The bitter feud would almost be comical were it not being waged in the devastated Ukrainian town of Borodyanka, north of Kyiv, among hollowed out buildings, burned armoured vehicles and freshly dug graves.
A near two-decade grudge between two priests, fueled by fierce interchurch tensions and the pursuit of local dominance, has escalated into tit-for-tat claims of attempted murder, treachery, collaboration in forced deportations and vigilante vandalism.
An uncomfortable introduction as younger men 18 years ago and a few awkward moments at local community events have spiraled, local people say, into each threatening God’s judgment on the other.
The chief accuser of the two is Father Dmytro Koshka, rector at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, of the Orthodox church of Ukraine. It is not to be confused with the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox church, for which the accused, Father Viktor Talko, is an archpriest.
Koshka, 42, sitting in the shade of his church’s porch as a line of local people waited to be handed spare clothes, food and water by volunteers, said he believed Talko, 67, at the Church of Archangel Michael, a short drive down Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard, had directed Russian soldiers to hunt him down at the height of their occupation on 2 March.
“I received a call from the territorial defense fighters because I am also a member of the Borodyanka territorial defense,” Koshka said. “They said they were asking me to leave my house because the Moscow father had received Russian soldiers and cooperated with them.”
Koshka said he left the next day for the sake of his wife, Maria, 41, and daughter, Angelina, 18, for Piskivka, a village 15 miles north-west of Borodyanka.
“The territorial defense told me that when Russian soldiers came to the church to look for me, they showed everyone all my personal data, even my passport data. They had all the information about me,” he said. “I used to be a deputy of the city council. And this is access to public information about me. But Russian soldiers, they would never have found it themselves, they were helped by the Russian priest. He gave them all this information… I know him very well.”
Koshka, who did not offer any evidence for his claims, went on: “He gave [the Russian soldiers] shelter in his church. He then stationed his military equipment on his farm. His own son helped to do it. After that, he prepared food for them, fed them, they spent the night there. In short, he met them as his close friends. Everyone knows about it and everyone has seen it.”
The gravest crime, Koshka said, however, was that Talko allowed his church to be part of a “trick” on people desperate to escape the shelling in the town. Local people received a text message from an anonymous number inviting them to meet at Talko’s church to be evacuated – but they had not been told that their destination was Russia-allied Belarus, it is claimed.
“The SBU [Ukrainian secret services] is dealing with him because he helped to smuggle people to Belarus, more than 100 people,” Koshka said. “They had tried to escape. He, his son, his family got into a minibus and started running. But one bridge was blown up, another bridge was blown up and in third place was the Ukrainian army. And they were trapped, they had nowhere to run.”
Talko was, he added, not a priest but a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
A five minute drive away, Talko, sitting among the cherry trees and blackberry bushes in the pretty grounds of his own church, angrily denied most of the claims and all of Koshka’s interpretation of the events during the Russian occupation, calling his fellow priest “spiritually ill” and saying he was seeking to stir up enmity.
Talko said he was being unfairly accused of being an agent of the Russian army owing to the historical links between his denomination and Moscow, shaking his head as he spoke.
He denied running away, saying he was picked up by the Ukrainian secret services on 2 April, the day after Russian forces left, and interrogated for six days in a gymnasium in Kyiv. Talko said he had only ever tried to help local people by asking for flour from the Russians and denied giving the invaders information about Koshka.
“I have no problems with the Ukrainian government,” said Talko, who has led his church in Borodyanka for 30 years. “They accuse me of allegedly collaborating with the Russian occupation forces. Everything I did as a priest, as a clergyman. I turned to Russian soldiers only for help for Ukrainian civilians.
“I did not feed Russian soldiers either. We fed ordinary civilians. We asked for flour from Russian soldiers to bake bread for people in our church. And the Ukrainian authorities cannot understand how this is so – the enemy helped the Ukrainian priest. Ukrainian authorities now portray Russian soldiers as terrible. But in reality, the Russian soldiers here were different.”
Grasping what he said was a letter of thanks from a Borodyanka family who had since moved and were uncontactable, Talko said people had been grateful for his help in getting them to Belarus.
“Please see what letters people wrote to me whom I helped to evacuate to Belarus,” he said. “They are grateful to me for that. We helped evacuate our Ukrainian people through the Belarusian Red Cross. We asked for the Belarusian Red Cross and they evacuated people to Belarus.
“Our church helped evacuate 80 people to Belarus. And we also helped evacuate people to western Ukraine. We helped evacuate 1,500 people to western Ukraine.”
Koshka’s church had been formed merely to challenge his own, Talko said, adding that he believed Koshka had encouraged people to throw molotov cocktails into an outhouse by the gates to his church’s estate. “Here you see a burnt building near the church?” he asked. “It was all organized by this priest. He is now a ‘star and a patriot’. God bless him.”
He added: “The first time we met, he approached me with such a strange expression on his face. I told him – never get in my way again. If I was not a priest I would be talking to him differently now. I used to wrestle and do sports. Let God judge him.”