Christopher Howse

Why the destruction of Ukraine’s churches matters

Why the destruction of Ukraine’s churches matters
Rising from the ruins: a Ukrainian soldier photographs the shell of a traditional Orthodox church in Mariupol. [Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/Shutterstock]
Text settings

One small, deadly incident in the Ukrainian war proved memorable because it involved the ordinary things of life. A mother and two children trying to leave the town of Irpin on foot on 6 March died from Russian shelling. Their suitcases fell beside them and, miserably, a pet dog carrier. They lay on an ordinary road that could be in Surrey, on the steps of a memorial to Soviet dead from the second world war.

That spot is opposite a little row of bells under a tiled roof in the grounds of the Ukrainian Orthodox church of St George. A neat hoarding was visible in 2015 on the building next to the modest unfinished church, showing what it would look like when the five domes were roofed and gilded. Footage of the explosion that killed the family shows the completed domes gleaming in the sunshine, the building behind the hoarding still intact and the conifers in its garden not yet turned into spent matches. The windows of St George’s were soon smashed, and its parish centre destroyed. The bombardment of the town continued for days.

The destruction of churches in Ukraine matters. Russia’s disgusting strategy of pounding cities with artillery is intended to make inhabitants’ lives unbearable, and part of that life is the familiar surroundings of streets and old places of worship.

In the first month of the war, the Ukrainian ministry of culture listed 59 religious sites badly damaged, most of them Orthodox churches, but some evangelical churches, and synagogues too. At Mariupol, for example, the church of the Archangel Michael, overlooking the Sea of Azov, was reported to be ‘severely damaged’. And here we come to a difficulty.

Mariupol has been devastated, but it has been hard to get news or pictures out. One English charity worker with good contacts in Ukraine told me: ‘Having presented himself as the defender of Christians as part of his public persona in Russia, it would not be good PR for Putin if pictures of a church destroyed by Russian missiles went global.’

But two journalists working for the Associated Press stayed on in besieged Mariupol, and a photograph by one of them, Evgeniy Maloletka, has been widely seen. It shows the shell of a traditional Orthodox church amid the ruin of modern buildings. A Ukrainian soldier takes a picture of it with his mobile. Its dome is reduced to a broken birdcage of ribs; icons of its holy saints stand each side of its blasted door.

Mariupol was founded by Greek-speaking people deported from Crimea in 1779. Its name derived from Mary the Theotokos (the ‘God-Bearer’), whose icon is the Hodegetria, the one who points out the way. It came with the uprooted people. But, as in most parts of Ukraine under Soviet rule before the second world war, Stalin’s ‘atheist five-year plan’ of 1932-37 had its effect. No church was left open in Mariupol by 1940.

A priest of Yasnohorodka, inside his destroyed church on the outskirts of Kyiv (Getty Images)

The Mariupol theatre, where 300 are estimated to have died on 16 March in a Russian strike, was built in a traditional style in 1960 where the church of St Mary Magdalene had stood, before it was deliberately demolished in the 1930s. Remnants of the church excavated in 2018 were on show at the theatre.

From the first days of this year’s war, the ancient churches of Ukraine knew what to fear. Shelling on 2 March damaged the Orthodox cathedral of the Dormition in the centre of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. Television viewers saw shattered windows and holy icons blown from their stands and smashed on the ground. It was the day after missiles devastated Freedom Square in the city, blasting through public buildings, the opera house and concert hall. It was a taste of worse to come.

Freedom Square had been a culturally soft European spot in the city centre, with a park and a zoo, coffee shops, a McDonald’s and an Irish pub. Sandbags now form a tall jacket swaddling the statue of Taras Shevchenko, the national poet. On the other side of Shevchenko Park rises the Dormition cathedral’s 300ft seven-stage tower, of pale stone in the style of Wren, with Corinthian columns and Venetian windows, but topped by a gilt onion dome. Inside, an 18th-century gilded iconostasis had been carved in limewood to the designs of Francesco Rastrelli, then busy rebuilding the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.

Yet, to the revolutionaries of 1917, the cathedral had been thought fit only to house a radio transmitter in its bell tower. Its altar was put in the city museum of art, and was destroyed by fire during the second world war. The Soviets demolished its five domes and turned it into a warehouse. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union it was restored and put into the care of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It had regularly been used as a venue for concerts.

Kharkiv has endured constant bombardment day and night. Some people set up home in carriages at metro stations. It became impossible for international correspondents to report regularly from the city.

Damaged church and a buildings in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol (Getty Images)

Even in Lviv, in western Ukraine (part of Poland before the second world war), for weeks treated as a safe city, chipboard and tin sheeting soon went up over the windows of the cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which follows the Latin rite. Its medieval Gothic structure was transformed in the 18th century with Baroque golden swags and flowers painted on columns between soaring marble altarpieces.

As scaffolders erected protection for its wall paintings, Lilya Onyshchenko, the head of the city council heritage protection office, told the Guardian: ‘If we lose our culture, we lose our identity.’

With its Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical buildings, Lviv, which escaped the destruction that other Ukrainian cities suffered in the second world war, is a Unesco World Heritage site and was declared by the Ukrainian government a State Historic-Architectural Sanctuary. That, though, is no shield against bombardment.

Of an even more exuberant Baroque, the interior of the church of Sts Peter and Paul in Lviv is a mass of golden starbursts and coloured marble. It was built for the Catholic Jesuit religious congregation and continued as a Catholic church as the garrison church of the Austrian army. In 1946, the Soviets closed it down and turned it into a book depository. It reopened as a church in 2011, in the care of the Greek-rite Catholic Church, with restoration continuing.

In March the mannered life-size figures of saints around its high altar were tied up in padded wrappings against bomb blasts, looking like some sort of modern art installation. The church saw a succession of military funerals, then on 18 March cruise missiles hit an aircraft repair facility next to Lviv airport. It was too close for comfort. Since then more explosions have struck the city.

While Russia threatens, no cultural treasures in Ukraine are safe. A glorious sight in Kyiv is the monastery of St Michael of the Golden Domes, pale-blue-walled, its domes glinting above the Dnieper, half a mile from the President’s office. It has been there since the 11th century, pillaged by Mongol invaders, rebuilt and adorned. Then in 1934, a Soviet kangaroo court of official historians of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences judged that it did not merit preservation.

A lovely apse-shaped 12th-century Byzantine mosaic on the theme of the Eucharist was transferred from it before demolition to a second-floor space at the nearby cathedral of Sancta Sophia. A mosaic from the same period of the martyr and warrior saint Demetrius found its way to the Tretyakov museum in Moscow. The shell of the monastery was dynamited in 1936.

In 1997 the rebuilding of the monastery began. It is now the headquarters of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which looks not to the Patriarch of Moscow but to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Some of the artistic fittings saved from the old monastery have been returned.

Today, what is in peril is not just churches and artworks. In Chernihiv, in the north of the country, in the early days of the war, the archives of the SBU, the Ukrainian security service, were destroyed by bombardment. They contained records of the Soviet oppression of Ukraine in the 1930s and of Nazi crimes in the second world war. They are lost for ever.

The destruction of churches blasts away the beauty of holiness, the ritual expression of a civilisation; the destruction of records annihilates records of the truth.