their son Asher, also were baptized on the same day. Coincidentally, we all had the same sponsors or godparents: our dear friends Chris and Amy Messenger. Another friend in the church sewed our baptismal robes. It was wonderful to see the whole community coming together for a weeknight service. Everyone was so excited and supportive of us! One by one, after prayers and hymns, we were each baptized in the name of our patron saint (more on that coming in a future blogpost).

Afterwards we dressed in white and returned for the chrismation portion of the service. We each received our candles and cross necklaces, and then Father Panayiotis anointed us each with holy oil over the eyes, ears, mouth, hands, and feet, sealing us with the Holy Spirit. Part of the service also involves cutting a small portion of hair as an offering to God. For Emily, there was no problem. For Vladimir on the other hand…well, let’s just say we got our reminder text from Father about an hour after having freshly shaved. Oops. So we had to do the beard instead. There were many other hymns and prayers that completed the ceremony. It was a solemn yet festive occasion. We had so much peace and joy.

The following day, we all returned to Church for our regular Sunday service. We held our candles throughout the entire liturgy, and were the first to take communion. It was a wonderful weekend! How amazing it was to be baptized and then immediately (the next day!) get sent into the mission field! It’s been incredible to see how God has brought us both to the Orthodox Church, and finally back into ministry. They have definitely been connected and it has not been a coincidence. Glory to God!

Joyous Feast! Blessed Nativity!

While most of you reading this have already packed away the tree and decorations, today we celebrated Christmas! This is our first Christmas in the Orthodox Church, and it looks a little different. The biggest difference is the date. Many orthodox churches still follow and use the old Julian calendar.

The Julian calendar replaced the Roman calendar in 46 BC. It was the first calendar that used 365 days worth a leap year in February every 4 years. But there was also an extra month added between February and March on occasion, consisting of 22 days. It was very complicated and if you want to know more you can read this article here: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Julian_Calendar. I tried to summarise it but that would be a monumental task.

This calendar was the one in effect during the time of Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church. It continued in Western Europe and the Roman Empire until the year 1584. But over time too many and/or too few of the intercalations or leap days had been added/removed, causing the calendar to once again be noticeably misaligned with the tropical year. It was agreed that once again the calendar needed reform. Pope Gregory XIII decreed the changes and some major math was performed, including going straight from October 4th to October 15th. Unfortunately this took some time to catch on across the world. England and it’s colonies didn’t start using the new Gregorian calendar until 1752. Sweden waited until 1823, and Russia only switched in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Part of the vigil service Thursday night for the Eve of Nativity.

So why now, in 2022, do many Orthodox churches still follow the Julian calendar when it comes to holidays and feast days? Well, that’s also kinda complicated. Some say it’s because there was no ecumenical council to decide on the calendar, while others say it’s mostly due to the respect for tradition. In 1923 a Revised Julian calendar was proposed at a council meeting in Constantinople that would re-align the dateswith the Gregorian calendar. However the leap days were managed differently, and the date of Pascha (Easter), remained there same according to the date set by the First Ecumenical Council. Unfortunately there dioceses disagreed on this calendar as well. The churches in Greece, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Estonia, the Czech lands, and Slovakia decided to follow the Revised Julian calendar and therefore celebrate Nativity on December 25th with the rest of the Catholic and Protestant world. On the other hand, there churches in Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Poland, Jerusalem, and Japan, continued to use the old Julian calendar and celebrate on January 7th. The only church that has switched to the Gregorian calendar is Finland.

So there you have a brief synopsis of the old calendar debate and why we celebrate on the 7th. For clarity, I’ve been referring to December 25th as Christmas and January 7th as Nativity. But for all my Tennessee friends and family currently enjoying the snow today: you really do have a White Christmas for once! And so do we up in Montana!

Last night on the Eve of Nativity.

Now onto the fun part: how we celebrate! We had two services yesterday, one in the morning and a 2.5 hour vigil in the evening. In between hymns we read through the entire Christmas story across all four Gospels. They were both beautiful services that built the excitement for today’s service. Today we held a traditional Divine Liturgy service similar to what we do each Sunday, with the Gospel reading on the story of the three Magi. Like all Divine Liturgy services, it culminated in the Holy Eucharist, never forgetting the sacrifice even when celebrating the birth. And afterwards, we feasted!

Much how the Lent fast precedes Easter, we’ve been fasting the past 40 days for Nativity. I’ll do another post on fasting later, but for now I’ll say that most of us in the church have been abstaining from meat (except for seafood, and fish is permitted on Sundays), dairy, eggs, and alcohol (except for weekends) for the past 40 days. Mitch and I have not been able to follow this 100% because we’ve been traveling and staying at other people’s homes, and there is always grace in those circumstances. But even with the little we were able to do, how joyous it was to feast today in celebration of Christ’s birth! Meat and cheese were center stage, and there was an abundance of food for everyone. Our Church always has a fellowship meal after the service, but today’s lunch felt extra festive and joyous.

Great food and even better friends!

Most of the hymns were sang in the services are Orthodox hymns, predating what most people associate with Christmas hymns. But today we ended with Joy to the World, and in the middle of lunch we were surprised with a performance of Good King Wenceslas, which included our priest!

After we ate and talked to our heartis’ content, we went back to the friends’ house where we are currently staying and took a well earned nap!

All in all it was an amazing first Nativity feast day! We are really hoping to still be in Ukraine next year to experience it over there in 2023. But for now we are still basking in the joy of this season. Christ is born!

Glorify Him!