Ukraine’s silent epidemic
Addressing the drug and alcohol abuse crisis that threatens Ukraine.
My husband and I spent eleven years as missionaries in Nikopol, Ukraine before returning to Waukesha, Wisconsin in 2015. While the situation on the border of Ukraine is urgent, the country is already fighting its own silent epidemic.
For 80 years the Soviet Union told Ukrainians that there is no God. Today the nation of Ukraine is in tatters. The highest rates of substance abuse in the world are held by Eastern European countries, with Ukraine coming in at number seven. In the world, it only trails Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Lithuania, Romania and Russia for alcohol abuse. One group of people is trying to turn the tide in their community of Nikopol, Ukraine. This is their story.
“In 2004 I left my apartment to go ‘walk’ with my friends. [A slang term used by Ukrainian young people which means hanging out.] I had already lived many years of my life marinating in Ukraine’s elixir of drug and alcohol abuse. My friend ran into an acquaintance who attended the Baptist church nearby. She invited us to her church and prayed for us right there on the street. I was embarrassed by her boldness and thought she was a religious fanatic, so I went to get high with my friends.”
Slavik couldn’t sleep the following morning, with the woman’s words in his head. He found her house and knocked. As he was turning to leave, she came to the door. “She surprised me when she said she had been expecting me. From that meeting, my life was changed forever. An elderly woman from her church took me in and I began to attend services with her. She was my drug rehabilitation before Ukraine had such a thing.”
Slavik met two men on a train who agreed to study the Bible with him. “I became convicted of my need to be baptized, but I was afraid that God was not capable of forgiving me of my sin. I felt like I was too bad, even for God. But as I continued to study, I began to feel ready.” After baptism, Slavik studied at Sunset Bible College in Dnepropetrovsk. As he grew more active in the church he couldn’t ignore the issues of drugs and alcohol. “An idea began to form in my mind.”
Slavik inherited a small house in the country from his grandmother. It had sat empty for five years, and Slavik and his parents fixed it up and planted a garden. “We called it ‘The Father’s House.’ I felt that God preserved this home for this purpose. That first winter, I took in three alcoholic men, just as the elderly woman had done for me. By spring, we had 20 to 30 residents packed into that tiny house. I lived there for one and a half years.”
That first winter, as the young men studied the Bible together, one decided to be baptized immediately. “We had no tub big enough. There was a small lake nearby, but it was frozen over. Ukrainians have a profound fear of the cold, but he would not wait, so we broke the ice to baptize him. This man was willing to get sick because being baptized right away was so important to him. A number of others ended up being baptized that same day as well.”
Ukraine’s drug market
To understand the impact of The Father’s House ministry, we need to first step back and look again at the drug scene in Ukraine. Ukraine’s drug market has porous borders. Those who are meant to help are not always able to. As reported by Ukraine’s leading news source, a state-run drug “rehab” can exploit addicts by providing them with drugs under the guise of giving them a safe environment to do them in. The doctors administering drugs in these programs can be steeped in their own addictions. The police force is bribed to look the other way and addicts are left with no alternatives.
Especially tragic, abuse of alcohol and drugs among children is at record numbers. As many as 86 percent of teenagers reported the use of alcohol in the past year and 18 percent reported usage of illicit drugs, according to a 2019 study conducted by UNICEF.
The statistics on drug related deaths in Ukraine range in the thousands, depending on whether an official or independent source is counting. But the drug problem leads to other social issues as well. Of the nation’s total population of 44 million people, 80,000 prostitutes are reported to work in Ukraine. The real number is believed to be much higher. Property crime is so rampant that people don’t even bother calling the police, as they will only help if you can make it “worth their while.”
Moving to Nikopol
That first baptism at The Father’s House was 14 years ago. Eight years ago Slavik sold that first house and bought two facilities closer to Nikipol, one for men and one for women. He took a position serving the congregation in Nikopol. The rehab program continued at the new facilities, called “The Father’s House” after the house in the country. Slavik continues to work with the Father’s House ministry in an administrative role. His wife, Katya, works in the children’s ministry called “Club Smile,” teaching children’s classes, and hosting Bible studies catered toward kids at the library. Slavik and Katya have two children. Slavik’s brother-in-law, Misha, has worked with the home for men for three years. In all, the two facilities have taken in more than 2,000 addicts and studied the Bible with them.
An elderly woman recently came to live at the women’s shelter after being ousted by her family. After being told her entire life God didn’t exist, she was so overcome by the hospitality of Christians that she said, “Now I know there is a God!”
Luda is one of the staff serving the women in The Father’s House ministry. She moved to Nikopol from Kyiv. “I have a past that I am not proud of, but I am so thankful God has forgiven me,” says Luda. Her past is what enables her to minister to women like Zhenya and Anya in rehab.
Five years ago Zhenya Chabanov went through The Father’s House and rehabilitated from his addiction to alcohol. “In studying the scripture, I recognized I needed God’s help to overcome,” he says. After Slavik’s rehab program he attended Bible college and returned to his hometown. Today he is serving the congregation in Nikopol, distributing literature from the Sunset Bible college in their street evangelism program, and inviting people to his weekly Bible study called the “Coffee Club,” where people learn about the hope they can have in Christ
Anya Gudema remembers encountering The Father’s House ministry five years ago: “When I was 33 Jesus found me, broken by my sinful life. I was hardened by my addictions, with no family and no home. The Father’s House ministry resurrected my faith and brought me back to life in him.” Now, Anya ministers to the elderly and participates in a Bible study for elderly ladies; she meets with the church for prayer meetings, and they learn more about the word of God. “It’s a wonderful chance for young Christians to acclimate to spiritual life.” She shares her testimony at the rehab center, and helps Zhenya with street evangelism. “Now I am married, I am in my boy’s life again, and raising my niece as well,” she says.
While Russian soldiers are amassing at the border of Ukraine, the army of God is already fighting a battle that matters, the one that is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces in the heavenly places.
This article was published alongside an article on the historical context of the gas pipelines that Russia’s conflict with Ukraine now centres around.
Read past CC coverage of Ukraine here.