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Holy men How Russian Orthodox priests helped annex Crimea
Six years ago, Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian region on the Black Sea. The annexation took place following a referendum organized by the Russian government, which to date has not been recognized by most of the international community, including Ukraine. In the days leading up to the referendum, strange groups of people started gathering next to Ukrainian military bases all over Crimea. In addition to the infamous “little green men,” or armed people without insignia on their uniforms, there were Cossacks and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church. After a series of negotiations at the gates of military bases, practically all Ukrainian troops stationed on the peninsula laid down their arms. Meduza investigative journalist Liliya Yapparova tells the story of how the Russian Defense Ministry got Orthodox Priests to participate in negotiations with Ukrainian military personnel during the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Whoever says no gets a whipping
On the morning of February 27, 2014, groups of armed men without insignia started appearing all over the Crimean peninsula. These were later identified as Russian military personnel. They blocked the entryways to military bases across the region, where nearly 20,000 Ukrainian military personnel were stationed. In the weeks that followed, strange groups of people started gathering at the gates of the military bases. They called themselves “negotiators.” They communicated an ultimatum to the Ukrainian soldiers: those who did not want to join the “side of the Crimean government” should lay down their arms, or else they should be taken by storm.
One year later, those who participated in these events gathered at a party at an FSB veteran’s house. They shared their memories of those turbulent times, and one of them rehearsed a poem:
And the gates to the garrison open,
A priest walks in with a cross and a thurible,
Behind the priest are Cossacks, all dressed up.
“Whoever says yes gets a reward,
Whoever says no gets a whipping”
“…And a thurible thrown in their face, presumably,” laughs the man, referring to the incense vessel carried by Orthodox priests during services.
There is some truth to this strange poem. In fact, Russian Orthodox priests took an active part in the special operation that resulted in Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
“They called me and they said: we’ve got a situation in Crimea, we need you, come over,” recalls a veteran of the Special Forces unit of Russia’s military intelligence service. He had taken part in the negotiations with the Ukrainian military in Crimea in 2014. According to him, in March 2014, Russian Orthodox priests joined the negotiations. “A decision was made to call Father Dimitry over from Saint Petersburg. We started to visit all the bases that were Ukrainian at the time,” he recalls.
Father Dimitry’s full name is Dimitry Vasilenkov, and he is the deputy head of a St. Petersburg episcopate division that deals with armed forces and law enforcement agencies. When he was in Crimea paying visits to Ukrainian military bases, he was accompanied by an armed paramilitary group of Cossacks that identifies with semi-militarized communities who traditionally guarded the borders of the Russian Empire.
The Cossacks came to Crimea from Krasnoyarsk in order to participate in the 2014 operation. Ukrainian military units were more receptive to talking to this strange group of people than to Russian military personnel without insignia, recalls the special forces veteran. “They would open their gates thanks to the priest,” he says. “Otherwise they would have just kicked us out. The Cossacks were responsible for general commotion: if you have a group of weird Russian citizens crowding around, you already have the responsibility to do something about it.”
The organizer of this group said that their main goal was to get the Ukrainian military that was stationed in Crimea to lay down their arms peacefully. “Just imagine: a priest, Cossacks, the New Testament…” recalls the man. “They were scared too. You ask them, ‘Hey, guys, do we really need to start killing each other?’ And they’d answer, ‘We wouldn’t like that.’”
Ukrainian military units in Crimea were already surrounded by Russian special forces and pro-Russian militarized groups when these negotiations began. The special forces veteran told Meduza he thinks the readiness of Ukrainian military personnel to speak with the priest was driven by Kyiv’s silence about what they should be doing. “We caught them in a moment of catastrophic, hellish stress. They were in complete disarray, everyone I saw there. Some people tried calling Kyiv, and Kyiv didn’t offer any answers,” he recalls. He also admits that it helped that the priest and the Cossacks were accompanied by at least two men carrying weapons.
Father Dimitry spoke with Meduza and admitted that he had “been to Crimea through the Department of Defense,” but he would not explain his trip in further detail. He said the 2014 special operation in Crimea was a success thanks to God. “What can this be, if not God’s miracle? The Lord did not allow for any bloodshed,” he says.
Father Dimitry works closely with the Cossacks and the security forces in Russia. He has been to the North Caucasus and South Ossetia numerous times, and heads the parishes that serve the Russian National Guard and Federal Prison Services.
Father Dimitry may have participated in the final two weeks of Crimea negotiations with Ukrainian troops. The talks lasted until March 24, 2014. We do not know exactly when Father Dimitry arrived in Crimea and when he departed, but based on his public statements and the transportation routes available at the time, we were able to determine that he could have arrived on the peninsula around March 13, 2014. He confirmed to Meduza that he was already in Crimea by March 16, the day of the referendum. He recounted to us that the military personnel he saw that day were happy and smiling. On March 23, he posted a photograph on his page on the social network VKontakte with the caption “Polite people have polite chaplains,” referring to the title “polite green men” that local Crimeans and the media had begun to attribute to the armed men without insignia who had started appearing on the Crimean peninsula at the beginning of the operation. The photo shows Father Dimitry with a man with a weapon posing in front of an armored vehicle. Another negotiator we spoke with told us the photo was taken at a Ukrainian military base.
It is possible that Alexander Nazarov, the aide to the senior priest of the monastery Optina Pustyn, also partook in the talks (the monastery declined to comment when Meduza reached out). Nazarov and Dimitry Vasilenkov (Father Dimitry) had worked together in Chechnya, bringing humanitarian aid to the region, sprinkling holy water on uniformed personnel, blessing military equipment, and baptizing spies. Both Nazarov and Vasilenkov were awarded the Order of Friendship by presidential decree. One of Meduza’s sources, who was among the negotiators, said they got the medals for their “care in Crimea.” According to flight records, both priests took a plane to the Russian city of Anapa on the northern coast of the Black Sea on March 13, 2014, and could have taken a ferry from there to Crimea.
The bling really counts for something
Vasilenkov and Nazarov were not the only representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church to have taken part in the special operation in Crimea. “There were many who were eager,” said a former security forces member whose acquaintance, also a priest, went to Crimea that year to join the negotiations team. “You get returns in the form of merit: it really counts that so-and-so was in Crimea. So they go for the awards — the bling really counts for something among the clergy.”
Competition for a place among negotiators was so high at the time that not even a recommendation from the military could guarantee a way in. “They don’t let outsiders into these events, everything has to be agreed upon in advance. It’s almost like a bidding process for who can participate. Every episcopate has their own people they try to promote — and here comes someone who just tries to push their own way in, and he failed,” the priest’s acquaintance laughs. “When I found out about it [the priest’s failure], I had a good laugh at him.”
A veteran of Ukraine’s Armed Forces spoke with Meduza and confirmed that Russian priests had negotiated with the Ukrainian military in Crimea in 2014. Ivan Katkalo, a representative of the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as well as Kliment of Crimea, the Archbishop of Simferopol who heads the Crimean episcopate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, also said this was the case: “Everyone ferried across the Kerch Strait with the Cossacks. They boarded buses in [Russia’s] Krasnodar region, then went over to Crimea,” recalls Kliment.
Archbishop Kliment and Ivan Katkalo are convinced that the Russian Orthodox Church was directly involved in the Crimean special operation. “The priests carried out assignments that were set at the very top levels,” says Kliment.
Yet other sources that spoke with Meduza argued that we shouldn’t overestimate the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the events of 2014, since the negotiators were under the direct control of Russia’s Defense Ministry. Officially, the priests negotiating in Crimea at that time were not even on the peninsula for work. They had taken days off, and Father Dimitry had not even asked for permission to come to Crimea from the leadership of the church, according to one of Meduza’s sources.
Neither the Moscow Patriarch's Office nor Russia's Defense Ministry responded to Meduza's questions.
The locals did their part
Not only clergy from Russia pushed to negotiations forward. Local Crimean priests were doing their part to help the operation, too. Crimean clergy who represented the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate helped the Russian Defense Ministry on the ground. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is formally autonomous, but de-facto answers to Moscow. “Formally, Crimea is part of the Ukrainian church, but in fact, of course, Moscow is in power here,” says archdeacon Andrey Kuraev. “And when they saw the decisive actions of the ‘polite green men’ and the disarray and confusion on the side of Ukraine, they just switched sides.”
“Father Vladimir, Father Vyatcheslav, Father Yaroslav joined the militia [that opposed Ukraine] and guided us,” recalls Vladimir Lobanov, a man from Yekaterinburg, listing the local priests who joined pro-Russian forces in Crimea in 2014.
Meduza’s other sources named two local priests who took part in talks with the Ukrainian military that spring. “Father Petr Tchaikovsky personally entered difficult military bases in Bakhchisaray [a city in Crimea] and talked to them,” says pro-Russian activist Konstantin Knyrik. Father Petr denies this. “I took part only in a prayer to Saint Luke, and never spoke out politically, because this was the time of fasting, a time for prayer,” he says. “Dmitry Korotkov [the head of the Military Unit of the Simferopol and Crimea episcopate] took an active part in taking over Ukrainian military bases,” recalls Archbishop Kliment.
Kliment says that the sermon led by Crimean priests of the Moscow Patriarchate on the territory of Ukrainian Military bases can be described as “ideologically subversive work.” He described these events to Meduza: “When it was time, priests of the Moscow Patriarchate found themselves on the territory of Ukrainian military bases, preaching about love and friendship: ‘You do not have the right to shoot because before you stand your Russian brothers, and you will have their blood on your hands.’” Kliment says that “they openly worked to convince the soldiers to become deserters, and demoralized the Ukrainian army with their sermons.”
The Simferopol and Crimean episcopate of the Moscow Patriarchate responded to Meduza’s questions by stating that “the clergy prayed for peace on the Crimean peninsula and in Ukraine.”
Weapons in the cathedral
Some Crimean cathedrals began serving the function of military barracks or were used for stockpiling weapons. Meduza’s sources names six cathedrals that stored weapons delivered by the Cossacks from Moscow.
“When the Cossacks started coming [from Russia], priests in Kerch and Feodosiya would allow them to spend the night. For example, they got to stay in the Cathedral of Saint Andrew the Apostle, so that they could all gather together there, rest up, and then complete the last leg of their trip to the border,” says Valery Kaurov, a pro-Russian activist who had campaigned in Odessa. “An ancient cathedral in Grushevka – that’s where a priest met the Cossacks and let them spend the night,” confirms militia member Sergei Zdrilyuk. Vladimir Lobanov, a member of the “Self-Defense Units of Crimea,” tells the same story.
The Cossacks of Krasnoyarsk who had accompanied Dimitry Vasilenkov “lived at Father Mikhail Sytenko’s, in the All Saints Church in Feodosiya,” says one of the negotiators. Ivan Katkalo recalls that “the Cossacks would stay in Simferopol at the Peter and Paul Cathedral. When priests allow military people carrying weapons into their church, this stops being a church and starts being an organization that answers to the state,” he argues.
Archbishop Kliment also says that armed Cossacks found shelter in churches. “The same thing happened with the Uspensky Monastery [Monastery of Holy Dormition] in Bakhchisaray, which was the center of pro-Russian forces. But the most memorable thing was the Bakhchisaray Cathedral of the priest-monk Kallinik, who is now a bishop. His church [in the village Uyutnoe] essentially became a church-base that had weapons, defense supplies, food, and barracks,” recalls Kliment.
Bishop Kallinik is a pontiff of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who received the Russian medal “For the Defense of Crimea” and was blacklisted on the Ukrainian website Myrotvorets (Myrotvorets translates as “peacemaker” and is a grassroots initiative that claims to reveal the personal information of individuals who are deemed enemies of the Ukrainian state). Kliment is convinced that participation in the 2014 special operation in Crimea allowed Kallinik to advance his career. In 2015, he was appointed head of the Inkerman Monastery in Crimea, a popular pilgrimage destination. Four years after that, he became a bishop.
You pray for your people, and I pray for mine
On March 2, 2014, priest Ivan Katkalo was slowly making his way towards the entrance to a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean village of Perevalnoe. Behind him was a man carrying a small vessel of holy water. They silently passed a group of armed men wearing balaclavas. When Katkalo reached the gate of the base, he sprinkled holy water on the Ukrainian soldiers standing on the other side of the fence. They stood in silence right up against the gate. By this time, the Ukrainian military base was already surrounded by Russian troops.
Two weeks later, most of the soldiers decided to join the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Katkalo recalls that many of them had complained to him that they hadn’t gotten any orders from Kyiv about what they should be doing.
Father Ivan’s cathedral stood right next to the gates to a military base in Perevalnoe. It was part of the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, an organization that was independent from Moscow. In 2014, it denounced the actions of Russia and gave blessings to the Ukrainian army to “stand firmly in defense of the independence of Ukraine.”
In the turbulent first weeks of March, the priests of the Kyiv Patriarchate were leading their own negotiations with Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea. “I was directly in contact with the Ukrainian Minister of Defense Igor Tenyukh, and through [Ukraine’s] Defense Ministry I had gotten the telephone numbers of officers I was supposed to talk to, and I was trying to organize these meetings,” says Archbishop Kliment of the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. “Those whom I reached tried to take their units out of Crimea, they kept their colors. And those who avoided any contact made the decision to remain in the Russian army. Not many were willing to talk [to me].”
Kliment says the work of the Kyiv Patriarchate drew violent reactions from pro-Russian forces. The pro-Russian forces began to target churches that were located near military bases. “Because of the blockade, no one could enter the [Ukrainian] military bases, but our priests could go up to the Ukrainian soldiers and be next to them,” says the Archbishop. “So the first attack focused on the [church] community in the village Perevalnoe, and the Sevastopol Parish of the Priestly Martyr Clement, as both were on the territories of Ukrainian military bases. They were the first to close down when Russian troops entered Crimea.”
On March 2, 2014, father Ivan’s church in Perevalnoe, along with its neighboring military base, was surrounded by pro-Russian forces. “To get into the church, you had to make your way through a crowd of Cossacks and a checkpoint, and ‘green men’ were standing all around the church!” recalls Kliment. In the days that followed, these pro-Russian forces set up tents right next to the church and voiced their protest against the Kyiv Patriarchate church. “The priests of the Moscow Patriarchate tried not to poke their heads out of the crowd much, but had organized the whole thing,” recalls Father Ivan.
On March 16, 2014, the day of the Crimea referendum, a priest from the Moscow Patriarchate from Sevastopol (a city on the Crimean peninsula) came to the church, recalls Katkalo. He surveyed the premises and started taking stock of its inventory. Then he announced: “From today, you pray for your people, and I pray for mine.” By June, the Kyiv Patriarchate priests left the peninsula after receiving threats. The parish was eventually transferred to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Translation by Olga Zeveleva
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