Oleksiy Tsymbaliuk, a deacon-monk, a paramedic, a volunteer and a founder of a craft company manufacturing grappa told “Come Back Alive” Fund about God, the war and his thrill of life.

– How can a deacon-monk, a paramedic, a volunteer-activist and manufacturer of craft alcoholic beverages co-exist in one person?

– Harmoniously. You cannot divide one person into four different ones. If four individuals live inside you, it is a mental disease. However, if you have different interests, it’s quite normal.

Oleksiy answers with a smile. Long before the war started in Ukraine, he took a monastic vow and became a hierodeacon. The war in the east of the country made the man join the military forces and fight with the enemy. It turned out that not only collaborators and the Russians could be enemies. It affected Oleksiy, he left the army and started providing aid to children in frontline towns and to military volunteers. And now Oleksiy Tsymbaliuk with pseudonym of Arystarkh enjoys manufacturing of craft grappa and wine beverages.

God loves all people to the same extent – me, you and even a dead separatist. 

I came to the monastery in 2004. Before that I had some business and had nothing to do with the church. At first I served in St. Panteleimon’s Odesa monastery for men, later – in St. Iversky Odesa monastery for men.

In 2006 I took a monastic vow and became a hierodeacon (it is the first degree of priesthood, I could neither hear confessions, nor perform services by myself, only with priest). When you go to service into a church, you see a “loudspeaker”, who is reading Gospel loudly, that is hierodeacon. In modern church his functions are limited to being a “loudspeaker”. Previously deacon was responsible for social activities of church and social service.

I came to church due to very personal reasons, which I prefer not to mention at all. In general, people come to monastery due to two reasons: either for real repentance and atonement of their sins or to hide their non-traditional orientation. Unfortunately, the last reason is the most frequent now. Everything is OK with my orientation, my goal was the other one. I came for atonement. The principal thing which they teach priests is not to condemn. This thesis is put into people’s head by bastards, who benefit from veiling sins with this “not to condemn” and “the priest will respond himself during divine judgment”. And in fact, priest does not believe in God, he has come to church because he can wear nice clothes and old ladies will kiss his hands. Church is a huge organism, which lives, grows and requires a great amount of resources. The Russian Church, namely church of Moscow patriarchate fuses with authorities all the time, but there is the same gravity in Kyiv patriarchate as well. It happens because existence separately from the authorities means existence in certain poverty, which is not so pleasant. As a result the church suffers itself, since people associate it with a state institution.

In fact, the most important is how we understand the definition of “church”. For me church is both Christ and people who believe in him and have been baptised in the name of Christ. All together we compose church. Unfortunately, very often we consider church only as building. Unfortunately, very often Christ is substituted by bishops and priests. And it is one of the biggest problems and one of the biggest disasters of church of Moscow patriarchate, which has also affected the Ukrainian church.  

All were concerned about the fate of the Ukrainian church and wanted it to be independent. But nobody spoke about quality. People who do not care in which church not to go were mostly concerned about this problem. Paul the Apostle said: “There is neither Jew, nor Greek for God”. It is vital for the  church to be nationally identical, as we have our state and we should have our church. But not the national idea should be in the first place for church. Christ and salvation of a person and his or her soul should be in the first place.

At certain moment my coming to Christ helped me. The only thing, which I understand now is that I hurried with taking a monastic vow. I could be in the monastery as postulant for quite a long period of time. Now I live a life of an ordinary person, and consequently it is a violation of all monastic vows, which I have made. All are equal for God, he loves all people to the same extent – me, you and even a dead separatist. That is his love, one should understand it. And I will respond to God as monk who have made his vows.

As we must serve God through people, I did what my soul was calling for. There was a shelter for problematic children next to the place, where I served. I worked with them. Before I went to the front, I continued communicating with many of them. Now some of them have their own children, some have already got into jail for the second time… There is a hospital for patients with tuberculosis near Odesa and the majority of them are those released from jail, so almost nobody cares for them. I sent food there, because treatment for tuberculosis would not be effective without a proper diet, and I went there. Such people really need support. When there is no hope left for other people, there is hope and faith in God. Such faith is the most fundamental and help from God is felt. By the way, there is a third category of people coming to monastery, they are people released from jail. Most often such people return back to jail.

I did not see any other variant for myself rather than going to the front

No matter you serve in church or work somewhere, you are still a citizen of your country and should be where you are needed most. Vasyl the Great once said: “An unworthy citizen of earthly kingdom cannot be a worthy citizen of kingdom of heaven”. Since the war started, I did not see any other variant for myself rather than helping effectively. Not to disseminate the word of God, but to act. I began acting without arms, but it changed later.

I did not serve in the church in 2012-2013, I moved to Transcarpathia to live in mountains. I lived in the monastery for some time and also stayed alone in the mountains. Then I went to the front.  I devoted my most productive years to the church and fighting in the war.

I started serving as a paramedic in a medical battalion “Hospitallers”. I could not be a chaplain, because I was not allowed to perform services and serve as hierodeacon by myself. Chaplain’s functions are not limited only to talking, he should perform liturgy, hear confession…

I decided to defend my country with real actions, to defend it from a fierce and terrible enemy who has attacked and has been destroying my country for 500 years. We have an ongoing war with this enemy…

After “Hospitallers” in November 2015-May 2016 I was a member of mobile consolidated groups dealing with combat smuggling. We worked as volunteers-observers. There were two groups and we worked for two weeks. It was the only moment during the war, having experienced which I needed a psychological aid. I am sure that the majority of the commanders of these groups were recruited agents. Sooner or later they will start fulfilling their tasks. Meanwhile they want to be deputies… I got used to dealing with human sins, but in situations, when people come with confession, when they need to speak out, because they want to change. And I was not prepared for what I saw doing this job, it drove me crazy, I was furious with them all.

In 2016 having worked with mobile consolidated groups I rested for a while and became a volunteer. We went to Konstiantynivka. We went to boarding schools and ordinary schools. We brought them concerts, theatres, told them about history, ethnic Ukrainians. And we saw that the children were curious. We can’t do anything with the generation, which has led the Russians and the war to Donbas, they will never become Ukrainians, however we can work with children. But it should be a systematic work and it involves a great amount of material and emotional resources. When you have a talk with a 15-year-old boy and he tells you about Putin, you understand that he will become a militant in a few years… I could not work there longer, I felt lack of emotional stability.  

We also went to our servicemen, as they needed moral support and artistic consolation too. We went to Avdiyivka regularly, we brought “The Environment of Life” theatre there, we played guitar… But it all requires financing, and you get tired of asking people about it.

I am passionate about this country. I went to the front, because I do care what is going on here. I love this land. I could have left and could have had a quiet life, I could have delivered different lectures for diaspora on Moscow occupation. But I do not want to Canada, I want Canada to be here. The worst thing they are doing with us is they separate us. How can’t people understand that it’s necessary to love Ukraine no matter who the president is at the moment?

It was difficult to return back to a peaceful life. I even started inventing some stimuli for myself to stay and not return back, I adopted a dog… But when I was in the front for the last time in 2017, I did not like what was going on there.

The war has not changed me much. I’d rather say that my attitude to my brothers-in-arms has changed. War reveals everything: if a person is vile, he or she becomes even viler. Everything is seen a bit clearly. War doesn’t make you better, or worse, you are what you are, but everything is seen clearly.

If you are going to wait for changes, then it will take long

When I returned from the war, I understood what I wanted to do. I wanted to start my own business, because I am definitely not an office worker. Also I like to sit in a good company and drink 50 grams of alcohol, it gives a nice feeling. I lived in Transcarpathia for quite a long period of time and this region is famous for its samohon (hooch). I have an acquaintance there, who brewed a great hooch, which I often ordered for myself. And I decided that I could have brewed one of the same quality myself. I ordered an apparatus from him. Well, it’s not until recently that I have started using it.

I have serious connections with Bessarabia and consider this region of Ukraine to be underestimated. Wonderful grapes grow there, and tasty wines are made out of them. Out country is very wealthy, but we are not able to value what we have. I decided to make my distillates particularly from this wine. A beverage, which we call “grappa”, should be called “white brandy”. During manufacturing of such beverage we do not use industrial apparatuses. We add a part of human soul into this process. Apart from grappa, we also brew hrinovuha (an alcoholic beverage made using horseradish) and  kalhanivka (an alcoholic beverage made using tormentil).

When they ask me how I can do both: be very religious and brew hooch, I ask them in return: “Is there anything in this world, which could exist without the will of God?”. There are many links to wine in the Psalms: it brings joy to man’s heart and rest to the body. Isn’t it great to drink a glass of wine after a hard day? According to the sacred legends a man left the paradise with grapes, wheat, figs and olives. Many things can be made out of grapes: meals, juice, wine, hooch. 

God gives me personally a freedom of choice. And free choice starting from Adam’s time, is the most expensive gift. And God cast Adam out of paradise not because of his choice, but because of lack of repentance. The saying ”slave of God” exists only in Moscow patriarchate. I feel myself not as a slave, but as a child of God. I have a choice and I am not restricted with anything. But we often mix freedom and permissiveness. Freedom is what you can choose not interfering with the freedom of other people. State is something we received from God and must protect. When they say that a religious person cannot fight, it is important to remember that God gives a freedom of defence of your own land. God needs a voluntary service, and not service under pressure. When there is pressure, it is not about God. Moscow patriarchate is satanic, because everything is based on restriction of person’s will there. We perceive love to God incorrectly, and we often interpret his mercy like punishment, but God provides a person with the best environment for salvation of his or her soul. God doesn’t punish anybody.

We should remember that a civil society forms a country. There will be totalitarianism without free people. As for the answer to question: “How long shall we wait for changes?”, there is only one: “If you are going to wait, then it will take long”…

All photos are from the personal archive of Oleksiy Tsymbaliuk

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