Mykhailo Kozakov is a member of the Evangelical Reformed Presbyterian church in Odesa, a pastor’s assistant and a preacher, a culturologist who is actively involved in volunteer activities. In 2018, he made a presentation at the round table Religion is coming: the issue of faith in secular cinema, which was co-organized by the NGO Workshop of the Academic Study of Religions.
– Thank you for agreeing to talk with us for Religion on Fire project. We would like to know more about the activities of your community.
– My name is Mykhailo Kozakov. I am the pastor’s assistant in Evangelical Reformed Presbyterian church in Odesa, which is part of the Union of Evangelical Reformed Presbyterian Churches of Ukraine. We have a Presbyterian system of government, similar to a parliamentary one: not one pastor or bishop, but a council of elders (presbyters). Among them there is a pastor who preaches and has the right to perform sacraments: Baptism and Eucharist. Others are engaged in community management. We also have a diaconate. We are an ordinary Christian denomination, the peculiarity of which, in addition to the theological aspects, is precisely this structure of the organization of local communities. I am an assistant pastor, I have the right to preach, but I do not directly participate in the government of the church. You can say that I am an active believer. I also study at the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine.
Presbyterians have been present in Odesa for a long time, the first of them were from among the French and Germans. As far as I know, some of the first religious buildings in Odesa, apart from Orthodox Christian ones, belonged to Protestants. The building where our congregation is now located historically belongs to the Presbyterians. Before that, back in the 19th century, the French Huguenots were together with the Lutherans in the same building in Kirche (kirche – traditional name for a Lutheran prayer house; Odesa Kirche of St. Paul is one of the key centers of Lutheranism in Ukraine – ed.), but later there was a separation: the Lutherans separated from Presbyterians.
When in the 1990s and 2000s an opportunity arose to return the buildings, the denomination could prove that it was associated with Calvinism, therefore it was able to get the building back. It was reconstructed due to its neglect. During the Soviet Union, there was a puppet theater there. To this day, when people pass by, they say: “Oh, it’s a puppet theater, and what are the sectarians doing here?”. When the reconstruction was taking place, money was collected by believers from almost all over the world. Now we have an organ, one of the best (we, of course, think it is the best one) in Odesa. Various events and concerts related to classical music take place in the building, even during the war. Before the war, choirs came to us, first of all secular choirs, the community was and remains open for cultural events in the city. When the reconstruction took place, they tried to recreate the original state of the building, although, unlike in the 19th century, the columns were no longer covered with gold leaf, at those times each marble column, and railings in the hall were covered with gold leaf. We have made it more modest, but managed to reproduce many details.
So, the community has existed for quite a long time. We actually had three Presbyterian churches: two are active now, and we started organizing the third in the fall of 2019. I was in the team of organizers, I led the service there. The church had more youth, one of the directions was to serve to foreign students. The service was conducted in Ukrainian, English and Russian. Periodically there were translations or sermons in Russian, because foreigners know Russian better, besides, the Odesa region has a certain specificity. Before the war, there were many English camps and English clubs. We have friendly relations with various Presbyterian churches from all over the world. This was one of the social services through which many interested people came to us, in particular, sailors or students who needed to “brush up” their English. We also did various social projects, because we, like all Protestant communities, strive to be active participants in social processes.
– I know that there were quite powerful initiatives in Odesa during COVID-19, which contributed to the formation of various volunteer movements.
– Yes. We fed the homeless. They did it in the winter of 2020-2021. We made sandwiches and distributed them to those in need. Such activities were held several times a month throughout the winter. Other Protestant communities were also engaged in this, it was a very active and lively initiative. But we wanted to get out of the COVID-19 pandemic with larger social projects aimed at the entire community of the city.
– Could you tell us about these projects?
– Just before the start of the war, we began to switch completely to the Ukrainian language of conducting ministry, and many young people began to come to us. And during my civil service, I gained skills and knowledge in the field of civil defense, I was familiar with emergency response protocols. And so, before the start of a full-scale invasion, I already had the initiative to invite paramedics, to conduct trainings for church members, how and what should be done in case of war. It turned out that the war had started before we could do that. That is, there was an initiative, there were negotiations with specialists, until the war began.
– I wonder during the war what changes or transformations took place in your community. Can you tell me how many people were in the congregation, if this information is available, or how many attended Sunday services before February 24, 2022?
– About 100 people, maybe more, depending on the festive dates, Eucharists (they take place here once a month). Of course, COVID has reduced the number of believers a bit. In the smaller community, many people left during the war, so we united the communities, and the new church project was put on hold. Currently, there are few foreign students and, in general, it is better to concentrate on one thing and do it well than to disperse into many small communities.
– You say that foreign students left, but did other parishioners leave or, on the contrary, come?
– Many people left us at the beginning. Our pastors decided to stay to serve no matter what. Later, people began to return. We probably made this decision because we did not understand very well what an occupation is and what a war is, how long it can last in the context in which it later began. Sometimes, I wonder what decisions we would have made then, if we had understood the situation better.
So, many left, but the ministers all stayed to continue preaching. At first, we gathered together in Zoom because there was active shelling and long curfews. But somewhere from the middle of May 2022, we started to gather live again. At first, on the first floor, where the walls were definitely thicker, and later in the hall with stained glass windows. So the service did not stop in general.
New people also came to us. It seems to me that now 70% of the community has been renewed. These are both IDPs and Odesans who have not attended our services before; there are those who left the occupied territories and plan to return after their liberation; there are those who came to Odesa from the de-occupied territories already after their liberation; there are those who do not plan to return, as I understand, because there is nowhere to return. Different people and each individual fate is a different story, and often a different tragedy. A lot of Odesans also started coming. There are many people who began to travel to us from very distant regions to hear the sermon and service in Ukrainian. This surprised me, because I thought that during the war everyone had already switched to Ukrainian. To be honest, I don’t even know who in Odesa conducts services in which language. But it is interesting that people say: “You have services in Ukrainian, we will go to you.”
We managed to switch to the Ukrainian language of service rather organically. Gradually, the calendar has also changed, that is, we celebrate the holidays: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost according to the new style, exactly how we were supposed to celebrate. Do you know why there was always this old calendar, so to speak, “the Orthodox” one? Because there is a myth that Ukraine is an Orthodox country and therefore Protestants need to be in this religious context. It always surprised me, I have been in the Protestant church since 2001, at first I was in the Baptist church. My question was: if we are carriers of the Western type of theology, why do we, on the contrary, confuse people by saying that we are the same as the Orthodox, although we are actually different? You have to embrace it. We embrace this when we realize that Ukrainians are a diversity of contexts, a diversity of historical backgrounds, an absence of any sort of unification. And with the war, people began to embrace their identity in this matter too: I am different, but I am a Ukrainian. But this, again, was caused by the mainstream, because the majority decided to celebrate Christmas in a different way, and we still have problems with Easter in the churches. I understand that now we will have many Christmas and Easter holidays. On the other hand, thank God, the more the better!
– Better than nothing.
– Better than nothing. For example, I am always happy when Hanukkah lights are lit on Primorsky Boulevard. It was always nice, because they showed a friendly attitude towards each other.
– Let’s go back to the changes that took place with the beginning of the large-scale invasion.
– We started to engage in social services. My family has stayed in Odesa. Our children were prepared in advance to the point that, if war suddenly broke out and my wife and I were at work, they would know how to act, where the emergency suitcase was, and knew the phone numbers of the closest people who could help. They had already been instructed a few weeks before the war that this could happen, although, frankly, no one believed it to the end. When everything started, we decided to stay, because it was not clear where to leave, because they were shooting everywhere. But there was another question: if everyone leaves, who will remain to serve? My wife and children supported me in this matter and stayed with me. Thus, after almost a few days, when something became more or less clear, we began to actively engage in public service, volunteer assistance. We handed over medicines, because at that time the situation was so unclear that many people with chronic diseases were left without prescriptions. We handed over insulin and food products. It was not too critical with food during the first weeks, then later this need had to be closed as well. And so we have been regularly distributing food kits for a year and a half.
– Is this happening within the church community or is it just a volunteer initiative?
– This is done by the church community. Somewhere we are helped by other churches from abroad, and we are looking for something here locally. First of all, the aid goes to IDPs and other vulnerable social groups. Previously there were more opportunities, now it has become a little more difficult, because people’s finances do not increase, every month it becomes more and more difficult. But we, thank God, continue to do it. We have also helped large families and people with disabilities with medicine.
– I have one more question about going beyond denominational boundaries, meaning are there examples of cooperation with other churches in such socially beneficial matters at the grassroots level during the war?
– At the grassroots level (between local communities) there is a lot of this. For example, even one synagogue sent us aid from Spain so that we could distribute it further. People came from England, they don’t go to any church at all, but they have heard that we are engaged in humanitarian projects and said: “We want to bring you humanitarian aid so that you can distribute it further…”. Talking about the Ukrainian context in general, we are open to communication, to social projects. We have helped the Lutherans, we maintain relations with the Baptists. We have recently talked on the same broadcast and got along very well with the representative of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
We communicate openly and organically with everyone. The war, to a certain extent, brought social ties together, showing the importance of “networking”: when there is no centralized management or centralized directives to “communicate with this one, not with that one”, but there is one danger and one common cause. Before the war, the religious divide was somehow more felt than it is now. Although, again, I am talking about Odesa, I don’t know what is going on in other regions. What I have always liked in Odesa is tolerance and a calm attitude towards each other. Understanding that you live next to representatives of other cultures, and there are a lot of them here, you adapt to such diversity, not confronting each other, but cooperating. This is a very important point that I want to preserve. Odesa is a “cultural phenomenon”, that’s what Skoropadsky seems to have called it. This expression caught my eye while reading the Directory documents. And indeed, nothing changes, this is a Ukrainian city, but at the same time it is a multicultural phenomenon.
– Allow me to ask in the end, does your community have plans for the future, after the victory? What, in your opinion, will change in Ukraine when the war ends?
– I constantly think about this question. I have started thinking during the COVID-19 pandemic, to be honest. I have noticed an issue that concerns many religious organizations, denominations and people in general. We have a lack of vision for the future. I understand, of course, that the Church will not disappear, because it is such an institution that, to a certain extent, is beyond the limits of time. But every community should think about the prospect of growth. Basically, because biologically, every member of the community is not eternal, every pastor is the same. I have started asking these questions even before the war, talking about the need to pray for future generations. For example, there were French people, the first believers of this community – there are no French people now, but the building remains. But someone prayed for this church to continue its existence here. It is, of course, different, but it continues to exist.
It is also necessary to invest in the development of the community. Therefore, the issue of strategic planning is now in the first place. Despite the fact that there is a permanent calendar and religious year, which you will still fulfill, but there are certain projects that must be implemented. It has to do with cultivating maturity. From my personal experience, I can say that not everyone has been ready to accept reality and is still not ready to accept that we, in any case, will change after the war. Those who return after the war will encounter people who do not know them. And it is a challenge to combine two communities: one that left and changed in the context of that time and place, and one that is here now. They will have to be combined, although perhaps somewhere it will happen naturally.
The second point is related to how to build relations with the city in the future. It is worth considering that the city is constantly being visited, many people are returning now, and its population once again is more than a million. Many new people attend the sermons. We have sermons, every week there is text analysis, which proceeds gradually, expository. Now we take into account that every time new people will come, it is necessary to convey certain information about the church and to explain the Gospel in a concise text of the service. These are certain challenges that we have now.
We hope that we will be able to restore all the services that we had. We notice the various social and individual problems and issues caused by the war. Both in the church and outside of it, people come and wait for an answer. For example, for those who have lost everything or something important, the question arises: “Why is this happening to me?”. All these questions arise before us as well, but they do not change our theology. Perhaps this moment of the foundation helps us more than any other denomination. We perceive that the world is sinful and that war is the result of this sin. In a sinful world, anything is possible. God gives a way out of various situations, not because we are good in ourselves and God says: “You are good, that’s why I will help you now.” The problem is that Jesus Christ would not have had to die if we were “good”. But, apparently, this is one of those positive moments, in which we periodically remember that there were times in the history of mankind, and we got through them thanks to the fact a human believed.
– Yes, this is inspiring. Those time has passed, God grant that they pass now and we come out stronger.
– I really hope that this experience will contribute to our formation.
Mykhailo Kozakov talked to Ruslan Khalikov.
The interview was conducted as part of the project Religion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine, implemented by the NGO Workshop of Academic Study of Religions.