On one of the side pews of Odessa’s imposing Orthodox Cathedral, Sveltlana Yakovleva, wrapped in a plaid blanket, clutches her only possession, a leopard print bag in which she carries a lifetime. She is 63 years old and the reddish outline of her eyes denotes tiredness and pain. She closes her eyes as she listens to the liturgy and her religious songs take her to another place. She enjoys this moment of peace as if it were her last. A peace that he longs for since last February 24 when the Russian invasion began. “I come here to pray and also to take shelter when the anti-aircraft sirens sound”says Svetlana.
This temple is a refuge for the soul and body of hundreds of Ukrainians. The light on Sunday at noon filters through stained glass windows and latticework when the choir sings a prayer asking for peace and tears well up among the parishioners. Most are elderly women wearing colorful veils that cover their hair in respect to the sanctity of the place. They carefully follow the religious songs in this emblematic building that depends on the Moscow Patriarchate.
Throughout history, the port of Odessa has witnessed many migratory waves arriving in the Crimean peninsula and the Black Sea that have made it a multi-ethnic and multicultural city. Today, it is home to more than 120 nationalities and minority ethnic groups. This city has just over a million inhabitants, most of them Russophones, despite the fact that a municipal survey published by the International Republican Institute in 2021 indicated that only 25% of the population is of Russian origin, 68% of Ukrainian origin and the rest of other origins.
“First I pray and then I come to the cathedral to take refuge”
Although there are many ties that unite the Odesan people with Russia, at this time, the general sentiment of the population agrees that for Vladimir Putin the taking of this city has the sole purpose of isolating Ukraine from the sea. Here, where subway stations and shelters are scarce, people flock to churches for shelter. “I pray first and then I come to the cathedral to take refuge,” says Svetlana.
For this reason, they tell us, that the churches are more crowded than usual. It is not just for Lent, the Russian invasion and the constant threat of bombing have considerably multiplied the capacity of the temples. More than 60% of Odesans are Orthodox. “This aggression hurts us doubly. It is our co-religionists who attack us, people with whom we are in spiritual union, because the kingdom of God is above everything, also over political and social preferences and positions”, Archbishop Egeni Gudyar assures at the end of the mass.
On the other hand, it ensures that all religious communities are united. “Today the entire religious community of Odessa is united in a single opinion and common actions aimed at preserving our civic duty, which is none other than to protect our country. This is something that unequivocally unites all believers,” he adds. The religious assures that there are no differences between his people, rather they are in a unanimous cry of rejection of war and invasion. He also recalls that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has already asked the Patriarch of Moscow to intercede with Vladimir Putin to put an end to the aggression, without obtaining a response. And it is that the harmony of the Kremlin with the orthodox hierarchy of Moscow is total, especially with the patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, a personal friend of Putin.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, to which the majority of the Ukrainian people belong, has depended for centuries on the Moscow Patriarchate until in 2014 it decided to approach Constantinople and in 2019 it ended up establishing itself as an autocephalous Church, independent of the patriarchate, a historic decision that ended more than 300 years of Russian religious tutelage.
Orthodox, Catholics and Jews, united in the ‘no to war’
The unity of the Ukrainian parishioners in Odessa also extends to the Jewish community. This group that still remembers the Holocaust during the Second World War, is now compelled, once again, to opt for the exodus in the face of the Russian advance. Ukraine had a Jewish population of about 40,000 people, of whom an estimated 20% have gone into exile since the start of the conflict, mostly to Germany and Israel.
The Catholic community is small, it only has five parishes, but it has also joined this kind of “resistance against the Russian invasion”. Every day it receives people fleeing from other parts of the country and offers shelter to people who need it right now. “This war started because of this Russian fascist worries us all,” says Father Stanislav Gorodyuk, referring to Vladimir Putin.
Susan is 77 years old and all her life she has worked as a singer and dancer. Her captivating kindness and her desire to show off her career light up her face with a smile. “I am afraid for my children and my grandchildren,” she says as she puts her hands to her eyes to dry her tears. She doesn’t think about leaving, she was widowed two years ago and “I don’t have anyone with whom to share future plans, I prefer to stay here and not complicate my life”, she adds. She lives next door to the opera house where she has developed her career as a professional singer and dancer. She was born in Kiev in times of another war, she being very young she moved to Odessa to be able to fulfill her dreams. Today, as a retiree, she sees how her life is in danger in what she considers “the most beautiful city in Ukraine”. This is where she met her husband, a famous Ukrainian playwright with whom she shared her life until he passed away during the first wave of the pandemic.
He clings to his faith as the only shield to face the threat. A friend comes to look for her and realizing that we are journalists, she offers to present her opinion, which she sums up in a feeling of impotence and restlessness.
“I wish young people the best,” she says resignedly, “I only want peace” and that is precisely what is contained in her prayers addressed to Saint Trypho who “is the one who has the gift to solve a problem quickly”.
Meanwhile, the city presents a ghostly picture. Gone are the crowds that thronged its museums and the Potemkin Stairs; the Opera House, like the once bustling streets of Odessa’s Old Town, has fallen silent. The silence is only interrupted by the anti-aircraft sirens and the religious choirs that raise their prayers in search of a miracle that will save their souls and return them to the peaceful life that they long for.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.