Smolensk – The express train from Kiev to Konstantinovka storms toward the front lines at up to 100 mph – Konstantinovka, located to the west of Donetsk, is the present end station. War-damaged Croatia left a different impression two decades ago. Back then, I experienced aged busses on detours chugging slowly up mountain passes.
In Slaviansk, Eastern Ukraine looks remarkably robust. Since the “rebels” departed on 5 July of last year, the city has been busy hammering and sawing. War damage is now only apparent on the fringes of the city; schools, hospitals and municipal offices are working full steam. Innumerable street potholes still point to the events that transpired a year ago.
The city’s three large Charismatic-Pentecostal churches have been major players in the rebuilding process. These are the churches now up on top in Slaviansk. Peter Dudnik reported on 1 April that helpers associated with his congregation had repaired 112 of the 1.500 damaged private dwellings and built four new ones from the ground up.
The humanitarian efforts of Dudnik, the second head pastor of the large „Good News“ congregation, have made him a household name throughout Ukraine. His congregation has major connections and sports a constant steam of construction and humanitarian workers arriving from western Ukraine, Germany and the US. In the office of his congregation, representatives from the local government and military are frequent guests.
The need is much more apparent in the zones of separatist rule on the other side. A Pentecostal, who had just been in Donetsk that morning, spoke of anarchy, the lack of social services, empty shelves and soaring prices. Hunger happens there. A refugee woman from rebel-held Gorlovka now living in the former orphanage run by “Good News”, reported that she decided to become a refugee in part because of the warm rooms and excellent food. In addition, her son’s classes are accredited only if he attends school in the Kiev-controlled parts of the country. Those like her, who have gotten hold of the proper papers, can continue visiting relatives and their abode on the old home turf. The over-stressed separatists have one problem less when their civilians choose to take care of their daily needs on the Western side.
Where have the Orthodox of Slaviansk gone? “We have relations only with the small Orthodox congregation belonging to the Kiev Patriarchy,” Dudkin answered. “We have no contact with churches belonging to the Moscow Patriarchy (the largest church in both Ukraine and Russia) – they preach separatism. A portion of the Moscow Patriarchy’s priests have fled; those still remaining practice modesty and spiritual reflection.
Things were different after the separatists arrived on 12 April 2014. In the Orthodox “Church of the Holy Spirit” Igor Girkin (better known as “Strelkov”), the legendary Russian battle strategist and monarchist, arranged the blessing of a war banner. He later paraded with it through the streets of the city. Protestant real estate was occupied more than once; “Good News”´ basement served for a time as a munitions depot. Head pastor Aleksey Demidovich spent seven stressful hours blind-folded in a rebel-held basement. Four young men belonging to the Pentecostal “Church of the Transfiguration”, which now meets in a city cultural centre with massive white columns, were murdered by separatists. One of them was the father of eight. Today, the four are buried at a prominent location near the centre of the city outside of any cemetery. The funeral of the four after the transition of government in July was a highly-public event.
The short-but-solid Peter Dudnik sees no reason why war should be necessary. He insisted: During the separatist occupation of the city, media explained that Donbas had revolted “so that the Banderovtsy of western Ukraine do not come here and install their own rule. Yet when I go to the mayor’s office today, I find no one who hails from central or western Ukraine. The people are all locals. From whom do we need to be protected?” The pastor continued: „There is no fascism in Ukraine. We do have radically-minded people and nationalists, but not more than any other given country. We don’t have more of them than Russia or the USA. This is an artificially-created enemy.”
This pastor from Slaviansk is not alone in his conviction. A leader of Ukrainian’s Baptist union was even more drastic in a Kiev conversation on 2 April: “There are no fascists in Ukraine. The really big fascist is Putin.”
Protestants in Western-oriented Ukraine are often annoyed when outsiders view them as pro-Western. They do not regard themselves as politically partisan; they instead are simply accepting and expressing facts obvious to all. And they appear sure of their cause. When addressing the churches in Russia, Dudnik stated: “Brethren, come bring yourselves into the zone of pain. Come here and serve the people. Come here and have a look. The Holy Spirit will then tell you what you need to do.”
Yet those who end up drawing adverse political conclusions are in danger of having their faith questioned. Dudnik reported with pain of a Pentecostal congregation in Makeyevka near Donetsk, which had just changed sides. “People gather there now who are pushing the ideology of DNR and LNR (Donetsk and Lugansk People´s Republics). These are false brethren, who spread untruths. It would be fine if they supported the populace, but they are instead pushing the cause of war.”
Protestants in Big-Ukraine have no sympathy for the attempt to secure the survival of Protestant church life in Donbas and Russia by creating an agreeable climate with its politicians. Peter Dudnik revealed that conviction when he spoke of two Pentecostal pastors in the Russian city of Pensa/Volga. On 5 March, Bishop Oleg Serov and Pastor Sergey Kireyev from the „Living Faith“ congregation had hosted Igor Plotnitsky, minister-president of the Lugansk People’s Republic. A press release refers to “special problems” facing Protestant churches in Lugansk region. That was also necessary, for according to Dudnik, more than 40 cases of repression regarding Protestant communities in Donbas exist. Solutions were sought in Pensa, “so that the service of the evangelical congregations might continue and be helpful to the region’s residents”.
Plotnitsky expressed his appreciation for the humanitarian aid from Pensa with the words: “Thanks to you, brothers, for everything!” That form of address is no coincidence, for Dudnik too reports that Plotnitsky was once administrator of a Pentecostal congregation in Lugansk. “That’s an interesting phenomenon”, Dudnik added. “A good number of men, who had once graduated from our rehab programmes, left the faith later and are now serving among the separatists.” But is Plotnitsky truly a former believer? The webpage of Orthodox, pro-Ukrainian “sectologists” claims: “According to some reports, Igor Plotnitsky himself stems from one of these sects, defends Pentecostalism even today and is protecting those sects still active in Lugansk.” (See: „http://ukrsekta.info/2006/05/30/o_nas.html“).
Dudnik concluded: These colleagues in Pensa “are not supporting the suffering, but the entire war movement instead. They send the rebels aid and label their cause just. These pastors too think the Donbas needs to be cleansed from fascists.”
Such thinking results in complicated dialectics: Pro-Western Ukrainians want to be non-partisan. Yet those who vouch politically for the East are quickly called renegades. There are also cases in which Ukrainian Baptists have labelled Russian Protestants non-believers.
This Pensa congregation belongs to the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE). Its head bishop, Sergey Ryakhovsky of Moscow, is known as one of those most committed to creating a positive climate with the political powers in Russia and the Ukrainian East.
Pastor Dudnik insisted that nearly everything emanating from Russia’s state-run media is untrue: “There are also untruths spread by Ukrainian media, but much fewer. They too cause negative emotions – hatred.” This TV-teetotaller suggested: “The best way to escape from the devil is to reject TV entirely. It’s best to simply cut the power chord in two.” He was speaking thereby also of Ukrainian TV. Those wanting to watch Russian TV from Slaviansk need a satellite dish.
Peter Dudnik also made a particularly memorable statement: “If your heart harbours hate, then the devil has already neutralised you. People might still come to church and practice their usual religious activities. But if hate has taken hold of their hearts, then they are nothing more than spiritual corpses.”
The pastor stated at the end of the interview: “If you see people’s pain, then the question of who might be the guilty party is no longer important. Then only the following question matters: How can I stop the suffering?” A mindset like this one would lead inevitably to a closing of the ranks between Ukrainians and Russians.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 21 April 2015