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Ukrainian architect in waiting

11 November 2022

A church designer has found sanctuary in the UK, but her future is uncertain, Francis Martin reports 


The damaged church in Yasnohordka. See gallery for more images

The damaged church in Yasnohordka. See gallery for more images

BEFORE the bombs started falling on Ukraine, Maryna Avramenko designed churches.

“It’s much more interesting than building houses,” she says. “When you build a house, you are just building for clients. But a church is not just a building, but part of life and a community.”

We were speaking in Bognor Regis, where, for the past five months, she has been staying with a host after arriving in the UK on a Homes for Ukraine visa.

When the invasion began, Maryna and her husband, Igor, an assistant priest, took shelter in a Kyiv subway, before fleeing the capital. While Igor stayed behind (and is now training to become an army chaplain), Maryna and her twin sister, Iryna, together with her four-year-old nephew, moved from village to village and city to city in Ukraine.

Eventually, via Poland and Italy, Maryna found herself on the quiet Sussex coast. Her sister and nephew could not get visas, and remain in Italy.

Iryna is also an architect, and, in 2011, the two sisters founded Ukrkhramproekt (a portmanteau of the words for Ukraine, temple, and project) with Georgy Rogozhyn, a veteran church architect. Before founding Ukrkhramproekt, Maryna was already working in church design, after studying architecture in Kyiv and completing a Master’s degree in 2009.

How does one approach the task of designing a new church? “Beforehand, we meet with the community, and they say what they want, how the space will be used: for example, whether they need a space for sharing food, a Sunday school, and so on,” Maryna replies.

Ukrkhramproekt has designed 150 churches, she tells me, and every one is different. “Every church is unique: we cannot build the same, because it’s not a home: it’s a church!”

THE Ukrainian style of church architecture is distinct from the Russian, Mrs Avramenko explains. The former tend to have an open dome inside, inlaid with windows, to create more space. On the outside, they are often less ornate, with cleaner, stronger lines.

There is also little appetite for experimental modern architecture when it comes to building Orthodox churches. “Our Ukrainian people are conservative, and, if it’s church, it has to be Ukrainian Baroque, Ukrainian Modern, or Byzantine.”

Much of her work was rebuilding churches destroyed during the Soviet era. Sometimes, there were blueprints or ruins on which to base the replacement; at other times, it was a matter of using imagination, combined with a knowledge of architectural history.

The end of the Soviet Union brought greater freedom for the Church in Ukraine, but also schisms in the Orthodox community. The two largest Churches are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was firmly under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate before attempting to distance itself this summer, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is recognised as an independent Church by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.

Church TimesMaryna Avramenko in her host family’s garden, in Bognor Regis

The latter Ukrainian Church has grown exponentially since the invasion: in July, the Primate of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphany, said that more than 600 parishes had joined in the previous four months (News, 15 July).

Mrs Avramenko firmly allies herself with Metropolitan Epiphany’s Church, and proudly shows me a photograph of her and her sister standing with Mr Rogozhyn and the Primate (News, 15 July).

“I hope, after our victory, we can make a more friendly place in Ukraine,” she says, although, for her, the idea of any friendliness with Russia or its Church is unthinkable in the immediate future.

Much of the pro-war rhetoric in Russia, and particularly Patriarch Kirill’s, focuses on the supposed brotherhood of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and much has been made of the shared religious history between the countries. Mrs Avramenko, however, dismisses such notions.

“We have our own history, older than Russia’s,” she tells me. When the war is over — and she has no doubt that Ukraine will prevail — she would like a wall built between Ukraine and its Slavic neighbour. “We were too kind, too friendly, before the war, and we had war because of this. We can rebuild houses, we can rebuild apartments, but we can’t bring back our families.”

This is particularly poignant for her, since a cousin — a fighter pilot — was killed in action. “He was a perfect boy: intelligent, kind. He just started life. . .” Her voice trails off.


BOGNOR REGIS is a quiet seaside town and has acted as a balm after the horrors of escaping a war zone. Even now, Mrs Avramenko says, she feels scared if she hears a firework going off, as it transports her back to the early days of the war. “You can’t explain it: you have to feel it.”

UkrkhramproektA computer visualisation of a church in the Ukrainian Art Nouveau style, designed by Ukrkhramproekt

But, after five peaceful months recuperating on the south coast, she would like to find a job in architecture. She has had help in translating her CV, and hopes that in the UK she will be able to gain experience that will equip her to help to rebuild her country. “I hope I can do something for Ukraine. We have to stay with our country, because it is like family,” she says.

The task of rebuilding Ukraine will be an almighty one. Barely a month after the invasion began, the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, announced that 113 churches had been damaged by Russian shelling.

One of Mrs Avramenko’s churches, in Yasnohordka, a village near Kyiv, was struck by Russian fire. Buildings near by were razed in the bombardment, but the church suffered only relatively minor damage to the cupola. She attributed the church’s escape to God — “and good construction, I hope”.

She is not ready to return to Ukraine yet, but the choice may, in the end, not be in her hands. Her hosts are expecting a child and are unable to accommodate her for a further six months; if she cannot find a job or another host, she will not be able to remain in the country. Once again, she faces an upheaval, and another uncertain step in the long process of rebuilding.

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