Archpriest Georgii Guliaiev is the rector of the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God “The Omen” in Kyiv (Ukrainian OrthoC), in 2005-2015 he was the rector of the Church of St. Ignatius of Mariupol in Donetsk (UOC), in 2017-2022 – rector of St. Anthony Church in Antonivka, Kherson region (UOC).
– Father, let’s start the story from 2014, because the war did not start in 2022, but eight years earlier. Please, tell me what you were doing in March 2014, what role did you play in the Donetsk diocese, how did you meet the events of 2014 in Donetsk?
– Yes, indeed, the war began in 2014, and at that time I was the press secretary of the Donetsk diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Donetsk region is divided into two administrative dioceses: Horlivka and Donetsk. For almost ten years, I was responsible for the information support of the activities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the region.
Recently, Facebook showed me an interesting reminder from May 2014: an address of Donetsk Metropolitan Hilarion (Shukalo) about the beginning of the war. And we can already say, because many years have passed, that this appeal was written by me, I was “doing my job”. When I brought the texts to the metropolitan, he always corrected them, but this one he simply read and, without making any corrections, said: “Post it on the website.” And even ordered that we print leaflets, which would be specially posted in all the churches. By the way, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, then Prime Minister of Ukraine, in one of his speeches mentioned this address of the Metropolitan, saying: “Here, listen to the Hierarch of Donetsk, because he is calling for peace.” Well, in general, it so happened that due to my position, I had access to certain people and witnessed historical events. And I can say that the Russian curators of the Donetsk separatists wanted very much to use the religious factor. But the Donetsk diocese of the UOC is a very hierarchical structure, to be more precise, authoritarian, that is, everything there is tied to the personality of the metropolitan. It was this rigid structure that did not produce the result expected by the Russians at the beginning of the war. The representatives of the so-called “DPR” (Donetsk People’s Republic) together with Russian curators tried to involve the diocesan structures in collaboration, but at the official level of the diocese, everything was blocked.
Then local pro-Russian forces from the Orthodox environment, bypassing the classic “blessing of the clergy”, tried to seek contacts and offer their spiritual support to militants and separatists, but these were isolated cases. But when the situation dragged on (father Georgii left Donetsk in October 2015 – editor’s note), it came to the point that they turned a blind eye to the collaboration of certain people with the separatists.
A separate case is the so-called “aliens”, who simply started coming from Russia. These are priests or deacons who supported the separatist movement in Donbas, because the locals did not want to get involved in these matters because it was cut off at the official level.
I had such a story. In the summer of 2014, I had received a phone call from an unknown number, inviting me to the rally “For Peace”, I refused, and then I opened the news and saw that the Russians had come to Lenin Square in Donetsk and had a photo session there. Imagine that “honest people” drive the press secretary of the Donetsk diocese there and I would have two options: either I refuse to speak and immediately go “to the basement”, or I mumble something “about peace”. And the photos are all over the Internet… God, as they say, delivered me.
There was also an interesting situation when I went to free one parishioner’s brother from arrest and just then Igor Girkin (an organizer of militant groups in the Donetsk People’s Republic “DPR” – editor’s note) and the militants entered Donetsk. I was sitting in the office with this same Girkin, and I understood, after seeing what they were doing in Slovyansk, how it could end for me personally. Fortunately, there were no photos taken, we rescued that guy and then released several others, including a Greek Catholic priest.
A similar situation happened with a Greek Catholic priest. Once I received a phone call and the following dialogue took place:
– There are five people here for exchange, there is one of your priests, but he is a “Uniate” (derogatory name for the Christian Church in Ukraine that acknowledges papal supremacy but retains its own liturgy – editor’s note). Do you know him?
– I do.
– Can you vouch for him?
– Yes I can!
And I have never seen him, you know? And then after some time, the dean from Ivano-Frankivsk called me and said: “Father Arseniy went to Donetsk region without a blessing, drove to the wrong checkpoint and was arrested by separatists, but thanks to your help, he was released.”
The “DPR” people really wanted to carry out propaganda work through the Orthodox Church, but I blocked it all. We stopped publishing the diocesan newspaper and church magazines. We didn’t air a single “Road to the Church” TV program while I was there, until October 2015. And after the Minsk agreements, already in 2015, smart people suggested: “Father, you should leave, because no one can guarantee your safety.” That is, either I had to collaborate or withdraw my powers, which actually happened after some time.
Miraculously, I left Donetsk and settled my life in Kherson, and then the Russians reached Kherson in 2022.
– I remember your parish very well, it was such a special community, because it was located on the territory of the factory, where it was impossible to get accidentally. How would you characterize your parishioners, with whom you conducted educational work? As of now, could you say what percentage of the parish remained in Donetsk forcibly, what percentage remained ideologically, and how many people left?
– Our efforts in the spring and summer of 2014 were aimed at saving our own lives. Anarchy began and I told my parishioners: “Whoever wants to, leave, I do not condemn you.” For my part, I organized a bus to take parishioners, mostly children and large families from Donetsk. We took them to the Kherson region, where we had friends who provided a boarding house, and the parishioners lived there for 2-3 months. And then some of them simply ran out of money, some returned.
As for the parishioners, sometimes there is such an idea about the church that people do whatever the priest says, but this is not entirely true. At the beginning of these events, I said that I did not want us to turn our Eucharistic communion in the church into relaying news. Let it be a place where we could glorify Christ and come to our senses a little, be normal, preserve the “island of normality”. But the fact is that the Russian propaganda turned out to be more powerful than my sermons. For example, there was a family of ethnic Russians who came to Donetsk many years ago, for them the communication with relatives and television turned out to be more powerful than my words. Rather, my sermons somehow did not satisfy them, because events were changing in such a way that people were pumped up with propaganda and my task as a priest was simply to bring them to a state of normality.
– And is your church now functioning?
– Yes, it is still on the plant territory. Fortunately, my second priest remained there, he is now the rector. We communicate as little as possible, because as a pastor I simply do not want to annoy people, in what sense: they let me go, I did not leave immediately, I did not abandon the congregation, my conscience is clear, because we experienced the most difficult moments together, it was 2014-2015. But people said: “Father, your family is outside of Donetsk, so we see how hard you are going through this. We’re letting you go, no matter how much it hurts,” is a verbatim quote. I said goodbye to them, and they let me go. The only thing left is to pray for each other.
In general, the years of 2014-2015 changed us, because we learned to walk on a certain side of buildings so that the glass from the windows does not fall down on us, we chose routes to bypass patrols. One tragedy is well-known, when a trolleybus was fired at by one of the terrorist groups with a mortar at Bosse stop. I was on that trolleybus, I just got off two stops earlier. I lined the church with sandbags and laid concrete slabs because I had the possibility. And it saved the lives of several people when there was shelling.
– Was your church in Donetsk shelled?
– Unfortunately yes, one person has even died – Yevgeniy, a security guard at the Donetsk Metallurgical Plant. It was the beginning of February 2015.
– So in 2015 you returned to your small homeland, Kherson region?
– In fact, yes. In 2004, I left Kherson for Donetsk, and then in 2015 I returned to Kherson, which, in fact, I found difficult. I actually returned to an unknown city, I knew its streets, but it was a completely different city, different people.
– Am I correct in my understanding that you went to Kherson and had arrangements for a service in some church?
– If we take the material side, then I could stay in Donetsk. During this time, I received a certain status, I had a four-room apartment, a country house. I had a job from which no one kicked me out, I was officially working at the plant and I could have continued to work. But I saw that this mess was dragging on more and more and the question really arose: either I would be appointed “the minister of religion of DPR” or I would “go to the basement”.
I remember that once I was called to the “police” of “DPR”, I went there, and in the office there was the book of Criminal Code of Ukraine, where the word “Ukraine” was simply covered with a black marker. I was filling out the form and the investigator asked me: “What is your nationality?”. I said: “Ukrainian”. She: “Are you sure?” No one saw or heard this, so there is no evidence, but it was very important for me. Like that Ukrainian flag, which I hid back in the day, when the separatists simply tore down Ukrainian flags from state institutions. I just carefully removed it from one of the plant offices, hid it, and then we took it out on the eve of the invasion. Even more so, my wife put it in a suitcase (and we were driving through the “DPR” block posts), and it’s just a miracle that no one saw it.
I just came to Kherson, there were no agreements, I had a good name and there were people with whom I kept in touch. Because when I left Kherson, I did care about the people of Kherson, we maintained good relations. Therefore, when we arrived, I was appointed a priest in the Holy Spirit Cathedral, blessed to head the youth department and work with the newspaper.
– You were a cleric of the cathedral, and not a church rector in Kherson, weren’t you?
– No, at first I was a cleric in the cathedral, and later my parish was in the village of Antonivka near Kherson, and I was the rector there for four years. As my wife jokes: “Do you remember when you first arrived there, the first thing you said was: ‘If there is a war, Antonivka is the most perishable place?” And she asks: “Why do you say that?”. “Well, look, here is a motor vehicle bridge, here is a railway bridge, here we have a military unit, here is a lowland.” Then she says: “How does it all come to your brain? You have begun to think in a completely different way!”.
– So you became a church rector. Did you form a community in Antonivka or was it already formed?
– We agreed on Antonivka, because we had nowhere to live, and there was an apartment for a priest. In fact, it is the basement of the church, where the priest’s family could be accommodated. I moved there with my girls: my wife and daughters. At that time, the son had already gone to Chernivtsi to study at the university. And we began to call ourselves the dungeon children and joked that we were in the basements in Donetsk and here. The life of a forced displaced person is not sweet, everyone has already understood it now (after the full-scale invasion of 2022 – editor’s note), but in our case it became an excuse for us to start baking sweets. In Antonivka, we lived from the sale of sweets, my salary as a biology teacher at a local school, and from what we saved (we did not pay for housing, because it belonged to the church).
– And now we have reached February 24, 2022. You wake up in Kherson…
– No, on February 23, I was in Kyiv, preparing for the presentation of a large educational project as a biology teacher. My son’s phone call woke me up: “Dad, Russia has attacked Ukraine.” And here, you won’t believe it, but some kind of relief came. Yes, I knew what war was and its consequences, but now it was 100% clear who was fighting with us.
For eight years, Russia’s hybrid war was quite successful and had its fruits. And I am a person who is not used to deception or intrigue. Finally, it became much easier for me because I understood who is who. Therefore, it was a relief, I really understand that this is a Russian-Ukrainian war. That’s all. So it was easier for me, because I already knew for sure that I had not condemned anyone in vain. This is my problem as a Christian. Christianity changed my consciousness and my attitude towards people, that is, I try to justify people, to find some motives that led them to this or that sinful act. I understand that there is some guilt on my part or on the part of another person, in order to somehow reconcile them. And then everything became clear: here is the aggressor and here is the victim. It became easier for me because I understood, there is no longer such a tricky “it’s your own fault” and “everything is not that clear”.
After my departure from Donetsk in October 2015, I had no moral right to comment on the events in Eastern Ukraine. And there were not many events: the intensity of the confrontation was reduced to a minimum. Many people from Donetsk perceived my silent position as loyal.
On February 24, 2022, everything changed. We were all in the middle of a war. I was in Kyiv, and my family was there: father and mother – in Kherson, and my wife and younger daughter – in Antonivka. And the helicopters with the subversion and reconnaissance group captured the railway bridge, then there were battles on the Antonivka highway bridge. Then the daughter sends the following message from the basement: “I’m very afraid that someone will come and someone will throw something down.” It was my child’s fear and maybe it was a kind of compensation that I couldn’t protect them there, so I started to “fight” on the information front in social networks, to tell the world the truth about the invasion both in 2014 and in 2022. I monitored the situation in Kherson remotely as much as possible, so soon, after analyzing everything, I said to the family: “Now is the window, now is the lull between the battles, leave Antonivka for the city itself, it is not a war zone.”
Although I stopped working at the school, I remained in the unofficial teachers chat, where all our female teachers were, and I was the only man and the only person with war experience. I immediately started running a blog and they write: “Oh, girls, there is…”, and I wrote: “Girls, the hardest thing is the first night of the war, and then we will do the following, and if you see armed people, act like this and now stock up on water, because the moment will come when everything will be in short supply: water, food, light, everything.”
I know this, it is a bitter but important experience. Sometimes small details became fatal for a person. A man, for example, was carrying a heavy bag and he had a hematoma from it. He was told that it was from the machine gun he allegedly carried on his shoulder. They got him out of the bus – that’s all, this man was gone.
– How did your parish live during the first weeks when you, its rector, were in another region?
– I was not there, and it was the time of Great Lent, and my wife began to look for priests who would come to us. Through all these block posts the Russians set up later on the Antonivka bridge, she began to invite priests to serve so that people could pray. Of course, I kept it all “on the phone”, arranged everything. It made no sense for me to go from Kyiv to Kherson, to meet the advancing front. The family and the parish accepted and supported this decision.
– But legally and canonically, at that moment, you were the rector of the church in Antonivka?
– Yes, I was still the rector and kept in touch with the parish. But then, I think, my posts on Facebook got some attention from the collaborating priests. They openly began to communicate with the occupiers and my posts began to annoy them, they began to put pressure on the local bishop. That’s how I received a document that I was listed out of personnel. I didn’t make a big deal out of it.
– I think that when analyzing a person’s position, it is necessary to look at the statements of the first two days, even the first few hours, because at that moment one could sign a death sentence with one’s comments, everyone understands that.
– Yes, I agree. But anyway, knowing that my family is in Kherson, that everyone is very easy to calculate, I still risked writing the summaries of the first three days of the invasion. I remember writing literally that my children and students kept a war diary, several villagers were killed, an infant died who was simply not given medical attention due to the invasion. I wrote everything in Russian with one goal, so that Russians and Donetsk residents could read it. I understand that I am expanding the audience and it is not limited to my fellow citizens and those who are close to me.
Then my frank mockery of the fake “Kherson People’s Republic” began. Then I started to write how to behave properly on block posts, and some moral points. I don’t regret a single word.
– How did your parishioners react to your position?
– People are such people. Something similar to what happened with the Donetsk parish happened. Several parishioners supported the occupiers, others evacuated from the city. But I was surprised that the Kherson region, which, according to the occupiers, should have simply accepted the “liberators”, told the Russians “No!”.
The clergymen I knew took part in pro-Ukrainian rallies, for which they kept “in the basement”, and I was constantly in Viber communication with them, thus understanding the whole situation. Some of my parishioners showed a pro-Ukrainian position, and these were just ordinary people who lived their usual village life.
– Now Antonivka has been de-occupied. As of June 2, 2023, is the church still standing?
– The church is standing and it is a miracle. It is located in the center, and all the outskirts of Antonivka are almost destroyed. The church is situated between the railway bridge, where there is constant shelling, and the Antonivka bridge, there are no houses between them. I am constantly in touch with parishioners who tell about the destruction. And the church is in the center and it is not damaged.
– Is there a priest now?
– Yes, there is a priest. Father Vitaliy. I did everything so that he was there. He is a young priest who served near Stanislav in the village of Oleksandrivka, which was completely destroyed by the occupiers. Stanislav is a very famous place, it was there that the Ukrainian military stopped the invasion, it is the border between Mykolayiv and Kherson regions. His village was completely destroyed, the church was destroyed, there is no living place there. I offered father Vitaly to take a place in Antonivka, there were negotiations, he was put there, and I am calm.
– Do you think those who left Antonivka will return? Will they return to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church parish, because as I understand it, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine parish was restored after the de-occupation, wasn’t it?
– I cannot say that for sure. This is a question not only of Antonivka, it is a question of all liberated territories. Serious are the material destruction and changes, but even greater is the spiritual destruction. We need new meanings to keep people coming back.
– After the victory and de-occupation of Donetsk, you come and look into the face of the person who wrote that “in two days you will feel everything that the people of Donbas felt for eight years.” I understand that there is Christian love, I understand that you should stand before the liturgy and say “Christ in our midst”, but what will you feel about it?
– You mean, I have to admit their guilt and whether it is worthy of my forgiveness? It would be arrogant of me to say that I am purer than them. We survived 70 years of the Soviet Union, and then Perestroika began. It is necessary to analyze how the Perestroika broke into life, when the crimes of the communist regime were gradually filled with revelations. This, in my opinion, should be a cure, a release from delusion. And it should be done with love for the patient. No matter how much we would like to, but transferring the experience of one region to another would be unjustified violence. I do not justify separatism in any way, I just understand that it is a disease with which people have been infected. I know the people of Donetsk who saw the early days of the so-called “DPR” as an ordinary showdown between two gangs, when they did not see it as a state, or as a people, or as anything else. They are poisoned by previous experience and transfer it to other areas.
– Our project is dedicated to destroyed churches. Do you think the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has enough money, strength, and parishioners for restoration? Here I am interested in the objects and churches, not the spirit, but the walls. Will there be a reconstruction, if we take into account that all the big sponsors have left?
– I think that it will partly remain history, meaning “there was a church here”. But knowing the certain fixation of the Orthodox believers on external forms and taking into account the symbolism of certain churches, a surprise in the scale of reconstruction is quite possible. Because there were such churches and cathedrals that stood for many decades, in contrast to Russia, where there are still beautiful but neglected churches. Perhaps the issue is whether the people of Ukraine will return to their homes and whether they will feel safe. If they feel safe, then there will be efforts to restore something. Although we have entered into very interesting trends, the secularization of society continues. The only positive thing here is that the Church, having lost its monopoly on opinions, will be able to focus on its religious work and not get involved in other matters, for example, politics.
If we learn to live without the preferences of the state, without politicians, to rely on the church community, then we will survive, everything will be fine, there will be those people who want to support, for whom it will be important. The first small positive changes are already there, but it takes time.
Georgii Guliaiev talked to Karen Nikiforov.
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.