By Josh Skaggs
Blockades choked the streets of downtown Kiev, and Anatoliy Kushnir donned a new leather jacket. He also wore a small trinket, a gold pin he had recently found at a thrift store — the same one worn by Ukrainian secret service members. It was a simple disguise, helped along by a stern expression and a confident stride.
“That was my game,” Anatoliy says. “Playing a spook.”
He walked past the blockades, carrying heavy boxes and looking straight ahead. Nobody stopped him.
It was winter 2014, and tens of thousands of people camped out on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the main city square in Kiev. They were protesting the president’s decision to back out of an agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
Anatoliy cut through crowds of protesters, brushing past people who refused to leave during the harsh winter months. When he arrived at the prayer booth, he opened his boxes and started handing out pieces of gospel literature as if he were delivering reinforcements. They were titled “Pray for Ukraine.”
For three months, Anatoliy returned to the Maidan to pray with people and drop off more boxes of gospel literature. As Every Home for Christ’s Ministry Director in Ukraine, Anatoliy had access to resources that could encourage and comfort people through this hard season. Even though it was dangerous to enter the Maidan, he felt it was his personal responsibility to bear a Christian witness.
But on February 18, 2014, violence broke out. Civil unrest turned into a full-scale revolution, and downtown Kiev became a commotion of gunfire and explosions. The city fell into chaos.
“It was almost like time stopped,” Anatoliy remembers. “Your life is kind of hanging, and your feet are not planted on the ground. You don’t know what will happen to you, to your family, to your life. It’s very hard to think of how you can minister to people, when you’re wondering if you’ll live and if you’ll have a country — if you’ll have a home.”
”It’s very hard to think of how you can minister to people, when you’re wondering if you’ll live and if you’ll have a country — if you’ll have a home.”Anatoliy KushnirMinistry Director, Every Home Ukraine
The stakes were real. If the revolution failed, Anatoliy’s city — and his entire nation — might soon be occupied by Russia. At home with his wife and newborn son, he could hear explosions from his balcony.
“I was thinking, Do we run to the mountains in the west of Ukraine? We packed the car, but — what do we do?”
For three fearful days he stayed close to home, watching the news with his wife. On the third day, they finally heard a good report: The revolution had ended. Parliament voted to remove Ukraine’s president, who then fled to Russia for asylum.
It was the start of a new season for Ukraine, but not the start of peace. The future of the nation still hung in the balance, suspended between East and West. In the coming days, Russia would invade eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military would fight back, and a small, overlooked minority would take a stand for the future of the nation — Christians in search of a spiritual revolution.
Evangelicals have long been stigmatized and distrusted in Ukraine.
“We were always despised, called names,” Anatoliy recalls of his childhood. “Of course it feels terrible, especially for a child. Instead of having friends, you have enemies.”
When Anatoliy was young, kids would throw rocks at him on his way to school. He was also brought to the school steps and publicly shamed. His response hinted at the man he would become.
“I started walking through the village with a family Bible, raising my Bible in my hand, like, ‘You don’t like me going to church? Take this!’ I was in middle school.”
Left: Anatoliy Kushnir discusses the occupation of Slavyansk and other cities in eastern Ukraine. Right: In his church, Peter Dudnik displays artillery and other war artifacts discovered on church property after separatists left Slavyansk.
Anatoliy is part of an entire generation of Christians who suffered under Communism. Throughout the Soviet era, parents routinely lost their jobs when they converted to Christianity. Students’ grades were often docked for their religious beliefs.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the evangelical Church began to meet and evangelize openly. Even so, propaganda continued to poison the cultural waters; many Ukrainians falsely believed that evangelicals sacrificed children in their religious ceremonies. By 2014, less than two percent of the population identified as evangelical.
But this minority would soon influence the entire nation.
When the Maidan Revolution ended, an evangelical Christian was elected interim president. Oleksandr Turchynov sought God’s direction to set the nation on a steady course. Within the first few days of his presidency, Russia breached eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s peninsula on the Black Sea.
“Imagine this situation,” former president Turchynov told Every Home in an exclusive interview. “We did not have an army back then. We did not have effective power structures. We did not have money in our accounts… So tell me, was it possible to stand against this without God’s help?”
While Turchynov sought God’s guidance in the nation’s capital, pro-Russian separatists occupied the eastern city of Slavyansk. Tanks rolled down the main street. Masked militants took control of the armory. Local pastor Peter Dudnik watched as his city became a war zone.
EHC Ministry Director Anatoliy Kushnir (left) and Every Home writer Joshua Skaggs (right) sit down with Ukrainian Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksandr Turchynov (center). “I’m convinced that our freedom is not possible without the courage of the people and without God’s help,” Turchynov says.
“The city was turning into a ghost town. There were road blocks being put up, trenches being dug… Every day there was gunfire exchanged in the city. Insurgents were shooting at the Ukrainian side, and Ukrainians were shooting back.”
Then one hundred militants took over Peter’s church. Situated at one of the entrances to the city, his church was an ideal base of operations. Insurgents posted snipers on the roof and stored assault rifles and grenade launchers in the lobby.
Robbed of his city and his church building, Peter moved his family to a safe place outside the city. Then he returned to help other families. He started to evacuate people from their homes, often packing 20 people into his eight-passenger van, speeding down tiny roads in an attempt to evade crossfire.
Soon, Peter was helping hundreds of people leave the city. He formed a team of capable people who could be trusted to join in the rescue efforts. They established two covert pickup locations at a grocery store parking lot and local pool, making three trips each day with five church vans. Outside the city, Peter’s wife would field requests for extraction and forward the information to Peter. Christians from around the country began calling to offer their homes as safe houses.
At a refugee camp Peter had established outside the city, he gathered refugees who had no other place to go. There, his team provided food and prayer in the days following the people’s rescue. Everyone at the camp was required to attend three daily prayer services.
“It was kind of an anti-shock therapy, just to pray and care for people when they would come to their senses,” he says. “We would gather and praise the Lord and sing and just cry out to God.”
Peter Dudnik’s rescue efforts were the most extensive in Slavyansk. Because he was unaffiliated with the Ukrainian government or military, he was able to fly under the radar.
Although much of Slavyansk has been rebuilt, the city still bears marks of its occupation. This building on the outskirts of Slavyansk is one of many still riddled with bullet holes and other damage from major artillery.
By the time the Russian insurgents fled Slavyansk on July 5, 2014, Peter and his team had evacuated roughly 12,000 people. This had a lasting effect on the well- being of the city, and it also helped people become open to the Gospel.
“People’s understanding of the Church changed dramatically,” Peter says.
During the conflicts in Slavyansk, people saw evangelicals caring not only for their own needs but also for those of the entire city. While various factions fought for control and dominance, Christians risked their own safety to show love. Peter explains the heart behind his choices.
“In a time of calamity, the question is not only, how do you survive and sustain yourself, but how do you exhibit God’s glory? This question is not only about our past, but all of our future.”
Ukraine’s future continues to hang in the balance. At the time of this article’s release, Russian troops still occupy eastern Ukraine, locked in a ceasefire with Ukrainian troops. In between their artificial borders is a gap, a “no man’s land,” where a handful of Ukrainians live out their days trapped between two forces, uncertain whether their future lies east or west.
This tension is felt throughout the nation. To the east is Russia and Ukraine’s Soviet past, a past that most people wish to avoid. But to the west lies another threat, one that Christians are prepared to address — Western secularism. Turchynov, in his current role as Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, is wary of aligning with a European majority that has lost its Christian roots.
“When we are thinking of European integration, we want to integrate with the Europe of Luther, Calvin and the reformers of history. But this Europe is disappearing.”
Ukrainian Christians see the West slipping away from its Christian heritage, but they are determined not to follow suit. Rather than taking a passive stance and slowly ceding their advances, they are actively working to expand the Gospel’s reach. In recent years, the Ukrainian Church has commissioned missionaries to Russia, Europe and nations scattered around the globe. The Church has also begun hosting large events targeted at positively shaping Ukrainian culture.
In the fall of 2017, at the same location where the Maidan Revolution took place just three years earlier, the Ukrainian Church united to host its first annual Thanksgiving event. On streets still marked by bullet holes, more than 250,000 people gathered to hear the Good News.
“The turnout was like a revolution,” Anatoliy says. “It was — ‘overwhelming’ would be an understatement.”
This event was followed up one year later with another momentous event. In the Dnieper River that flows through downtown Kiev, 500 people were baptized. They wore white to signify their new lives in Christ. Their songs resounded through the city streets.
Events like these are not just a nice spectacle. They serve to make the Church visible to the public. Throughout Ukraine, Anatoliy works by any means necessary — large events, home-to-home evangelism, social media campaigns — to make Jesus known. In the east, Peter works with refugees, orphans and his own church family toward the same goal.
“I feel like this was preparation,” Peter says, speaking of all that has happened in the past several years. “A bigger revival is coming.”