How the Ukraine War Is Causing Fissures in D.C.’s Russian Orthodox Community

St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Northwest Washington.
St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Northwest Washington. (Maansi Srivastava/The Washington Post)

Inside a Moscow-affiliated church located at the center of American democracy

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On Feb. 24, Archpriest Victor Potapov, the rector of St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in D.C., emerged through the ornate doors of the sanctuary and stood in front of parishioners scattered throughout the church. A moleben, or special prayer service, had been quickly assembled in response to that morning’s news about Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Clothed in an embroidered golden vestment, a piece of paper in hand, Potapov addressed his parishioners. He spoke in English, then translated each sentence into flawless Russian.

“Dear brothers and sisters, I’m sure that this morning when you all woke up it was very troubling to hear the news that a war has broken out in the region of Ukraine,” he said, steering clear of naming Russia as the aggressor. He then suggested that Russia, Ukraine and the United States were all at fault: “It is not my place to analyze what happened, who is to blame. I’m sure that there is blame on all sides and even on the side of our country.” He invited parishioners to “pray for peace in the entire world.”

When I spoke to Potapov several months later, he explained his decision not to take sides. “Our policy is not to discuss politics in church, because we have people of different views, and I know that,” he told me. “I always stress that we come to church to pray and not to politicize.”

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At a church where nearly 35 percent of believers are Ukrainian, and most of the rest are Russians and American converts, Potapov was in a difficult spot. And his opaque response to the war seemed like a wise decision to some parishioners. “We have church members who have family members in the Russian military, and those with family members in the Ukrainian military,” says William Wilson, 35, who serves on the 10-member parish council. “It’s important to be sensitive to people and their views.”

The parish council, which works in partnership with Potapov, brainstormed ideas on how to support Ukraine without stirring political debates. “Some people suggested a big sign — ‘war is bad’ — and have that on the front of the church,” Wilson recalls. He proposed inviting local Ukrainian churches to pray to relics of saints from a medieval monastery complex in Kyiv that are now housed at St. John’s. “A joint prayer service for peace would be a very powerful witness,” says Wilson. “And you wouldn’t have to talk about whose fault it is. There is a thing we all agree on: that this war should not be happening.”

Ultimately the parish, which consists of about 500 families, channeled its efforts toward tangible humanitarian aid, primarily funds and supplies for Ukrainian refugees. “I know that there are many people who have strong thoughts about which side is right, but part of Christianity frankly is realizing that nobody’s heart is really pure,” says Wilson, a former atheist who converted to Orthodoxy a few years after a friend suggested he check out St. John’s — where he was stunned by the liturgy, choir and church interior. He hopes the war ends quickly, “with as little additional death and destruction as possible,” he says. “I don’t know very much about foreign policy, but I pray for the intercession of the saints of the Kyiv caves to bring peace to their land.”

Others in the parish, however, thought the church should have taken a tougher stance. Lena, 46, began attending St. John’s 20 years ago when she first came from Russia. (She did not want her last name published to protect her family in Russia.) When the war began in February, she couldn’t bring herself to come to church. “I kind of lost the connection with God,” she says. “There was no definite position stated, and I don’t know how you can justify this war.” Yet she missed the worship, the liturgy. So, she came back and focused on charity and volunteering, still holding out hope that a more concrete position would be expressed. The clergy’s authority — there are eight members, including Potapov as the head priest — has waned in her eyes. “But then I think: They’re human too,” she says quietly.

Across the globe, the war has cracked open deep fissures within the Orthodox world. Many parishes, including in the D.C. area, have denounced the Russian assault. Others have broken ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has approved and even blessed Vladimir Putin’s invasion. But St. John the Baptist, a Moscow-affiliated parish located at the center of American democracy, has chosen a different path — seeking out an apolitical middle ground on an issue where, many would argue, steadfast neutrality is morally impossible.

The gilded onion domes and three-barred crosses of St. John’s tower over the quiet residential neighborhood of Crestwood, just three miles north of the White House. A plaque at the church’s entrance lists the required worship attire: knee-length skirt or dress, no bare shoulders, a head covering for women, no shorts for men. Inside the dimly lit chapel, centuries-old golden icons and murals adorn the surroundings from floor to ceiling.

I visited St. John’s on a muggy weekend this summer. Being at a Russian Orthodox church felt both familiar and heavy. Growing up in Kyiv, I wore a silver cross on my chest, a symbol of my Orthodox baptism as a baby, but in the early 1990s my father converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (I continue to be a practicing member of the LDS Church, which has itself been tepid in its stance on the war.) Since childhood, I have been an occasional visitor at Orthodox churches. Meanwhile, I am very far from a neutral observer of the war — not only because I’m Ukrainian but because the Russian invasion sent my parents fleeing, first to Poland and then to Boston to live with me.

At the service, people secured their standing spots throughout the nave after entering the church. Prominently positioned at the center of the church were the Kyiv Lavra relics.

Since its founding in 1949 by Saint John Maximovitch, the parish has been a home to political emigres and refugees, mostly ethnic Russians. But following an initial influx of Russian immigrants, other groups from the Soviet Union trickled in. At St. John’s, they could all practice their faith in Church Slavonic, the traditional liturgical language, and commune with compatriots as they were building a new life in a foreign land.

St. John’s is one of nearly 400 parishes that make up the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church formed by a group of bishops who fled the Bolshevik Revolution. Through a 1920 decree from the Moscow Patriarch, Orthodox Christians in exile were allowed to govern themselves independently from Moscow while the mother church was essentially a hostage of the Soviets. A few years later, ROCOR cut ties completely with the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, which declared its loyalty to the atheist Soviet government and was infiltrated by KGB agents.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 promised a religious revival in Russia and opened the doors for the restoration of the pre-revolutionary unity between the Moscow Church and the ROCOR communities abroad. But the path back to reconciliation with Moscow was long and fraught with disagreements. “It was very controversial because some people still thought these guys worked for the KGB,” says Lena Zezulin, an attorney and former St. John’s parishioner, who has written about ROCOR. Potapov himself has been critical of the Moscow Patriarchate, as he explained in a 2021 interview, yet he also maintained a charitable perspective. “I never shared the view that the Moscow Patriarchate was without grace,” he said.

It was not until 2007, after nearly nine decades of estrangement, that ROCOR reunited with the Moscow Church in a grandiose ceremony. “It was a very happy period, when people felt the Church had achieved its post-revolutionary reunification,” Zezulin explains. “Ethnic comfort and pride were very much a factor in the reunification process.”

The reunion with the Moscow Patriarchate had mostly administrative effects on day-to-day affairs at St. John’s — except now the parish publicly acknowledges Patriarch Kirill of Moscow as its spiritual head. And that is no small detail because of the stance taken by Kirill during the war. On March 6, he described the war in Donbas — the region of Ukraine where Russia has long sponsored breakaway efforts — as a defense against liberal values. “For eight years,” he said, “there have been attempts to destroy what exists in the Donbas. And in the Donbas there is rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power. Today there is a test for the loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to that ‘happy’ world, the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom.’ Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible — it is the Gay Pride parade.”

Gay rights, for Kirill, seems to have become a stand-in for a larger contest between East and West, Russia and NATO, Christianity and cosmopolitanism. In that same speech, he laid out a spiritual backing not only for the war in Donbas but for the broader invasion of Ukraine. “What is happening today in the sphere of international relations has not only political significance,” he said. “We are talking about something different and much more important than politics. We are talking about human salvation, about where humanity will end up.”

This narrative of the “godless West” has found receptivity in many ROCOR churches, according to Zezulin. “There has been a great deal of active measures undertaken by the Russian Orthodox Church to position itself, with respect to the Catholic Church and to European conservatives, as ‘We are the last bulwark of the traditional family, we are the true conservatives,’ ” she explains. St. John’s wasn’t an exception. After the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision creating a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, Potapov called it an “earthquake of sorts that is … changing the order established by God.” He added, “It is terrible that we are encroaching on the will of God.”

Potapov, who has a salt-and-pepper beard and tired eyes, was not at church the day I attended. He had covid-19 for the first time, and parishioners were worried about him. During the service, two women whispered in Russian about his health: “Father Victor was at the hospital,” one said. “Didn’t you get the newsletter?”

I spoke to Potapov over Zoom a week later while he was still recovering at home. At 73, he speaks slowly and carefully, his deep voice projecting the gravity of wisdom and stability. A son of a Russian father and Ukrainian mother, he grew up in Cleveland during the Cold War, eager to assimilate to American life. Once, accompanying his grandmother to a vigil service, he was deeply moved by the liturgy, even though he didn’t understand Russian all that well. This spiritual awakening set him on a path of regularly attending church and studying theology.

As a young priest in Connecticut, he took a train to Manhattan to work at Bedford Publishing, a Russian-language publishing house that purchased and printed the works of authors like George Orwell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so they could be brought to the Soviet Union. “It was mostly a smuggling operation,” he said. As part of his job, he interviewed Soviet emigres, many of them Russian Jews, about the literature they wanted to see in the Soviet Union. Eventually, he was placed in charge of distributing Russian religious books in the U.S.S.R. Two years into the job, his boss called Potapov to his office and told him he’d been working for the CIA. “It didn’t bother me at all, because I thought it was a good way of spending taxpayer dollars on buying forbidden literature and sending it to the Soviet Union,” he told me.

After the program shut down, Potapov applied for a job at Voice of America, and in 1977 moved to D.C. to begin his 27-year career in broadcast journalism. But his day job unfolded in close interaction with his spiritual calling. He hosted the program “Religion in Our Lives” while serving as the rector of St. John’s parish. For four decades, he’s been leading a community that sits at a theological and political crossroads: an authentically Russian church in the heart of the allegedly decadent West that Putin and Kirill claim they are fighting.

During our interview, Potapov touted the substantial support St. John’s has provided for Ukrainians: $35,000 raised by parishioners for Ukrainian refugees (an additional $10,000 went to Taganrog in southern Russia, where nearly a million Ukrainians were forcibly deported), several tons of humanitarian aid sent every month, and consistent prayers to the Kyiv Lavra relics. But Potapov also echoed talking points promoted by the Russian government. Despite well-documented evidence that the Donbas war, begun in 2014, was an act of Russian aggression, Potapov says that it was “the Kyiv regime” that started bombing Donetsk and Luhansk. Kyiv, he told me, didn’t want the “federalization of the country” — the term used by Putin and throughout Russian news — and therefore carried out the war at the cost of 14,000 lives. “So what happened on February 24 was in actuality a continuation of the civil war, but the only difference is now that Russia is heavily involved,” he told me.

Photos: The human toll of the Russia-Ukraine conflict since 2014

He believes the United States too bears responsibility for the invasion — one of the key narratives of the pro-Kremlin media that has also found traction among some U.S. commentators. “For Russia, having NATO on its doorstep is not acceptable,” he said. The weapons the United States is supplying to Ukraine — which have enabled the Ukrainian military to defend the country from Russia’s assault, averting more sweeping destruction and more deaths — in Potapov’s view have been escalating the war: “It seems to me that this country is interested in fighting this war until the last Ukrainian, which is mind-boggling to me. Where is our diplomacy?” The U.S.-funded bioweapons labs, he said, are another questionable interference of the West in Ukraine. “What in the world are these biolabs doing in Ukraine? What are we hiding?” he asked. (The State Department has explained that the labs were Ukrainian-owned biodefense research facilities and, in fact, worked to prevent the development of bioweapons.)

Potapov did express grief over continued fighting: “It’s heartbreaking,” he said, noting that he talks about the war with his matushka, the priest’s wife, who is also half Ukrainian, every day. “It’s a big deal for us.” And several people I spoke with who had known Potapov for years said they had a lot of respect for him, even though some didn’t agree with his views. Nevertheless, I thought it was a bit puzzling that an anti-Soviet priest who promoted democratic ideas and religious freedom in Soviet Russia was now reluctant to call out the war crimes and human rights violations being inflicted on Ukraine.

Following the English service — St. John’s hosts two services every Sunday, one in English and one in Church Slavonic — dozens of parishioners poured into the parish hall adjacent to the church for a brunch prepared by volunteers: oatmeal, pastries, fruit, watermelon salad. A mix of Russian and English resounded in the room.

When I broached the topic of the war, some declined to discuss it, citing their mistrust of Western media. Others defended Potapov’s ambiguity in talking about the war. “There are a lot of people who might feel like a stronger language would be a good idea. But ultimately, geopolitics is not something we can change or influence, so what’s the point of getting worked up about it, boycotting church and harming yourself spiritually?” said Tim Andrews, 39, who grew up in Australia. His great-grandfather served as an officer in Russia’s White Army and, after losing the civil war to the Bolsheviks, walked across Siberia with his family. Andrews believes parishioners’ opinions about Patriarch Kirill should have no effect on one’s spiritual life. “The church is going to services and having Communion,” he said, bobbing his blond toddler on his knee. “You can disagree with the bishop on politics, but that should have no impact on the church.” Plus, he says, even bishops can make mistakes.

“I feel an unbearable pain over everything from the side of Russia,” says one St. John’s parishioner. “But I try to leave that pain when I come here.”

I joined a group of younger English-speaking parishioners at a table. Katya Healy Daily grew up in the D.C. area; being Russian wasn’t popular in the United States during her childhood, she recalled. “Just because things are not going well politically and it’s a complicated situation, we’re still proud to be Russian, and that’s not going to change,” she said. St. John’s has been a cultural home for generations of her Russian family: Her parents, aunt and uncle were all married at St. John’s; it’s where her grandfather was buried; she was baptized and married there too. “Every single significant event in my life happened here,” she said. While Orthodoxy and Russianness are deeply intertwined, she explained, she has decided that religion is more important to her than culture. “I believe that I’m an Orthodox Christian first, and the rest is next,” she said.

For Elena Mathews, St. John’s has been a spiritual home since she came to the United States in 2012. She grew up in Simferopol in Crimea, going to an Orthodox church with her gymnastics coach. “I’ve always loved Russia, but these events have impacted how I feel now,” said Mathews, who has received a Russian passport. “I’m drawn to Ukraine. My relatives are in Ukraine. For me it’s not a military operation but a full-on war.” She was heartbroken to watch Patriarch Kirill bless the war with an icon, yet she has guarded her faith from political influences. “I feel an unbearable pain over everything from the side of Russia,” she told me. “But I try to leave that pain when I come here. I try not to let the hatred in.”

While St. John’s and Potapov have attempted to stay neutral on the war, others in the Orthodox community have not. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church cut its ties with the Moscow Patriarchate in May; some Orthodox parishes across Europe stopped commemorating Kirill’s name during liturgies. Nearly 300 Russian Orthodox priests wrote an open letter calling for an end to the invasion. A group of 400 Ukrainian priests filed a petition to declare Kirill’s endorsement of Putin’s war as heresy. The Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam and a church in Udine, Italy, announced that they would migrate to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, a rival to the Moscow Patriarchate since a schism in 2018.

D.C. has also seen a range of Orthodox sentiment. Near the Russian Embassy, three miles southwest of St. John’s, sits St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, which is part of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), an Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction that is separate from ROCOR and, since 1970, has had complete independence from the Moscow Church. Shortly after the war started, OCA issued a mild statement, asking for “hostilities [to] be ceased” and inviting prayers for “brothers and sisters who are enduring this tragic moment.” Soon, however, the organization followed up with a more direct statement — calling the fighting a “war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and arguing that “no Christian can remain impartial or lukewarm in the face of the suffering or remain silent when confronted with such evils as are being perpetrated.”

In May commencement remarks at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, OCA’s primate, Metropolitan Tikhon, expanded on his church’s position: “When anyone attempts to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine by pointing to Western decadence, they are only proving their own moral irrelevance. This and any similar justifications are hard to understand as anything but unacceptable for Orthodox Christians in face of the brutality of this war.”

OCA leaders in D.C. have been similarly blunt. In a letter to the OCA Holy Synod, Archpriest Denis Bradley, one of the clergy at St. Nicholas and a professor emeritus at Georgetown University, wrote that “Russian President Putin bears primary responsibility for the morally unjustifiable Russian invasion and continuing barbaric attacks on Ukraine”; he added that “Moscow Patriarch Kirill willingly defends the viciously aggressive and repressive Putin regime.” At a June vespers service that I attended, Father George Kokhno — a priest at St. Nicholas who is Ukrainian — called the war a “genocide” against the Ukrainian people.

For Irene Burwell, a 66-year-old St. Nicholas parishioner of 25 years, staying silent is not acceptable for a church. Her uncle, she told me, died in March in the Kyiv metro from heart attack complications; the ambulance was on its way but was stalled by an airstrike siren and didn’t get there in time to save him. “One thing is to oppose the war, and another thing is to condemn it,” says Burwell, who is half Ukrainian and half Russian, but spent much of her life in Ukraine. “If we don’t condemn it, we can’t eradicate the hatred in our hearts.” Neutrality is not an option, she says, even for a church. “We have to yell about what’s happening. It’s a crime to be silent,” she argues. “To speak out against atrocities — that’s the whole essence of the church.”

The way we talk about the war matters, says Father Volodymyr Steliac, the priest of St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Spring, Md., a church under Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Steliac told me that he doesn’t discuss politics at his church, but he’s publicly called the war “diabolical and unprovoked.” Equating the aggressor and the victim is fundamentally offensive to Ukrainians, he notes: “The Ukrainian people are not in the same situation as the Russian people, and they should never be compared.”

Meanwhile, at ROCOR churches, the war has forced some parishioners to weigh the difficult decision of whether to stay or leave. Lena Zezulin — who has worked on legal reform in over 30 countries, including Russia and Ukraine — grew up attending a ROCOR church in Long Island. While living in D.C. on and off for 40 years, she attended St. John’s frequently, but she moved back to Long Island in 2020.

Since the invasion, “I have found it very hard to walk into a ROCOR church that commemorates Patriarch Kirill,” says Zezulin, who isn’t attending her home parish for the time being. She helped draft a letter rallying Russians in the United States to denounce the war and also invited ROCOR priests to sign a petition asking Metropolitan Mark of Berlin and Germany — ROCOR’s temporary leader — to break ties with Moscow. “We ask that you review the appropriateness of the further subordination of our Church to the Moscow Patriarchate and the commemoration of Patriarch Kirill,” the petition implored. “We are inspired by the courageous example of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” Potapov declined to sign the petition.

She notes the imperial implications of Patriarch Kirill’s doctrine of the “Russian World,” which envisions restoration of Russia’s historical and spiritual unity. “I am, like so many people, part Ukrainian, part Russian, part Belorussian,” she says. “But still, you can’t say they are one people, and you cannot say that one country has not invaded another.”

And yet, her 91-year-old Russian mother, who also opposes and condemns the war, continues to attend their home parish in Sea Cliff, N.Y. “She still goes there because my father built it,” Zezulin explains. “She can’t go anywhere else.”

When I asked Lena, a current parishioner at St. John’s, if she has considered leaving the parish, she responded: “Where would I go?” Socially, she has distanced herself from the parish community, where many, she says, justify Russia’s attack. “Consciously, I don’t want to know [their position], because it’s going to be even harder,” she says. As she’s wrestled to reconcile her personal faith with her leaders’ ambivalence over who is responsible for the war, she’s tried to disentangle one from the other. “For me right now, faith and church are separate,” she explains. While she continues to attend, “it’s very hard for me,” she says. “All I have left is my prayer to God.”

Mariya Manzhos is a journalist in Boston.

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