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From Maidan to Eastern Border, Ukrainians Confront Spiritual and Emotional Needs

WEB Keiv Ukraine Confession Jim Forest CC

Jim Forest CC


John Burger - published on 09/03/14

Mental health professionals dealing with challenges in ongoing conflict.

Even as their country faces the prospect of a Russian invasion, a group of young Ukrainian mental health professionals spent a long week in the United States seeking ways to help heal the wounds of conflict.

Under the auspices of the Open World Leadership Center, an agency of the U.S. Congress, the delegation of about 25 Ukrainian mental health care workers and clergymen came to Yale University School of Medicine in late August to hear about techniques to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Several of them spoke with Aleteia at the end of the short but intensive course.

Since 1999, Open World has supported Congressional outreach to Eurasia and other countries. It conducts exchanges that establish lasting professional relationships between the up-and-coming leaders of those countries and Americans dedicated to showcasing U.S. values and democratic institutions.

All of the participants visting New Haven, Conn., have been responding to psychological and spiritual needs that have arisen from the crisis in Ukraine. Many of them were there from the beginning, getting involved in the  EuroMaidan protest that began last fall in the country’s capital after then-President Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign a deal that would have made closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union.

Those protests turned violent when the government began to crack down. In February, 100 or so demonstrators were killed by government snipers.

Marina Sidorkina, a research fellow and child psychologist from Kiev, said that when she witnessed demonstrators getting stressed out—and especially when she saw volunteers without psychological training trying to counsel bereaved families—she felt an urge to get more involved.

“I felt very deep empathy towards the relatives of those who died, and I felt God was calling me to do this,” said Sidorkina, 29, who already had experience counseling the bereaved. “I was just praying for the people who had died and for their loved ones, that God would calm their hearts and give them peace.”

Another Kievan, Christina Shevchenko, 25, and her husband attended the demonstrations from the beginning last fall, and because she has some medical training, eventually got more involved, in a nursing capacity. After the shootings in February, she saw that more and more people had “severe stress disorder.”

“I had to deal with it as a psychotherapist,” said Shevchenko, a psychologist who has a small practice as a holistic coach.

The night of the shootings, she tended to a man who was so stressed out that he was almost unconscious. His body was shaking and he remembered nothing. He didn’t even believe he was in Kiev.

But when Shevchenko repeated a political slogan that was being used in the demonstrations, it jogged his memory.

“This was the first time I saw something conscious in his eyes. This was the thing he was chanting so many times,” she said. “Later, his full consciousness came back.”

Now, Shevchenko works with families of soldiers killed in the East, where the Ukrainian army is battling pro-Russian separatists, and although she stays in the capital, she expressed appreciation for colleagues in the field who go to work in the war zone.

“They are risking their lives, but it’s really important to do this work because soldiers are under so much stress. If they are in the war zone for more than 40 days it’s extremely harmful to your psyche.”

One member of the delegation in New Haven who has been to the war zone is Father Sergiy Dmitriev. Like Shevchenko, he was born in Murmansk, Russia, but his sympathies lie with Ukraine—so much so that he left the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, where he had been a priest for 18 years, to join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate. The latter was formed in the wake of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union.

“I actively participated in Maidan, and after Crimea was annexed I served as a military chaplain,” said Father Dmitriev, 39. “In early July I took my parish with me and moved to the Kiev Patriarchate. I’m convinced that the Russian Orthodox Church based in Moscow exercises pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate in support of separatism in the East. We see calls for peace coming from the Moscow clergy but we also see there is a huge divide between what they say and what is done in the East.”

Father Dmitriev, deputy head of the department of social service and charity in the Kiev Patriarchate, claims to know of cases where Moscow priests have participated in the kidnapping and torture of priests belonging to other denominations and religions. “Based on that I could no longer stay with a Church that proclaimed such double standards,” he said through an interpreter, Roman Oleksenko.

The training that Yale offered the 25 professionals will be implemented in as many ways back in Ukraine. Father Andriy Lohin, for example, plans to develop a nationwide network of PTSD training for spiritual leaders and is initiating an opening of several psychological assistance centers for Maidan victims.

Father Lohin, 38, is a priest at the Lviv archdiocese of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and chairman of the Commission for Pastoral Health Care. His involvement in Maidan and the events since then has been not only as a chaplain but also through the chaplain corps he oversees. Priests—both Catholic and Orthodox—not only led prayer services on Independence Square and sometimes cooled tensions between protesters and police but also saw many of the wounded and dying in hospitals.

“We saw how important it was to be physically present in the hospital,” Father Lohin said through the same interpreter, Oleksenko. “Many people in Ukraine still live in the sense that they’re far away from God; they don’t realize how important their relationship with God should be, but when they face death many people started asking themselves ‘What are we going to do next? Do I have an eternal soul? Have I lived a good life? What am I going to tell God?’ It was then our presence gave us a chance to offer answers.”

Because some of the wounded were arrested for anti-government activity, they were under heavy guard in special hospitals, and only doctors and lawyers had access to them. Father Lohin had to negotiate to get priests access as well.

“I personally remember entering a (hospital) room in front of which there were about 10 police officers,” he said. “The space between the beds was so small that a person could hardly walk between them. There were two cops in the room and they never left the room. They were constantly on guard there. Patients were not allowed to talk among themselves.”

Father Lohin remembered some patients who had “very serious head injuries.”

“When I walked in, I looked in the eyes of one, and initially there was a blank look, emotionless. Then I saw a spark of hope, and felt like all of a sudden he woke up. Then I realized that our long negotiations with the police were necessary because these people confessed and received the sacraments. So we came on a daily basis.

"I’m confident," he concluded, "that many of these people encountered God for the first time and in that room they found God.”

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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