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Yevhen BUDKO, senior editor of Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazine, talks to Rev. Andriy Vlasenko, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, well known far beyond his parish in the village of Pyrohiv, not far from Kyiv. Otets’ Andriy is not only a clergyman — he is an extraordinary person of many talents.
In Ukrainian, the usual form of address to a priest is “Otets’ ”, that is “father.” Otets’ Andriy, who has recently turned 50, in addition to performing his priestly duties, writes articles and essays (in a refined literary style, and often sparkling in gentle humor) for the magazines Mizhnarodny Turyzm and Welcome to Ukraine, travels widely, and watches birds. He also sings well, loves rock music, botany and Ukrainian traditional architecture, decorative and applied arts.
Otets’ Andriy, you were educated at Kyiv Polytechnic to be an engineer, you used to work at a welding research center, but now you are a priest at the church at a much frequented place (Pyrohiv is, in fact, an open-air museum where you can not only look at but walk into peasant houses that date from the times of old, and enjoy the beautiful sights of old windmills while you have a traditional Ukrainian meal in a traditional Ukrainian tavern; the village-museum is complete with five wooden churches). How did it come about that you abandoned your secular career of an engineer to become a priest? I know that in the soviet times it was a very hard decision to take, and very much frowned upon by the soviet state.
It must have been God’s will that I become a priest… On one hand, I was an ordinary soviet boy whose way in life was very much determined by the circumstances that existed then, but on the other hand, I loved nature, science fiction novels, and history. Then there emerged an interest in, and gradually love of art. And from love of art and appreciation of creativity and to love of God, the Ultimate Creator, is but one step… I think there were several things that gradually brought me to God. One of the defining influences was my grandmother, a person of strong religious beliefs and great moral integrity. It was my grandmother who used to take me to church, who introduced me to the significance of worshipping. My great-grandfather who had died before I was born, also exercised a sort of a posthumous influence upon me. When I was thirteen, I “discovered” his copy of the Bible — “discovered” in the sense that I opened it and began to read (copies of the Bible were hard to come by in the soviet times, and if you had a copy, it usually came down from generation to generation within families). The more I read the more I realized it was something that I could not live without, something without which life would be incomprehensible and unthinkable.
Reading the Bible was a sort of revelation for me but it took quite a few years more and new experiences to finally bring me to church. Once, at the end of the nineteen-seventies I found myself in the Vydubetsky Monastery which was at that time not a monastery at all but the Institute of Archeology. In other words, the buildings of the monastery were used as the offices of that Institute. For some reason, a model of the gigantic statue which was to symbolize “Mother Native Land”, and which was to be erected in the vicinity of the Pechersk Lavra Monastery (at that time not a functioning monastery either — Lavra was officially called “The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Historical and Architectural Preserve”) in commemoration of some glorious events in the soviet past. I don’t know why a former monastery was chosen as a place to exhibit this hideous creation of soviet propaganda but of course it was a deliberate affront to the religious feelings of those who still had them and who wandered into the former monastery (the Vydubetsky monastery is situated next door to the central botanical garden of Kyiv). To add insult to injury, a bulldozer was leveling up a spot near the model which used to be a graveyard and which contained graves of monks, hundreds of years old…I experienced a profound shock — I very clearly realized that there was something very badly wrong with the regime that did such things…
But I went on to finish my technical education and land a job at the Paton Welding Research Institute. In the mid-eighties things began to change in the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian national liberation movement began to gather momentum, essays and books that could never be released before, began to be published. In the summer of 1988, in one of the central bookstores in Kyiv I saw a book by Hryhoriy Kosynka, a Ukrainian writer who was arrested in 1934 by the soviet secret police on the trumped-up charges of plotting “an anti-soviet coup” and promptly executed — one of the thousands of Ukrainian intellectuals who were rounded up by the soviet repressive regime and “liquidated” for being “much too pro-Ukrainian.” Kosynka’s book — unthinkable just a couple of years before! — was on the shelf of a bookstore in downtown Kyiv! On one hand, I was overjoyed but on the other hand, it seemed to me that the book — and hopefully other books that would tell a true story of what the soviet regime did to Ukraine, appeared too late. The Ukrainian language, the Ukrainian arts, the Ukrainians themselves are no more, I thought… But I thought wrong. In the spring of 1988 the Ukrainian revival movement intensified considerably. A thousand years of Christianity in Rus-Ukraine was celebrated, churches began to be returned to the religious communities, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, independent of the Moscow Patriarchate, sprang up. The internal pressures within the Soviet Union led to the collapse of the soviet empire, Ukraine regained independence…And I was ordained as priest in the autumn of 1991.
It was a complete turnabout in your life, wasn’t it? Could you, please, dwell on it in a more detail?
I think that by the time of my ordination I had been long on the way to becoming a priest… Once, on a long walk that my young wife and I took in May 1990, we found ourselves in Pyrohiv. The beauty of the old wooden churches that we saw there impressed me greatly, and one of them, Mykhailivska (Church of St Michael) went straight to my heart — I instantly knew I wanted to be not just a visitor. The church had been opened for services in March 1990. My first step was to join the choir that sang regularly during the services in the church. The Mykhailivska Church belonged to the community of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and I had many talks with the then priest Mefodiy. He was an old man who had lived through the antireligious persecutions of the soviet times, who had witnessed the total ban on the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and many years later, its revival. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church used to have thousands of parishes across Ukraine — in the nineteen-twenties and thirties all of them were closed down, with so many priests arrested and put into concentration camps or executed…
A little later, seeing my zeal, the new priest of the Mykhailivska Church, Yury Boyko, offered me to be a deacon and I accepted the offer right there and then. My wife said, “When I was marrying you, you were an engineer and I thought you’d remain one. Now you are about to change the course of your life so radically — but maybe it’s your true calling? Maybe it’s God’s will that you do it?” Incidentally, at the time when I left the Paton Welding Research Institute, I was engaged in developing new methods of plasma welding and in research into refractory alloys, and considerable progress had been made in these fields — I’m still not indifferent to science and technology…
I took a short course in theology and priest training before being ordained, but later I did have a full course at a seminary and then at a religious academy, completing eight years of religious education mandatory for a priest. I even earned a Master’s Degree in theology. At the time of ordination there was a great shortage of priests, and my becoming one was thus facilitated — or even necessitated — by this dearth of available priests.
How did you get involved in writing for Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazine?
I was introduced to Mr Oleksandr Horobets who now runs the publishing house which publishes Mizhnarodny Turyzm and Welcome to Ukraine magazines, but at that time he was setting up an art school for children and he invited me to teach the children the basics of the Christian religion. When he founded his publishing house, our cooperation continued — since I loved — and still love — travel, it was but natural that I began to contribute essays to his travel magazine.
So since 1991, you’ve been holding services in the Mykhailivska Church?
Right, but now I also hold services in the Pyatnytska Church (Church of the Saint Martyr Paraskeva Pyatnytsya), and two other churches in Pyrohiv are also under my supervision (there are five churches in Pyrohiv, all of them now are functioning). In summer, services are held in the Mykhailivska Church, and in the cold seasons in the Pyatnytska Church. In the nineteen-nineties Pyatnytska was still “a museum piece”, unfit for services to be held there. My parishioners and enthusiasts did what had to be done in the way of restoring it and getting it adjusted to the needs of religious services. We even restored the wonderful Baroque-style iconostasis there.
As far as I know, the Mykhailivska Church is indeed a significant landmark of wooden architecture. Can regular services do some damage to it?
No, not really. We take outmost care to keep the church — yes, an architectural landmark too! — in a state of good repair. The church dates from the year 1600, but the wood for it is about 70 years older — we had a sample of its timber analyzed in a physical lab to establish its age. It makes our church the oldest of its kind in Central and Eastern Ukraine. The Pyatnytska Church dates from 1742 — there is a documentary proof of it, and the radiocarbon dating confirmed it.
The village of Pyrohiv is a sort of a museum now. What about the original village?
It’s really an old one. There used to be a monastery here as long ago as before the thirteenth century — archeological excavations revealed its remains. Intellectuals of the 1960s and enthusiasts of Ukrainian culture had a wonderful idea of preserving a number of traditional Ukrainian peasant houses, windmills and churches from various parts of Ukraine by bringing them to one place. The houses, windmills and churches were taken apart, hauled all the way to Pyrohiv and re-assembled here. Pyrohiv is a very popular place, and not only with rank-and-file citizens and tourists — we keep having VIP guests, many of them from abroad. They come not only to take a look but to worship too. A baron from Lichtenstein of Ukrainian descent told me that in Pyrohiv he felt his Ukrainian roots. Both the current president of Ukraine and prime minister have visited us — and more than once.
I know for a fact that you are very popular among your parishioners — it means that people get to know you not only at the services you hold.
Oh yes, I just love to talk and socialize with worshippers. Even at the services I’m one with the people who come to attend them. The iconostasis is not a wall that separates us — it’s rather a system of spiritual windows through which the Heavenly Kingdom can be glimpsed. I prefer to conduct sermons in the open air and do it whenever I can. There is a peasant house next door to the church where a lot of socializing with the worshippers goes on. Among other things, we sing Ukrainian songs.
I know that the range of your interests is wide and includes, among other things, journalistic work, architecture, ornithology, music, science fiction…
I don’t see why a priest should not be interested in such things. Incidentally, as far as science fiction writings and films are concerned, there are works among them which carry a powerful positive charge, but, of course, there are many which are filled with negative energy too. I care for those with the positive energy… I used to have a whole multitude of interests and hobbies, however, with the passage of time their number diminished but I remain open to many things. In my childhood and teenage years I used to go in for sports, I used to collect stamps and hunt for butterflies, and I also collected birds’ eggs. I still have my collection of eggs and I think that it is one of the biggest of its kind in Kyiv. My friends from the Zoological Museum at the Shevchenko University in Kyiv told me that my collection would have a much greater scientific value if I had the eggs in their original nests — but how could I rob the birds not only of an egg or two but of the nests too?
Did you actually climb the trees or rocks to get those eggs?
I did! And sometimes I had to defend myself against the attacks of the birds of prey that defended their nests!.. I’m fascinated with the natural world and pay attention not only to birds but to plants, trees in particular... And I am also greatly interested in the history of architecture and its styles. I watch the birds, I admire trees but also, looking at an ancient church, I try to imagine what sort of people used to come to that church. It’s a God’s world, the wonderful world created by God, in which the human beings are God’s greatest creation. In my hierarchy of values, God stands above everything, then comes the world He created, and then the human being.
I know that you like rock music. Is this kind of music a God’s creation too?
Everything comes from God, except pride and sin. God allows Satan to test man. There are different kinds of rock music, and one should separate the seeds from the chaff. The human soul is a battle ground between Good and Evil, and who dies in the struggle and who survives to be saved we do not know. Take Freddy Mercury, for example — in my view, he is a sinner but an angel too.
Apart from your priestly duties, what are the things that occupy you most?
I’m very much interested in the history of architecture — Ukrainian wooden churches and the early twentieth-century Ukrainian architectural style known as “Modern” in particular. I take pictures of the architectural landmarks I discover in my travels across Ukraine, do research into their history. I want to show people the difference between the true beauty and just prettiness. I want people to understand the true artistic worth of the authentic architectural landmarks of the ancient times and their worthless imitations. And, of course, I wish I could prevent the cutting down of age-old trees by the city authorities.
And do you still keep traveling?
Yes, I do, whenever I can. Life of any person is a sort of a travel too. We travel spiritually if not physically, in search of spiritual values, waiting to come home in the Kingdom of God… Recently, I discovered that the Greek word for the top of a pillar on which some ascetics — stylites – used to stay years is “mandra” — and the Ukrainian for “travel” is “mandry”! Coincidence? Or some connection?
Which of the places you visited you liked most?
That’s difficult to say but probably my visits to the holy places in Israel and in Jordan were the most impressive. I liked Hungary and Bulgaria too — there are wonderful old monasteries there… In Sri Lanka, I was invited to sacrifice petals of lotus to the Enlightened One — but I did not do it. Much as I liked the temple and the service, as an Orthodox priest I could not take part in a Buddhist ritual.
I know that several times you took groups of the faithful on tours to the Crimea to see the sites of the religious significance (it was in the Crimea that the Kyivan prince Volodymyr was baptized in the 9th century). Did you do it this summer too?
No, I did not. I had some problems with my health.
If my next question seems inappropriate to you, ignore it, all right?
All right. Go ahead with your question.
Have you ever witnessed anything that could be described as a miracle?
Well, as a matter of fact, I have. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem I was privileged to see the closed eyes of the image of the Virgin on the icon of the Most Holy Mother open and look at me… But I really would not like to dwell on such things.
Thank you so much for your time.
At the ruins of an ancient Christian church in Side, Turkey; “Even a ruined church remains a church,” says Father Andriy.
Andriy Vlasenko, in his secular life, is very much interested in what is known as the architectural style of Ukrainian Modern; the lower photo: a house at a formerly big landowner’s estate in the village of Bilorichytsya, Land of Chernihivshchyna.
The two-hundred-year-old pine tree, one of the few remaining such trees in the Sulymivsky Park, Land of Kyivshchyna; it was spotted and admired by Andriy Vlasenko.
In the charming city of Lviv, one of my favorite places.
Andriy Vlasenko and his wife Svitlana.
Wedding ceremony conducted by Father Andriy at the Church of Archangel Michael, Pyrohiv.
Father Andriy leading the religious procession at the Feast of the Holy Trinity in the village-museum of Pyrohiv.
On the top of Mount Nevo, Jordan. “They were wondering among themselves who would roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb.” (Mk. 16, 3).