Skip to content

«I already made the decision to transfer to OCU on February 24…», – Father Andriу Klyushev 

    St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Church at the State Tax University (STU) in Irpin has been operating since 1999. At first, it was a church of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. When the battles for Irpin broke out with the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, the area where the church is located was under the control of the invaders. After the liberation of the city and total expulsion of the invaders from Kyiv region, the parish community, along with the parson, joined the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Father Andriy (Klyushev), the senior priest of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, told us about the pre-war life of the parish, days of battles and occupation, and the current situation within the community.

    Thank you, Father Andriy, for joining us for this interview. Could you please describe the life of your community before the full-scale invasion?

    Our church was built on the territory of the STU, which was then called the Ukrainian Financial and Economic Institute, in 1999. Since then I have been the senior priest of the church. It happened thanks to the then rector, Petro Melnyk. It was his idea. He was the one who found funds for the construction. The construction of the church started in the summer of 1999 and was completed in just six months. The church community began to develop at the same time. At first I was the only priest at the church. About a year later, another one was ordained, Father Vasyl Mandziuk. Thus, after the construction of the church, church life and community development started: an group of churchmen  was organized, a speaker of parish meetings and an audit committee were appointed, and a choir was founded at the church. Step by step, we arranged everything and lived our peaceful lives, holding services. We also had non-church relations with the Institute and its College of Finance and Economics, where I was invited to be a lecturer. When the Institute was reorganized into the University, I kept lecturing there.

    Could you tell us more, please, what kind of relations are you talking about? 

    I taught the course “Fundamentals of Christian Culture” at the University, and religious studies at the College before the said course. I also taught the History of Western Confessions at Kyiv Theological Academy. During those years, my life outside of church service and teaching was focused on family affairs and participation in various University activities. I mean such events as the start of the academic year, graduation, or the oath taking by cadets – at that time the University still had a Tax Police Faculty. We also held various meetings with students and tried to involve them in Bible studies. Our active parishioners organized trips to Western Europe for university employees and tax cadets, pilgrimages to France, to Lourdes, the city where eighteen apparitions of the Virgin Mary occurred. Of course, on their way, they visited the city of Bari in Italy, where St. Nicholas is buried. I can tell you, it was a good life back then, it’s nice to recall. Actually, I do not separate my church from our University. And the staff of the STU treats us, the church community, as their members. Even our website officially says that we operate at the State Tax University.

    Father, could you please tell me if most of the parishioners of the church were students of the STU or not only students?

    Not just students. In fact, they are not even students… Studenthood is the youth. Does students really concerned about the piety? Some of them attended and learned to sing and read liturgical texts. Two of them, Mykhailo Us and Yaroslav Yerofeiev, graduated from the seminary extramurally while studying at the University, and later became priests. Most of our parishioners are local residents. According to the construction project, our church can accommodate about 150 people, and this is the number of parishioners we have had all these years.

    Let’s talk about the way the community and you personally faced February 24, 2022.

    As for me… My wife woke me up and said: “The war has started.” I wasn’t even surprised, because the premonition of the war was already in the wind. I was preparing, a couple of months before the war started, I started to learn about survival in the city during hostilities. We had stocked up on everything we needed before the war. I had a plan of action, and I had supplies, including an emergency bag, water, and power banks. I mean, we were ready, waiting, praying. When the invasion started, I came to the church for a couple of days to attend the service. The war started on a Thursday, and on Saturday morning we had a prayer service and, I think, an evening service. I don’t remember for sure now whether we served the liturgy immediately after the outbreak of the war. However, we met with the parishioners several times, and as long as we had electricity and the Internet, we met every evening either in Google-meet or Zoom, praying, communicating, and supporting each other in various ways.

    In other words, were those prayers online? 

    Yes, we did all of that, but later, when the Russians began to actively attack and shell the city… On March 2, there was a massive air raid, and it became clear that the war was not somewhere else – it was overhead, it was among us. On March 4, a shell hit my yard and hit my car. After the shelling started, most people left the city, especially those in areas where the connection was lost. We had already evacuated children by that time. Something kept me there for some time. Parishioners texted in chat rooms: “We are leaving, we are leaving…” However, as it turned out, some of them kept hiding in basements.

    How many parishioners have left? 

    Most of them. There were about ten percent remain, maybe even less. The Russians entered the city from the side of our Mashtorf district (a factory for the production of peat extraction machines that gave its name to the nearby Irpin district. – editor’s note). Local people were hiding in basements, while Russians ransacked their houses. I stayed in Irpin until March 13. Then I also left with my wife and her elderly mother. We left the house, found guys from the TDF (Territorial Defense Forces), who drove us to Romanivskyi Bridge. There, we crossed the river using planks and went to Kyiv with the volunteers.

    Did most of your parishioners leave the city through the “green” corridors as an organized group or in some other way? 

    It depends. There is a Baptist Irpin Bible Church in our city. It is located right in the direction of Romanivka, which means that in those days it was the most distant place from the epicenter of the events. So, all the people who left Irpin at that time went to that church. They (members of the Baptist Irpin Bible Church – editor’s note) organized the corridors. They made an agreement, and the military either let them go or not. Father Vasyl from our community left the city that way. He and the other people stayed there for a night, maybe two, and the Baptists organized a column, and they left. Our community did not arrange evacuations, because it was already exploding nearby… Most of our people left on the first or second day, before the bridge was blown up. I think Romanivskyi Bridge was blown up on February 25…

     Even after that, our  parishioners were leaving the city on foot or by car. None of them died during the evacuation. However, there were elderly parishioners who stayed. Three of our elderly parishioners died during the occupation due to the lack of timely medical care. Their hearts collapsed because of that nightmare. However, no one was killed by shrapnel. There was another case, however, when a volunteer was killed near our church. It happened when I had already left. He was shot by the Russians who had already occupied the area. He was temporarily buried near the boiler room on the territory of the STU.

    Was the St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Church damaged?

    Yes, it was; the Russians definitely wanted to enter the church. When I returned to Irpin, I saw the hole right in the eye of St. Nicholas, whose image was placed above the side door of the church. At first, I thought it was someone who deliberately shot there. Then I analyzed the nature of damages which were numerous. It turned out that a landmine had exploded on the territory of the church, and its fragments damaged windows and walls. We later restored that icon and put it closer to the Sunday school building. The fronton above the door still has the icon that used to be underneath it – old icon with sailors on a ship. The mark of that fragment is still on it. The Russians were interested in our church, asked people who stayed in the neighborhood of the University: “What patriarchate does the church belong to?” People said: “Moscow…” It was true at the time. So the Russians did not harm our church. If they really wanted to they could get in here and check if someone from the Territorial Defense Forces was here. But they are still Orthodox. Later I was told that a reconnaissance unit formed by Donetsk separatists also came to the church.

    We know that after your returning to Irpin, you announced that your parish would join the OCU quite soon…  

    Before the war, our parish was part of the UOC, but in 2014, when the annexation of Crimea and events in Donbas took place, first graduates of our educational institution were killed. At that point, I faced the question: What should I do now? Obviously, we started praying for our fallen defenders. However, prayer for Patriarch Kirill raised doubts. Father Vasyl and I then talked about it. I told him: “Listen, Father, we did not hear even a single word of condolence або compassion from the Patriarch”. In fact, many priests in Ukraine noticed that at that time. Since then, Father Vasyl and I have ceased to pray for Patriarch Kyryl. Some of our parishioners criticized us, but most of them understood us correctly. Then our refusal was reported to our superiors – to the rural dean of Irpin vicarate and, I think, even to the Lavra. However, we held a hard-line position. Today we have the memorial board for the fallen, but in those years it did not exist. Back then, there was just a sheet of paper with the names of those who were killed printed on it. Many of our graduates were killed then. Unfortunately, there are now more than forty names on this list, and all of them no longer can fit on the board. However, we have a list of them and pray for them all the time, for their souls.

    Then, in 2018, there was the story of the Tomos. It was the second time when I began to ask people in my parish about their attitude to the idea of breaking off relations with the Moscow Patriarchate. It turned out that this idea was not supported. Why? I explained this to myself by the fact that our parish was generally very apolitical in those days: people attended the church and did not even ask which hierarchs were mentioned during the services. They just came to pray and listen to God’s word and sermons. That’s why they were not very interested in those legal issues at all. Although not all of them – some of them, on the contrary, were very interested in church politics. And those people, when we did not accept the Tomos and did not leave the UOC, left us to join the parishes of the OCU.

    When did you make the final decision to join the OCU?

    I made the decision to join the OCU on February 24, 2022. It came at once. At that time, I thought it was time to put an end to that issue. What would happen next? It was only the beginning – no one knew what would happen to Irpin, to the community, to the church, whether it would survive the hostilities. So my family and I went to our relatives in Lviv region. There, we monitored the events that were taking place at the fronts. When I began to realize that the liberation was on the way, I started preparing to return. And so it happened. On March 28, we celebrated two years since our liberation. On April 5, I managed to get here because there was a real need for priests, as the identification of the victims had already begun and someone had to bury them. That’s what I actually did. Later I asked if any of the parishioners had returned. In the process of searching, I met Volodymyr, our churchwarden – his family, by the way, has been attending our church literally since the very beginning of the community’s existence. I went to his house, talked to him and his family, and they supported me in my decision: “Father Andrii, we should definitely join the OCU”. I also talked to other parishioners, and about ninety-five percent of them agreed that something should be done, and it should be done in some legal way – by holding a parish meeting and voting for joining the OCU. I arranged an online vote for those parishioners who had not returned yet. It was found that most of the parishioners who were evacuated also supported joining the OCU.

    The voting took place on May 15, 2022. Later, we had to wait three months for registration with the state authorities. Some officials impeded the process, did not want to appoint registrars. As soon as they were appointed three months later, the parish changed jurisdiction officially, at the level of state registers. And we have no regrets about it. We switched to Ukrainian in our services and felt the benefit of it. Everything became much clearer. 

    How soon did the church life of the parish resume after the liberation of Kyiv region?

    It was April 7, the Annunciation. I was alone in the church at the time, without sextons and choristers. On the Annunciation, about fifty people attended the church, including representatives of the University and local residents who had survived the occupation of the city. I held the service on my own. Since there was no choir, I downloaded hymns from the Internet and played them during the service on my tablet. Fortunately, there was electricity then. Since then, more and more people have been coming to us every week, as more and more citizens have returned home after the demining of Irpin and cleaning of the streets. The parishioners attended church as soon as they returned. For example, the family of our sexton Denys; they cleaned the church yard and premises, including the Sunday school building, together with him. It is worth noting that when we returned, the glass in the Sunday school building was completely smashed by the blast wave, and there were only fragments everywhere. So people helped us clean up the church and gradually, little by little, they started attending services. A month later, my wife returned. She can sing, so we started to hold services properly, without hymns played on the tablet. That was a great joy for us.

    Did the number of parishioners change after the change of jurisdiction?

    Yes, a small part of the parishioners left us. They voted against joining the OCU. However, there were people who, as it turned out, had been waiting for us to join for a long time and wondered why we hadn’t joined earlier. As I said, our parish has always focused on the religious life of its own, with jurisdictional issues being secondary. As for the life of the community, I can say that I have a feeling that nothing has happened. The number of people seems to be the same. By the way, we often baptize children now. This is especially true in the warm season, three or even four baptizing every week.

    Are you talking about the year 2023? 

    I mean both last year and the year before that. When I returned, I found myself thinking that something was missing, whether it was not enough people or not enough cars on the streets. Later I realized that it was children’s laughter that was missing, because there were only adults all around. Today, every playground in Irpin is full of children, and it’s very joyful. In fact, it seems to me that we will not face a demographic crisis; I have just baptized two children very today But there are few church weddings. Mostly military people choose to have church weddings, either those who are  on vacation or those who are about to go to the front. Recently, we had a commando who got a leave due to his injury, so he and his fiancée decided to have a church wedding. 

    As for the University, I am invited to various events. Unfortunately, I don’t always have enough time for that now. Before the war, there were four priests at the church. I, Father Vasyl, and two others. We also had a deacon. Currently, Father Vasyl is abroad. The rest of our priests did not support joining the OCU. For some reason, the deacon did not support it either, although he was opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. His apartment in Irpin burned to the ground; the house where he lived was dismantled. He now lives with his family in Germany. In fact, we have the lack of clergymen. It’s true not only for our parish. It happens that the UOC parish votes in favor of joining the OCU, but the priest does not support it. Such priests take the so-called “catacomb” position and hold prayer services in private apartments or rented premises. Therefore, today the OCU is facing a crisis related to the need for clergy.

    Did war events motivate you or the parish community to cooperate with volunteer foundations or organizations related to support of the army or directly with the military?

    Yes, of course. Immediately after the liberation, when we found ourselves facing tough circumstances, Protestant activists came to us and brought us humanitarian aid. I have long term friendship with Protestants. There is a Mission Eurasia in Irpin. They brought aid for the parishioners, but there were few parishioners then. So various people came to us and we gave them all those things. When we resumed our activities, we started delivering humanitarian aid to the East of Ukraine through volunteers. For example, we sent a lot of food to Lyman after its de-occupation. Those volunteers are also Protestants, they are so mobile, driving everywhere. I can’t go anywhere, I can’t leave the parish. We accumulate resources and send them. 

    As for the military, we have already sent two Mavic drones to the armed forces. We also raised funds for the third one, and sent one FPV drone to the military. We also joined other projects related to raising funds to purchase supplies for the army, and invested our resources in these projects. Since some of our parishioners or husbands of our female parishioners serve in the army, we help them with funds. This is how we cooperate with the army and volunteers. Last year, when there were blackouts, the Irpin-based Unbreakable Hearts Foundation bought a generator for us. I mean, we both accept help and provide it. Everything is well balanced.

    Have the parish’s relations with the Tax University been restored? 

    Yes, we keep in touch. The University is no longer the same since it was heavily damaged during the hostilities in Irpin. The number of students is significantly reduced, and some of the lecturers have already passed away. However, I cannot say that our current relations are the same as they were before. Anyway, we always respond to their invitations.

    What is your vision for the future of the parish? What are your plans, hopes, something you would like to realize in the nearest future?

    Realize… This year is our anniversary. We would like to repair the frontispiece of the church. We keep accumulating resources for that. We really need one more priest. All of these things are part of our plans, but I’m still waiting for Father Vasyl, maybe he will return. In general, we perform all our tasks, sometimes to the fullest extent and sometimes to a lesser extent. We have a Sunday school, and soon we will launch a Plast National Scout Organization of Ukraine branch. I think we will undergo the necessary training with one future teacher. As for the service, everything is going on as planned. I believe that everything is getting better step by step.

    So how do you see the life of the parish after Ukraine’s victory?

    After the victory…

    Yeah, when life will get back into a peaceful mode…

    I have an idea to somehow help our male soldiers when they return. I mean, for example, we can at least provide premises for psychologists who would work with those who have returned from the war. As a priest, I also underwent such basic psychological training, and I am familiar with the method of active listening, when I talk and give advice less and listen to a person more, giving him or her the opportunity to express their feelings. These are the basic principles of psychology. We will eliminate everything that the war has caused in the inner, spiritual world of people. We will repair the church. I’m not even worried about that. In the end, walls are just walls. People are the most important part. Of course, when it is over, we will be glad and thank God. I don’t really have any further plans. I don’t have any special ideas… We don’t know for sure how it will end. Faith is faith, but everything will be as God judges. You know, maybe we need to suffer. Because Ukraine has become very much obsessed with materialism. It is not a fully Christian country now. Well, it’s only nominally Christian. People baptize children, but they have no knowledge of it. In other words, the educational mission that the Church used to have is still very much needed. And I don’t think that this need will disappear, it’s just a matter of the way the mission is being implemented. For instance, we used to have interviews with godparents in this room before the baptism. There is the Creed hanging over there, and it was clearly explained to them. Today, I do it online. I provide them with all the necessary materials, the godparents are tested, and then I allow them to take the sacrament. The same thing goes for the wedding. Something like that. I have enough energy for all of this – church, family, Plast. And, of course, interaction with the University. However, the main thing is to educate people, to give them some hope, and to prepare them for the most important thing from the Christian point of view – their passage to eternal life, to unity with the Creator.  

    Thank you, Father Andrii, for your service and for this interview!

    The interviewer: Anton Leshchynskyi 

    The conversation was recorded on March 23, 2024 

    The interview was a part of the project “Religion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine”, implemented by the NGO “Workshop of Academic Religious Studies” with the support of “Documenting Ukraine”, a project of the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.