Under the Shadow of War, Kyiv Celebrates Orthodox Easter

Hundreds of Orthodox Christians lined up outside the cathedral in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after services on Sunday as they waited for a priest to bless them with a jet of water as part of the Easter tradition.

They carried baskets filled with candles, carefully colored eggs, paskha cakes, chunks of cured lard known as salo, and a sweet Ukrainian wine called Kagor. As the priest crossed the line, several people gasped or burst out laughing as the water hit their faces.

Alisa Kupchyn, 18, standing in a semi-circle of people outside the church, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy, said she is not normally a churchgoer but she respects holy days.

“I just moved to Kyiv and wanted to visit the famous church,” he said, having arrived from the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro to study medicine.

This is the second year that Ukrainian Orthodox Christians have celebrated Holy Week under the shadow of war, but much has changed for Kyiv residents since last Easter. In previous weeks, Ukrainian troops had driven Moscow troops from the area around the capital, and the scale of the atrocities that followed the Russian retreat was still evident.

In addition, the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year triggered an exodus from the capital. Although Easter week falls in late April after normalcy begins to return, many townspeople remain absent.

This year, thousands of men, women and children flocked to attend Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at major Orthodox churches in and around the capital. The increased crowds are a reflection of the fact that, despite the fighting raging in eastern Ukraine, relative calm has returned to the capital.

“On this day a year ago, we all prayed that Ukraine would survive,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in a speech overnight. “Today – for Ukraine to win.”

He filmed the speech at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, or Cave Monastery, a chain of churches overlooking the Dnipro River and the cradle of Christian Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe.

In recent months, authorities have moved against the church's offshoot, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. It is linked to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, credits the war in Ukraine launched by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

The Ukrainian government has ordered the Moscow Patriarchate church to discontinue the Lavra section it is using, leading to a standoff at the site with protesters on both sides. The growing prominence of Ukraine's independent Orthodox church makes Easter even more important for some who worship there.

In one instance, the church of the Moscow Patriarchate relinquished control of the Holy Assumption Cathedral to the government in January, and, on Sunday, the Ukrainian independent church held its first Easter service there.

“I'm not very religious, but this year is special,” said Oleksandr Trokhymets, 40, a lawyer and military officer who came to the cathedral service with his daughter. “I want to be here today with the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian priests.”