Ukrainian Christian Battalion ‘St. Mary’ – radical ideas and war-time realities
On a Sunday morning in Kiev, civilian and military-clad people gather for mass. Only, this isn’t one of many Ukrainian capital‘s churches, but an illegally built shack in Nivsky Park, in the suburbs of Kyiv. Those in military attire are from the only Ukrainian Christian Orthodox Battalion ‘Saint Mary‘.
“We have seen death, we know what it means” – says Dimitry Korchinsky, the founder of the battalion. Having already made headlines with his radical ideas, he has dubbed the battalion as “Christian Taliban.”
Korchinsky founded the Christian battalion in the strategic southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, following restructuring of Shaktorsk Battalion, which fought in the encirclement of Illovaisk – the biggest tragedy in modern Ukrainian military history.
Korchinsky called to fight until “Moscow burns” – he has also aquired extensive contacts in the Caucasus region, having fought against the Russians during the Chechnyan conflict. “We need to open a second front against Russia in the Caucasus; I think Dagestan will be very important,” says Korchinsky.
Two Chaplains work in constant rotation, who support the fighting spirit of the unit and provide religious services. “Some go to war with a weapon, I go to war with a cross,” says Georgiev, one of battalion’s Chaplains.
“Of course there are people amongst us who say, that religion isn’t important. But deep down, they believe- otherwise why would they be with us?”- says Georgiev. “Atheists until the first shelling,” laughs one of the soldiers.
However, away from Range Rovers and Mercedes jeeps belonging to St. Mary in Kyiv – “bought, not donated,” according to Korchinsky, the ultra-Christian façade crumbles from the daily military routine.
In the morning, one person prays; the rest of the unit says Hail Mary in the evening. On Holy days, one of unit’s young Chaplains – ‘Puritan’, a nom de guerre – leads the mass.
“Yes, you can say I’m religious, even though before I only used to go the church for the ceremonies”, laughs ‘Aligator’ from Donetsk. “People don’t understand us; I was waiting for a train, and some National Guardsmen were staring at me – they think that we go to battle with a cross in front of us.”
“They called us Taliban maybe because of the beards?”, also laughs ‘Zhyvchik’. All, except a few people, are proud of their extensive beards. “National Guard were asking me, if we all were dembel?” – laughs ‘Zhyvchik’ in reference to the term, used by the Soviet army for soldiers growing beards and moustaches before returning home from military service.
‘Aligator’s’ family has stayed in Donetsk, forcing him to conceal his face and real name – as with most others serving in volunteer battalions who go exclusively by their nicknames. “I am Ukrainian, and I’m defending my country. It’s not important what language we speak – Russian or Ukrainian,” says ‘Aligator’.
‘Aligator’s view on war is the same as Korchinsky’s; “This war is black and white, we fight for ‘white’. God is on our side, and there [Russia] is black – you can say Satan.”
The split between Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchates during the War in Donbass can also be felt within St. Mary: “I don’t understand how Moscow Patriarchate can support Putin and Kremlin’s politics,” says ‘Aligator’.
Moscow’s patriarchate has allegedly been backing separatists, providing material and ideological support. “I went to the mass in Krasnoarmeisk, led by the Moscow Patriarchate,” says ‘Zhyvchik’, “and there, the priests begins telling us how Ukrainian volunteers were killing women in the villages.”
After Poroshenko’s policy of legalising the volunteer battalions, all battalions have been assigned to the army or the police forces. “When we were in Mariupol after Ilovaisk, when the battalion was still informal,“ remembers ‘Zhyvchik’, “we used to go to the frontlines and speak with our forces there – can we stay here, help you. They used to greet us with open doors.”
St. Mary battalion has been assigned to special division of the police forces after legalisation. Dispatched north of Debalceve, the soldiers travel in old, donated vans. They also have a several Russian APCs vehicles and 1950s BRDM – “This one is also bought by volunteers, but we use only for training,” says battalion’s mechanic.
Culmination of unit’s military action came, when the still informal battalion took part in the assault east of Mariupol, retaking the village of Pavlopil from the separatists. During this attack, which took
place in February 2015, battalion suffered 3 casualties – Amin, Tichy and Niemec.
Currently, St. Mary’s main objective is reconnaissance – patrolling the buffer zone, where most people still support separatists, whilst also collecting information about enemy in the frontlines and conducting diversionary missions. Additionally, a team of drone pilots operate within the battalion.
Disorganisation in Ukrainian frontline is tackled by the work of this battalion – intelligence received from Kyiv rarely reaches frontline units.
“Our job is very important,” says ‘Stulz’. “We collect information from our people in the frontline, and then we fly. We’ve met this cool Major, ‘Father Fire’, who said: ‘come to us, I don’t care about all these Minsks [peace agreements], we are ready to fire’”.
Three people have transferred from Dnepr-1, another volunteer unit. “Of course we came here due to Religious reasons, but not only,” says ‘Litoevc’.
One of the problems, which they reluctantly admit, was that the unit’s commanders were profiting from war. “They were making money from the smuggling business, we couldn’t accept it,” says ‘Litoevc’.
Koste has a nickname of ‘Litoevc’, because has long lived in Vilnius, Lithuania. “We had a business with my wife, but returned before the war,” says Koste, “maybe it will be ‘hot’ here for a year or so, and that’s it; no one cares, it has always been this way – everyone has their own problems.”
“Of course there was the religious aspect with St. Mary, why we came here. Myself, I’ve been an active member of a Christian organization,” says Igor, one of those who has left Dnepr-1. “But there has always been religious and nationalist organisations during the war- we have a Chechnyan battalion, Tatar, etc.”
“The legalisation of the battalion is limiting us,” says ‘Kordon’, who has fought alongside Korchinsky in Chechnya. “There was much more of us when we were back in Mariupol.”
Due to limited amount of fighting the unit takes part in, some are already losing motivation. “I’m leaving the battalion, will try to go to Pisky with the ‘informals’,” says Kalina, also a member of ‘Revenche’ – a radical National-Socialist group, persecuted by the Kyiv government.
“If they try to relocate us to somewhere in Dnipropetrovsk [200 kilometres from the frontlines], for example, we will all leave; we’re not the police,” says ‘Tarantino’, one of battalion’s commanders.
“When will the separatist offensive start, I’m tired of waiting,” he swears.