Despite the war, Ukrainians celebrate their Orthodox epiphany and immerse themselves in freezing water

Ukrainian soldier in the icy waters of Donets, January 19, 2023 – BFMTV

A ritual that is inevitable even in times of war. This Thursday in Russia and Ukraine marked the Orthodox Epiphany, a religious holiday in which believers immerse themselves in freezing water to celebrate the baptism of Christ. A tradition that also allows you to rid yourself of your sins and receive divine blessings.

“God will help us stop the aggressor”

With the sound of rockets falling nearby and a reminder that the conflict is never far away, several Ukrainian soldiers went to the Holy Dormition Lavra Monastery in Svyatohirsk, Donetsk Oblast, to take part in the celebration.

After priests blessed the Donets River, which will act as a natural dividing line between the positions of Russian and Ukrainian forces as they occupy Moscow until September 2022, several soldiers walk to the river, which does not exceed eight degrees this winter.

The rule is “simple”, in order for the prayer to be accepted, believers must sign themselves and immerse themselves in this cold water three times. In addition to its ecumenical dimension, an immersion that has physiological virtues. “We sleep in trenches and bunkers, so getting used to the cold will make life difficult,” Ukrainian infantry soldier Stanislav explains to the BFTMV camera.

“I wouldn’t say it washes away my sins, in fact it’s the opposite, this water is blessed, it means God will help us stop the aggressor, stop these demons,” he adds.

Social tensions

This year, Epiphany in Svyatohirsk definitely has a special flavor, and the devastation of the war left its mark on the monastery. The vast sanctuary still bears the scars of battle, its walls scarred by shrapnel and the domes stripped of their traditional gold coating.

“I used to do it with my family. Now I can’t do it anymore, I’m alone,” Oleksandre, a 34-year-old government investigator, told AFP as he dressed after diving.

The Orthodox Epiphany of 2023 is also marked by tensions that have gradually eroded the local social fabric, with some residents celebrating the Russian takeover of the city at the start of the conflict.

The head of the monastery is himself an outspoken supporter of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and his congregation’s loyalty to the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is in question.

“This is our land, our river,” counterattacked 41-year-old Ieuguen, accompanied by a small group of army comrades-in-arms who came to drown.

“What they blessed here before is their business, it’s on their conscience, but we who live here,” he adds, referring to the dark devotions in the Lavra of the Holy Dormitory monastery.

“War is a terrible word”

An unguarded tradition for the military. 86-year-old Valentina Roudyk, who met AFP, has been living in the monastery for more than six months, her apartment was destroyed during the fighting.

One of his sons accompanies her to the water’s edge before bending over and violently splashing cold water on her face. Another son says he is “fighting to defend our homeland,” but does not want to say which homeland, Ukraine or Russia.

“War is a terrible word, even I would like to forget it,” he told BFMTV.

Despite his excitement, Dmitri, a resident of the district, notes the differences with the previous year.

Last year, “there were thousands of people from different cities,” he says, but with traffic restrictions in the area and destroyed infrastructure, including a bombed-out bridge next to the monastery, “it’s almost impossible to get there.” This year, “almost no people,” he lamented to AFP.

A difficult religious question

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022, the religious issue in Ukraine and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church have often been questioned. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Russian authorities have tried to give a religious and sacred dimension to their attacks against Ukraine, with the blessing of Patriarch Kirill of the Moscow Orthodox Church.

In response, many Ukrainians celebrated Christmas on December 25, instead of January 7, the Orthodox Christmas date, in order to break Russian tradition and loosen Moscow’s yoke. However, many Ukrainians still celebrate Christmas in January, when Russia demands a ceasefire and does not respect it.

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