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The Interview with Hieromonk Maxim and Hierodeacon Tarasius | Part 2

Channels of God’s Grace in the Heart of the War Zone (Part 2)

Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky) and Hierodeacon Tarasius (Chich)

Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky) and Hierodeacon Tarasius (Chich) continue their story about how they minister to the participants of the Special Military Operation in the steppes of Donbas.

They say we all walk under God, but surely that is even more true during wartime?

Hieromonk Maxim: A  priest from our monastery recently volunteered to visit hospitals. He was heading to a mobile unit stationed near Bakhmut, and getting there on time was crucial. But for some reason, his departure kept getting delayed. He was understandably anxious, thinking, “Come on, we have to go!” When he finally arrived, however, he was met with a shocking sight — the hospital was ablaze. Apparently, it had been hit by a Himars. It hit him then — if he hadn’t been held up, he would’ve been right there in the fire. This is a perfect example of how God guides us. There are no such things as unimportant details during the war. One must always be alert, to oneself and the events happening around.

Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky)

Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky)

War can brutalise people or bring them closer to God. What determines which way it goes?

Hieromonk Maxim: War, like any profound hardship, can either push a person towards faith or leave them bitter and resentful of the world. The answer lies within the individual. Whatever the circumstances that God allows, He also bestows us with the grace to endure them. But what blocks it from reaching our hearts? It’s the rejection of our situation, the refusal of the cross God sends for our salvation. They can break it or even crush it completely. And at the Last Judgment, as they stand before God, complaining, “Why did you subject me to such suffering?” the Lord will simply respond, “Look around.” Suddenly, they will see themselves within that situation and the grace of God that they chose to reject. War is filled with such moments, where a person’s free will plays a crucial role. If they can accept, even intellectually, what has befallen them, God grants them strength. As priests, pastoral counselling and sacraments are channels of God’s grace for believers. Remember the words from the Gospel of Luke (18:27): “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Look at the lives of our confessors and new martyrs — their stories are hair-raising. How did they endure such torture? Through God’s unwavering support, of course.

I saw a video of a soldier from the Ukrainian army reciting the prayer “Lord our Father”. It seems like both sides go into battle with prayers on their lips, and mothers on both sides pray for their sons. It makes you wonder, who truly has God’s favour in this conflict?

Hieromonk Maxim: In these chaotic times, we all crave some kind of order, a clear division of good versus evil. But God is with any believer, whether they fight for the Ukrainian Armed Forces or the Russian army. We cannot claim that all Ukrainian soldiers are Nazis, villains, or thugs. We recently spoke with someone involved in prisoner exchanges and the repatriation of the deceased. He interacts with a commander from the Ukrainian army who is incredibly respectful and cooperative. There are even examples of Ukrainian prisoners who have chosen to fight alongside us, liberating their country from Nazism. The truth is, there are many good people caught in this war, people who understand the bigger picture but lack any real agency. They’re drafted, handed a weapon, and threatened with execution if they desert. It’s easy for us to stand on the sidelines and say, “Fight for what’s right!” But these soldiers have families to consider...

Hierodeacon Tarasius (Chich)

Hierodeacon Tarasius (Chich)

Hierodeacon Tarasius:... Threats against their families and loved ones are a powerful tool. Ukrainian soldiers are also bombarded with propaganda, painting Russians as bloodthirsty tyrants. There’s no turning back for them — their side would likely execute them, and surrendering is risky because they have been told a lot of lies. Sadly, they are forced into battle, but not many on that side even roughly understand what is really happening. Frankly, I believe there are far fewer genuinely devout people on that side. Many seem to have strayed far from God’s path. The rise of Nazism is undeniable — we’ve seen symbols associated with the Azov Battalion, like swastikas and goat heads, which point to satanic rituals conducted in their base camps. They have little humanity left — they murder and they rape.

What struck you most about the soldiers in the Russian army?

Hieromonk Maxim: In all the places we visited, we never saw hatred in the soldiers towards the enemy. Initially, I questioned the truth of my observation, thinking we hadn’t seen everything. But then, by chance, I received a recording from a British reporter. He wanted to see the war from this side, and even he was astonished: “I’ve traversed your entire frontline,” he said, “and nowhere did I witness any animosity.” This confirmed the truth of my observations.

Naturally, the loss of comrades evokes a natural urge for revenge. While those emotions exist, there’s no underlying bitterness. There’s no widespread desire for complete annihilation. That’s a source of encouragement. Hatred cannot take you very far. It can provide a temporary spark, but dwelling on it ultimately destroys you. We see the stark opposite on the other side — a torrent of hate and unimaginable bitterness.

Hierodeacon Tarasius: Our soldiers themselves emphasise the importance of retaining their humanity, no matter the situation. “War is war,” they say, “but we can’t stoop to their level (referring to the enemy). We’re fighting for a just cause, defending our homeland. If we mimicked their actions, how would we be any better than them? What would we be fighting for?” So they keep their hatred at bay. They treat prisoners with compassion. They receive them as brothers, offering them food, clothing, and even contacting their families. This kindness shatters the stereotypes Ukrainians hold about our soldiers.

Meeting with monks from Optina Pustyn

Meeting with monks from Optina Pustyn

Medics often get caught in the crossfire, from both sides. How does that reconcile with the need to remain human?

Hieromonk Maxim: Unfortunately, war doesn’t always bend to universal Christian principles. It’s a harsh reality. Take the Russo-Finnish War, for instance. Enemy recon teams kept infiltrating Soviet territory and destroying hospitals. To counter this, a Soviet general ordered a similar operation: our troops infiltrated Finnish territory and destroyed a hospital. It was a brutal tactic, but it stopped the attacks on our medical facilities. In such extreme situations, soldiers are forced to respond with equal force.

Hierodeacon Tarasius: It’s crucial to distinguish between medical personnel treating soldiers and evacuation teams rescuing the wounded from the battlefield. The other side even bombs our “ambulance” brigades, the ones specifically helping civilians! Thankfully, our side shows compassion and doesn’t target their “ambulances” transporting wounded soldiers to hospitals for no reason. Ukraine, on the other hand, frequently engages in such acts. Their disregard for humanity breaks all the rules of war. They seem to prioritise eliminating rescue teams coming to aid the injured. It’s almost like they deliberately create situations with casualties to lure more people out, maximising their kill count. Here’s a chilling example: Back in October, Ukrainian forces shelled a residential area in Donetsk. A Ukrainian drone hovered overhead, and as rescue workers and ambulances arrived to help civilians, Ukrainian soldiers unleashed another barrage. All the doctors perished. We witnessed this tragedy firsthand.

Hieromonk Maxim: These are people who have nothing to do with the fighting. Why target them? It’s a question that continues to baffle us.

Some have compared going to the warzone to a pilgrimage to Mount Athos or the Holy Land. What are your thoughts on that?

Hieromonk Maxim: This idea was expressed by Bishop Pitirim (Tvorogov) of Skopin in one of his sermons. He’s a frequent visitor to the war zone, and may his efforts be blessed. He said this: “On the surface, it appears like hell — explosions everywhere, death, blood, violence, tragedy, and tears. But then I look into the eyes of the soldiers, and I see paradise within them. When I return home, I see paradise all around — children playing, birds singing, young couples strolling in the park. But when I look into the eyes of the people, I see hell, because they live in sin.”

His words vividly capture the essence of the situation. There’s a special grace of God present there. A potent sign of this grace is the myrrh-streaming icon of the Mother of God "Donetsk. It weeps myrrh so abundantly that entire glasses can be filled with the miraculous oil. Typically, myrrh-streaming happens gradually, just a few drops at a time. What does this signify? The undeniable presence of the Mother of God. Of course, she is interceding for us, and through her prayers, the Lord will show mercy upon the Russian land.

However, widespread repentance is crucial. Throughout history, Russia has only found liberation from foreign domination through collective repentance. On the other hand, disunity always drew invaders. Take the Mongol-Tatar Horde for example. Their success stemmed from our disunity. If we had stood together at the time, perhaps the Horde wouldn’t have conquered us. However, internal strife caused some princes to side with the Horde. We see a similar pattern today — our enemies have fractured the once-unified Russia, and the Ukrainian prince has sided with the Western Horde.

But this is only a consequence. What’s the cause? The sin amongst the Russian people and the lack of repentance. Historically, when we lived under oppression and repented for our transgressions, we witnessed miracles like those revealed through Dmitry Donskoi and other unifiers of Russian lands, and we found liberation. The visible strife today reflects the internal state of our society — a society riddled with sin: abortions, immoral lifestyles, and even sorcery. Especially in our major cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, confession reveals a disturbing trend — people experimenting with dark forces, resorting to divination and spirit summoning. These acts are an abomination in God’s eyes! This accumulated sin has begotten such large-scale consequences for our entire nation.

The first step towards healing is repentance. We must turn inwards, towards God and the Mother of God. We fully believe that once God’s wrath subsides, His mercy will be upon us.

Brothers from Optina Pustyn

Brothers from Optina Pustyn

What changes will it take within society to bring the special military operation to an end? Does everyone need to become religious? How do you imagine it?

Hieromonk Maxim: In ancient Rus’, there was a saying: “A single righteous person can uphold a city.” Remember the story of Abraham speaking with God about Sodom’s destruction? He asked, “Lord, if you find even ten righteous people in the city, would you spare it?” The Lord replied: “I would not destroy the city if I found ten righteous people.” But what happens when those ten righteous people are no longer there? We see the tragic consequences. Therefore, if a significant part of those who can repent will repent and turn to God, the Lord will show mercy upon our cities.

On a broader scale, the Russian people need to rediscover their identity and chart a new course, one that doesn’t follow the West. Saint Theophan the Recluse eloquently wrote in a letter, “God has always punished the Russian people for their infatuations. They were captivated by the French — and came 1812.” Following this logic, their fascination with Germany brought about 1914. Now, we find ourselves captivated by America and the West, and so we face punishment. God’s hand guides history with a clear purpose. If we learn from the past and understand the mistakes our ancestors made, perhaps we can avoid repeating them in the future.

Bishop Pityrim (whom you mentioned earlier) said that monks should not necessarily rush to the front. Their primary duty lies in prayer at the monastery.

Hieromonk Maxim: It’s about finding balance. We visit the war zone every one and a half months, staying for 10-14 days. This schedule is the best compromise, as it allows us to both pray and offer practical help. Remember the story of Mary and Martha — God values both. Of course, for hermits living in secluded locations like Mount Athos or Abhasian mountains, complete estrangement from politics is an essential part of their feat. Their calling is akin to angelic service. However, our monastery has a missionary purpose. We receive many visitors, and serving them is the core of our ministry. To isolate ourselves completely just would not be right.

His Holiness the Patriarch, in a recent sermon at the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, acknowledged that these times call for monastics to also engage in external activities to support soldiers. This doesn’t mean every monastery should be emptied, or every monk deployed to hospitals or the front. But it’s a call for monks to consider external work and service.

What personally motivates you to travel to the conflict zone time and again?

Hieromonk Maxim: My purpose is to assist those on the precipice of life and death, perhaps helping them catch the last train to the Kingdom of Heaven. A shepherd must guide people closer to God’s realm. The circumstances there create a unique space for self-realisation. A soldier who might otherwise engage in negative behaviours like drinking or stealing becomes receptive to God’s word when looking death in the face. The Lord provides these moments for a reason. Many there, like the wise thief on the cross, enter the Kingdom of Heaven through these experiences. We feel ourselves acting as instruments of God. Through us, the Lord grants many soldiers the opportunity to partake in the Kingdom of Heaven, soldiers who might never have stepped foot in a church under normal circumstances.

Hierodeacon Tarasius: Knowing these men are fighting and perhaps dying for us, you can’t help but ask what you can do to help them. Prayer is essential, of course. But when the opportunity arose to go, I didn’t refuse. Initially, I lacked understanding of the situation there. Upon arrival, I felt a special grace and knew I’d made the right decision. Naturally, all our actions are done with blessings and obedience. Still, there’s a strong desire to contribute in some way. Words of encouragement and conversation are vital. The priests offer confessions and communion, and we deacons assist in any way possible. Even a simple conversation with a soldier before confession can be very significant. The spiritual aspect is paramount. The priest mentioned the narrow gate through which many enter the Kingdom of Heaven. While the fates of mobilised soldiers and volunteers in the outside world are uncertain, behind the line they exist in a situation where reaching the Kingdom of Heaven can be much faster and, in a way, even easier. The realisation that you’re contributing even a small part to this process brings immense comfort. Grace envelops all, and the Lord provides support.

parishioners meeting with monks

Monastery guests and parishioners meeting with monks from Optina Pustyn

Does fear ever creep in during these visits?

Hierodeacon Tarasius: Sometimes. There have been moments when I wake up in the night to the distant rumble of explosions. Anxiety washes over you — you pray and try to go back to sleep. One time, we were sheltering under a canopy when shelling began. A drone must have spotted us because the barrage lasted a gruelling 40 minutes. In those moments, it’s hard to process your emotions entirely. Only later did we learn that they fired 15 shells at our position and, miraculously, nine of them did not detonate. No one was injured. It was a clear act of divine protection. The Lord watches over us.

How much difference do letters make to soldiers you visit in the war zones, even if they are from strangers?

Hierodeacon Tarasius: Time and again, I see the impact firsthand. The letters give them inspiration, comfort and immense help. A hardened soldier, a grown man, can be brought to tears by a simple letter from a child. The words touch something deep inside them. The letters remind them they’re not forgotten, that there are people back home who believe in their cause and are praying for them. Sometimes, doubt creeps in and they wonder why they’re there when everybody else is doing something else, but these moments of weakness quickly end as soon as they read a letter.

We even heard from a surgeon at a field hospital behind the front line who specifically requested our help getting the word out. He wants people to write to the wounded soldiers there, too, and to include their return addresses. Every letter gets a reply, and it becomes a crucial part of their recovery. It gives them something to focus on besides the pain and the worry. So, yes, letters are needed. If you’d like to write, you can send your message to: 291001, Lugansk, Post Office No. 1, P.O. Box 55. The soldiers there are waiting to hear from you, and they will write back.

Interviewer: Olga Kosyakova

Photos: Maxim Chernogolov

CHANNELS OF GOD’S GRACE IN THE HEART OF THE WAR ZONE (PART 1)

May 10, 2024
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