When Russia-backed separatists captured the city of Slovyansk in 2014, they took Hennadiy Lysenko captive. After interrogating him, they blindfolded Lysenko and put him up against a wall. They pressed a pistol against his back and racked the gun. Then, one of his captors shouted “Die!” and pulled the trigger.
But Lysenko didn’t die. The gun was unloaded.
“They didn’t shoot me, but they carried on asking questions like: ‘Who are you?’”
Lysenko was one of the lucky ones. He was eventually freed. But his story emphasizes the violence faced by Protestants in Ukraine’s occupied territories. In fact, as early as July 2014, a group of Evangelical churches issued a statement accusing the Russia-led separatists of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” of persecuting Protestants and subjecting believers to a litany of violent acts ranging from abductions and beatings to torture and murder.
For the last three years, Lysenko has served as a volunteer chaplain. He delivers humanitarian aid to residents, soldiers and medics in Ukrainian frontline towns. On the road to one of these towns, Avdiivka (a town 20 km away from Donetsk), he tells Hromadske the story of his time in captivity.
Hennadiy Lysenko is 47 years old and has a wife and two children. He was born in Slovyansk and attended a military institute in Russia, but never graduated. He says he had discipline issues.
In the early 1990s, he grew curious about religion after Jehovah’s Witnesses — one of many previously unknown religious groups appearing in newly independent Ukraine — gave him some religious literature.
Chaplain Hennadiy Lysenko. Photo credit: HROMADSKE
“I went to my mother-in-law and asked for a Bible, because I said that [the Jehovah’s Witnesses] had explained something to me, they wanted me to buy into it and I didn’t know what it was all about,” Lysenko recalls.
That initial investigation led him to join the Good News Protestant Church in 1993. But Lysenko’s faith became a risk when so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” seized control of his town and he was captured.
“Who are you?” the investigator asked him, “We have people here who crap themselves as soon as they hear a gun racking. But you didn’t even flinch.”
A logistics point for the ASAP volunteer organisation in the Donetsk region. Photo credit: HROMADSKE
He recalls thinking that the “DPR” fighters likely believed he had special training.
“I believe in God. Therefore, if you decide to kill me, I only have one thing to say: ‘ Lord, forgive me and greetings, Jesus,” he told them.
When he was first taken to the basement of the occupied Security Service of Ukraine building in Slovyansk, he managed to call his wife and the pastor of his church, Petro Dudnyk.
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” Dudnyk told him. “I’ll do everything to get you out of there.”
Lysenko says that on several occasions the militants made it clear to him that he would not be leaving the building. They talked among themselves: “You know what, he’s for the firing squad. He’s going to get shot.”
He was captured for allegedly helping the Ukrainian soldiers. During the interrogation, the separatists were interested in the structure of his church more than anything else, Lysenko says.
“The structure of the church, for some reason, reminded them of combat units,” he explains. “The pastor cannot always meet the needs of everyone in the church. There is only one of him and there are 600 parishioners, so we have small cell groups. To them, this seemed like a military organization. And these cells are like partisan units.”
A logistics point for the ASAP volunteer organisation in the Donetsk region. Photo credit: HROMADSKE
Despite the fighters’ suspicion, Dudnyk got lucky. He was released due to his pastor’s contacts in one of influential Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s charitable foundations.
“I don’t know who you are for everyone to make such a fuss over you like this,” the “DPR” investigator told him then. “But I’ve thought about it and I’ve decided to let you live today.”
Other Protestants met a worse fate. One of the most tragic moments for the religious community was the shooting of four worshipers from the Church of Transfiguration: Volodymyr Velichko, Viktor Bradarsky, Ruvim and Albert Pavenko.
On June 8, 2014, after a service for the Pentecost, churchgoers found “DPR” militants waiting for them outside the church hall. Some of the fighters wore “Russian Orthodox Army” patches on their military uniforms.They took the four men to an unknown location. A mass grave containing their bodies was later discovered. The church is now building a memorial on this site.
Petro Dudnyk, Pastor of the Good News Protestant Church. Photo credit: HROMADSKE
“Their goal was to demoralize believers,” Pastor Petro Dudnyk says of the fighters’ attitude toward Protestants.
It was a situation Dudnyk and his church were not entirely unprepared for. In spring 2014, when “DPR” fighters first appeared in Slovyansk and the Ukrainian Army surrounded the city, Dudnyk and the Good News Church began to evacuate the local population to neighboring cities.
Pastor Petro Dudnyk at the Sail of Hope children’s center. Photo credit: HROMADSKE
“We knew that this is what the situation looked like,” Dudnyk says. “The city was heavily fortified, propaganda appeared from the Ukrainian side that there was no one left in the city apart from militants. So if an active offensive began, our side would say: ‘flood the city with Grad rockets.’”
After the pastor wrote on Facebook about the first people who had managed to leave town, hundreds of others began approaching him for help. In the end, Dudnyk’s church evacuated four thousand people from the town. Most were taken to neighboring Svyatohirsk, where the church rented a summer camp for the evacuees.
The Good News Protestant Church in Slovyansk. Photo credit: HROMADSKE
The militants left Slovyansk on July 5, 2014. Their retreat caught everyone by surprise — including the Ukrainian soldiers, Dudnyk says.
During the occupation, they had seized control of the Good News church. On July 5 a congregant called Dudnyk and informed him that the separatist fighters had fled, in some cases leaving half-drunk cups of tea or weapons behind them. Dudnyk then called up a lieutenant-colonel friend in the Ukrainian military headquarters.
“Vitalik, did you know there isn’t a single militiaman left in the city, there’s no militants?” the pastor asked. “And he replied: ‘That can’t be true.’”
Although his hometown has been freed from “DPR” control, Hennadiy Lysenko continues working to help Ukrainian Army.
“This is the car in which we transported people with disabilities. After we took out the seating, we managed to fit seven people in it,” Lysenko tells Hromadske.
We are driving to the town of Avdiivka. The car is currently carrying a dozen sacks of potatoes, beetroots, onions and carrots. This is what volunteers from the western regions of the country have donated. The chaplain is taking this to medics, soldiers and local missionaries, who help the people in need along the demarcation line between Ukrainian government-controlled and separatist-controlled territory.
Chaplain Hennadiy Lysenko visits Avdiivka resident Valentina Petrovna. Photo credit: HROMADSKE
Over the course of the war, the Good News Church has opened 28 missionary centers in frontline towns. According to Dudnyk, the idea behind the centers is not only to provide humanitarian aid to the locals, but also to the change the mentality of the population.
“We noticed that, by just giving people food, we were not helping them to change,” he says. “The Donbas is an industrial region. The people here are used to relying on the leadership and they are not used to taking responsibility for themselves. We would like to stimulate people’s ‘industrious spirit,’ so we organize enterprises like the bakery in the frontline town of Mariinka, for example,” Dudnyk says.
The Protestant missionaries also provide services that the state cannot — for example, delivering humanitarian aid and helping rebuild houses.
The local Protestant missionaries often often perform the functions that the state can no long handle. For example, delivering humanitarian aid or rebuilding houses.
When Avdiivka was shelled this winter and the town lost electricity and heating, the Protestants set up their own heating points next to the state ones.
Hromadske saw them in action when chaplain Hennadiy Lysenko and local volunteers visited one of the homes affected by shelling.
“I was in the room next door,” says resident Valentina Petrovna, “I suddenly heard an ‘OOOOO!’ noise and wind!” A shell had fallen and exploded on her home. Valentina put a carpet over the gaps where windows used to be.
The local authorities promised to help but they haven’t yet. “Let them know I’m [still] waiting for help!” she asks Lysenko and Hromadske.
Missionaries from the Good News church cleared the debris from the house after the shelling. These young people are more or less the only people who visit this lonely old woman.
“During the war, the church has become more open for non-churchgoers,” Dudnyk says, “I mean, serving on the front line, helping displaced people and soldiers, serving as a chaplain…This was not so common in the church before the war.”
Mykola Mykhalyuk, Pastor of the Faith, Hope, Love Protestant Church. Photo credit: HROMADSKE
Dudnyk receives support from the Mykola Mykhalyuk, the Kyiv-based pastor of the “Faith, Hope, Love” Church. Mykhalyuk compares the current situation to the start of the 1990s, when the level of religious freedom was extremely high.
“It seems to me that Ukrainian Protestant churches are growing precisely because of the difficult economic situation, because of the war,” he says. “Evangelical churches, and others too, react very responsibly because the people need help, both moral and material help.”
In winter 2014, Mykola and his wife Maya created a Facebook group to help people living in frontline towns. They delivered food, medical supplies, candles, clothing and children’s shoes to these towns and celebrated New Year and Christmas with local school children. Initially, in 2015, these trips occurred once every three weeks, then, in 2016, around once a month or two.
After that, the church building, located in one of the commuter districts of Kyiv, became the operations center for donations, where people can bring food and medicine. From here, it is all taken to Donbas.
According to theologian Mykhailo Cherenkov, the events of the war have become a chance for Protestants to join into Ukrainian national identity.
“The war has returned agency to Protestants,” he explains. “They now recognize themselves as something separate that is influential,” he explains.
The war has become a source of motivation for Protestants.
“People come to church because they feel that all the foundations have come undone. Death and uncertainty surround us, you understand that you have to rely on something bigger than yourself,” Cherenkov explains. “So for Protestants, and for Christianity in general, it’s a good time to think about God.”
But he also believes this could cause problems in the future for the Protestant mission in the Donbas — in particular, the temptation to impose their own point of view on the local population.
“There’s always a risk that people will exploit the situation,” he says. “If someone needs help, then it’s easy to impose your point of view on them, to drag them into your organization...But I think there is no threat of this happening in Donbas because the Protestants are not abusing their mission. They understand that other churches will see what they are doing…[And] when you understand there is a high cost for every mistake you make, you think of ways you can help that won’t hurt people’s dignity. This is great challenge for Protestants today. They are even afraid of ‘smothering’ those who do not go to church for the words, but for the bread.”
Pastor Mykola Mykhalyuk agrees with this sentiment.
“‘A relationship with God cannot be earned, ‘bought’ or ‘falsified’ by suggestion or some form of coercion,” he says. “This love is a response to His mercy and grace. It’s like an understanding that He loves and accepts you…”
Even without coercion, theologian Mykhailo Cherenkov believes that the “army of volunteers” that emerged during the war years will become the foundation for Protestantism’s future in Ukraine.
“This is the future of the church,” he says. “I expect to see new reformers, new followers, missionaries, ideologists, and new ‘Luthers’ come out of this.”
The first Protestant churches appeared in Ukraine in the 18th century.
At the start of the 20th century Protestantism grew rapidly, especially in western Ukraine (under the influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany).
In the Soviet era, Protestantism moved underground. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, churches restarted their missionary work with a renewed vigor.
Today, according to official statistics, there are around ten thousand Protestant religious organizations (such as churches, communities, and associations). This is two times less than the number of Orthodox organizations and two times greater than Catholic organizations.
All the main branches of Protestantism are represented in Ukraine: Lutheranism, Calvinism, Baptism, Pentecostalism, and others.
According to sociologists, the number of Protestants in Ukraine has increased sharply. Protestantism has strengthened during the war in Ukraine, particularly in the eastern Donbas region.
Protestants in Ukraine are involved in addressing a number of social issues. They help the elderly in nursing homes, visit orphanages, and organize community work.
/By Evgeniy Savvateev and Bohdan Kinaschuk
/Translated and adapted by Sofia Fedeczko and Matthew Kupfer