Nearly one thousand years ago, Pecherska Lavra, or "The Monastery of the Caves," dictated the spiritual and cultural pulse of Kiev, the city widely recognized as the cradle of the East Slavic world.
Today, the monks who live in this limestone compound, nestled between naked chestnut trees on a snowy hill overlooking the icy Dnipro River, are a mile from ground zero of Viktor Yushchenko’s Orange Revolution demonstrations. But these monks openly pray for the victory of Yushchenko’s rival, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich.
The two candidates face one another for a third time on Sunday in a re-match of the November runoff that was declared illegal due to fraud.
Defying Ukrainian law, which forbids the church to favor a political candidate, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate which oversees the Lavra, said Nov. 9 on television that he only gave his blessing to Yanukovich. "I view him as a true orthodox believer, who would deserve to be the head of our state."
Other clergy echoed his views. “If you are a believer, you are for Yanukovich. To stand for Yanukovich is to stand for orthodoxy. We must protect from the demons in the West,” Brother Valeri said in fluent Russian.
Another clergyman, Father Adam, says prayers should be said for both men. “The church prays for Yanukovich so you have to pray for God to bless him. He is a believer. For Yushchenko, you pray to bring him back into the circle of believers.”
Yushchenko, an Orthodox Christian, has not made religion a central part of his campaign. Yanukovich, who some speculate displays a born-again religious devotion to compensate for his criminal background (he was jailed twice), visited the monastery and received the Metropolitan's blessing ahead of the first election on Oct. 31.
Before Monday night's televised debate between the two candidates, Yanukovich returned to the monastery to pray, the Ukrainian daily, Segodnya, reported, while Yushchenko prepared for the event studying economics and history briefing materials.
More than half of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians. When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church splintered from the Moscow Patriarchate and formed an independent branch under a new Kiev Patriarch.
But today, Pecherska Lavra, the holiest site in Ukraine, remains subordinate to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. Only Russian is spoken in the monastery. Dozens of books are sold in the Lavra museum shop; none are written in the Ukrainian language. Prayer services for Yanukovich are held almost daily. Old women, or babushkas, visit wearing foot-long icons around their necks and blue ribbons, Yanukovich’s campaign color, pinned to their coats.
The monastery’s 70 acres include a museum, a library, golden-domed chapels, and the famed catacombs, an underground network of narrow passageways whose walls hold the mummified remains of more than 100 monks and saints. The 120 monks who live at the monastery pray, fast, paint icons, make candles and honey, and embroider cloth. Women visitors wear headscarves and long skirts.
The Lavra, dubbed Orthodox Christianity's "mecca," is commonly considered by Orthodox Christians to be the second most holy place after Jerusalem. It was Ukraine’s Prince Volodymyr who in 988 AD brought Christianity to Kiev, the then-capital of the Slavic lands called Kievan-Rus. Legend has it that after investigating Islam and Christianity, he decided the state would be Christian, in part because his people would not willingly give up drink. Islam, which insists on sobriety, just wouldn't work.
Blast from the past?
On the eve of Sunday's vote, the Lavra is a remnant of the Soviet past, where the church was permitted to exist in an atheistic state in exchange for subordination to the Moscow Patriarch.
While Ukraine sits precariously on the brink of Westernization and democracy, the Lavra monks continue to practice Soviet-style subservience to their religious superiors, especially when it comes to politics.
“You don’t have to say any names because God knows who the believers are," said Brother Vasil. "You pray for the believers.”
While the church may determine politics at the Lavra, its influence beyond the monastery walls is hard to determine. Yushchenko is widely expected to win Sunday's runoff election, when voters will go to the polls for the third time in 57 days.
"Political activism in the Lavra is not new," says Andrew Sorokowski, a U.S.-based expert on religion in the communist world. "In the Soviet Union, the KGB penetrated all of society, including the church, to the extent that priests reported on what they heard in confession. There's no reason to think that this has stopped. Soviet institutions and ways of doing things are still there. The same people are still there. It's just hard to document."