As Revolution and War Tear Ukraine Apart, the Church Finds Security in Christ
Snowflakes fell from a steel-grey sky and settled on the barricades in Independence Square—the center of the Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity.” It was winter in Kyiv, early in 2014, and even as the days grew colder the clashes between protesters and police were heating up. Ice crystals covered the cobblestones torn from streets and hurled in anger. They dusted empty tear gas canisters, stun grenades, bullet casings, and blotches of blood—a Christmas-card illusion to mask the madness of days past and the violence of days to come.
Ivan Bespalov, a Presbyterian pastor with salt-and-pepper hair and a warm smile, wound his way on foot through the now-quiet battle zone. Bespalov’s downtown church sat two blocks from Independence Square, and this was his daily commute. First he passed through the police checkpoints, a heavily-armed outer ring of thick-necked men in riot gear and military fatigues. Then he worked his way through the barricades—bags filled with snow and stacked and frozen into impenetrable walls, barbed wire and burning tires—past the cooking fires and first aid stations and thousands of full-time protesters hunkered down in the cold.
Finally he reached one particular tent, and he stepped inside. From the outside, it looked no different from the countless others: khaki canvas stretched taut with poles and line. But inside, there was holy work afoot: protestors brought their fears and tears and hopes, and with heads bowed they cast them to the heavens, hoping God would see, would act.
Deep in the makeshift camp in Maidan Nezalezhnosti—Independence Square—Pastor Bespalov prayed with the people. He prayed for his country, for peace, for safety and courage for these ordinary men and women who faced the batons and sniper fire and threat of arrest, dreaming of a better Ukraine. He prayed for change.
And then, the prayers still ringing in his head and heart, he continued on to his post at the church, to another day of ministry in his beloved country that was tearing itself apart.
The Making of a Pastor
Bespalov came to faith in the early 1990s. He was in his early 20s then, a young physicist fresh out of grad school, newly married to his wife, Lucy. The USSR had just fallen, and Ukraine was then—as now—in a time of political and economic upheaval. Though he had a masters degree, times were hard, and Bespalov found himself trying out various professions to make ends meet. He found Jesus while working as a translator for missionaries.
“[It was a time of] instability and uncertainty,” Bespalov says. “The Lord gave me hope. He gave me certainty and peace in the midst of all the turmoil of those years.”
Jesus became Besapalov’s foundation in troubled times, and the church became his community. He joined a Bible study, grew in his faith, and soon began helping missionaries start a church in southern Ukraine. Years later, he moved to Odessa and helped start a church there too.
Though Bespalov was by now a committed Christian and seasoned church planter, he never intended to be a pastor himself. Then, in the late ‘90s, local authorities barred foreign missionaries from preaching or even speaking publicly about their faith, threatening to close down the church if they did so. Quite suddenly, Bespalov found leadership thrust upon him.
“It was a crisis,” he said. “I myself and several other brothers prayed and felt that God [was calling] us to be ordained, even though we were not qualified or trained in theology—a huge responsibility.”
Professors from prominent American seminaries sent professors to Kyiv, and Bespalov and others—by now serving in ministry full time—devoured their teaching. In 1998, Bespalov was invited to become the organizing pastor of a new church in downtown Kyiv. In the days to come, the little church grew. More and more people came to hear the message of hope in Christ, of grace, of a kingdom to come that was not of this world, not shot through with corruption and greed and lies.
They dusted empty tear gas canisters, stun grenades, bullet casings, and blotches of blood—a Christmas-card illusion to mask the madness of days past and the violence of days to come.
For years, Bespalov cared for his flock. And when the revolution began, when his country and his heart were seized once again by uncertainty and turmoil, the conflict came right to his church’s doorstep.
The rumblings of revolution began in November 2013. When then-president Viktor Yanukovych suddenly backed out of a proposed association agreement with the European Union, students gathered to protest in Independence Square, calling foul play. They waved the yellow and blue flag of Ukraine, and yelled chants for European integration. It was peaceful—“innocent” in Bespalov’s words.
They had reason to believe the protest would stay that way. Back in 2004 and 2005 Ukraine had experienced another uprising. In the “Orange Revolution” people had taken to the streets carrying orange flags—a sign of the opposition party—demanding change and protesting against corruption, election fraud, and voter intimidation. It was bloodless, peaceful, and successful, giving many Ukrainians hope that change was possible.
This time, things were different.
One night, seemingly out of nowhere, violence descended on the Square. The mayor of Kyiv sent in law enforcement to forcibly disperse the protesters, and things got ugly. Police beat up students and arrested others. Someone caught the whole thing on camera, and the next morning Ukraine woke up to footage of officers beating citizens. Tens of thousands took to the streets.
“After this, it was no longer about [the] European Union. It was a matter of dignity,” explains Alexander Bychkov, an IT developer from eastern Ukraine who helps lead a local church. “When I saw those videos, I [thought]: ‘Here is our country now. Will we live like this in the future? My children, my boys—should they live in fear because their authorities can do anything they want?”
Within minutes, Bychkov made his decision. He would go to Kyiv and join the protests.
In Kyiv, the growing body of protestors blocked the city’s main street with makeshift barricades. For the next three months, people like Bychkov from across the country occupied Independence Square—more than half a million by some estimates. Over and over again, government security forces attempted to use violence to disperse the crowds. Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Clad in black Kevlar, they charged the crowds, swinging their batons to break faces and limbs and spirits. The protestors responded in kind, armoring themselves with bike helmets, and hurling bricks and Molotov cocktails at the police.
The months wore on, violence escalated, and still Yanukovych refused to capitulate. Security forces swapped rubber bullets for live ammunition. On February 20, the darkest day of all, at least 42 people were killed in street fighting. By the end of the occupation, nearly 130 people would be dead and many more injured.
“Kyiv became like a terror place [sic],” says Bychkov. “It was continuous fear, frustration. You could not know what would happen tomorrow.”
The Church Responds
As the occupation and clashes continued, Bespalov mobilized his congregation. Venturing out into the battle zone, they delivered food, medical supplies, clothes, and firewood to the protestors. And day after day, they gathered in tents to pray.
“At first, there is this feeling of anxiety,” says Bespalov, describing the forays into Independence Square. “You’re not sure what’s going on. You’re not sure whether you will be able to get home… police would arrest people in the street. Everyone [who went to the Square] realized that they may not come home safely. They may be arrested, especially if they are caught in a zone that is under siege or blocked by police. … We understood [this], but we felt that it is our Christian duty to share our care and love.”
Though Bespalov urged his congregation to seek peace and think carefully before resorting to violence, some church members took a more active role in the resistance. A few were badly injured.
“We prayed for them, and we supported them as we could, but not in a militant way,” Bespalov says. “We understood that we are citizens of [God’s] kingdom. … We understood that there still might be a possibility for peaceful resolution of the confrontation.”
“Once you’ve taken someone’s life…” he pauses, somber for a moment. “We understood that those soldiers, the law enforcement, they’re doing their duty. They are drafted—some of them—against their will. And to throw Molotov cocktails at them, to throw stones or shoot at them is maybe not the Christian way to resolve a confrontation with the government. … That’s why I called on the people to pray and support [the protestors], but to be careful if they considered taking a weapon or attacking those who are fulfilling their duty.”
The danger of the conflict deepened when the government hired pro-Russian, civilian mercenaries, known as “Titushky,” to disrupt the protests, beat or kidnap activists, and do the dirty work that uniformed police could not.
“Sometimes they would come to the markets, to the schools to cause panic,” Bespalov says. “Because if there was unrest or panic then the government would have a pretext to impose a curfew, to take more aggressive steps to control the population.”
The government did impose a curfew. Across Ukraine activist leaders were assaulted or killed. Pitched battles broke out and people were shot in the streets. Yet, through it all, Bespalov’s church never cancelled a single service.
“I remember Christmas of 2013—these events were in a very active phase,” he says. “I remember [that day] a bus with soldiers was set on fire. Some of the [nearby] buildings were sieged and attacked. But we—as a church—our priority is worshipping God and doing our best to help the situation to be resolved peacefully. … So, we did not cancel our Christmas Eve service. People, to the threat of their safety and lives, still came.
“[The revolution] was a moment of truth for us. It made us ask: ‘In whom we believe? Do we believe that God will take care of us?’ These uncertain times have strengthened our faith. The church has become more united.”
Pitched battles broke out and people were shot in the streets. Yet, through it all, Bespalov’s church never cancelled a single service.
A Brief Victory. A New Uncertainty.
In late February of 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia. The same day, the Ukrainian parliament declared that the president was no longer Ukraine’s leader and granted many of the protesters’ demands. Stunned, Ukrainians celebrated in the streets. They had won.
Bespalov remembers feeling relief and hope when he heard the news: “You [live with] this tension and anxiety for months, and you finally see victory and you think: ‘This is the time when God brings change to your country.’”
To many Ukrainians, this seemed the dawn of a new, more hopeful era. Yet war followed close on revolution’s heels. Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, and stoked conflict in Ukraine’s largely pro-Russian east.
Today, that conflict continues. By some estimates, around 13,000 people have been killed in the war in the east since 2014. Around 30,000 more have been wounded. The perpetual threat of Russian invasion looms large, and Ukrainian society has become increasingly and dramatically polarized.
“We are living in [a] new reality,” says Bychkov. “The conflict—no one knows if it is going to end, [or] when [or] how, so we just live with that.”
“We grieve and cry with the people of Ukraine for every death, every loss,” Bespalov adds. “Some of our church members went to war, and we prayed for them as they left for the frontline. … But it’s a mess. It’s not a clean-cut war. [It’s not] as you see it in the movies where only bad guys die. There is always collateral damage: children, elderly, women, they all die in this war. That’s why we should pray for [the war to] end.”
Despite the continuing conflict, Bespalov is tentatively hopeful for the future. He hopes that Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will fulfill his promises to fight corruption, which Bespalov calls “the embedded sin of Ukraine.” He hopes for peace in his country, an end to the violence and the killing. He hopes that the love of Christ will sweep over his homeland and change it for the better.
Even as he grieves the dead, the violence, the all-too-familiar uncertainty and turmoil, Bespalov sees the hand of God at work in Ukraine: “People who formerly expressed very weak faith have grown and learned to trust the Lord when they cannot trust the government, the police; when they’re not sure what will happen to them the next day. Many people are coming to faith in this difficult time.”
The church in Ukraine has not been spared from their country’s trials. In many ways, its experience functions as a microcosm of the country as a whole. Students in the Reformed Christian seminary in Kyiv are drafted to fight in the army. Pastors navigate conflict within their congregations as church members take opposing stances on the war, as their sons fight on different sides, and the very language in which a sermon is preached (Ukrainian versus Russian) has become a political statement.
Yet, throughout revolution and conflict, Bespalov’s church—with violence raging at its doorstep—keeps its doors open, practicing mercy and hospitality to those embroiled in fighting. Similarly, none of the other 14 churches in Bespalov’s denomination have closed. None of the pastors have left their posts. When Russian-speaking refugees fled bloodshed in the east, some of these churches in the west received and helped resettle their “enemies.”
“People who formerly expressed very weak faith have grown and learned to trust the Lord when they cannot trust the government, the police; when they’re not sure what will happen to them the next day.”
In a context where borders, currency, street names, and their very citizenship are uncertain, Ukrainians are forced to ask themselves: “What is secure?” “What is the foundation upon which my life is built?”
For the Bespalov, his congregation, and other small churches in Ukraine, the answer is: “Christ.”
Film photography by Brett Hillyard. All photos shot during a 2016 trip to visit churches impacted by conflict in Kyiv and Donets’k.