‘I’m not willing to be occupied’: How a Ukrainian priest led a resistance behind enemy lines

Father Andriy lights a candle in his church for fallen friends
Father Andriy lights a candle in his church for fallen friends - David Rose for The Telegraph

From the very beginning, Father Andriy’s faith has included a large streak of resistance.

As a young man in the last days of the Soviet Union, he started going to church as a way of opposing the system and later went to a seminary and became a priest after its collapse.

His second chance at resistance came 30 years later when Russian soldiers menaced his village in Ukraine.

By then he had his flock and responsibilities, but he was determined not to let Putin’s invasion stand.

“I love my country and I’m not willing to be occupied,” he explained.

After Russian troops invaded and took control of his region in the first dark days of the February 2022 invasion, he and others began small acts of resistance.

They left graffiti messages against the occupation. Leaflets were printed assuring residents that the Ukrainian army was approaching.

Some kept an eye on Russian troop movements and reported back to the Ukrainian authorities until the internet gave out and they had no means of communication.

Toretsk, in Donetsk region, on June 13
Locals walk near residential buildings heavily damaged during a Russian military attack on the frontline town of Toretsk, in Donetsk region, on June 13 - UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES

“I got over my fear, I was only afraid at the beginning,” recalls Father Andriy.

Such activities quickly drew the attention of the occupiers, who sent investigators to the region and beat up a villager.

Yet Father Andriy and his comrades were never caught and months later, the region was liberated.

From the early days of the invasion, partisan activities by Ukrainians inside occupied territory have now escalated from such simple organic resistance to extensive and sophisticated networks.

Partisans inside areas like Crimea and Mariupol claim to have assassinated collaborators and Russian troops, as well as providing the intelligence that has enabled some of Ukraine’s deadliest strikes behind enemy lines.

The Kyiv Post reported that the Ukrainian underground supplied intelligence from disgruntled Russian naval officers that allowed Storm Shadow missiles to strike Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol during a meeting of high-level commanders.

“A lot of information came from ordinary residents of Sevastopol, who constantly send us data about the enemy,” sources told the paper.

Ukrainian soldiers fire 120 mm mortar towards Russian position on the front line at Chasiv Yar in Donetsk
The sound of shelling between Ukrainian and Russian troops reminds residents that the war is still going on - Oleg Petrasiuk

Other partisan attacks have reportedly included the poisoning of soldiers and officials with gifts and takeaways laced with arsenic and rat poison, or placing car bombs under their vehicles.

As such attacks have become more and more successful, Russian forces have been accused of launching increasingly brutal crackdowns inside their occupied territory as they hunt for partisan bands.

Father Andriy is now back in his village, tending to his congregation.

“The main thing that the church gives people at the moment is hope,” he explains.

Russian aggression against Ukraine has sparked upheaval in Orthodox Christianity followed by most Ukrainians.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox faith in Ukraine split into three branches. The majority continued to defer to the Moscow patriarchate, but two new smaller Ukrainian arms sprang up.

Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea made many rethink their faith however and large numbers of worshippers switched to join the new Ukrainian churches. Then, in 2018, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president at the time, persuaded the Orthodox church’s overall leader, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, to grant Ukraine’s church full self-governing status. This unified church now dominates.

“We always pray for Ukraine and victory and liberation,” says Father Andriy.

Yet while his region has been liberated, Russian forces are not far away and many of the houses are still deserted. The local school was destroyed in the fighting.

“We don’t have any young people here any more, or any children,” he said.

His Sunday service has around 10 people each week and the rest of the time he busies himself with conducting funerals, both for troops and for elderly residents.

The sound of shelling also reminds residents that the war is still going on and there is the possibility that Russian forces could attempt new offensives in this direction.

If the Russians ever come back, Father Andriiy, who declines to give his real name, is worried they will learn of what he did during the last occupation.

He said: “I am worried that they will come back because I know what they will do to me.”