Death and Faith in Donbas

A word from Archbishop Barsonuphy of Novoazovsk to the clergy of Pskov Diocese

On July 25, the feast of St. Olga, Archbishop Varsonofy of Novoazovsk, Donetsk Diocese, gave a talk to clergy in Pskov at a conference hosted by Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Pskov and Porkhov. Vladyka Varsonofy is a living witness to the horrors the people of Donbas have had to endure since 2014–and to why this war is being fought.

The situation, of course, for the clergy of our diocese is like this—cross-bearing. When peaceful life is going on, and then suddenly it all explodes, artillery shells fall near churches, in the church, and you have a family, children, spouse, and… Of course, at first we were perplexed, and then Vladyka (Metropolitan Hilarion) blessed priests to leave for a time, to evacuate their families, and for the priests to then return to their places of service.

We have no closed churches. We have pummeled churches, burned churches, but services are taking place there nevertheless—in basements, in rooms set up somehow for them.

People move around when we’re not being fired upon. If there is a pause—the services take place. If there is no Liturgy, then there is Typica; if there is no Typica (no possibility), a moleben is served, and Communion with the reserved Gifts. But the services are going on, every priest in his own place.

But this is not the worst thing; after all, our diocese is divided by the frontline. And in the Donetsk diocese, seventy parishes are located on the Ukrainian side. There, for one word, for commemorating His Holiness the Patriarch—it’s a prison sentence, it’s torture. But the priests serve, they serve like confessors. It’s a little quieter there, they don’t have the artillery fire that we have, but it’s no less dangerous for them than for us. There have been many arrests, many beatings, and imprisonments. For example, literally, in Gorlovka diocese last winter one priest who had been arrested and tortured was exchanged, through the efforts of His Holiness the Patriarch, and now he’s here, he’s in Moscow, undergoing rehabilitation.

That’s our situation now…

Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov):

Vladyka, forgive me, but are they directly shelling civilian targets there in Donetsk?

—Well, that’s the situation, Vladyka. Today is a patronal feast for me—I am also the rector of the Church of Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Princess Olga. It was located in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, about 800 meters from the Donetsk airport. On July 24, 2014, I served the last Liturgy there. In August they destroyed that church; that is, in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry there are two wings—in one wing are offices, and in the other a church. They destroyed that wing.

They fire intentionally at churches, hospitals, schools, and educational institutions—but very often artillery fire is simply aimed at the territory. Well, you know how “Grad” [a multiple rocket launcher] works, right? Well, there’s a volley, and a square kilometer of territory is covered with forty shells. One square is covered, a second square, a third square—that’s when you have the most horrible casualties. If someone is walking down the street… Well, our mayor Valery Kulemzin often asks people not to leave their buildings more often than necessary—only move from one place to another, and that’s all. Because there are very many victims when people are not inside enclosed structures but on the territory of streets, squares, or boulevards. They simply fire. Now the HIMARS have poured in. Now, literally a few days ago, they started using cluster munitions. This will mean the most terrible casualties. They simply fire on us to scare us, so that the city would cease its existence; but the city still lives, everything grows. If somehow someone was there, you could see—as soon as something is damaged, they’ve repaired it, and we are serving again. Churches are hit, and the diocesan cathedral was hit. There isn’t a single church in Donetsk that hasn’t been damaged. But we serve anyway.

And do you know what we’ve come up against? Something that would never even have occurred to us: such satanic hatred from the other side. Vladyka, and His Holiness the Patriarch, read a report—it speaks the truth: An attack is underway… If someone tells you that over there it’s oligarchs warring with each other, or something like that, it’s all nonsense. The fortress of our Holy Rus’ is the Russian Orthodox Church. No artillery, no army can defeat Rus’ because God is with us. But to destroy our Church, to destroy our unity—that is the only way to conquer our land. And the most powerful attack is aimed at this. What is happening in Ukraine is cruel and fierce… There they aren’t ashamed to use any means or methods. They force people [to leave the canonical Ukrainian Church]—either you change to the OCU [ “Orthodox Church of Ukraine”], to the schismatics, or… Well, in the best case they kick you out; in the worst case it’s arrest, imprisonment. They act differently with each one. That’s our situation. That’s why we understand it all perfectly, we pray and ask that in these times, when… I have already said, Vladyka, that there have been times when in one day, 600–700 shells fly into the city; that is, well, you can do the math: twenty-four hours divided by 600—that’s a shell landing in the city every minute. And you have to read your prayer rule, you have to sleep a little, because tomorrow you have to serve, and you don’t know whether you’ll wake up in the morning. And that’s how it is for all of us.

A destroyed chapel at the entrance to Severodonetsk. Photo: RIA Novosti/Victor Antoniuk A destroyed chapel at the entrance to Severodonetsk. Photo: RIA Novosti/Victor Antoniuk     

Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov):

And how many dead and wounded are there during such attacks, how many funerals do you serve?

—Well, I’ll tell you—when in March of last year one (!) cluster bomb exploded over the city, there were thirty people killed and forty-eight wounded in one moment. That is just one cluster bomb. So, every day there are a minimum of five or six. Ten to fifteen killed, and up to twenty wounded.

Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov):

It’s like that every day?

—On a good day, if there are one to two killed, that’s just happiness; this is not even counting the wounded.

Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov):

These are civilians, right?

—Yes, civilians. I’m not talking about the military; these are civilians, these are children. We have the Alley of the Angels—near my church. Just take a look—that was in 2016, already one hundred children, from two months old to sixteen years old; infants, teenage boys and girls killed. This is not to mention the adults, the elderly, and so on. That’s the situation. This is a genocide of the Russian people.

That’s why, Your Eminence, dear Vladyka, of course here I’ve had a rest, my soul has been a little unburdened, and I’ve soaked up a little joy thanks to your prayers and concelebrating with you. But just the same you know… When you’re in a safe place but your children… (Vladyka Barsanufy struggles to suppress his emotion)… forgive me… are in mortal danger, you have no peace. I need to go back.

Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov):

Yes, Vladyka is now going back. Vladyka, you know, we had our doubts—because it’s just too horrible to even imagine those atrocities and tortures… Is it really that way?

—Yes. Yes, it’s… We have priests… Well, the St. Nicholas Monastery, which Fr. Zosima, Schema-Archimandrite Zosima [Sokur] founded—there they arrested the priests, tortured them, and… horrible things. In the diocese of Vladyka Mitrophan, Metropolitan of Gorlovka… just because a priest from our territory called him, the SBU (Ukrainian Special Services) came and beat him viciously right in front of his wife and children. When there is a prisoner of war exchange—we see that when we release [Ukrainian] POWs they are well-fed, healthy, and clothed. But when our boys come out of the bus they are barely able to walk, they’re carried on stretchers. And I’ve talked with POWs (who were taken prisoner there). There were cases when people just… these are healthy men, military men… they simply didn’t speak. They couldn’t speak… they just stayed silent. And I want to say: The war is on not for us, but for each one of you, because if we don’t win we won’t exist. Remember this.

Your Eminence, I ask your prayers for everyone—for Vladyka Pavel, Abbot of the Kiev Caves Lavra, for Metropolitan Arseny, the head of our Sviatogorsk Lavra, and for Vladyka Amvrosy, who is almost without arms; our abbot, the vicar. He was severely wounded. And for all those there, because we feel there the support of our Mother Church, we feel your prayer and your help. A deep bow to you. We receive great help, including material help. As the one responsible for humanitarian cooperation with the Donetsk diocese, the Russian Orthodox Church, I can affirm that humanitarian aid comes, and it helps by every means. And prayer. May God save you!

Video originally posted on the website of the Pskov Diocese.

Archbishop Varsonofy (Vinnichenko)
Translation by


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