The wounds of division among the Orthodox pilgrims in the Donbass

In the self-declared pro-Russian republic of Donetsk and Lugansk, the monks of Sviatogorsk remain neutral on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But they deprecate the "satanic schism" of Constantinople consummated with the granting of autocephaly to the patriarchate of Kiev. Today, Putin celebrates five years since the annexation of Crimea in Sevastopol.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - A correspondent for the Russian website, Igor Rotar, went to a monastery in Donbass, the Ukrainian region where fighting continues in the "hybrid war" between Russia and Ukraine, five years from the beginning of the conflict.

As a pilgrim he tried to understand how people live, and above all how the faithful divided between the two Churches, now formally separated, practice the Orthodox faith. For the record, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected today in Sevastopol, in the Crimea, to celebrate the five years since the annexation of the peninsula to Russia.

The monastery Rotar visited is located in Sviatogorsk, a name that means "the holy mountain", to evoke the homeland of all Orthodox monasticism, Mount Athos. It is located in the part of the region most tormented by clashes, near the city of Slavjansk, and is a well-known sanctuary also outside Ukraine.

It is a "Lavra", like the most famous monasteries of the Caves of Kiev and Pochaevsk, that is a set of more churches and communities inspired by the "idioritmia", the diversity of grades and ascetic practices among the different groups of monks, very typical of Russian-Ukrainian monasticism.

Svjatogorsk was famous throughout the territory of the Russian Empire; it was visited by Anton Chekhov, the great atheist writer in search of answers, and by many other artists and writers, such as Fedor Tjutcev, Ivan Bunin and Marina Cvetaeva.

In August 2014 the Russian singer Andrej Makarevich, guitarist of the famous Mashina Vremeni group, came here to visit the refugees who were fleeing Russian bombs, and for this he was declared an enemy of the homeland in Moscow. It is said that the deposed President Viktor Janukovich was in hiding here for a few days, before February 2014. He now lives in Moscow in a dacha offered by Putin.

As for the other Ukrainian Lavre, Svjatogorsk could also be confiscated from the current owners, the patriarchate of Moscow, to be incorporated into the new Ukrainian autocephalous Church. For this reason, in the last three months the number of pilgrims has increased, although the monks themselves avoid taking an open position in the conflict between the two Orthodox jurisdictions.

The security of the sanctuary is guaranteed today by the "Battalion of the Svjatogorsk Cossacks", a group of local volunteers, armed to the best and rather rough; their commander, Vitalij Kushin, tells of having resigned from the Soviet armed forces over the disappointment of Yeltsyn's betrayal, when he put an end to the USSR with the Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, and since then dreams of the restoration of the empire.

If the monks tried to remain neutral, the priests and faithful of the area have taken to the field right from the first clashes, supporting the "separatists" of the self-declared pro-Russian republic of Donetsk and Lugansk, recognized only by the Russians, which the Ukrainian forces they regularly try to win back. Orthodox priests have all incited "holy war" against the Kievan army, confessing and blessing the faithful and the Cossacks alongside Russian mercenaries.

One of the parish priests of the area, Father Vitalij Veselij, is also a well-known local poet, and accompanies the blessings with one of his compositions: I love the Russian soldier / ready to die for the Fatherland / From monsters like NATO / and from all brigands defends her! For these reasons, the Ukrainian authorities are more than convinced of having to get rid of every structure still dependent on the patriarchate of Moscow throughout the country.

Igor Rotar went to the Lavra as a simple pilgrim, welcomed by the monks to the communal canteen, where those who arrive are offered a frugal meal of salted potatoes and cucumbers. In the hardest period of the clashes the monks offered shelter to hundreds of refugees, today there are about fifty. Even Tsar Nicholas II was refreshed by the monks at the beginning of the 1900s, and in his honor the restaurant The Monarch was established, where according to Rotar, the fare is worse than at the monks' table.

Among the refugees lives an elderly 75-year-old woman, Natalia, who escaped from Donetsk. She was interviewed by Rotar, who said that "those who arrive here must somehow register, otherwise they lose their pension and all forms of assistance; I have arrived here with my 45-year-old son, disabled by the beatings he suffered when he served in the army. We are many here, pensioners reduced to bankruptcy, and if I were Putin I would come to our rescue, to show who he really is."

The monks' hermitage is located in a more isolated area than the refugee hostel, but together with the guests they all go to collect wood, because there is no other form of heating. One of the most discussed topics among the residents of the monastery is the "satanic schism" caused by Constantinople, according to the definition given by the monks themselves, to move on to geopolitics: "You understand, the Ukrainian people do not exist, we are all Russians; here we are in the Small Russia ", says Aleksej of Charkov, recalling the ancient imperial name of the Malorossija, so hated today by the Ukrainian nationalists. According to Aleksej, the Majdan's revolt was "the divine punishment for our sins", the explanation of the Russians for every catastrophe, since the days of the medieval Tatar Yoke.

Sergej of Lugansk, another refugee hosted in the monastery, confirms that "the whole world, including Russia, has surrendered to the devil, only here in the Donbass have we preserved the true orthodox faith! We do not use electronic chips and all the other devilries of today ... already our prophet, St. Philipp of Lugansk, who preached to us in the last century, and had predicted the end of the USSR and the triumph of the Antichrist in Malorossija ".

The voice of Roman from Avdeevka joins Sergej, who recommends that the journalist "go all over the world to tell them to come here to save themselves, especially the Americans, because soon God will destroy America for its great sins. Then there it will be a new Russian tsar, and we will build the kingdom of Orthodoxy here! "

One of the superiors of the monastery, accepting to speak informally with Rotar, admitted that the autocephalous "schism" was long overdue, since the beginning of the clashes, "since the illegality became the norm, to the point of reducing the Church to a bacchanal, but maybe it's good, so we can weed out the weeds". The intolerant radicalism of the Orthodox in the Donbass is a consequence of the profound rift that occurred between the people of these territories, who went through countries, families and churches, turning even their closest relatives into bitter enemies.