Orthodox tradition of Epiphany marked by conflict near Ukraine’s front line

Priests bless the water while soldiers bathe in the icy Seversky Donets River – Copyright AFP Anatoly Stepanov

Suzanne WOLDEN

Every year Alexander came with his loved ones to the monastery of the Holy Dormition Lavra in Svyatogorsk, Donetsk region of Ukraine, to plunge into the icy river to celebrate the Orthodox Epiphany on January 19th.

But this year, the monastery and tradition are marked by an almost year-long war with Russia.

“I used to do it with my family,” a 34-year-old state investigative officer told AFP as he pulled on his clothes after diving into the river. “Now I can’t take it anymore, I’m alone today.”

The river was the dividing line where fierce fighting took place when Russia temporarily captured Alexander’s hometown of Svyatogorsk on the other side, and the sprawling monastic complex remained scarred.

The walls are streaked with splinters, and the gold plating has been torn off the domes.

The social fabric of the community also shows signs of tension, as some celebrated the capture of the city by Russian troops.

The monastery has also been a center of tension, as its abbot has advocated for Russian-backed separatists, and the loyalty of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has severed ties with Moscow, has been questioned since the launch of a full-scale invasion in February.

This did not prevent 41-year-old Yevgeny and a small group of his colleagues in the Ukrainian forces from arriving on the banks of the Seversky Donets to take a bath in the ritual commemoration of the baptism of Jesus.

“This is our land, this is our river,” said Yevgeny, whose hometown of Shchastye is also located along the Seversky Donets in territory now occupied by Russia.

“Who they used to bless here is their own business, it’s on their conscience, and we live here.”

Descending the steep steps in front of the vast monastic complex to the river bank, one by one, the soldiers pulled off their camouflage equipment and dived into a horseshoe-shaped hole carved into the ice.

“This is the tradition of our grandfathers, why should we refuse it?” Eugene said.

– “We are all Orthodox” –

For 28-year-old serviceman Ruslan, who has been involved in the tradition for six years, faith is a unifying force. “We are all Orthodox,” he said.

“We have one religion and one God. People share.”

Valentina Rudyk, 86, has been living in the monastery for more than six months since her apartment was destroyed during the fighting.

One of her sons accompanies her to the water’s edge before she dips into the water and vigorously splashes mind-blowingly cold water in her face.

The other son is “fighting to defend our homeland,” she said, but she did not say which homeland she meant.

Neither she nor the Ukrainian military were present at the service dedicated to the main Orthodox holiday, where dozens of believers prayed for hours, standing by the warm light of candles and a huge church chandelier.

They went out carrying cakes and warm drinks to the water, and the sun broke through the clouds as they undressed and entered the water.

Even in the turmoil, local resident Dmitry noted a striking difference from last year.

Last year, “thousands of people came from different cities,” he said, “but with movement restrictions in the region and infrastructure destroyed, including a bombed-out bridge next to the monastery, “it’s almost impossible to come.”

This year, “there are almost no people.”

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