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Chaplain Kostyantyn Kholodov: War is a terrible thing that changes a man’s mindset

Chaplain Kostyantyn Kholodov
Article by: Nataliya Lebid
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
We’ve waited almost two months to meet with Chaplain Kostyantyn Kholodov. The 42-year-old priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate is usually at the front, so we had to catch him when he came home on leave. Father Kostyantyn is a man of action – over three years with our men on the front lines, but also many months on Euromaidan as a member of a self-defense unit. We talk about volunteers, the Parliament, religion, atheism and God, but mainly about the war, which, according to Kholodov, changes everything in a human being.

The war is well into its fourth year, but the law on military chaplaincy has yet to be approved. On the other hand, the law on prison chaplains has been signed by the president. Why?

I don’t understand the nuances in prison chaplaincy. As for military chaplains, they’re currently regulated by the Minister of Defense. The bills for this law, if any, have disappeared somewhere in the profile committees. I don’t know why this has happened. If our deputies – the people we elected – are convinced that this question isn’t urgent, then they must say so…like, they believe that the army doesn’t need chaplains. Then everything will be clear and the army will stop waiting for the church, and the church will stop waiting for the authorities…

Regarding this law, Patriarch Filaret personally addressed the deputies, but his appeal was ignored…

Yes, our patriarch appealed to our politicians, but so did representatives of other churches. As far as I know, the bills were drafted… But, as there’s no law, the situation is like this: chaplains join military units; they travel to the war zone, but they have no social benefits like the soldiers. In other words, if a chaplain is killed in the war, his family won’t receive anything… because he doesn’t have the status of a participant in military operations.

But in February 2017, the National Guard introduced service for military chaplains with an employment contract. This is what military officials say. Is it true?

Yes, our priests are employed in the Armed Forces, but they aren’t considered servicemen, but workers of the Armed Force – electricians, stokers or cleaners. When they leave for the war zone, they don’t receive any benefits or social protection.

Incidentally, what’s the salary of a military chaplain?

It varies… from four to seven thousand hryvnias.

So, does everything depend on the Verkhovna Rada?

I don’t want to say anything bad about the Verkhovna Rada, but the deputies are dragging their feet…

Tell us how such pastoral missions began? Were all the priests initially volunteers who just wanted to go to the war zone?

I can tell you about myself. I started by delivering humanitarian aid to the eastern regions.  Then the soldiers and commanders asked me to say mass and attend to other spiritual matters. Some soldiers wanted to go to confession, others wanted to communicate through prayer… Each priest chose a military unit and stayed. But, this was voluntary work; there were no orders yet, no deployment.

Chaplain Kostyantyn on the front lines
Chaplain Kostyantyn on the front lines

A priest who wants to work as a chaplain can’t just abandon his parish. How does he change his status?

Are you talking about systematic work as a chaplain or volunteering?

What’s the difference?

Working as a chaplain means working under an employment contract. A priest, who leaves his parish, must obtain a note of approval from his superior, the bishop and the priest who will replace him. But, a volunteer priest just decides to go and see his friends in a certain military unit, bring them help or stay with them for a few days… Well, this also has to be approved, but it can be done by phone.

Where’s your parish?

It’s the village of Hurivshchyna in Kyiv Oblast.

Does anyone replace you when you go to the war zone?

Yes, of course.

Serving as parish priest in village of Hurivshchyna
Serving as parish priest in village of Hurivshchyna

How many priests have been to the war zone?

About 500 priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate… for at least a month.

Why one month? Who determines the period?

From the very beginning, it was decided that priests should stay in the war zone for at least a month, because firstly, it gives you more time to process documents and get all the papers at the General Staff, and, secondly, you’ll be able to meet more people in a month.

So, what happens after a month?

The priest goes home and waits for the next deployment. But, some priests stay for two, three or five months… Actually, some stay on forever. For example, there’s my friend Father Ivan who’s been in the war zone since July 2014. He’s from Donetsk Oblast and his home’s been occupied. He’s got nowhere to go, so he stayed in the Mariupol sector.

Earlier you said that “volunteer military units get their own priests”, while “we focus on the Armed Forces”. Is there still a shortage of chaplains in the Ukrainian army?

There’s a shortage of priests everywhere. One brigade – up to 5,000 men – may have two pastors, but this isn’t enough. Let’s keep in mind that the volunteer movement has decreased since 2014, and some volunteer units, such as the Donbas Battalion, have become part of the Ukrainian Army.

Who’s your immediate superior in the war zone? The commander?

Yes, of course. The commander is responsible for everything and everyone. And I have to follow his orders. If he tells everyone to run in that direction, we all run. The commander is responsible for the lives of all his men.

Priests aren’t allowed to bear arms. Have there been instances when this has happened?

Our army is strong enough to withstand the enemy without involving priests. Everyone has a job to do. Even if priests become officers, that is, they become servicemen, there’s a provision in the Helsinki Accords of 1977 stipulating that military chaplains are non-combatants.

But, you carry a weapon, don’t you? At least for personal protection?

No, I don’t. My friends are near me, and they’re all armed. They’re my protection.

Picture from a peaceful life, 2012. Father Kostyantyn with a 16 kilo catch of carps
Picture from a peaceful life, 2012. Father Kostyantyn with a 16 kilo catch of carps

Priests serve as chaplains in the war zone. Can it be the other way around? For example, do any soldiers subsequently take monastic vows or something else?

I haven’t heard anything about monks, but I know several men who want to enter the priesthood after the war.

Why have they made such a decision?

The war… It’s opened their eyes and changed their views of the world. Although war is a terrible thing, it changes the mindset of a warrior. Some men become animals, others become more human…

Actually, priests remain with the men in order to stop them from turning into animals. Even though they’re surrounded by blood and death, they can say: “God loves you although you may think that you’ve been punished. But, that’s not true, because you’re really better than those who didn’t come here because God has chosen you.” Such simple words can make the hardest situations look easier.

The Kyiv Patriarchate has always provided material assistance to the troops. Is this still relevant?

Patriarch Filaret is our most active volunteer. He’s never stopped helping our troops, even though the Ukrainian Army has bounced back and is better equipped than before. The patriarch continues to assist individual brigades and battalions; he never refuses a cry for help; he buys machinery and equipment… In 2014, he was a great example to us all, and he still is despite the fact that so many of us have become discouraged. The patriarch – despite his venerable age – continues to work as a volunteer…with a capital “V”.

Patriarch Filaret of the UOC-KP
Patriarch Filaret of the UOC-KP

Describe your ordinary day… What does it consist of?

Every day is different. The situation is a little better now, there’s less active military combat… But, our brigade doesn’t remain in one position; we move around almost every day, and that can mean up to 70 kilometres in the war zone. What does a chaplain do in this case? He draws up a plan for the week and gets it approved by the commander… but of course, this is an ideal situation when you can actually plan ahead. So, the chaplain goes to one control point on Monday, to another on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, let’s say, he has to travel to yet another place and stay there for a few days because someone really needs his help…

Can a soldier contact you at any moment? Or are there special hours for confession?

Ideally, a “chaplain hour” should be organized once or twice a week. This is the time needed to talk with the men, with those who wish to do so, of course. For example, if a religious holiday is coming up, I explain it to the men, or give them a motivating talk. We talk about why they’re here while their neighbours Vasyl and Petro are back home, making business deals. However, most of the men serve under contract, so they don’t need to be motivated – they know where they are and why they’re here. But, sometimes, they get depressed, and that’s when a chaplain must be there for everyone…

When do you say Mass?

Actually, on Sunday… that is, every day, because there’s no Sunday in war. Every day is a Monday…

Do the men ever ask you to forgive them for committing murder?

There’s no murder in a war, especially if we’re talking about defensive actions, not offensive ones. If the enemy has to be killed, it’s because he wants to die. He knew that if he invaded our land with a weapon in his hands, he’d be liquidated. Men kill themselves through their own actions. There’s no desire to kill, there’s only a desire to defend. But, every day we see that the only way to stop the enemy is to use physical means, like a knife or a bullet – it really doesn’t matter – the target is to stop him. So, there are no murders in a war; we’re left with no other choice but to eliminate the enemy.

You mentioned depression…have you had to deal with suicidal thoughts or intentions?

That’s never happened, but some of my colleagues have been in such situations. I talk to men who are in a bad mood, or those who have problems at home … I try to identify such fighters immediately and pray for them, but most importantly, they must be sent home. Let the guy go home; let him see his wife or girl-friend. Let the commander take responsibility, but at least a soldier’s life will be saved.

What’s the hardest thing to bear in war?

Being away from home and family. This problem concerns everyone in the army. But, I’m not a soldier, so I can pack my bag and go and see my family any time. If you draw up a soldier’s chart, you’ll see that he spends only 25% of his time at home…

Seeing how many people have died, do you ever question your faith? Aren’t you angry with God?

No. God doesn’t kill people.

But God allows killings…

God allows death. We all stand on the threshold of eternity, but some of us will leave earlier, and others later. Dying in battle is an honourable death for every man. Of course, I plan to live to a ripe old age and die surrounded by my children and grandchildren, but look… here’s a young man who died in combat, and he’ll remain young and beautiful forever… I repeat: we all stand on the threshold of eternity, but some will be heroes, and others – scum.

How many denominations are represented in the war zone?

There are many… Orthodox, Greek Catholics, who I’m good friends with, and Protestants…

Protestants preach pacifism, but they have military chaplains, and I don’t understand this.

And Orthodox don’t preach pacifism?


What do you mean?

Pacifism is when the church forbids its faithful to take up arms. That’s what the Protestants say, so I don’t understand what their chaplains are doing in the war zone. But, never mind…

If an Orthodox priest and a Protestant pastor work in one region, will there be friction?

No. At least, I’ve never felt it. War isn’t the place where we divide our flock.

What about proselytism (attempt of any religion to convert people to their beliefs-Ed)?

Unfortunately, it exists.


No, they’re not alone…But, that’s no reason to quarrel. I’m ready to cooperate with everyone; the only exception is the Moscow Patriarchate.

Incidentally, in the summer of 2017, the Cabinet of Ministers banned UOC-MP chaplains from working in the war zone. Have they been or wanted to be in the Ukrainian Army before?

They’ve always tried. At the beginning of the war, they were as quiet as mice because they didn’t know what was happening. The “рускій мір” (Russian world) was advancing, and in the occupied territories Moscow-connected priests met the invaders with bread and salt; they were perfect collaborators; they cooperated and still cooperate with the Russians, but when the Russian offensive was stopped, they were confused and began thinking about which way they should run. Some of them still haven’t decided, and others have realized that the “Russia world” will never happen, and now they’re willing to help the Armed Forces. From the point of view of state security, I wouldn’t allow them to serve, and I wouldn’t allow them to go anywhere – not to the army, not to the war zone, not to the hospitals where they want to “preach”. It would be different if they preached about Christ, but they don’t…

Some fighters belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, right?

Yes, I’ve met a few.

How do you communicate with them?

Some people left the UOC-MP in 2014, but the more fanatical ones remained. But, there aren’t very many of them. I don’t think that a Moscow-connected priest should be allowed to work in the army just because there are one or two UOC-MC servicemen.

So, they’re fanatically committed to the “Russian world”, but they serve in the Ukrainian Army?

No, they’re devoted to the Russian church. They believe in it more than in God. I’ve talked with some of them on this topic because I wanted to know why they think this way.

They explained that’s how they were brought up. One has relative, a priest of the UOC-MP, etc… That’s the way they were taught and brainwashed…

The UOC-KP has survived in the occupied territories. Have you had a chance to talk to these priests? How do they manage in the “DNR” and “LNR”?

They’ve gone underground. In fact, they don’t serve… And it’s extremely difficult for them. I’ve heard about them, but I’m not in touch with any of them.

Are our fighters more believers or atheists?

There are also quite a few atheists. But, I wouldn’t call them atheists, but deists… They say that there’s a certain power (they don’t say “God”), but it has nothing to do with us, and we have nothing to do with it. That means – every man’s here by and for himself. I don’t know where they get their convictions. Perhaps, they’ve had some bad experiences with priests and the church.

Maybe not bad experiences with the clergy, but bad experiences with God, who allows such terrible things to happen?

If people think this way, they should study history. Human life is often divided into two periods – “before the war” and “after the war”. If you want to understand what’s happening, you should gain more knowledge. But simply waving your hand and saying: “God is bad because there’s a war.” is wrong. Did God make you drink and beat your wife and children yesterday? No! You did it, you beat them… because you always have a choice, because you’re human… and in the end, there’s war.

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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