The last two days the faithful of our church and the citizens of Ukraine who follow events in Crimea eagerly awaited news of Father Mykola Kvych – a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and a military chaplain. This summer would have marked 10 years since he began his service in Sevastopol. Unfortunately, on the day of the so-called referendum, the priest was forced to leave Crimea, because if he had stayed, he may have been charged for “extremism”…
In an interview with the Information Department, the priest described what happened to him in the past two days and why he chose to leave.
– On March 15, on Friday, after I celebrated a “parastas” with the parishioners, I was visited by the security services. First, I spoke with one man, who then summoned two more, and later with the police.
And you were asked politely to go with them?
I would not call it “politely.” I was forced to go with them and give them written permission to search my apartment.
At first I said I would not give them permission. In response to this they said, “Well, then come with us to the car, we will persuade you.” This meant that they would make me.
Did you have weapons?
They were looking for weapons, but didn’t find any, because I didn’t have any. I only had bulletproof vests. When they found these vests, they began to say that according to the law, civilians need permission to use clubs, bulletproof vests, and handcuffs.
I said I could have understood them if I had had a club (imagine me, a priest, running with a club!). A bulletproof vest is used only to protect human life.
I was supposed to give these vests to some Ukrainian troops who were patrolling their naval base. My intention was good.
I had given two bulletproof vests to two journalists. I hadn’t had a chance to give the others to the naval base. With great difficulty I had managed to at least give some food to our boys.
They accused me of wanting to give the vests to a certain group that wanted to cause some disruption.
How are you treated?
In various ways… beaten over the head (the priest was embarrassed to talk about it. – Ed.) they cursed… I do not use such words, so I cannot repeat them. They did not talk to me as a priest and not as a normal person.
I was held from 1p.m. to 9 p.m. During this time I was questioned by representatives of the security services, the police, and Russian counterintelligence.
What language did you speak to them?
They forced me to speak to them in Russian. They said: “The Ukrainian language will not be heard here.”
Did you tell them something interesting?
They wanted to know who gave me the bulletproof vests, whom I was supposed to give them to, and to whom I had already given them to. Of course I did not tell them anything. But later I found out from a journalist that they had seized some vests from some members of the press. Maybe it’s the ones I gave, I don’t know.
They took all my phones. I didn’t have time to erase some messages, so I think they were able to learn something from them.
Father, did you think that they really believed that some “Banderite group” existed?
When they entered my home and saw the yellow-blue and black-red flags, banners of the Naval Forces of Ukraine, and refrigerator magnets with Shukhevych and Stepan (Bandera – Ed.) plus Ukrainian literature, they began to call me different names, to swear, to say that I was part of the SS…
And it did it bring to mind some associations?
I am not a native of our underground church, but I know a lot about this period of the UGCC, so I was reminded of the direct persecution of the priests.
It was reported that in two weeks you must appear in court. According to which law are you being tried and for what?
According to Ukrainian law, but I was told that if the situation changes, then I will be tried according to the Russian legislation. The people that helped me leave Crimea explained that if I had not gone, I would have been tried for extremism under Russian law, which can carry a sentence of up to 15 years.
In addition to bulletproof vests, they said I was a sponsor of the Ukrainian navy, that I allegedly supplied them with weapons.
Are you going to go to this so-called trial?
I think not (laughs – Ed.). If I broke the law to save at least one person’s life, I would be happy. If I violated some rule of law, then I am ready to answer for this, but before a Ukrainian court and Ukrainian legislation, not a Russian one or some other one.
But are you really a sponsor of the Ukrainian navy?
Of course not: am I an oligarch? I just organized the delivery of food to our soldiers during the siege. Besides food, we gave them candles, matches, hygiene products … and this was called sponsorship.
Did you leave Crimea without any trouble?
Not entirely. I was forced to turn off my phone when I was leaving the territory of Crimea. I managed to leave only because I was accompanied by an officer of the Black Sea Fleet. A Ukrainian, my good friend. When we left my home, we were accompanied by a few men. We just jumped in the car, thinking that we would get held up…
Did our other priests remain on the peninsula?
Yes. Now they are forced into hiding. I think they will leave Crimea the same way as there is information that people are interested in them too.
You were in Sevastopol – the most pro-Russian Crimean city. How would you describe what is happening there?
Sevastopol was euphoric. Many people were running with Russian flags shouting “Russia, Russia!” My last night in Crimea I stayed with a Roman Catholic priest, in the morning I woke up to someone shouting “Russia!”
In Sevastopol, indeed there are many who want to join Russia. But this is not true of the rest of Crimea.
But they do not mind getting salaries, pensions, water, gas, electricity, subsidies from Ukraine…
They are not thinking about this at all. My wife tried to explain this to them, but people say, “And what, Ukraine will turn off our water?” They think that Russia will give make them a bed with an expensive and warm blanket on which they can just lie and sleep and not have to do anything more. I can say that this is a territory of people who believe that they should just automatically be given things, and that they are not obliged to do anything themselves. The people who shout that they are for Russia are just lazy people. Many of them are former military officers or military wives. They got apartments and large pensions. In the summer they rent out their apartments to tourists. When talking about joining Russia and the higher pension, they thought why not.
You served in Crimea for 10 years. And now you have to leave the peninsula…
I am most hurt that we never really cared to make the region Ukrainian. For example, in the large cities there is only one Ukrainian school. In Sevastopol, there are no Ukrainian schools, only Ukrainian classes.
Ukrainian authorities did nothing to make Crimea Ukrainian. When Kunitsyn was in power and nine million hryvnias were allocated to develop Ukrainian culture, in Sevastopol the money was simply stolen.
Our church also should have been more interested in its priests, should have helped them more. They sent us there … we certainly did what we could, but there were too few of us and our opportunities were limited.
As far as I understand, you will not return to Sevastopol for now?
Not yet, but if I am needed, I will return, because extraordinary people live there. There are not enough gifts in the world to thank those people for their courage and attitudes. And it’s not just our Ukrainian Greek Catholics, but also Russians who came to us, and Armenians. It is worth fighting for Crimea for these people.