АвторAuthor: Kateryna Bankova | Translation: Andrii Serbovets
12 September 2022
An informatics teacher and priest from Oleksandria, Kirovohrad region, Oleksandr Ivanenko took up arms in addition to his priestly duties when Russia launched its full-on invasion. Monologues of War discussed with him the new experience and how his congregation and colleagues reacted to his decision to enlist. Also, the man gave advice on convincing one’s relatives in Russia supporting the war to change their minds (spoiler alert: it’s impossible).
Before the war, I taught at school with a time-and-a-half load, doubling as a 6th-grade homeroom teacher. In 2018, I was ordained to the presbyterate. Now, I’m a comms man with the Armed Forces of Ukraine with a battalion on the Kherson front. I’m as motivated as I can be, and I’m happy to be useful in defending my native Ukraine. I often get asked about priesthood and arms, and you know what? Some saints are portrayed in icons bearing arms, like a sword or a spear. It’s my own business. I’m no saint—people are all born sinners, and they know it. Therefore, let’s set aside the man of the cloth taking up arms discussion until we win. My enlistment came as a surprise to my parishioners and colleagues. Still, many priests have been supportive.
Also, I started getting back in shape about a month before the war. I have always been a sporty guy, but this time I took it much more seriously. Rumors about the impending war were spreading online and in real life, but I was calm in my heart and head. I felt at ease even. I felt it all would go away—we just needed faith. I started praying more often. What else can a priest do to help? Meeting with my friends, I tried to reassure them. We talked about the bad feeling they had about that and the will of God, and I insisted things will sort themselves out because it was the way I felt.
And then came February 24… I remember glancing over the news after the evening prayer. I caught a few headlines and suddenly remembered about bowing, so I crossed myself and bowed. This is where my laptop’s screen caught my attention. As a result, I hit my eye against the back of the chair so hard I started seeing stars. The first thing I thought was the war had just begun, and I had already got an injury. In the morning, I saw that it wasn’t all that bad—I damaged my brow a bit, but there was no bruise. It was hardly noticeable at first sight.
So, I started preparing for work. Tension was palpable in the city. People didn’t know what to expect. As always, many know-it-alls popped up, talking about the “treason,” how it all could be averted, that everything was lost, and that they “provide whatever support they can.”
I felt the sentiment on my way to work. Where I went, I listened to what people were saying and analyzed it even when I shouldn’t have. Perhaps, it’s a professional thing, being a teacher, but it could be just my curiosity. I had to restrain myself not to argue with those know-it-alls but kept rebuking them in my head.
The atmosphere was tense at work, too. People crowded together, discussing the ominous latest news. Only a few pupils were seen in classrooms because parents didn’t let their children go to school that day. Despite the pervasive anxiety, my head was clear, and my heart was calm. I believed that victory would be ours. I felt confident about it the moment I realized the war had begun.
Two girls came to my informatics class. They looked somewhat baffled, waiting for me to give them a lesson assignment. I tried to cheer them up, jokingly saying they were true heroes to attend in such a tough time. I gave them a simple assignment to distract them from the grim reality and returned to reading the news.
After the unusual workday, only one thought lingered in my mind: how can I personally help? Soon, I read somewhere that the vaccination money could be transferred to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. A minute later, my wife and I donated ours to help our military. Then I posted a prayer for our defenders on Facebook and asked people to write the names of the soldiers they knew in the comments. When I hit Publish, I was worried. What if nobody believed me? After all, I’m a Moscow Patriarchate Ukrainian Orthodox Church priest, and those are largely considered traitors. Having overcome bad thoughts with a prayer, I published the post. For a moment, everything went silent as if the time itself had stopped. I decided not to check post reactions—everything is God’s will. An hour later, I was relieved to see that people had started commenting. They asked me to pray for their family members already fighting on the frontlines.
I started writing down the names, filling one sheet of paper, then another, and then the third. I was overcome with joy. I had never felt that happy to be able to pray and be helpful. After the evening prayer, my wife, my daughter, and I prayed together for the defenders of Ukraine. Then I got a call from work—they asked me to help clean up the bomb shelter. Another comfort, another opportunity to help.
After I was ordained, there were no days off for me. Having exercised and prayed about the Ukrainian warriors (including all the new names people submitted), I had breakfast and went to work. I was in a fighting mood. Manual work in such a challenging time was a comfort, and actually helping others felt even better. While at it, we tried to cheer ourselves up with jokes. Then, a colleague of mine came. She was in tears and told me she worried about her husband, who was in the military. I tried to comfort her and promised to pray for him. And then I thought: what about me? Why was I working there with women instead of protecting my Motherland? Still, as a priest, I felt that everyone had to help however and wherever they could. Those brought comfort to me, too.
Eventually, I started to notice how my colleagues’ attitudes toward me shifted but decided to wait. My instinct didn’t fail me. Someone asked, “Who are you praying for in that church of yours?” “Well, you can visit and hear for yourself the names of those we are praying for,” I replied. And then another one, “Are you going to some other church to pray for our soldiers?” And I went, “No, God is right here in my heart.” I understood one thing at that moment. If the colleagues who had known me for a long time asked those questions, what about those who hadn’t? I believed that God saw my heart and my thoughts, and that faith alone kept me going.
In the afternoon, I hurried to my church to get there in time for the vespers. During the service, prayers for peace and for our soldiers felt much different. Afterward, a woman with two young men about to join the Territorial Defense Force came to me, asking me to bless her boys. I asked for their names to include in the prayer list. At home, I had an evening prayer, asking God to protect our soldiers, and prepare for Communion. I didn’t feel tired at all. Thinking about tomorrow’s liturgy and the opportunity to pray for the boys, I drifted into sleep, however short it might have been.
On Sundays, my day starts at 4:30 AM, so I have about 15 minutes to relax. I usually don’t need an alarm to get up. It might have grown into a habit, or it’s just I’m getting old. Anyway, after a quick exercise to stimulate my body and mind, a prayer, and a morning shower, I hurried to the church. I’m usually the first to make it there on Sundays. Wherever I worked, I always had a lot of keys on me, and that one was no exception. So, I unlocked the church. It feels so good to enter a church early in the morning while it’s still filled with silence… I kissed “my” icons, as I like to call them, and started to prepare for the morning service. Parishioners, priests, and cantors started trickling in. The church came alive. Akathist reciting began, followed by canonical hours. Everything worked like clockwork. You need to be there to understand the feelings that overcome you during the service. After the liturgy, I hurried home. At 5:00 PM, my daughter’s godfather and I started our night shift in the school. But before that, I had to eat something and take a nap.
I felt invigorated, knowing that I was at least a little useful. So, we discussed the latest news and shared our thoughts and experiences. Having said graces, we started our evening meal. My wife was worried before I went—what if there was an air raid alert? But there were no air strikes on Oleksandria before. She was worried about staying with our daughter, and we hadn’t even visited the nearby bomb shelter before.
We had barely finished eating when we heard an air raid alert. It’s a familiar “music” now, and that was the first we heard ever. My daughter’s godfather and I joked my wife would kill me, because she kept insisting there would be an air raid alert when I left. I called my wife—she was already taking our daughter to the bomb shelter. So, we started preparing to direct people to our school’s bomb shelter. The first “visitors” arrived, and we took them to the basement, joking all the while to bring at least a little respite. The air raid alarm was short, and we discussed the new experience and got on the phone with our families after the All Clear signal. In the morning, I returned home with a sense of accomplishment.
People get used to everything. War is no exception—air raid alarms have become an ordinary thing for us already. To comfort my girls, we kept going to the basement, where a bomb shelter was set up. There is a positive side to everything. I finally got to know our neighbors better. Don’t get me wrong, those people are no strangers to me, but it’s as if I saw their other side at the time. I could write an entire book about that place. For now, all I’m going to say is that it was our safe haven whenever we went there.
The school shifts became a regular thing. It was like another job of mine, but I didn’t mind. Not that the shifts we had with my daughter’s godfather were anything hard. The following days were full of helping volunteers, prayers for Ukrainian soldiers at the church and at home, and other everyday things.
However, one evening became especially memorable. Sometime after 10 PM, I got a call.
– “Hello, is this Oleksandr Ivanenko?”
– “You are expected at the enlistment center by 7 AM tomorrow with all your personal documents for personal data verification.”
It was a regular phone call, and the procedure was nothing uncommon either, but I felt a little agitated. What did they mean by personal data verification? A few weeks before the war, my school colleagues and I went there to see their medical board and update our details. However, I was worried because something was afoot. I never liked that medical board thing and the lines to get the paperwork done. It made me sick. I always found bureaucracy outrageous, so I told my wife about that call. Women tend to blow things out of proportion, so she burst into tears, wailing, “How do we live here without you?” Luckily, an air raid alert started, and we went to the basement.
I went to the recruitment center the following morning, after my usual priestly ritual. Although I felt worried a little, the feeling was gone as soon as I entered the building. The procedure was brief—they just clarified the things they already knew and asked for details about my family. I also gave them photocopies of the documents proving my priestly status. They took the papers and asked me to pack an emergency bag. So, I left the enlistment center with a feeling of a duty fulfilled.
Days went by, and I got another late phone call.
“Come to the enlistment center tomorrow at 7:00 AM for deployment.”
This is where the adrenaline hit. It felt somewhat similar to what you’d have before a fight or an exam, but it was gone in seconds. Then came clarity of thought and lightness of spirit. I didn’t do compulsory military service and had no combat experience. So, I prayed: “Dear Lord, not my will, but Yours be done.” After all, everything is God’s will. All I asked for was that, God willing, I left at once and without any “Can and should a priest go to war?” fuss. I told my wife about the call, and she burst into tears again. An air raid alert was announced, but we decided to stay home.
I had to pack up, and we wanted to spend that time together. Indeed, you don’t realize how precious your family is until you are taken away from them. All I wanted then was to be together with them. I tried to comfort my wife. She asked questions as if challenging me, “You are a priest, and you had never served in the army! Why you?” My only solace was that it was the Lord’s will. With that thought, we all went to sleep.
I woke up surprised at how calm I felt. My brain worked similarly as if I was solving some moderately difficult problem. This state is much akin to that of a warmed-up car, ready for the trip and waiting for you to turn the key. Everything was as usual except for one tiny detail: it felt like my brain felt much snappier. The day before, we agreed that I would go alone, and nobody would see me off. We said goodbye, and a thought crept into my mind, what if I never see them again? But the calmness that overcame me in the morning helped get rid of it. It all was going to be alright. Those words are always with me. I even instantly coped with potentially losing my life. Perhaps it was the awareness of all the risks and faith in God that calmed me down. I left our apartment building, I looked back and saw the faces of my girls in our window. It made my heart beat faster. I turned and just kept going. After the first few steps, I felt overwhelmingly calm.
I realized I became a different man, and I had to withstand this test with God’s help and the prayers of my friends and family. There was nothing to worry about. On my way to the enlistment center, I sent a voice message to our family friend, asking him to cover for me and look after my girls.
And there it was, the enlistment center. There was a crowd of newly enlisted “Cossacks” like me, some with their families. I felt relieved to have left mine at home. Otherwise, I would have had a hard time leaving, even calm as I was. The sentry asked me who I was, where I was heading, and if I had a knife on me. The last one made me laugh. A priest with a knife—what a “romantic” thing to suggest. I submitted my documents and joined the others waiting for deployment.
After a brief conversation with my daughter’s godfather on the phone, I was reassured that I had been right to pick him as a godparent. I was confident my family would be alright, and he started bombarding me with questions and suggestions on how to make my stay with the Armed Forces more comfortable.
Then, the time as if slowed down. I waited, thinking about something. Over the past years, I discussed my problems only with my family and my daughter’s godparents. It felt inappropriate to bother my old parents or sisters, who had problems of their own. After all, their worries could break my newfound inner peace. Hour by hour, my mood improved as I waited. Then came a pleasant surprise. I saw my close friend among the enlisted—we were roommates with him as students. We shook hands and started discussing our situation and then decided to stick together, like in our student years.
Eventually, we were given our paperwork and invited to get on the bus. Our trip began. The trip was uneventful. Everyone looked lost in thought. We passed checkpoints, approaching the location where our further steps were to be decided.
Everything I do here is one unforgettable situation for me, and a curious one at that. For someone who never served in the army, handling arms is one the most exciting things. So far, I have fired AK-74 and the RPG-7 rocket launcher, and threw an F1 grenade. What initially struck me here was the atmosphere and how soldiers interacted with each other—those were the emotions the Cossacks might have had at their Sich. The first night at our place of deployment was hard. We slept fully clothed, basically on the floor of a cold room. My body was shivering from the cold in the morning, but I felt like I’d known those people all my life.
As for what I miss from the peaceful life… it’s the peaceful life itself, I guess. Sleep is in short supply here. In my spare time, I rest or exercise. I also pray and even sometimes attend the local church, going from my army service to a church service.
What I want the most now is that we win, achieving a total victory as well as returning and liberating all our temporarily occupied territories. Sadly, people realized what a treasure our Ukrainian language is only after the war hit. Now we have a lot of songs in Ukrainian, and they are great! When we win, we need to understand why Ukraine is often called our “mother” land. How can sons and daughters rob their mother? We put our lives on the line for Ukraine.
God preaches forgiveness. God teaches us not to kill, not to steal, and to honor our fathers and our mothers. We could forget the Russians, but not until about 50 years later, or even more than that. Their ungodliness caused this war. I know people and have relatives in Russia, but I have cut contact with all of them. I feel it’s impossible to make the Russians supporting war change their minds. It’s hard to explain to a fool that he’s a fool unless he understands that he’s a fool. They will realize what happens only after our victory, but even then not all of them will. I suggest you read Yuriy Gorlis-Gorsky’s Kholodny Yar if you want to understand the Russians. After we win, I plan to spend more time with my family.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Kateryna Bankova | Translation: Andrii Serbovets