Schismatics, blasphemers, and the invasion of the crows
Throughout the whole of January 25, russian information space disseminated news of a crow invasion in Kyiv. Russian propaganda outlets published a video of a city, which they claimed was the Ukrainian capital, and even asked ornithologists to provide some comments. The answer - that the birds could have been spooked by a sudden flash of light or a burst of loud noise - didn’t satisfy the propagandists, so they decided to use “UN-like diplomacy”. For example, russia’s deputy UN ambassador tweeted that the flock of crows over Kyiv was an omen signaling the presence of state “blasphemers” who destroy churches and persecute priests.
Two videos were recorded and aired to announce news about the “bad omen”. The first one was actually filmed in Kyiv. It appeared on January 24 on the Realnyi Kyiv telegram channel reporting that “in Pechersk District, readers noticed a huge flock of birds flying around in circles for a very long time.” The same post later explained that “this phenomenon [coordinated flight] is called bird murmuration, and people say that it predicts a change in weather conditions.” We have described similar cases earlier.
The second video, where birds swoop and swirl ominously among some vehicles on the highway resembles footage from a Hitchcock movie. It too was shot on January 25, but in 2017, and not in Kyiv, but in Houston, USA. Here is a link to the original.
This isn’t the first time russian representatives in the UN have spread fake news. Let us remind you that in October, russia’s permanent representative Nebenzia announced at an official meeting that Ukraine intended to use “war mosquitoes”, which could infect people with dangerous diseases.
In our opinion, the fake news regarding the invasion of the crows as a punishment for “blasphemers” is part of russia’s disinformation campaign about the persecution of the church in Ukraine. These narratives were widely disseminated by russian propagandists after President Zelenskyy enacted the National Security and Defense Council’s decision to ban moscow-linked religious organizations in Ukraine and after sanctions were imposed on russian clergy. In russian propaganda messages, the church of the moscow patriarchate is called “canonical”, while the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is called “schismatic”.
For example, one of the messages of russian propagandists is the allegedly intentional arson of UOC (meaning ROC) churches. On January 11, pro-russian telegram channels posted a video of a fire in the Holy Ascension Church in Volyn Region. According to the propagandists, it was burned down after the church rector refused to leave the moscow patriarchate.
However, the regional department of the State Emergency Service reported that no fires had been registered in the area, and the head of the Ovadne territorial community, Serhiy Panasevych, explained that the church in the video wasn’t their church (https://t.me/channel12vol/35990). Later, Volyn journalists discovered that the video showed a church located somewhere in Dnipropetrovsk Region and that the fire had occurred in 2021.
On January 20, pro-russian publications also reported a fire in a church in Boryspil District. The propagandists immediately claimed that it was arson because the “canonical” church was undergoing enormous persecution.
But instead, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine reported that the cause of the fire was still under investigation.
Another propaganda message is that clergy are being arrested and attacked in Ukraine. This fake news was disseminated after an attack on the protopriest of a moscow patriarchate church in Vinnytsia Region earlier this year. After the incident, law enforcement officials reported that they were investigating the attacker’s motives, but it’s common knowledge that the man is registered at a psychoneurological dispensary.
Alternately, russian propagandists presented this lone attack as part of “a chain of terrible events in recent weeks”, stating that clergy of the moscow patriarchate are being persecuted and that such discrimination is being carried out systemically. Moreover, it’s encouraged by the state leadership, as evidenced by searches in monasteries and criminal cases against clerics.
However, what propagandists call “persecution of the moscow patriarchate” is a security measure enforced by law enforcement officers in the context of russia’s armed aggression. During the searches, the SBU found lots of evidence linking the moscow patriarchate churches to russia: russian manuals praising the kremlin regime, terrorist flags, and prayers for the aggressor country.
They also found evidence of cooperation with the occupation authorities. For example, in one of the churches in Kherson Region, they found forms for pass cards for the occupation authorities and russian passports belonging to local priests. These cases have been opened and will be heard under articles on collaboration, high treason, and justification of russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine.
The third propaganda message states that Ukrainians are organizing coven meetings in the “seized” Orthodox churches, including the Lavra. For example, a post by Viktoriya Kokhanovska, who is called an “Orthodox human rights activist”, went viral. She shared a tik-tok video showing a Christmas nativity scene in a church. She writes that “the UOC is now an enemy, because we glorify God in our churches, but in the meantime, patriotic members of the OCU are swinging with the devil.”
Kokhanovska is intentionally misleading her readers, because the event didn’t take place in the OCU, but in the Marian Spiritual Centre in Zarvanytsia in Ternopil Region, which belongs to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. In UGCC churches, live nativity scenes with musicians and Christmas characters are popular events for parishioners. For example, a search on YouTube reveals many videos from previous years showing Christmas performances in various UGCC churches, with traditional characters such as King Herod, the Devil, Death, the Angel, etc: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3O3rHFhBaE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4F66iQyrFU, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpSs6Y_p9hU
But for some reason or other, these videos didn’t cause outrage, unlike the video reported by russian propaganda.
As for the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, which is the main shrine of the Orthodox faithful in Eastern Europe, the UOC (MP) wasn’t allowed to hold divine services in the Assumption Cathedral and the neighbouring Trapezna (Refectory) Church. In fact, moscow patriarchate priests had conducted services there for 20 years, but on December 31, 2022, the lease expired and the Ministry of Culture advised against renewing the contract.
On January 7, for the first time, Metropolitan Epifaniy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine held a divine service at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, and a second one on January 19, on the Feast of Epiphany. Pro-russian media called these events “an illegal seizure of our main church” and “an illegal seizure by schismatics”. Then, after the charity performance on the Day of Unity, they spread fake news about “radicals desecrating the shrine”, which now hosts rock concerts instead of prayer. This message was picked up first by the russian audience and then by some Ukrainian readers.
In fact, the concert was authorized by officials from the Ministry of Culture, not the OCU, which was allowed to conduct two divine services during the festive days. The so-called “rock concert” was a performance by bandura player Taras Kompanichenko, who can hardly be called a rocker, because he and the Khoreya Kozatska group play traditional, ancient music and Ukrainian folk songs. This isn’t the bandura player’s first concert on the territory of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra; the previous one was held a few months earlier. But this time, the Lavra administration decided that the concert would take place in the Trapezna (Refectory) Church, which caused outrage among the parishioners of the pro-russian church.
However, in a comment to journalists, Kostiantyn Krainiy, Deputy Director General of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra National Reserve, explained that there was no problem in organizing the concert at the Lavra, because it was to take place in the refectory, which is separated from the church by a door. Moreover, this is a place where the monks gather to take their meals, and not to pray.
In addition, the commentators didn’t like the songs that were performed. They underlined that the program included war songs. But, according to the organizers, this event was initiated by the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra National Reserve and was dedicated to the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine… but some people were intentionally stirring up hysteria. It was indeed the pro-russian media outlets that published the most emotional comments. A few days later, they wrote about the invasion of the crows in Kyiv