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‘The monks’ prayers are an anti-aircraft defense system’ The story of four young Kharkiv residents who have been living in a monastery since the war began

Source: Meduza

On February 23, four members of an Orthodox youth movement in Kharkiv set out on a four-day pilgrimage. Their plan was to return home on February 28. At 5:00 a.m on February 24, they got off their train in Kyiv and learned that Russia’s invasion had begun. Ever since then, they’ve been living in a Ukrainian Orthodox monastery in the Kyiv region. Some of them have nowhere else to go because their homes have been destroyed; others have made the decision not to leave for religious reasons. Meduza asked Iryna, a journalist from Kyiv who found herself living in the same monastery, to write about the new lives these young people are building in the monastery.

Please note. This story was originally published in Russian on May 16, 2022. The following translation has been edited and abridged. 

It was the morning of February 24 when Metropolitan Onufriy, the current head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, officially called Russia’s invasion a war. The following day, the Church announced on its website that it was opening the basements of all of its churches in Kyiv to refugees and would help refugees in all of its dioceses and monasteries; in at least one monastery, refugees showed up just a few hours after the war began. The number of refugees living in Church facilities reached its peak in the initial weeks of the invasion, when the fighting was centered in the Kyiv region.

For security reasons, we’ve decided not to include the name or location of the monastery in this story. The names of all of the people we spoke to have been changed.

Chapter 1


Pavlo, 34, tour guide, coordinator at an Orthodox educational center

Thanks to my relatives, I have a fervent love for my city. I fell in love with it through [their stories].

There’s a group [dedicated to Kharkiv’s history] on all the social networks; I help fill it with content. I write articles and search for materials and photographs. I also lead my own tours through Kharkiv. There are several different routes people can choose — the most popular is a trip to Uspensky Cathedral, which includes a visit up to the bell tower. It's on the site where the city's first cathedral used to be. It’s the very heart of Kharkiv, a sacred place for our city.

Volodymyr, 20, seminary student, coordinator at an Orthodox educational center

Volodymyr is originally from a small town in the Donetsk region (under Ukrainian control at the time of this article’s publication). He's lived in Kharkiv since he started college.

I’ve lived in Kharkiv for three years. It was love at first sight. The city is so, so beautiful, very well-kept, and a comfortable place to live. It only takes one walk through to start imagining yourself living there.

[Some time ago,] I met some guys from an Orthodox youth movement; one was our administrator [Pavlo], who studies Kharkiv’s history, and that’s how I got to know the city in more detail. I became a regular on his history tours.

Polina, 18 years old, medical school student and seminary student

I’m originally from Kharkiv. We [my family] have two apartments, but we live in the same building, very close to each other. I have four siblings. Our grandma also lives in that building, fairly close by.

Alexandra, 19 years old, student and volunteer

We [my close relatives and I] lived in the same district, Saltovka, not far from one another. It was convenient: we could go over to see our grandmother and she could come over to see us. There was also a church right next to our apartment building. We all attended.

The day before the war

Volodymyr, seminary student

Before the war, I loved organizing trips and events for our members, just for fellowship and leisure. Since Pavlo works as the head administrator and is almost always at work, this year hasn't been so packed [with trips]. He wanted to get away from the bustle of the city for a while, although he probably loves Kharkiv more than anybody else. And he asked me to go on a trip with him.

Pavlo, tour guide

I’m pretty much a homebody. I like to see different places, but I don’t know — I have my routines at home. It’s not that I stay in my apartment all the time, I just keep myself on a leash — though a long one, to be fair. And even when I’ve gone to a dacha for two weeks, I’ve been desperate to get back to Kharkiv. I need to breathe the Kharkiv air, see the Derzhprom, and see Uspensky Cathedral. I need to make sure everything is still in its place.

We came up with the tour route ourselves. We planned to spend two days in Kyiv and two in Odessa, visiting different monasteries along the way. Vova came up with the entire route — I didn’t even ask where we were going or where we would stay. I don’t know why I was so calm about it; I usually buy tickets and book hostels a month in advance. But this time, I just got on the train and left without much worry at all.

Volodymyr invited [the others on the trip]. A lot of young people come to our classes and lectures and arrange events at the educational center. [They all] know one another, and since they’re all believers, they understand each other and love each other.

Alexandra, volunteer

On February 14, I come [in to volunteer] and find Volodymyr and Pavlo sitting there discussing their plans for the future, a trip they wanted to take. Why would I take off somewhere? My semester is starting, and so is my work. But inside, it was like a spark lit up — I’m walking around and thinking wondering if this is something I should do.

My family didn't want to let me go. My grandmother and my mom weren’t into the idea of the trip — it was like they could feel that something would happen. And my dad was against it, too. On the final day, I went to my grandmother and asked, “Grandma, can I?” And my grandma, being my grandma, said that if it was an Orthodox trip, then I could go. She gave me some money, and off I went.

Polina, student

[When Volodymyr proposed the trip], I hesitated at first: “No, that’s not going to work. I have my classes, I have debt to pay.” But then he said, “How about I pay for the tickets?” I started thinking about it. And then he actually did buy the tickets. I told my mom, “Alright, it turns out I’m going.” “Really? Okay.” I felt so inspired! Only my dad was against it. He said it would only take two minutes for a war to start. I was so innocent: “Come on, Dad, what are you talking about? What war? I’m only going away for two days.” He ultimately let me go.

Alexander, volunteer

Before the war, my friend and I went to see a play. I had a sort of premonition afterward — the story involved some people far away from each other losing contact, and it gave me this feeling: “What if something like that happens to me? What if I end up far away from my loved ones?”

Pavlo, tour guide

On [February] 21st, when it came out that [Russia] would recognize the LNR and DNR, some people started getting anxious. I thought I’d ask my priest [Dmitry] one last time, and if he was calm about it, if he blessed the trip, then we would go and everything would be fine. Blessings, for me, are a serious thing. I saw them as prayers in advance, for whatever I need them for.

Volodymyr, seminary student

We were on the train and working on the route we would take in Kyiv — right up until 3:00 a.m. on February 24.

chapter 2


Polina, student

I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that we arrived in Kyiv, got off of the train at 5:03 — I remember it exactly — and my mom called me, hysterical, saying, “They’re shelling us.” And I could hear it in the background — boom, ba-boom. I said, “Mom, are you kidding?” “I’m not kidding.”

It felt like it would be the last time I spoke to her: “Is everything okay there? Take care of yourself. I’m sending kisses and hugs.” And she hangs up the phone. I was so tense. Then [my relatives called and] they said, “Everything’s under control, everything’s fine.”

Kyiv, February 24, 2022

Volodymyr, seminary student

We went into a McDonald’s and it started to dawn on us that we’d probably have to cancel our plans for the trip.

Alexander, volunteer

I had a sort of fear of the unknown: “What will I do? Can I ever return to Kharkiv?” An internal voice immediately said, “No, if the Lord brought you here at the beginning of the war, then you should stay here.” That was the only day when I really cried hard. But then in the service one day, I told myself that crying is only for extreme situations. And that I shouldn’t panic. And the Good Lord seemed to hear, because he filled my heart with faith that everything would be okay.

Volodymyr, seminary student

Pavlo thought about returning to Kharkiv, but I never considered it for even a second. Why go back to Kharkiv, where bombs were falling?

I stayed at the service [at the first monastery] and collected myself. There was an extraordinary calmness — like we were meant to be there. Then we went on foot to a different monastery. We sat for a bit, prayed, and ultimately decided to return our tickets [home]. We’d realized by that time that this wasn’t going to end any time soon, and that we’d need money to live on for the initial period. [And right then,] they told us that the monks at the monastery we were supposed to visit on the second day of our trip were waiting for us to arrive.

Kharkiv, February 24, 2022

Father Superior Nikodim

Archimandrite and Father Superior at the monastery. Before the war, he led socio-psychological volunteer courses in Kharkiv. Since the war began, he’s organized assistance for refugees in his monastery.

I led volunteer courses in Kharkiv until the war began, so practically all of these guys knew me either personally or indirectly. Naturally, they immediately called me and asked, “What do we do?” And I told them to come here.

Volodymyr, seminary student

We met the local bishop who had blessed our trip to this monastery. He told us, “If things don’t work out, if there aren’t buses leaving Kyiv anymore, then come back here to us, and we’ll give you shelter.”

Alexandra, volunteer

And right then, some little man pulled up in his car, seemingly out of nowhere, and said, “Sit down, I’ll give you a ride to the station.”

Volodymyr, seminary student

[At the bus station,] we got on the first minibus going the route we needed. We got there without a hitch. We were so tired. We’d thought until three in the morning that we’d have a normal, peaceful trip, and then everything changed so much in the course of half an hour — how could we think about what would happen next? We just went to where we knew people were awaiting us and thought about what we’d do that day, where we’d sleep, logistical things like that.

Polina, student

We get off of the bus and hear the explosions starting in Kyiv — they were so powerful! I have no doubt that the Holy Mother was protecting us.

Kyiv, February 24, 2022

Volodymyr, seminary student

We were met by some acquaintances who took us to the monastery itself. Then there was some commotion about where to put us. At 5:00 p.m., we went to the service, wondering what it was, where we were, and what it was for. That was the start of our new life in the monastery.

Alexandra, volunteer

[The father superior] said, “Stay and live here until the country’s situation improves."

Father Superior Nikodim

In the Gospel, the Lord said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The monastery lives by that same principle, because the monks here want to live out the Gospel completely, even in the small things. That’s the same Gospel that talks about loving your neighbor. If the warfare in our country has left people without blood or far from their homes, it’s our Christian duty to provide assistance to every person. The monastery is prepared to give care, kindness, and spiritual nourishment.


Father Superior Nikodim

We have a basement that can serve as a good bomb shelter. So people from the district can to us and began living there. In addition, we took in other refugees and provided them with lodging and created conditions for them to travel further into western Ukraine. A person would be coming, for example, from the Chernihiv region; there’s a curfew, so of course he wouldn’t make it in a single day before dark. So they would stay with us and we would feed them.

The other monks and I prepared for up to 60 people. We have enough space, but that many people require quite a lot of [food] resources. Cooking for 20 people is one thing; 60 people — three times as many — is something totally different. Sometimes it even reached 70.

People arrived with only the clothes on their backs. Children needed diapers, medicine, linens, baby food. Without humanitarian aid, without kind people, it would have been very difficult for us to get through all this, but there were two things that helped. The first was people, my friends, who didn’t stand aside; they helped however they could. Volunteers helped, knowing that we had a lot of people here. They came to the monastery and brought humanitarian aid. The second thing that helped was Lent. The entire Orthodox world fasts during Lent, so the food situation got a bit easier.

For monks, the monastery is home. Refugees are always guests, and as guests, they follow monastery rules. There are clear rules they have to follow: work, help, support one another. Taking part in the liturgy is required, but if somebody is tired, they’re allowed to miss it. Monks live by their own rules. For [other] people, everything is easier, because they haven’t signed up for monastic life. It all resembles the first Christian community, where everyone lived together, but everyone had their own way of life.

Alexandra, volunteer

I believe that if we live here, and we live here for free — they feed us and we have a play to stay — we should pay for this somehow. I really wanted to live in the flower garden; I have a bit of experience. I thought, “God, well, maybe I can do something with the flowers here.” And the next day, Father Varlaam says, “Go to the flower bed.” And I’m like, “Hooray!”

Volodymyr, seminary student

I live more comfortably here than in the dormitory [in Kharkiv]. We get nutritious meals three times a week. Everything we need is here: a washing machine, hot water, a heater. In the guest house, we heat the wood stove ourselves. It adds a certain interactive element to our daily lives. The first few times, being inexperienced, we lit it so hot that the house almost flew away to space.

My favorite act of penance here is to chop wood, because it works my muscles. And the tiredness I feel keeps me from thinking about everything happening. These acts of penance help us learn to live here and now.

Father Superior Nikodim

Some people think of the monastery as a kind of rehabilitation center, a sort of series of meditative moments. It’s nothing like that — the monastery has its own full-fledged life, one that’s directed inward rather than outward. In the monastery, you wrestle with jealousy, envy, and fear. That concerns refugees directly. Everyone has fears about what will happen tomorrow, what will happen to their families, what will happen to their apartments. Everyone has plenty of fears.

Pavlo, tour guide

For the first two weeks, I was stoic, calm, level-headed. Everything was fine, everything was clearly laid out: church at seven, lunch at one, everything according to plan. Then I melted down.

Two weeks go by, and I just want to go home — and that’s it, that's all I care about. I don’t know how — on a magic carpet, through an underground tunnel, through the air, across borders, it doesn’t matter. And I understand that my head is filled with utter nonsense. I confessed, and [the father superior] said something that calmed me down completely.

While Lent was still going on, staying in the monastery, where you have the sacraments, spiritual life, and decent conditions for ordinary life is obviously better than rushing blindly into a city that’s under shellfire. I would have gone to our dacha, but the dacha is behind the line of fire. And at the monastery, there’s work for me to do.

[After the confession, the father superior] sent me to do acts of penance in the dining hall. And I finally got to do the kind of work I usually load myself up with at home. I started feeling much better.

Volodymyr and I are integrated with the monks now; we do acts of penance alongside them and we eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. The monks have a psalter that they read by the hour at night. I keep thinking about asking if I can join.

Father Superior Nikodim

To help people sleep better, the monks pray to God for the whole world’s protection. To put it in today’s terms, it’s like an anti-aircraft defense system. The praying should never cease. The monastery is first and foremost a place of prayer.

chapter 3


Alexandra, volunteer

My grandfather is the kind of person who can’t sit still. As soon as the shelling started, my grandma immediately went to hide in a church. But my grandpa ran to go look at the apartments and see which ones were still there. And the Lord brought him out of his own apartment right at the moment when a shell hit it. They lived in that apartment for 50 years, I think it was. Several generations grew up there.

My uncle’s apartment was also destroyed. My own apartment was destroyed. My parents’ apartment is still standing, thank God. It’s the only apartment we have that’s still in one piece.

My grandfather and grandmother are currently living in the church. My grandpa almost never went to church, but now he’s started taking Communion, confessing, and praying.

At first, my grandparents stayed at the church while my dad, my mom, my sister, and my brother gathered at a convent [where my dad works]. It had been a long time since my brother last spoke to our parents, but now everyone’s made peace. My brother has already gone home to Odessa. My mom and my sister went to Chernivtsi [to their relatives]. My dad is still there: the women at the convent need help. There are almost no men there.

Kharkiv, April 29, 2022

Polina, student

My grandmother witnessed several people being blown up [in Kharkiv]. She was sitting there, praying, when she heard a sound: something in the sky. She looked out the window and saw a missile falling, and then the people were just torn to pieces. It was two weeks after the war began. She immediately called me, her voice shaking. I said, “Grandma, everything will be okay. You’re alright. Just pray.”

My relatives left two weeks after [the start of the war]. They found a car, which was very difficult. There are seven of them. Now they’re all together near Kharkiv. It’s more or less quiet there, but you can also still hear explosions.

So far, thank God, our building hasn’t been hit. My friend lives right next door. She said they’re constantly, systematically shelling the district.

Pavlo, tour guide

The only person I still have on watch at home is my turtle, Erast Petrovich. The building is still standing — it’s a 10-minutes walk away from the main square, Freedom Square.

Erast Petrovich is sometimes visited by my dad, who decided not to leave the city under any circumstances. He feeds him and waters the flowers. Along the way, he also goes to check [another] apartment, which is next to the military hospital; our friends used to live there, but they left on the first day. The neighbors there are a really close-knit group; we have an informational group chat, and it’s really helped me provide for Dad at some critical moments.

At the very start of the war, there was a moment when all of the stores closed at once, there wasn’t humanitarian aid yet, bread was extremely expensive, and the only way to get anything was to seek it out. In the group chat, people started sharing information about who had what and which stores were open. There were almost no stores around my dad’s house, so I would tell him where to go and what exactly to get based on the information in the chat.

More than half of the people in my dad’s apartment building, which is about a 15-minute walk from mine, decided to stay. All of the buildings had water, heat, electricity, and Internet. Right now, Dad says it’s completely quiet in the center. He regularly takes my dog, which he took in before I left, on walks.

The Kharkiv regional administration building. March 1, 2022

Volodymyr, seminary student

My dormitory is still in one piece. Some of the windows have been blown out, but they would have been blown out by a strong thunderstorm. Bombs have been falling nearby, but students have free access to come in and remove their things. You can even stay in the dorm if you’re not bothered by the situation all around you. One of my best friends lives right next to it. He hears some very interesting sounds from the falling shells and other flying creatures and weapons being used in this war.

My parents are in their homeland — in the Donetsk region. They’re fine now, thank God. I didn’t hear from them for about a month: they were on the border of all of the clashes, under heavy fire; it was coming at them from all sides. They hid in basements. Before they lost connection, we talked about how we weren’t going to be nervous, how we’d just pray and wait for further updates. And that’s what happened. I could feel that everything was going to be okay for them.

chapter 4

New lives

Alexandra, volunteer

In the beginning, it was like all of my emotions regarding the war were just cut off. I was somehow calm about it: if God had sent this war, it meant we had done something to deserve it. I think this war was given to people to cause us to see things differently; everyone should re-examine themselves.

Polina, student

I realized that if I had just read about it in the news, I might have had the wrong reaction to it. I probably would have been despondent, would have started crying. If we all cry, whine, and weep… It might be easy for me to say, because I didn’t feel the fullness of the grief. But in sadness and despair, there’s a lack of reason.

Father Superior Nikodim

The main focus should be the present moment. If I know there’s a missile falling somewhere, how does that affect me today? How does it affect my daily life, my care for other people? Not at all. Or, more precisely, it puts me in a strange emotional state, a state of worry. If I’m in that emotional state, how will I be able to help other people? I won’t. But here, we have a completely different picture. People come from the world [to the monastery], hear our peaceful conversations, see that we’re talking first and foremost about God, and they become calmer as they realize that life will go on.

Pavlo, tour guide

There haven’t been large-scale losses at the spots where I take tour groups [in Kharkiv]. It’s true that some things have probably been lost, but on my route, I already spend about 60 percent of the time telling people about things that aren’t there anymore. If that turns into 70 percent, it won’t be the end of the world. I’ll just say, look, there was a building here until such-and-such year. And the building over here was standing until last year.

Volodymyr, seminary student

In my hometown, this [war] has been going on for over eight years. My city isn’t that far from Donetsk, but you couldn’t hear the sounds [of shelling] on a regular basis before. So we lived peacefully, worked, did our chores, gardened, kept bees, went to church, and studied. It’s not having everything you want that makes you happy — it’s rejoicing in everything you have. We were happy with what we had.

chapter 5

The Future

Polina, student

I was really scared to live here without my parents. When I started asking myself why I don’t see myself in Kharkiv at all, I didn’t have an answer; that’s where my studies and my family are. And I miss them, but I’m not sad.

I’ve dreamed of becoming a doctor ever since I was a child. I’m currently in my third year of med school. I hope that even under these circumstances, I can get my diploma in good conscience and work in good conscience. Right now, everything is remote, and it’s exhausting. It feels like filling up on junk food. What I need is practice. I really do believe I’ll be able to work as a volunteer, at least here.

If I was in Kharkiv, I wouldn’t dare go to work. I’ve never believed I could, God willing, work in Kyiv or in [the Kyiv region]. I never planned to work before finishing school. I’m very glad, because this isn’t a new life, it’s just a continuation, a new chapter.

Alexandra, volunteer

God sent me to the monastery, to a city that I really liked, and I’ve started thinking about transferring to a Kyiv university. I probably won’t return [to Kharkiv]. I’ve already decided that I’ll leave the past in the past — now I want to look towards the future. I started thinking about applying [to a university in Kyiv] last year. But my parents weren’t big fans of the idea, because it’s an unknown city; we don’t have any relatives there. But now the Lord seems to have put everything in place himself.

Pavlo, tour guide

Right now, I feel like I’ve been cut away from my roots. I’m afraid I’ve started putting down other ones. I haven’t stopped wanting to return [home]. But the intensity of the wish has gone away. Though I certainly need to [return to Kharkiv]. To look into the eyes of my hometown and either start grow back towards it or realize that it’s impossible — and then think about how to move on.

Volodymyr, seminary student

We’ve already gotten so used to all of this [life at the seminary] that it’s going to be hard to leave. I’d be happy to stay close to this place after the end of the war, because it’s such a warm place, and it helps facilitate a productive spiritual life. I’d like to go [to Kharkiv] and help rebuild the city, but it doesn’t look like it will be possible to rebuild the city anytime soon, so we’re staying here for now. They told us, “Live here as long as you need.” There’s no where else I really want to go. But I do want to have some funds, gain some skills, some knowledge for my life going forward, rather than being a burden.

Father Superior Nikodim

I support the kids moving on with their lives, whether that means continuing their studies, or for those who lost their jobs in Kharkiv, finding work in Kyiv. They’re active and they want to work. May they stand on their own two feet, find jobs, and earn money so that they can rent apartments and live independently.

Everything God’s Providence sends us ought to teach us something, to serve as a lesson. First and foremost, that lesson should be about how to move forward no matter what. If all of it [the war] ended today, then of course, many of them would go [home to Kharkiv]. But we’re not talking about “if.” This “if” doesn’t exist. These people have lived here for over two months already. Naturally, the conclusion is that since everything happens according to Providence, they should build their lives here.

I’ve told them this: until they get back on their feet [they can live here]. I’m a spiritual father at a monastery; naturally, I care about my spiritual children, even if they’ve only become my spiritual children in the last two months.

Pavlo, tour guide

The war, more than anything else, teaches you not to get too used to anything and not to put things off until tomorrow, because tomorrow may not come. It’s been two months now; I’ve been living without my hometown, which I previously couldn’t leave for more than two weeks, for quite a long time. Life is calm, but I love my hometown just as before.

Living here, the main ideas of Christianity have become clearer to me. By accepting our circumstances and through obedience, we approach love in the broader Christian sense.

* * * 

In mid-May, Pavlo was put in charge of the guest house at the monastery; he’s been re-doing it along with Volodymyr, who’s been given more responsibilities for worship services. Alexandra passed her exams remotely and is now looking for work. Polina is training at the central district hospital, where she works for several hours a day. She’s already responsible for some nursing duties.

On May 14, the mayor of Kharkiv reported that Russian troops were leaving the city. No shelling had been heard for five days, and people are gradually returning to the city.

Photos: Oleg Petrasyuk / EPA / Scanpix / LETA; Serhii Nuzhnenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA; Hennadii Minchenko / SIPA / Scanpix / LETA; Sergey Bobok / AFP / Scanpix / LETA; Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA; Felipe Dana / AP / Scanpix / LETA; Ricardo Moraes / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA; Pavel Dorogoi; Pyotr Kovalyov / ТАСС; Petros Giannakouris / AP / Scanpix / LETA

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