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Amid the ruins of Bucha and Chernihiv, an Easter celebration

In the devastated city of Chernihiv, hundreds of worshipers visited the Church of St. Catherine to celebrate Orthodox Easter. (Video: Joyce Koh, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)
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BUCHA, Ukraine — While waiting for the archpriest to bless their baskets of food with his holy water-soaked brush, locals struck up conversations with each other — about matters only they could understand. Maybe in past years, they would have exchanged recipes for their traditional holiday cakes. This Sunday, they traded horror stories about their time under Russian occupation.

The Bucha residents were standing outside a white, gold-domed church. The grounds had become the site of a mass grave of their neighbors.

“I come here every year for Easter, but especially this year. Because I lived. They were shooting at me,” said Tatiana. She then started crying, unable to say more.

This Orthodox Easter — typically a colorful occasion with frosted cakes and painted eggs — was a somber but defiant one in Ukraine. It marked the 60th day of a bloody war.

Perhaps no place in Ukraine has come to symbolize the country’s suffering more than Bucha, a city about 30 minutes outside of Kyiv where Russian soldiers tortured and killed hundreds of residents. But streets that had been covered in Ukrainian bodies and destroyed Russian military equipment were clean Sunday morning. People who had to leave behind their homes, some of which are now destroyed, returned.

Bucha’s Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints, which had been turned into a burial site, welcomed guests in that very field.

The Easter service was an act of resilience and a time to gather with a community that understands just how impossible trying to return to normal feels right now. Archpriest Andriy Galavin condemned Russian soldiers’ actions in his sermon and urged worshipers “not to become evil when you fight evil.”

He smiled as he walked through a line of people outside the church who had placed their baskets on the ground in front of them. He blessed each one, spraying both the food and the person with water. Some laughed as the drops splashed across their face.

How Russia’s war in Ukraine is dividing the Orthodox Christian world

For Anna Podolyanko, the day was bittersweet. It was the first time she had seen her father, Viktor, a Bucha resident, since Russian forces withdrew from the city three weeks ago. She had never visited St. Andrew’s before, but it felt like an appropriate place to spend the holiday with her family. After dozens of bodies were exhumed nearby, Easter service here was a reminder of what was lost and also a show of survival.

“I wanted to hug my father, and I wanted to cry,” Podolyanko said.

A day usually reserved for celebration was clouded by anger and loss. In Odessa, a strategic Black Sea port, missile strikes on Saturday killed at least eight people, including a 3-month-old, and injured 18, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, before adding with disgust, “What a great Easter holiday we’re having.” Zelensky referred to Russian soldiers as “scumbags.”

Some cities instituted an earlier curfew for the weekend, out of concern that civilian areas could be purposefully targeted by the Russian military amid the festivities.

In his Easter message, Metropolitan Epiphanius, the leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, said, “Despite the sanctity of Holy Week and the Resurrection of Christ for all Christians, Russian troops not only did not stop their crimes, but they, as if inspired by Satan himself, multiplied bloodshed.

“Throughout Lent, Russia, which considers itself a stronghold of true Christianity, has destroyed our cities and villages, killed innocent people and destroyed everything it could,” he added.

In Chernihiv — a city near Ukraine’s border with Belarus that saw more than 700 people, both military and civilians, killed in the Russian invasion, according to local officials — hundreds of believers visited the Church of St. Catherine, a 307-year-old structure topped with five golden domes.

Yurii and Taisia, a married couple from the region who declined to share their surnames for security reasons, said they left their own Russian Orthodox Church at the beginning of the war and resolved never to return after seeing images of Russian violence against civilians. They grew up speaking a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian but are learning to speak Ukrainian exclusively after Moscow’s full-scale invasion.

“Previously, we were indifferent because we felt God was for everyone,” Taisia said. “But we changed our minds after we saw the atrocities the Russians did.”

Tensions between the Russian wing of the Orthodox Church, with its pro-Kremlin patriarch, and Orthodox leaders in Ukraine predated this war. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is “self-governing” but remains under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. That is separate from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is three years old and was founded as a direct result of the burgeoning movement to peel away from the Russian Orthodox Church and create a purely independent ecclesiastical entity for Ukraine.

Evstratiy Zoria, the Ukrainian Orthodox archbishop of Chernihiv and Nizhyn, said in an interview that “what happened with Russian Orthodoxy over the last three decades is the fruits of propaganda — the idea that Russia is something greater than state, that Ukraine really does not exist and is just part of great ‘Russian world.’”

Zoria’s hope is that the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches can coexist in Ukraine as long as they agree on a rejection of the Russian Federation’s territorial ambitions.

“All those who understood that ‘Russian world’ is a lie must share their knowledge with other parishioners,” Zoria said, “and I believe that slowly we can spread this understanding and we will have peaceful, fruitful and real unity without any enforcement. We are a democratic country.”

In Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv that saw some of the heaviest fighting between Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, Archpriest Volodymyr Molnar’s damaged church had few visitors on Sunday morning.

“If you wanted to see a lot of people, you should’ve come last year,” he said in an interview.

His church was the first thing many evacuees saw as they carefully made their way around the ruins of a bridge that Ukrainian forces destroyed to stop the Russian military’s advance to Kyiv. Many were dehydrated and had gone days without eating. For some people escaping the battles in the city, the basement of a small wooden chapel on the property became a shelter for the night — before they fled farther away in the morning.

Molnar built it all himself three years ago. When he had to evacuate to a neighbor’s home, he said, leaving the church behind felt like abandoning a child. When he returned, the window glass was shattered. Walls that had been a crisp white color have smoke stains and holes from shrapnel. The home on the property, where he lived with his wife and three children, was reduced to rubble.

The chapel that had served as a temporary haven caught fire after artillery hit it, and it burned to the ground.

“We’ll live,” Molnar said. “Somehow, we’ll resume our lives and live. Right now, it’s just important to have peace.”

Klemko reported from Chernihiv, Ukraine. Serhii Korolchuk in Chernihiv and Erin Cunningham in Washington contributed to this report.