How to survive the trauma of war in a Christian way

Alexander Zanemonets is a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a historian-medievalist. He grew up in Moscow, was baptised at the parish of Alexander Men, and lived in Israel for more than 20 years. In 2021 he came to Russia to teach ancient Greek at Moscow State Linguistic University. After the outbreak of a major war, he and his family left for Finland and remained there as a priest in a church for Ukrainian refugees. He discusses Patriarch Kyrill's blessing of Russian aggression and his Christian understanding of the horrors of war in the new issue of Witnesses of February 24.

Tell us about yourself

– My name is priest Alexander Zanemonets. I am a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, currently serving in Finland, working primarily with Ukrainian refugees. My family is partly from Ukraine and partly from Russia, and I have lived in Jerusalem, Israel, for the past 20 years. And this year my family and I ended up in Finland.

Your first thoughts and feelings on February 24?

– February 24 turned out to be a completely unexpected day. Now many people say that they knew long ago that this would happen, but hardly anyone could have truly predicted that there would be war. There would be an attack by the Russian Federation on Ukraine. I think it has a lot to do with the state system that the Russian Federation has today. Because it is a real dictatorship, in which the dictator does not even have to consult with his government. When the decision is tied to the will of one man, who will not ask his people, who will not ask his government, it is very difficult to speculate how it will be. Because really, it depends on his personal decision.

Why did you not return to Jerusalem after the war began, but ended up in Finland?

– Last year, the last academic year, I was in Moscow with my family for university work. We came to Moscow for a year to teach at the university. So, February 24th we met in Moscow. And for two weeks we were there. Of course, it was very difficult to stay in that situation. At first we stayed, but every day it became harder. And we thought it was completely impossible for a number of reasons. There were no planes going to Israel, at that stage. All the flights were canceled. We thought that if there was no way to get back to Jerusalem, we should take a car and go to Finland, to our friends, and here we stayed. Because here, as it turned out, they needed a priest to work with Ukrainian refugees. I was ordained a priest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. So I turned out to be the Ukrainian priest that was needed at that point to be with Ukrainian refugees. It is God's providence that I was ordained in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Because this is really a native, close people for me, among whom some of my ancestors lived.

Did your family offer hospitality to the refugees of this war?

– No doubt about it. Since we live in Helsinki just near the train station, we had friends and acquaintances staying with us during the summer, who were just coming here from Ukraine. They came by ferry from Tallinn. And before going anywhere else from the Helsinki railway station, many ended up at our place. And in the fall, the situation changed. Because St. Petersburg is not far from here, many of our friends and young people, children of our friends and acquaintances, also ended up with us, but not arriving by ferry from Tallinn like the Ukrainian refugees, but arriving from St. Petersburg and going somewhere else. These were people who did not want to take part in murder, fratricide, precisely in the context of drafting in the army.

Refugees from which regions of Ukraine come to Finland?

– A great many Ukrainian refugees, most of them probably, ended up here after they and their families witnessed the fighting. Most of the Ukrainian refugees ended up in Finland, very many at least, from those regions occupied by the Russian army. A great many of them passed through the Russian Federation and ended up on the land border in Finland, or in the Baltic States. So, most of the refugees here are people who have seen the war for real. They really escaped. A lot of their relatives died, didn't escape. So when people find themselves in Finland safe, with a roof over their heads, with food, it's understandable that this is on the one hand what they were looking for, but on the other hand, after all the horror that people have experienced, very many of them find themselves in church and often even for the first time in their lives.

Have you observed conflicts between parishioners from Ukraine and Russia?

– I must say that neither here nor in other parishes of the Finnish Orthodox Church have I seen a single conflict situation between Russian-speaking people living here or between Ukrainian refugees during these six months. And that's such a miracle, really. Because I've heard that there are conflict situations, but I've never really seen one. I think that in many ways this probably has to do with the fact that the position of the Finnish Orthodox Church, as well as in general the majority of Orthodox churches, is absolutely clear and specific in this war. That God is not with the aggressor, but God is with the victim. And Christ Himself, just at Christmas time, finds Himself a refugee. God Himself finds Himself in the same situation that Ukrainian refugees find themselves in today. And it is quite clear that the Orthodox Church in this country, and in most others, is with those who are suffering. So I think that those people who came from Russia a long time ago and are coming now also understand this. And so there is no ground for conflict here.

How do Ukrainians cope with forced emigration?

– When I talk to Ukrainian refugees, it seems to me that the most traumatised, as it may seem now, are people of our generation who are over 40. Because people who are really old, they have seen a lot of things. Say, the resettlement from Kharkov region to Finland is a terrible thing for them, but they have experienced a lot in their lives. For young people this is some tragic part of their young life, in which there will still be a lot of great things. People of our generation, Ukrainians – these are the people who have lived the last 20 years of their life, working, having professional life, with a feeling that everything is getting better and life is getting easier. It is easier economically. There are a lot of people here in Finland, from my Ukrainian friends, who have finished their houses, raised children or had small children. And really people lived with a feeling that everything is already good and will be even better. And now these people, at the age of 40 plus, find themselves in a situation where the house they have built over the past two decades is just finished and destroyed. They have no professional future in Ukraine, because their city of Mariupol no longer exists and they have nowhere to go back to. And at the same time in the new country you seem to be at an age when even learning a new language is not the same as for children. People of this generation are really in a very difficult condition, and I understand them.

Does the Christian understanding of evil change in times of war?

– In the summer there are many Orthodox youth camps, where Finnish Orthodox youth come. And I also went there with Ukrainian Orthodox youth. And I remember that in one of such camps I had to give a lecture, to talk about evil in our lives. On the one hand we can talk about the problem of evil, but on the other hand, you know that in this group you have a ten-year-old boy from Bucha, his father was shot in Bucha, and then he and his mother went there to the identification and the funeral. For this boy, the question of evil in the world is not a philosophical question. And you can't tell him about it with references to ancient philosophers, or even with references to Scripture. When you tell people about evil and how we perceive it as Christians, and you do this by looking into the eyes of a person whose father died in Bucha, it is of course quite different.

What is your answer to people's question, "How does God allow the horrors of war?"

– One of the gifts God has given people is the gift of freedom. People can use their freedom in different ways. They can use it to their own detriment and to the detriment of their neighbours. This is what we see in Mariupol, during the ongoing aggression against Ukraine. The free will that people have, which has been used for evil, really leads to the horror that we see. Does this mean that God should take away people's freedom and turn them into something else? I don't think we would really want that. But for truly free choices, we all have to face the music one way or another. We, as Christians, can respond to this by saying that Christ was already there. He was also there in his earthly life. And he was also there with them when they were sitting in the Mariupol cellar. People tell us about it. Because for many of these people who actually spent months in the basements of Mariupol, it was the first, maybe in their lives, experience of true prayer. The kind that most people who haven't found themselves in this situation wouldn't even dream of. So, of course, on the one hand people encountered evil, but on the other hand, for people this stay in the basement in Mariupol was such an important experience of fellowship of the God.

How do you assess Patriarch Kirill's position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

– When the Russian aggression against Ukraine began on February 24, many of my Orthodox friends living in Russia at first thought that in this situation Patriarch Kyrill could really say that Russia was his flock, but a large part of the Orthodox population of Ukraine was also, as Patriarch Kyrill believed, his flock. And for this reason he can in no way support a war of one part of his flock against another. And we see examples of this attitude, because when there was an anti-terrorist operation by the Ukrainian army in Donbass, Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv did not support it. It is for this reason that on one side is the flock of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and on the other side is the flock of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. So we can't support either side except to say, "Stop killing each other. Many thought Patriarch Kyrill would do the same, but it didn't work out that way. Much to his regret, for some reason he chose to stand in solidarity not with his flock, suffering and dying, but with his government, with his state. Yes, he is a citizen of the Russian Federation, and this state moment, apparently, was more important to him. It is clear that both in Ukraine and in other countries people cannot afterwards perceive the Patriarch as their lord and father.

Will Russian society be able to process the experience of a criminal war in which his country was the aggressor?

– If this is compared to what happened to the German people after the war, it is very important here that under German law, World War II was quite officially declared illegitimate. The awards that people received during the war, they were annulled. And, say, the medical care of Wehrmacht veterans was not annulled. And their awards and ranks were. Because a state that throws its citizens into such horror, it is, on the one hand, responsible for making sure that black things are called black and that the crimes that were committed are called those crimes. It's very important that people understand that. And on the other hand, the state does not give up on people who have been injured, maimed, and so on in the course of such state policy, but continues to treat those who are still alive right up to our times. It seems to me that it is very important that the Russian people and the Russian state and subsequent generations know that this was a crime and fratricide. It should be labeled as such. And the people responsible should probably answer for it. And on the other hand, really, the state and the future Russian state, it seems to me, should be responsible for those whom it has brought into this nightmare, both from the Ukrainian and Russian sides.

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