The vertically shot video posted last November shows no weapons, battlefield atrocities, or even soldiers. But the sound of a Russian patriotic song echoing in a church on the grounds of Kiev’s famous Lavra monastery appears to be opening up a new front in Ukraine’s war with Russia.
The church belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) – which despite the name, has traditionally been loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose current leader Patriarch Kirill openly supported the brutal invasion of Moscow. And its defection from Kirill, the UBC leadership denounced Russia’s offensive, and last May it declared its independence from Russia.
In a sermon days after the split, Patriarch Kirill said he was praying that “no temporary external obstacles would destroy the spiritual unity of our people.”
Days after the video emerged, masked members of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) launched a raid on the Lavra—officially, to prevent it from being used to “hide sabotage and reconnaissance groups” or to “store weapons”.
By December, a few church leaders had been punished, and the SBU raided dozens more churches across the country — though searches turned up only a few Russian passports, icons, and books.
There was no mention in his findings of the presence of weapons or terrorists. In an interview with CNN, Metropolitan Clement said in an interview that what they said they found were printed materials and documents that are not prohibited under Ukrainian law.
However, there are a lot of gray areas. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said in a statement to CNN that it was not illegal to store Russian propaganda, but to distribute it. “If this literature is in the diocesan library or on the shelves of the church shop, it is clearly intended for mass distribution,” the statement read.
She insisted that the raids on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church “are aimed exclusively at issues of national security. This is not a question of religion.” But Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, criticized the searches as “an act of intimidation.”
For more than 30 years, the University of Oklahoma leadership has been “poisoning people with ideas of the Russian world,” said Professor Victor Yelensky, Ukraine’s newly appointed observer of religious freedom. He defended the SSA’s raids, comparing them to the crackdown on Islamic extremism after 9/11. “Ukraine remains a safe haven for religious freedom.”
However, at the end of 2022, the government refused to renew the lease on the church in the huge Central Lavra Cathedral, handing over the keys to the eponymous, but completely separate, Ukrainian Orthodox Church (OCU). Rival OCU celebrated Orthodox Christmas Mass (on January 7) there for the first time this year.
Speaking outside the church on Christmas Day, Alla, who declined to give her last name, said, “I think that should have been done a long time ago.”
“We tolerated this [UOC] evil and close our eyes as we thought we should be tolerant, but the war brought it all to the surface.”
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church held services this year in a smaller church steps from the cathedral. Especially this year, Kirillo Serhiyev, a student at the Lavra Theological Seminary, said he prays for the Ukrainian forces. Despite government sanctions and scrutiny of his church, he insists, “our patriotism will not diminish.”
Victoria Vinnik said she was sad that there was no mass at the Central Cathedral this year. Although she speaks Russian, she has never been to Russia.
“I hope it will be better in my country. I hope the situation will change.”
The cathedral is not the only sacred site for the changing of hands. Outside Kyiv, in the village of Vita Poshtova, a small church has been perched on a hillside above the lake frozen since Soviet times. He is the only one in the village. In September the congregation voted to convert the church from the University of Oklahoma to an independent OCU. The diocese of Olha-Mazurets says it was uncomfortable with any relationship with Russia.
It is a matter of identity and self-preservation. “We must also define our enemy,” she told CNN.
Before the war, “people did not pay attention to whether it was a Ukrainian church or a Russian-speaking one, they were coming to God,” says Father Pavlo Mityaev, a newly appointed priest, before the war. But when the war began, everything changed.
According to Klyment, as many as 400 of the UOC’s 12,000 churches in Ukraine have converted to the OCU since the war began.
Security services say that since the mass invasion began, 19 clerics have been charged and five convicted.
In December, priest Andriy Pavlenko was sentenced to 12 years in prison for tipping Russians information about Ukrainian battlefield locations in the Donbass. A week later, he was sent to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange.
Clement acknowledges the priest’s guilt but dismisses other cases – such as the Vinnytsia priest who was indicted just this week for spreading pro-Russian propaganda – as hollow. He believes the broader church is being unfairly sullied.
“Members of the Ukrainian Orthodox… are citizens of Ukraine, sometimes among the best citizens of Ukraine, proving their patriotism with their own lives,” he said, referring to UBC members fighting on the front lines.
In his nightly address on December 1, President Volodymyr Zelensky signaled he was ready to sidestep the raids — proposing a law to ban churches with “centers of influence” in Russia from operating in Ukraine — all in the name of “spiritual independence.”
“We will never allow anyone to build an empire within the Ukrainian soul,” he said.
But Clement believed the law would only drive his church underground.
“What do you call persecution if not this?” Asked.