Bishop Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk pulls no punches when asked about Russian President Putin’s motivation for invading Ukraine.
“He’s possessed by the Devil. Putin’s a Satanist, plain and simple,” he says. “How else can you explain what he’s doing to Ukraine?”
66-year old Shyrokoradiuk is Bishop of Odessa and Simferopol. We meet at the magnificently restored Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Air raid sirens are part of life in Odessa and under the ever-present fear of an amphibious Russian assault civilians had positioned tank traps and built sandbag barricades a little way down the street – on the morning of my interview a Russian warship prowling the Black Sea has blitzed one of the city’s outlying neighbourhoods with a volley of rockets.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24th, Odessa was a lively port city of almost a million souls. Now the downtown districts are sealed off and it is estimated half the population have fled to the west of Ukraine, which is considered safer, or into neighbouring Moldova, Romania and Poland.
Every day evacuation trains run from Odessa’s main station, a place of tears, hugs and long goodbyes beneath platform speakers playing the Ukrainian national anthem.
Shyrokoradiuk holds four Masses a day, although his congregation numbers are down by almost half.
“One of the worst things about this bloody war is that more than 140 children are dead and more than 200 left with life changing injuries; missing arms and legs,” says Shyrokoradiuk. “And 40,000 Ukrainians have been kidnapped and taken to Russian territory.”
“Putin’s also destroying hospitals, kindergartens and schools. I see this as clear work of the Devil.”
I remind Shyrokoradiuk that Russia’s President was brought up by a devout Christian mother and wears a crucifix around his neck. He also identifies himself as a follower of the Russian Orthodox Church which has always supported his invasion of Ukraine.
“He’s no Christian,” says the Bishop dismissively. “No Christian would do what he’s doing.”
Ukraine, along with other former Kremlin-controlled states, gained independence in 1991. In his state of the nation address to parliament in 2005, Putin said the collapse of the Soviet empire was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
“Ukraine chose freedom and independence. Putin wants to put an end to that and swallow us up into a new empire,” says Shyrokoradiuk.
“The Russian people are being lied to and they accept what Putin is doing now to Ukraine is right. They’re like zombies.”
“What he’s trying to do now is trying to make Ukrainians slaves again, like the Russian people are slaves.”
The capture of Odessa, a city founded by Russian Empress Catherine the Great and known as the Pearl of the Black Sea, was thought to be one of Putin’s key strategic military goals before the Kremlin recently announced it was focussing on “liberating” the Donbas region further east.
In the Soviet era Odessa was Russia’s second biggest port after St Petersburg. Millions of tons of grain are exported through its deep water harbour and there is easy access to the mouth of the Danube river.
The city is also an important industrial centre, a key railway hub and holiday resort famed for its gambling joints and other freewheeling entertainment venues.
Putin had Odessa in his sights when he began laying waste to another port city, Mariupol, but was prevented from moving his military further west after the Ukrainians blew up a bridge over the River Bug at Mikolaev.
The Mayor of Odessa, Gennadiy Trukhanov, tells me: “The Russian threat hasn’t gone away. We are in a war of attrition now which may take months and years.”
“But rest assured our people will fight bravely and with strong hearts. We’re not properly defended against planes and rockets, but every street and square will resist.”
Bishop Shyrokoradiuk, who once served in the Soviet Army and who risked imprisonment when he secretly joined the Franciscans when the movement was outlawed in Russia, says: “Of course we will win because God is on Ukraine’s side.”
Shyrokoradiuk’s diocese includes Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, which was part of Ukraine before Putin’s forces annexed it in 2014.
As part of negotiations to end the war, now more than a month old, Putin wants Ukraine’s Zelensky administration to concede that Crimea is Russian territory.
I asked Shyrokoradiuk if he thought he would ever conduct Mass in Crimea: “One day, of course I will.”
“Despite what the Russians say Crimea is part of Ukraine and will be returned to us,” he says, smiling.
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