Father Stanislav Ashtrafianv was collecting firewood when a missile barrage began to rain down on him. It was nine days into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24, 2022, and he was in Cherkasy Lozovaya, a small village in Kharkiv oblast, helping to gather supplies for residents who had remained in their homes.
The 56-year-old priest and other volunteers ran to a nearby basement to wait out the violence of the attacks. Fearing for his life, Ashtrafianv grabbed the rosary that he keeps on him at all times and fell to the ground, praying to spare the lives of everyone around him. Once the storm had passed, the volunteers returned to the collection base, where Ashtrafianv would tell others, “God saved us through prayer.”
Since then, he has grown accustomed to the whines and booms of missiles hitting the ground, and all of the other deafening sounds of war. As a military “capelan” — the official title of the clergymen who minister to the Armed Forces of Ukraine — Ashtrafianv serves as a trusted confidant, listening to the hopes and dreams of those defending the country and praying over those who have fallen. Moreover, he reassures soldiers that their actions in the heat of battle will be granted absolution during the Last Judgment.
Ashtrafianv’s kind brown eyes and gentle demeanor encapsulate the phrase “Man of God.” He met with the Voice at a cafe in Kharkiv in late February to discuss his work as a capelan, wearing a bulletproof vest, Bible in hand.
For more than 300 years, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was under Russian jurisdiction, but in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, that swiftly began to change. By 2019, the Ukrainian church would completely break away, causing a major split that added to geopolitical tensions at the time. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, roughly 35 million people, or 8 in 10 adults, in Ukraine identify as Orthodox, making it the third-largest Orthodox population in the world, behind Russia and Ethiopia. The position of capelan was created after the Russian takeover of Crimea, when Ukraine’s priests stepped forward to offer support to soldiers fighting to remain in control of their homeland. After Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Orthodox priests took the initiative as heads of the church to support civilians hiding in train stations and basements, teaching them songs, prayers, and words of comfort during the terror that was unfolding around them.
Ashtrafianv takes a sip of his tea at the cafe as he recalls his experiences living in Kharkiv at the beginning of the conflict. Located 25 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv was a brutal fighting ground during the first six months of the war. Although the city was never occupied, at one point 32% of the region fell to Russian forces. Ashtrafianv lives in Saltivka, a neighborhood in the city of Kharkiv, but serves as head priest in a small nearby village, Sokolov. The village remained under Ukrainian control throughout the battle for Kharkiv, but constant shelling between Sokolov and Saltivka made it impossible for Ashtrafianv to get to the church in the first days of the war. Speaking of that time, he says, “There was very strong shelling in Saltivka. It was very scary. For two days, I went to the people in the basement to pray and support them. I lived in the corridor with my daughter, son-in-law, and little grandson. There were a lot of children who were scared. In the morning, I went to pray for them, sprinkle them with holy water.”
Saltivka was once Kharkiv’s largest district, housing over 400,000 people, many of whom lived in large high-rise buildings overlooking the city. But it was pummeled in the early days of Russia’s invasion, with most buildings damaged and some becoming completely uninhabitable. As a result, driving along Saltivka’s streets feels like something out of an apocalyptic disaster movie. One high-rise apartment complex has become notorious in pictures from Kharkiv — a missile landed directly on top of it in the first few weeks of the war. More than one year later, the building remained a cascade of rubble.
With the help of Ukraine’s military, Ashtrafianv managed to leave his apartment on the fourth day of the war. He has been working as a capelan since, merging the word of God with visits to the frontlines and acting as a psychologist for those fighting to defend Ukraine. He says, “At the very beginning, I thought, Why was I there, and thought that nobody needed me. And then two to three months passed, and the guys began to tell me that you supported us spiritually and we fell in love with you.”
Amid the constant gravity of his work, some moments stand out to the capelan, etched into his memory. He says the hardest part of his work is “to bury soldiers. The color of the nation dies, people who could do something good for their country. The soldiers talk about their pain. A soldier belongs to his homeland. No one wants to die. When I arrive at the battalions that I know, they hugged me and said, ‘We feel that you are praying for us.’ No one talks about death. No one wants to die.”
Later that day, Ashtrafianv attends service at the Temple of Ivana Bogoslava, an old red-stoned building protected by white stone walls and a large brass door. On the building’s grounds is an office for the church’s priest, a tool shed, and a water well. It has managed to remain untouched by Russia’s attacks, but the windows inside the church have mostly been boarded up to protect them. However, the lack of light is made up for by the few elderly parishioners who shuffle around the room, with white candles held close to them, stopping at paintings of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and kneeling in prayer in front of a reliquary box.
It is the second day of Lent, and there are six capelans in attendance — the sermon is mainly for them — but a few members of the congregation trickle in to observe the event. All of them are gathered to witness the Archbishop of Kharkiv, who has come to lead the prayer of the Penitential Canon of Andrew of Crete. As the sermon begins, hymns echo through the room, and Archbishop Mitrofan enters from behind a door in the back wall. His black veil trails behind him, held by a priest, as he makes his way in front of the altar to the head of two rows of clergymen on either side of him. He reads the day’s section of the holy canon, and as he pauses at the end of each verse, the priests say a Hail Mary and bow their heads.
Archbishop Mitrofan has been a senior capelan since 2014, and is versed in the terrors of Russia’s war. Speaking to me in his office one week after the service, he says, “When I was near Volnovakha, then I realized that there was a great need for chaplains, when the soldier spoke out, prayed, and then came out after the service with shining eyes.” He adds, “When you see young wives, mothers, children, when you can’t find the right words to console the family when we go to such service, we understand we must spiritually support them.” The office is decorated with exquisite artifacts: a glass cabinet filled with bells, paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary, copies of the Bible. Hanging on the front wall is a portrait of the Archbishop; smaller framed images of him with military units are also on display, alongside such gifts from frontline soldiers as paintings and badges.
Father Ashtrafianv and four other capelans are in attendance at the office as I speak with the Archbishop. One capelan has just come from Bakhmut. He tells me that despite the terrors of the epicenter of the war, he has faith in Ukraine’s soldiers in Bakhmut. Then he hands me a badge from his brigade in the city, a token from the frontlines of the war. On May 20, however, Moscow announced that Bakhmut had fallen to Russian forces, claims that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has dismissed. But the city has been obliterated during its eight-month-long battle; photos show that scarcely any buildings remain. In the wake of the attacks is only destruction.
Archbishop Mitrofan summed up the feelings of many Ukrainians about the war that Russia has brought to their soil: “War is not the will of God. There is no God on the side of the enemy. There is Satan. Now there is brutal murder, destruction. There is God on our side because we will protect our land. God is now under the guise of our soldiers who liberate our land.” ❖
Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose writing focuses on human interest stories and environmental issues. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, she has been corresponding with Ukrainian students, soldiers, and civilians and writing about them for the Voice.
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