More than 100 Ukrainian prisoners of war have been released as part of a major Easter exchange with Russia as Orthodox Ukrainians marked the holiday for a second time since the Russian invasion last February.
While celebrations were subdued due to security risks, with a curfew barring the faithful from customary all-night services, Ukrainian authorities and ordinary people shared messages of hope, linking the story of Jesus’s resurrection to their longing for peace and a Ukrainian victory.
Presidential adviser Andriy Yermak announced that 130 soldiers, sailors, border guards and others captured by Moscow were on their way back home following a “big Easter prisoner exchange”.
Mr Yermak said in a Telegram post on Sunday that those released included troops who fought near Bakhmut, the eastern mining city which has for months been the focus of Russia’s offensive.
There was no immediate information on how many Russian prisoners were released, but the press service of the founder of the Wagner Group, the Kremlin-affiliated paramilitary force whose fighters are prominent in eastern Ukraine, also released a video on Sunday showing Ukrainian prisoners of war being readied for an exchange.
The video, published on the Telegram messaging service, features Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin instructing a soldier to prepare the Ukrainian captives to leave Russian-controlled territory “by lunchtime” on Sunday. The POWs are then shown boarding trucks and walking along a road.
In his Easter address released on Sunday morning, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the holiday as marking “the victory of good, the victory of truth, the victory of life”, and he stressed what he said was Ukrainian unity in the face of Russian aggression.
Ukraine’s top soldier, General Valery Zaluzhnyy, drew parallels between the Christian message of resurrection and renewal and Ukraine’s hopes for victory.
“Easter is a holiday of great hope. Hope that will bring us peace. I believe that together, united, we will overcome the enemy,” he wrote in a Facebook post. He also thanked all front-line soldiers who he said will “hold the defence in the trenches, stay in the dugouts, … carry out combat duty” as the rest of the country celebrates.
In central Kyiv, people gathered in the courtyard of the landmark St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery on Sunday morning to have their Easter eggs and baskets of food blessed by a priest.
Alla Voronina, one of those who came to St Michael’s with baskets containing Easter cakes and multi-colored eggs, said the restrictions were “very hard” on residents’ morale.
“You constantly recall how it used to be before the war,” she told The Associated Press. She said that she and her family would nevertheless follow the security recommendations and go straight home after receiving the blessing.
Others in the line echoed Zaluzhnyy’s words about a wartime Easter being a symbol of hope.
“As never before, Easter at a time of war inspires us with hope and faith in the future, in the victory of Ukraine, in God’s protection of our Motherland,” said Inna Holivets.
Another worshipper, Tetiana Voloshyna, said she was praying for Ukrainian troops “who defend us and make it possible for us to have this holiday”.
She added she had come to the monastery with her “personal pain and personal requests to God for victory, peace and life”.
Despite the shared Orthodox holiday, Russian shelling and missile attacks continued, according to social media statements from Ukrainian regional officials.
Officials in the country’s south and east said churches had not been spared. The governor of the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region, Serhii Lysak, claimed in a Telegram update that Russian forces stationed at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shelled a church in a nearby town, wounding two civilians.
“The Russians have once again confirmed that they hold nothing sacred,” Mr Lysak said in his post. He did not immediately provide evidence of the strike or its consequences.
In a statement, Putin commended Patriarch Kirill for “tireless, selfless work aimed at preserving enduring historical, spiritual, moral and family values, the upbringing and education of the youth”.
Patriarch Kirill has repeatedly spoken out in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a video message broadcast on Russian state television late on Saturday, before the start of the Easter service in Moscow, he lamented “grave events taking place on our Russian historical land” in reference to the war, echoing the Kremlin’s claim that an independent Ukraine is essentially a fiction.
Earlier on Sunday, the head of the local military administration in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia province reported that Russian shelling overnight hit an Orthodox church in the town of Komyshuvakha.
At least four civilians were killed and eight others were wounded on Saturday and overnight, Ukrainian officials reported on Sunday morning.
The national emergencies service said the death toll in an attack on Friday on the city of Sloviansk rose to 13 as more bodies were found in the rubble of an apartment building.
Across the front line, in Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine’s industrial east, the Kremlin-appointed head of the Donetsk region claimed that a Ukrainian strike killed one civilian and wounded six others in the province’s namesake capital. Denis Pushilin wrote in a Telegram post that shelling hit the centre of the city, near its Holy Transfiguration cathedral.
Neither Mr Pushilin’s claim nor those from Ukrainian authorities regarding the civilian death toll could be independently verified.