Ukrainian military chaplain Father Andrii Okrepkyi prepares the Eucharist during a mass near the front line in eastern Ukraine. All photographs from March 2019.

Fathers on the Front Line

Meet the Ukrainian priests who found their calling while preaching from the trenches of their country’s bitter conflict with Russia.
Ukrainian military chaplain Father Andrii Okrepkyi prepares the Eucharist during a mass near the front line in eastern Ukraine. All photographs from March 2019.

In a small chapel in eastern Ukraine, at a military base near the front line of the country’s ongoing conflict with Russia, there was a sign that read: “With Prayer and Fasting We Can End the War.”

One Ukrainian soldier, who was helping to set up the chapel in March, looked at the sign. “Better with a Kalashnikov,” he said.

A psychiatric hospital in Sloviansk, Ukraine. The facility was destroyed in April 2014 during fighting between Russian-supported separatists and Ukrainian forces.

The chapel is tucked inside a housing facility in an area known as Svitlodarska Duha, and can fit only half a dozen soldiers at a time. But the Ukrainian military chaplains who set it up believe that providing a space for worship, no matter how small, is an important part of their job—an often-overlooked support role in a traumatizing, ongoing conflict. In the five years since the war between Ukraine and Russia began, it has claimed approximately 13,000 lives, and the eastern part of Ukraine, which divides the Russian-supported breakaway regions from the rest of the country, has become a heavily armed border zone, dotted with trenches, destroyed homes, and broken lives.

Father Andrii Okrepkyi walks through a trench in eastern Ukraine.
A New Testament and Book of Psalms used by Father Okrepkyi, a Ukrainian-Greek Catholic.
Father Okrepkyi holds icons printed on tarpaulin that he can easily roll up and transport to the front line to set up small chapels for the soldiers.

“Some say the work of a chaplain is just to show up in the trench, lift spirits, give out hugs, present an icon, and say all will be well and I will pray for you. But the duty of a chaplain is much deeper and much more serious ... you know that if you do something incorrectly, or say something improper, that you can hurt [the soldier] or his family. There can be consequences of unknown proportions.” —Father Andrii Okrepkyi

Father Okrepkyi talks with Yuri (center), a Ukrainian soldier and one of his parishioners.

The current conflict between the two countries began in 2014. In November 2013, the Ukrainian government had bowed to Russian pressure and refused to sign a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union, sparking mass protests across Ukraine that erupted into the Euromaidan Revolution. The revolution was not centered around a particular leader or ideology; instead, the demonstrators demanded an end to pervasive corruption—for their country to move toward a more democratic future. But in February 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine via the Crimean peninsula in the south and then, two months later, from the east, where the majority of the residents are Russian speakers. Eastern Ukraine has been embroiled in war ever since.

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Vitaly, a 53 year-old Ukrainian soldier, uses a pickaxe to make a dugout on the front line. A chaplain asks him what he and his fellow soldiers need. “Pray for us,” Vitaly says.

In 2014, the country was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and had only around 6,000 troops ready for rapid deployment. The Ukrainian military, formed when the nation had declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, had been gutted by economic collapse and more than two decades of endemic corruption. It had also given up its nuclear weapons arsenal—once one of the largest in the world—in 1994. So when, two decades later, Russia invaded, organized a sham referendum, and annexed Crimea, Ukraine was hardly in a position to defend itself.

Father Okrepkyi prays over their food before sitting down for a lunch with soldiers.
“When you are on the front—not somewhere on a base, but on the front—you feel that you are instantly needed and that you can do something.” —Father Oleksandr Lushenko
Children’s drawings hang on the wall of a military kitchen. The words in the center image read, “Peace and unity in Ukraine.”

During the first years of the war, a wave of patriotic volunteerism swept Ukraine. Citizens donated food and raised money to purchase equipment for the soldiers, like night vision goggles and vehicles. Others became volunteer combatants, combat medics and chaplains. As the years went on and the conflict ramped up, troops’ numbers increased and the priests stayed on, tending to soldiers’ spiritual needs by providing counsel and overseeing religious ceremonies—even helping to transport food and medical supplies.

Father Oleksandr Lushenko (center), a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, greets a soldier on the front line.
A soldier’s equipment, including a modified Kalashnikov rifle and a grenade.
Father Okrepkyi (far left) and Father Lushenko (second from left) meet with soldiers at a Ukrainian military position.

Religion means more than just comfort for Ukrainian soldiers. It’s entwined with national identity, and the war has helped to accelerate major changes to Ukraine’s religious institutions: This past January, a new, unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted independence by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. (Approximately 70 percent of Ukrainians follow Orthodox Christian traditions.) Some worried that the creation of the new church—which represented a split from the Russian Orthodox Church—would ramp up the violence, but the transition has been mostly without incident so far—a major victory for Ukrainian sovereignty.

Father Lushenko walks through a military trench.

The chapel in Svitlodarska Duha is the work of two 30-year-old Ukrainian priests from two different denominations: Father Andrii Okrepkyi, who is Ukrainian-Greek Catholic, and Father Oleksandr Lushenko, who is Ukrainian Orthodox. The duo share a special bond, thanks to their shared faith and patriotism, but they rarely see one another; they often work separately within their brigade’s area of operation, along a section of the approximately 285-mile-long front line.

Father Okrepkyi sees his and Father Lushenko’s roles as integral to a new way of thinking about soldiers in the country. “A soldier was looked at like a piece of hardware, like a piece of an automatic weapon which when it broke down was thrown away and a new one was taken out,” he explains. “Now we have a different approach to soldiers because we see them as individuals. They are, first of all, a part of our society.”

Father Okrepkyi reads on his phone after visiting Ukrainian soldiers.
A company commander who goes by the nom de guerre Beskid holds a rosary that he uses to pray before going to sleep. “How can you be a warrior, or a leader, if spirituality is not at the core of who you are?” he asks.

“God gave life and God has the right to take it. When a person kills, this is the essence of murder. I think that we have to explain it this way: we are not killing or taking away the life of the soldiers who are attacking us. We are protecting those who are behind us ... If we were the invaders on the attack, then it would be a sin.” —Father Okrepkyi

Father Okrepkyi prays at a cross on the front line decorated with a Ukrainian flag and the remnants of weapons fired at Ukrainian soldiers.
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