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An Easter Tale Of Two Orthodox Babushkas In Ukraine

Two elderly women place prayer candles in Kyiv's St. Michael's monastery on Easter Sunday.
Two elderly women place prayer candles in Kyiv's St. Michael's monastery on Easter Sunday.
KYIV -- Lyudmila, 60, a newspaper copy editor, and Yelena Andreyevna, 75, a pensioner, have a lot in common.

They have lived most their lives in Kyiv. They are both ethnic Russian. And they are both practicing Orthodox Christians. On Easter Sunday they both prayed for peace and understanding in Ukraine amid fears of impending war.

Aside from that, however, their beliefs are very different, and their choice of Easter service significant.

Lyudmila, 60, who identifies herself as a Russian and only gave her first name, went to the midnight service at the spectacular Moscow Patriarchate's Pechersk Lavra. Her Easter wish was for Russians in Ukraine to be given "equal rights" on language.

Yelena Andreyevna, who identifies herself as a Ukrainian and gave only her first name and patronymic, went to the Kyiv Patriarchate's St. Michael's Gold-Domed Monastery, where she prayed that God would help extinguish the "malice" burning on the frontier with Russia.

Lyudmila says she is delighted that Russia has annexed Crimea. But the move shocked Yelena.

Lyudmila says she "loves" Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yelena is deeply critical.

"Let Putin realize that he doesn't need to be a destroyer," says Yelena. "He needs to be a creator. [Russians and Ukrainians] are friends and brothers, but that is changing. I don't support Putin. He has brought much sorrow for us Ukrainians."

As the cases of the two women show, the divisions roiling the country are not simply ethnic, or purely language-based. While far from black and white, the discord in the country also has an obvious religious dimension.

Different Stances On Maidan

Ukraine's population is predominantly Christian, and about two-thirds of the country's Christians are Orthodox. There are three major Orthodox churches in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate; the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, and the smaller Autocephalus Ukrainian Church.

The Moscow Patriarchate is subordinate to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who on Easter Sunday called on God to end "the designs of those who want to destroy holy Russia"

The Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has generally remained neutral during Ukraine's ongoing crisis.

In contrast, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate has played an active role. During the Euromaidan uprising the Kyiv Patriarchate's St. Michael's Gold-Domed Monastery served as a makeshift hospital and place of refuge for activists, some of whom are still camped outside its walls.

On Easter Sunday, St. Michael's bell tower -- which a few months ago rang out in warning when Berkut riot police tried to disperse the Euromaidan encampment -- performed the Ukrainian national anthem. And in his Easter message to his followers, the head of the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Filaret, condemned Russian "aggression."

Lyudmila is critical of the Kyiv Patriarchate's support of the Maidan, which she calls "devilish." She echoes the Russian line that the revolution was carried out by adherents of World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera.

"Who has come to power?" she asks. "They are 'Banderovsti' in essence. They have his emblem and portrait. Their main idea is hatred."

She sees Russia as a bastion of traditional Orthodox values against European depravity, yet does not insist that Ukraine move toward Russia.

"I am Russian and so all my hopes are with Russia," she says. "What's more, in Russia, there are traditional values. Why do we need to choose between Europe or Russia? Isn't Ukraine already Europe, and not Russia?"

For Yelena back at St. Michael's, the key message of Easter is one of peace and forgiveness.

"On this holy day, we bow to all, we forgive all injury, we forgive everything, even as we have ended up in such a difficult position," she says. "The Lord will help us."