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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 23, 2024
FILE - A resident looks for belongings in an apartment building destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Borodyanka, Ukraine, April 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

Ukrainians “are tired but not discouraged” after two years of war against Russia. They do not see peace on the horizon, but they are “more united” than ever. They have “an unbreakable spirit,” and they continue fighting, with the help of their Western allies, to defend their independence and free their homeland from Russian occupation.

That is what Father Igor Boyco, 48, the married priest who serves as rector of the Greek Catholic seminary of the Holy Spirit in Lviv, Western Ukraine, told me. We spoke in an interview during his visit to Rome on the eve of the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of his homeland.

He recalled that the war really began in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and initiated the conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. But it took a definitive turn on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russian forces invaded the country on the instruction of President Vladimir Putin. “They wanted to occupy the entire territory of Ukraine in 2022,” Father Boyco said. “With this great assault, they thought and hoped they could do it very easily and very quickly. But they did not succeed.”

“If you talk today with the widows who have lost their husbands, and mothers who have lost their sons, you will understand why Russia did not succeed,” he said. “They will tell you that many young people who were not part of the army volunteered to go and fight to stop the Russian army that entered Ukrainian territory. We are basically talking about a generation of young people in their 30s and 40s who had their own families and businesses; many had also studied abroad and were living normal lives. They became very, very concerned about their families and their children and because of that they went out to fight, to protect our land.”

The Rev. Igor Boyco, rector of the Greek Catholic seminary of the Holy Spirit in Lviv, Western Ukraine (Credit: Elisabetta Piqué)
The Rev. Igor Boyco, rector of the Greek Catholic seminary of the Holy Spirit in Lviv, Western Ukraine (Credit:  Elisabetta Piqué)

“Even though, sadly, many of them were killed in the summer of 2022,” Father Boyco said, “we also saw great success, because although the Russians occupied some territory, they were forced to withdraw from around Kyiv, and they were kicked out of Kharkiv and Kherson, and a lot of people who fled when the war started have come back.”

He cited the example of Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine located about 20 miles from the border with Russia.. When the war broke out, around two million of its 2,300,000 inhabitants fled. But after Ukraine regained the city, more than one million have returned to live there.

A united front

Before the war, people who lived in Kharkiv and in eastern Ukraine were said to be “pro-Russian,” Father Boyco said. “But this is no longer true because the whole nation is united. Everyone is pro-Ukrainian, even if they speak Russian and maybe have Russian ancestry.” When the war broke out, he said, “those who wanted to escape to Russia did so, while those who wanted to stay remained in Ukraine.”

“After two years of war, we see that the Russians are not very successful even [on] the battlefield, even if they have occupied the territories around Donetsk and Luhansk,” Father Boyco said. A few days after the interview, the Russians captured the ruined town of Advinka, north of Donetsk in the Donbas region, over which the two sides had fought for many months.

Father Boyco admits that Ukraine has suffered “many losses of our brave soldiers.” He did not have a figure; the Ukrainian government has not disclosed the number of casualties, nor has Russia. In August 2023, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials estimated that around 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 120,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in the war and put the total casualties from both sides at a staggering 500,000.

Notwithstanding the casualties, Father Boyco said: “Listening to people, I know people are tired, but they are not discouraged. There is fatigue, there is worry, there is even some fear. But their spirit is unbreakable.” He said one can see “this unbreakable spirit” in the number of people of every age who are volunteering to help in the war effort in different ways. “The war has aroused within people this spirit of volunteerism. Today, while the men are on the front lines protecting Ukraine, trying to stop the Russians from advancing, women, mothers, young children and young people do everything to support [those] who are at the front,” he said.

“If you talk today with the widows who have lost their husbands, and mothers who have lost their sons, you will understand why Russia did not succeed.” 

“This is truly an incredible thing,” Father Boyco said. “For example, in the city, I find little children of 5 to 7 years old who are selling on the streets their books, notebooks, pens or things they have painted or made with their own hands. When I ask why they are doing this, they tell me, ‘We want to help our soldiers.’ Some say, ‘I do it because my dad is at the front, so I collect what they give me and then send that to him.’”

Older people are also involved in this war effort, he said, and cited the example of his 70-year-old mother-in-law: “She knits socks for the soldiers because now we have winter, and it’s very cold and so many guys at the front have wet feet and suffer from the cold.”

When the war started, Father Boyco’s seminary took in 180 internally displaced people. They fed and cared for them, but when the situation began to improve in the summer of 2022, many returned home.

Father Boyco said, “When you see all this, you understand that all the people are united in resisting, in fighting the Russian invader. The entire Ukrainian nation is involved in this war.”

At the start of the war, Russia had a population of 144 million, while Ukraine had 44 million citizens. Russia is “more powerful,” Father Boyco said, but “at the same time, almost everyone is convinced [that] if we lose this war we will be slaves of the Russians for another 10, 20 or 100 years. And we still have deep in our memory the consciousness of what it means to be slaves of the Russians because in almost all our families there were grandparents who suffered the consequences of the Second World War.”

“My grandfather’s mother was killed by a Russian soldier in front of his eyes,” Father Boyco recalled. “He was 21 years old when a Russian soldier shot his mom. When I was little, he would tell me these things. I listened and didn’t want to believe so much, but now, when there is war, I understand how all this is true because we were in the Soviet Union, under the communist regime, where they often took people to Siberia. They took people away because they were Ukrainian and believers.”

“Putin thinks that Ukraine should not exist, for him the Ukrainian people have no reason to exist,” he said. “So they attempt this genocide of the Ukrainian people. It’s not just a military battle; they also shoot to destroy kindergartens, schools, universities, hospitals, houses, just like in Israel—they destroy everything. When we go to these villages, we see this horrible destruction. They do this against the Ukrainian people, but often they tell so many lies by claiming they are liberating us from ‘Nazification.’ That’s just not true.”

Father Boyco praised President Volodymyr Zelensky for his courageous leadership of the nation.

Battle fatigue

When I suggested that the war seems to have reached a stalemate, he admitted, “I’m not an expert in battle, but from the news we hear there is not so much progress neither from our side nor from the Russians.” Ukraine had hoped their counteroffensive last year would prove successful, as had happened earlier with Kharkiv and Kherson, but that did not happen “either due to a lack of weapons or there is no desire [from the allies] to help us with the more powerful weapons.” He thinks geopolitical concerns and uncertainty about what it might mean if Russia were to lose the war may be at play. Would other republics that are currently part of the Russian Federation also seek independence? And how would it impact China?

Father Boyco believes that Ukraine has already scored a major victory by stopping the Russian advance. “It is surely a victory because nobody expected that we could stop them; the world thought everything would end soon,” he said.

While acknowledging that Ukrainians are tired of the war, he said, “I think that before long, Russia, too, will get tired, especially if they see that we continue to receive support with weapons from the United States and other countries in the West, weapons that not only prevent them from making progress [on the battlefront], but also enable us to drive them out of our land.”

Asked if he was worried that former president Donald J. Trump could win the U.S. election, given that he seems sympathetic to Mr. Putin, Father Boyco replied:

For us, it is important to have the support of the United States, it is important for us to have the support of Europe, because on our own we can’t do it, or it will be very difficult, even though we have the courage of our young people at the frontline. But without this aid, we won’t be able to do anything. I don’t know if we have any influence on the American population, but I think that in voting for the new president they have to think, even a little bit globally, thinking about the other people. So yes, the concern is there. However, at the end of the day, I think that whoever wins must not forget about Ukraine.

While many in Europe would like to see an end to the war in Ukraine, Father Boyco told me, “I don’t see peace in the short term.” Some in the West have suggested that the path to peace is to cede territory to Russia such as Crimea, which it occupied in 2014, and perhaps to also cede Donetsk, or to establish Dontetsk and Luhansk as a single autonomous region within Ukraine. But Father Boyco believes that ceding territory would only be “a temporary solution, a truce for 10 or 15 years. It will not be a long-term peace,” because Russia would return for more. “The best option,” he insisted, “is to give us the arms necessary to drive Russia out of our territory. We don’t want to invade Russia; we just want to liberate our homeland.”

At the same time, he said, “since the Russians are our neighbors, and will continue to be our neighbors for centuries, they must understand after this war, that there are limits that they cannot cross, and someone needs to tell them that.”

The church in Ukraine

Asked about the situation of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, given that some clergy and faithful have separated from the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Boyco said there are still some faithful priests and bishops who are related to Moscow. “But it seems to me that people today are tired of those priests who are from the Moscow Patriarchate and who either don’t want to bury the Ukrainian soldiers who died for Ukraine or who support in different ways Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin,” he said.

He thinks the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is linked to Kyiv makes the mistake of wanting close relations with the state. On the other hand, he said, “the Greek Catholic Church doesn’t want to receive aid from the state, because to receive aid from the state means to be in a certain dependence on the state.” He says people are very sensitive to these questions: “I think many Orthodox have also discovered for themselves the presence of the Catholic Church, because the Greek Catholic Church often goes to the eastern territories—Kharkiv, Kherson. When we come with Italians, we bring humanitarian aid. People say thank you to the church for what you are doing, thank you to the church for being here.”

He said they also know that two Greek Catholic Redemptorist priests, Father Ivan Levitsky and Father Bohdan Geleta, were taken prisoners while serving the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in Berdiansk in the Donbas in November 2022. They are still missing. No one knows what happened to them, not even if they are still alive.

Father Boyco concluded, “I think a lot of people have discovered the church, even [the] Greek Catholic Church, in its activity through Caritas, through being present in these places and through welcoming so many refugees. I think the confidence of people in the church, which was always there in Ukraine, has increased in these years of war.”

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