'A million to one miracle': Ukraine church describes brush with death after Russian attack

Patriarch Nicolai Syderenko - JULIAN SIMMONDS
Patriarch Nicolai Syderenko - JULIAN SIMMONDS
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As the anniversary looms of Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, parishioners at the Church of the Intercession in Ploska are thanking the Almighty not for one miracle but two.

The first is that the invasion has been a spectacular failure, despite predictions that Ukraine's armed forces would crumble in just days. The second is that the 0.50 calibre heavy machine gun bullet that tore right through the church's walls last March did not slaughter any of the assembled flock.

"All of a sudden, during an evening mass at about 5pm, the Russians attacked our village from three sides," recalls Patriarch Nicolai Sydorenko, whose parish lies in flat farmlands just east of Kyiv.

"There were loud explosions, gunfire and then Russian armoured cars with loudspeakers that said: 'Stay in your homes - anybody who moves outside will be shot'."

With tremors from the explosions sending iconography tumbling from the church's wooden walls, Mr Sydorenko and his parishioners fled to a nearby bunker. It was only the next day, when he sneaked back into the church, that he realised how close he and his flock had come to death.

bullet hole - JULIAN SIMMONDS
bullet hole - JULIAN SIMMONDS

The 0.50 calibre bullet - designed to penetrate armour - had entered through the church's wooden outer wall, going through the bench where he had laid his mitre, and tearing a hole in the mitre itself.

The bullet then carried on through an inner wall, an altar and a pillar, before smashing its way through the bolt of a side door and eventually burying itself in a kerbstone outside. It was a graphic demonstration of how modern military firepower is no respecter of the sanctity of a church.

"I can only describe it as a million to one miracle," said Mr Sydorenko, who has kept the bullet-holed mitre as a memento. "The bullet must have passed right through where we were all standing - it is amazing nobody was killed."

Ploska lies in the eastern Kyiv district of Brovary, which was one of the main attack points when Russian troops launched their all-out siege on the capital a year ago this Friday.

A parishioner at St Peter’s and St Paul's church - JULIAN SIMMONDS
A parishioner at St Peter’s and St Paul's church - JULIAN SIMMONDS

When The Telegraph visited Brovary during the early days of the siege, troops were hastily sandbagging checkpoints and littering roads with so-called "Czech-hedgehogs" - giant metal jacks designed to stop tanks. At local church services, many residents were crying with fear as they arrived for Sunday services.

"At that time we would run to church, not walk," remembers Lyudmila Holoviy, 46, who was worshipping at St Peter’s and St Paul's church in Brovary on Sunday. "I remember coming to church two days after the invasion began - I wanted to have confession and cleanse my soul before I was killed. At that time none of us knew what to expect."

As it turned out, the same good luck that saw Mr Sydorenko and his flock escape injury in Ploska largely befell Brovary, too. Unlike the western Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, which saw some of the war's worst civilian massacres, the Russian advance into Brovary was halted in mid-March by a massive Ukrainian drone strike that destroyed an entire armoured column on a highway.

A year on, the mood among the worshippers at St Peter’s and St Paul's church is far calmer, with few expecting Vladimir Putin to deliver on his threats to launch a second siege of the capital in coming weeks. There are still, however, many people to be remembered in prayers.

"The list of people we think about in our prayers has got very long," said Father Alexander Levchuk, 60, the senior priest. "There are parishioners with friends and relatives who have died, and we also have many of our churchgoers who are now fighting for the Ukrainian army."

Father Alexander Levchuk - JULIAN SIMMONDS
Father Alexander Levchuk - JULIAN SIMMONDS

As well as holding daily services, the church organises food donations and recycles wax from candles lit during liturgies for use as "trench candles" - makeshift wax-filled cans for use on frontline bases.

With those frontlines having now been pushed back to Ukraine's distant east, life has in other ways gone largely back to normal. But with Putin showing no sign of conceding defeat, the sense among worshippers that both might and right are on their side is of little comfort.

"I feel now that God and truth are on our side in this war," added Ms Holoviy. "But my soul still feels a lot of pain because so many of our young men - our brightest and best - are dying."