The Vigilante Pastor
In a country ripped apart by war, Gennadiy Mokhnenko fights to protect his city and the children who live in it
Every day, Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko fights two wars. He tries to keep the Russian Army at bay from taking over his Ukranian home of Mariupol, and he tries to save children living in the streets from a life of drugs and inevitable death.
Almost Holy is a documentary from director Steve Hoover that tells the story of Mokhnenko as he attempts to rescue homeless and drug-addicted youth amidst the turmoil of a state still transitioning in the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse.
“If the government won’t do it and police won’t do it,” says Mokhnenko, who has been called a vigilante by some. “Someone must take the law into their own hands. It is my situation.”
A perfect storm of tragic circumstances has left Mariupol devastated. Ukraine became a Communist state after the fall, but had no independent infrastructure, and social services were cut off at the same time the number of homeless children increased exponentially.
“This was a result of massive unemployment, a spike in alcoholism, depression, things like that where the family structure [broke down],” says Hoover, who won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for his first film, Blood Brother, about an HIV/AIDS orphanage in India. “In general, you had a massive social, economical fallout that resulted in a social apathy to the extent that homeless children [became] endemic. The way Gennadiy explained it to me was that [parents] had so many of their own problems, they couldn't [begin] to deal with these other problems.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We want to say goodbye to the Soviet influence from Russia, and we want to be free, but we pay a terrible price for this.[/quote]
The film shows a poignant portrait of one man who will stop at nothing to do what he thinks is right, despite the risks or cost to his own family. And as Almost Holy traveled around the festival circuit and prepared to open this past weekend, Mokhnenko continued to fight his battles, and the battles of his country, paying little mind to how the movie will be received by audiences.
“I don’t have time to read [press] about me,” he states matter-of-factly. “I don’t have time think about the exposure. I have war. Nothing has changed in my life [because of the film]. If there wasn’t this terrible war, maybe I could take my wife and go to the film festivals in all the countries, or walk the red carpets and take pictures. But we have war.”
(The following is edited for clarity)
Why do you take children from the streets and put them in the Pilgrim rehabilitation center?
I think it’s nothing special. When we see pain around us, hard problems […] you never know if you have a good result, but we must try to help. I don’t’ feel like I’m doing something special. Many millions of people around me, if and when they see a problem, [they’ll] try and help.
I live in the Ukraine and everyone around us has problems. Right now, we have war just 10 miles from my home. We try and help the children but also anyone who needs help.
How has your work changed now with the recent conflict between Ukraine and Russia?
We don’t change our life in war. Maybe that sounds strange, but war is part of our life now. Ten miles away we have the Russian Army and tanks and tragedy. I am a Chaplain in the service along with my other work, but we do what we did before the war; we try and find homes and work with the children. It’s not so easy now—twice we’ve had to wake our children in the middle of the night, put them in buses and send them outside the city because the Russian Army took a town not far from us. Now, we have a quieter situation than a year ago. I know it’s difficult situation to understand, but we have our lives, we help the children and continue to find them on the street and help them through rehabilitation, and maybe it’s more difficult, but we do it the same as before the war.
Have there been any repercussions because of the film?
This film tells the truth about Russian intervention in my country. It tells openly about the general reason why this war came about. I openly speak truths about Communism, and I have many people who hate me because I hate the Communist system. I hate the Russian KGB leaders who came to my country and started killing people. When I start talking about it, I have people who are angry with me. They love Lenin and Stalin and Putin and they will hate me. But it’s no big deal for me.
The Communist system has brought true war and tragedy, but [I feel] this is the last chapter in Communism’s story in my country. It’s a terrible chapter and a chapter full of blood, but it’s an important chapter. I like the American saying, “Freedom is never free.” I think about that for my country now. We want to say goodbye to the Soviet influence from Russia, and we want to be free, but we pay a terrible price for this.
Some of my sons are soldiers now, and they stay in my city to try and stop this Russian Army. I know in America people don’t understand what’s happening [but this] is not a single conflict inside a single war inside Ukraine. It’s a real Russian intervention into my country.
Then you have a two-front war now? You’re still trying to fight for these kids and you’re trying to fight Russia?
We have the children’s rehab center and we have two centers for refugees. Yes, we do both. For the past two years, we’ve been on the frontlines. Many mornings my friends and I went to the frontline to help people and try and stop this intervention. Praise the Lord, we did it. They haven’t taken our city. They’re close by, but we haven’t given them our city. We paid a terrible price though. Many people were killed.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Ten miles away we have the Russian Army and tanks and tragedy, but do what we did before the war; we try and find homes and work with the children. [/quote]
Your tactics for saving these children have been called controversial.
I know it’s so strange for Americans. In America you have police, social services, and if you see [a child] on the street, you call someone and they will take care of it. That’s not my country.
Children must have adults who help them and show them a normal life. When I started to work with children on the street, I’d have a long talk with them and explain how we could help get them off drugs, give them food and a home and get them into school.
I’ll never forget, one time I found a boy in a basement, Nikolai. I talked with him, asking him to come with me. He said he would another time. I left and started to drive home, but after 15 minutes I turned around. I tried again, asking him to come with me, explaining that he had a drug addiction and needed help. He said, ‘No, no, another day, next time.’ I said OK and left. After three weeks, he was dead.
I cried that day. I vowed to never ask children again. I will take them and later we will have many talks.