On June 4th, a video of the burning Church of the All-Saints Hermitage at the Sviatohirska Lavra Monastery went viral in both Ukraine and Russia.
President Zelensky reacted immediately with a televised address, in which he stated, “Today, Russian artillery aimed once again at the Sviatohirska Lavra in the Donetsk region. The Hermitage of All Saints was destroyed. It was consecrated in 1912. It was ruined the first time during the years of Soviet power. Later it was reconstructed. And now the Russian army has burned it.“
The president demanded that Russia be expelled from Unesco. ” No country — except Russia,” he said, “destroyed so many monuments, cultural and social buildings in Europe after World War Two.”
This was not the first shelling of the monastery; neither was it the first hermitage ruined by Russian artillery. The Sviatohirska Lavra simply became a target of choice for the Russians — and a strange and somewhat ironic choice, at that. The monastery of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Russian Patriarchate, from the moment of its re-consecration in 1992, became a center of pro-Russian sentiment.
Is it possible to imagine that the constant explosions on the Lavra grounds were an example of the “precise strikes against military infrastructure” bruited in Russian propaganda? The harsh reality of this military invasion is that Russian rockets and bombs are constantly exploding in residential areas, cemeteries, and other locations that lack any strategic importance.
The fate of the Church of All Saints attracted such broad attention because of the arresting video of its burning. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture is surely worth a million!
Russian propaganda didn’t wait long to accuse Ukrainians of a war crime. As usual, Putin’s propagandists referred to “numerous witnesses,” who were never named, to the so-called “crime of the neo-Nazis.” They didn’t mention the obvious: that Ukrainian forces defending a city under constant Russian shelling surely wouldn’t have time for such follies.
The Ukrainian press, on the other hand, mourned the destroyed church as if it were a monument that qualified for inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. The president’s description of the ruination of the Hermitage, while generally correct, did omit some crucial historical details. Headlines like, “The Historic Hermitage of All Saints is on Fire!” and descriptions of the wooden church “consecrated 100 years ago” filled the newspapers. Some publications reported that the church was damaged during World War Two; others stated that Bolsheviks had ruined it.
In reality, the Church of All Saints was erected in 2009.
The wooden church was built from scratch on the site. It had nothing in common with the original stone church demolished in 1947 by Soviet officials who, in an ironic twist, used unexploded German mines for the demolition.
The most recent iteration of the church was financed by wealthy donors like Ezuma Ozogemena, a convert from Nigeria who headed a successful lumber business in Ukraine, and who donated logs for the project.
The modern Church of All Saints had virtually nothing in common with Ukrainian traditions of ecclesiastical architecture. In this way, it was like many of the recently erected sacral buildings that have sprung up like mushrooms on the Lavra grounds since 1992. Perhaps, if one were feeling particularly sentimental about it, the unfortunate church could be described as a vague remake of the famous 17th-Century Church of the Intercession in Kizhi, an island in Lake Onega in Karelia.
The neighboring Church of All Saints of Russian Lands, erected in 2004, was apparently “inspired” by the 17th-Century Church of Our Saviour in Zashiversk, a town north of the Arctic circle in the Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation.
However, the construction boom of the early 2000s was not limited to the export of traditional wood church design of the Russian North. On May 9th, Russian artillery destroyed the Hermitage of St. George of the Lavra. A direct hit by Russian artillery razed the Church of St. George, which was built in 2006.
The destroyed church was a “remake” of the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, one of the most famous examples of Russian 12th-Century ecclesiastical architecture.
Modern remakes like the Church of All Saints and the Church of St. George constitute a kind of theme park of Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture. The destruction of these homages to Mother Russia by Russian forces on a military mission to transform Ukraine into a “Russian World” is nothing short of madness.
In any case, the questionable aesthetic value of the churches destroyed by Russian artillery in the Sviatohirska Lavra does not mitigate the serious crimes that have been committed there. Matters of taste should play no part in the discussion of war crimes.