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World >

Life hangs in the balance for people of Ukraine

Stuart Robertson, Acting Anglican Chaplain in Kiev reports from Kiev


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Intercessions: people pray for peace near a regional-government building that has been seized by pro-Russian troops in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine

Credit: PA

Intercessions: people pray for peace near a regional-government building that has been seized by pro-Russian troops in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine

THE Majdan, or Independence Square, in the centre of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, attracted the attention of the world in the recent protests. A newspaper columnist, Ivan Tsyperdyuk, wrote in Euromajdan: A chronicle of sensations, published last month in Kiev: "The Majdan is our great, unseen church, where we go to pray, to communicate, and at all costs preserve it. Therein lies our faith."

Majdan is a Turkish word, probably of Persian origin, meaning a level field, as in a battlefield or military camp. It links in my mind with the events of Holy Week, as I think of Hebrews 13.13: "Let us go to Jesus outside the camp [majdan], and bear the reproach he endures."

Up the steep hill from the Majdan is the presidential palace, which was under siege last December - at the time when, inside the German Lutheran church around the corner, members of the small Anglican congregation Christ Church in Kiev were holding their carol service.

The Lutheran church offered its balconies for use as a field hospital for the wounded of both sides in the street fighting. A large red cross is still tied across the building.

Near by, Independence Square is still piled high with barricades, heaped-up tyres, and a broken-down lorry (below), its innards clawed out. It is said that all Ukraine, but especially people from western Ukraine, united in coming to the Majdan. Grandmothers with children in buggies, students, Rightists, intellectuals, and churchpeople were all there. And they camped. The snow came, and still they camped.


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Wreckage: a broken lorry abandoned in Independence Square, in Kiev


Wreckage: a broken lorry abandoned in Independence Square, in Kiev

I have served Christ Church, Kiev, as a locum chaplain, several times since its last priest left in 2005. The flat I stayed in during my most recent visit, in December 2012, is now a charred ruin - razed to the ground, the congregation told me.

Begun in 1999 as an Intercontinental Church Society initiative, Christ Church soon built up a flourishing congregation attended by many expats as well as Ukrainians, but now numbers have fallen to about 15 regular worshippers.

There are five Anglican expats, all of different nationalities, and the rest are Ukrainian, including families who are drawn to the Anglican approach as well as to the English language. Most struggle to survive, and some older women are destitute on tiny pensions of £60-£70 a month - even less, now, as the currency is falling day by day.

The church has struggled to stay in existence, and it speaks for its people's faith. They have matured over the years, and now they are seeking God in troubled times. They ask me: "What will happen?" It is hard to be optimistic.

A doctor from Berdichev, Joseph Conrad's birthplace, 120 miles west of Kiev, said: "This country has no prospects, it is bankrupt. EU aid merely scratches the surface. My children have no prospects; they'll have to leave."

The Anglican and Lutheran help and hospitality during the protests, however, has had a positive impact on inter-Church relations. The leading Orthodox think tank and publishing house Duh i Litera ("Spirit and Word") wants to know more about the Lutheran and Anglican Churches' life, inspired by the way in which congregations have engaged actively with society in its struggles. "Ecumenism has arrived in Kiev," its chief editor, Professor Konstantin Sigov, says.

Tension remains extremely high, however. Foreign Office travel advice states: "Protests and demonstrations are occurring in central Kiev . . . where clashes have resulted in fatalities with reports of live ammunition being fired."

Groups of people have set up small barricaded areas around Independence Square, and still sit there in silent protest. Blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags fly from balconies. Part of the main street is barricaded halfway down from Independence Square.

So far, my black Ukrainian flat cap, a ubiquitous piece of headgear among poor farmers and working men of a certain age, may have saved me from unwelcome attention.

Although Foreign Office advice was not to go to the eastern towns on the border with Russia, I visited elderly friends there, in Chernigov, 85 miles north of Kiev, close to Chernobyl. The town was quiet: here, too, people are anxious, and struggle to survive.

My friends subsist entirely on the sugar beets, potatoes, red peppers, and other vegetables that they grow on their allotment. They seem not to operate a money economy, and struggle to find the bus fare (15p) for the 20-minute journey out of town.

Fighting continues in Donetsk - the home of the ousted President Yanukovych - in Luhansk, and in Kharkov, originally the capital of Soviet Ukraine, although reports say that, while the authorities retook the public building there, local committees still have control of public buildings in Luhansk and Donetsk. In Donetsk, they proclaimed their own republic, asking for admission to the EU.

As I write, chill settles around me. With low cloud and an outside temperature of about four degrees, there is a wintry feel to the air. The City Council, however, has decided that spring is here, and has turned off all the heating.

If President Putin's threats to Ukraine to cut its gas supply to become reality, it is much to be feared that there is worse cold to come. Nevertheless, the small congregation of Christ Church will struggle to maintain their weekly morning prayer with a eucharist, whenever they can attract a visiting priest.

The Revd Stuart Robertson is Acting Anglican Chaplain in Kiev.

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