Natalia Feduschak, Special to the Post
The Kyiv Post, Kyiv, Ukraine
Thursday, April 24, 2003
It's a humbling sight: the stoic faces of saints staring back at solemn
worshippers through a haze made golden by a symphony of candles. A
priest, dressed in a yellow robe, echoes the warmth of the chamber,
murmuring a prayer while a single hollow voice quietly chants "Amen."
For a moment, the cavernous opening that is the interior of the St.
Mykhailivsky cathedral in Kyiv, a Byzantine-style cathedral, is rapt in
hushed anticipation. Then, the full force of the choir joins the male
soloist, the chamber erupting in a joyous sound. A half-hour later, the
worshippers leave, a look of contentment visible on their faces.
Time and again similar scenes in cities and villages throughout Ukraine have
entranced me. On this particular occasion I was walking past the
golden-domed cathedral at dusk on a winter evening and decided to stop in.
The Mykhailivsky Cathedral in Kyiv on the Easter day of 2003
(Click on image to enlarge it)
Visiting places of worship has always been a favorite pastime of mine. While
traveling through Europe, in places such as Rome, Istanbul and Barcelona, I
have visited countless churches, synagogues and mosques. In Kyiv, however,
my church-going has become a part of the rhythm of life; one of the great
pleasures of living in the city has been the opportunity to just walk into a
cathedral to say a prayer and light a candle then continue on with the day.
Even as Kyiv has given me a deeper understanding of my more spiritual self,
it is in travels across Ukraine that I have come to appreciate the country's
rich religious culture. Christians, Jews and Muslims have all made their
home here; Ukraine's religious tolerance has meant that since the breakup of
the Soviet Union, the country has become home to many less-traditional
religions. Ukraine's Evangelical movement, for instance, is one of the
fastest growing in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
THE NEW JERUSALEM
Religion has played an important role in the development of many nations.
As the recent losses of priceless artifacts (some over 7,000-years-old)
from Baghdad's National Museum have shown, when a nation loses part
of its religious past, it loses something of its future. In an attempt to
provide a better understanding of Ukraine's religious heritage, I will
attempt to highlight places of religious interest; places related to
early days of Christianity.
The church that sits on the territory of the castle near Halych
houses one of the best preserved Griffiths in Ukraine. Dating from the
14th century, the church has undergone extensive renovations and additions
(Photo by Natalia A. Feduschak)
Kyiv remains Ukraine's religious capital: Having adopted Christianity in
988, the city was at the crossroads of religious life in the region,
eventually becoming known as the New Jerusalem. The city at one time
had so many churches that it was said 1,000 domes adorned the landscape.
Invasions, wars and finally the Soviet era of official state atheism saw the
ruin of many of the churches that once existed here.
Recent years, however, have seen a drive to restore some of the city's lost
glory, bringing with it a hope that religious life will again take center
stage. Much of the construction taking place today includes resurrecting
such religious titans as Uspensky Sobor in Pecherska Lavra, St.
Mykhailivsky, and the Birth of Christ Sobor on the Dnipro River, where
famed Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko's body lay until 1861. All, along
with St. Sophia, are worth a lingering visit.
Some of the earliest examples of Ukraine's Christian life, however, are
found not in Kyiv, but further south, in Crimea. Chersonesus, the ancient
Greek settlement outside Sevastopol, was founded in 422. The city was part
of the Roman and Byzantine empires, and grew at a time when nascent
Christianity was taking root in the Mediterranean region and other areas
formerly controlled by the Romans.
Walking along the road that once led from the entrance of the city, Miron
Zolotorov, assistant director of an archeological dig called the Black Sea
Project, which is excavating the Greek settlement along with a team of U.S.
scholars, pointed to what appeared to be a large hole in the ground. Leading
into it was a single flight of stairs carved into rock.
"We have evidence that believers worshipped underground," he explained.
Persecution by ruling authorities often forced early Christians to pray
together in underground chapels, a far cry from the opulent Byzantine-style
cathedrals that came to dominate the Orthodox world centuries later. Over
the centuries, other churches were built in Chersonesus, their foundations
still visible. But it is a single gaping hole there that inspires
The Uspensky Sobor and Monastery at the Pecherska Lavra is
wonderfully adorned with golden domes, centuries-old frescoes atop the
front facade and stained glass windows both inside and out
(Photo by Andry
(The settlement is also the place where scholars generally agree that
Volodymyr the Great, who accepted Byzantine Christianity for the people of
Kyivan-Rus, was christened, although there is still debate about the actual
spot where this occurred.)
Further north, outside Bahchisaray, which was once the seat of power for the
Khan, or leader of the Crimean Tatars, are the Uspensky Monastery and the
cave cities of Chufut-Kale and Manhup-Kale.
Byzantine monks originally founded the monastery, which today sits under the
authority of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate, in the 8th
or 9th centuries. A series of caves carved into the rock that served both as
places of worship and living quarters, the monastery has undergone dramatic
change in recent years.
On visits in the early 1990s, the chapels and dwellings in which monks
worshipped and lived were usually bare caves, symbols of the austerity and
solitude embraced by previous generations of holy men. Steps leading to the
principle chapel were in disrepair, and fading frescos from past generations
could only just be seen on the face of the rock.
In recent years, however, the main chapel has seen the addition of an
iconostasis (a decorated partition), as well as a carefully laid floor of
mosaic tiling and the once-fading frescos have been restored, too. A brisk
trade in religious items takes place at the chapel's entrance.
"The character of this place has changed," said director of the Khan's
palace and a friend of many years, Server Ebubekirov. The palace is now a
museum. "It was perhaps more peaceful before."
Chufut-Kale and Manhup-Kale, however, take the visitor back in time. Even
though in later centuries the cities fell under the influence of the Muslim
Crimean Tatars, from the perch of their majestic mountain bluffs, each place
gives the visitor a sense of the isolated and difficult lives led by the
ancient Christians. Chufut-Kale, its ruins surprisingly well-preserved, is
an easier trek for the visitor, while Manhup-Kale requires more effort to
In both places, however, the visitor can walk through spacious caves that
were both gathering places and dwellings for the faithful. Here, too,
Byzantine frescoes peer out from the rock, still visible after the ravages
of time. It is the occasional brush of faded color that provides the
heart-stopping link with the past.
Western Ukraine may boast less of an ancient connection with Byzantium and
the beginnings of Christianity in Ukraine, but perhaps nowhere else is the
visual presence of the church more prevalent. The Carpathian Mountains are
dotted with wooden churches - some complex, other simple - that speak of
their inhabitants' faith. The churches themselves speak of local religious
Lviv holds the greatest complex of churches in Western Ukraine. St.
Nicholas' and the Armenian Cathedral, from the 13th and 14th centuries,
respectively, as well as the 17th century St. Bernadine Convent Complex
are all worth seeing.
I have spent hours admiring the churches of Lviv over the course of many
years and have still not gotten my fill. One of my favorite churches in
Ukraine is actually found outside Halych, where the 13th-century Galician-
Volynian Chronicle, one of the earliest literary manuscripts of the Kyivan-
Rus, was compiled.
The church is located on the grounds of Halych Castle, dating from the
14th-17th centuries, which was the seat of power for rulers of the
Kyivan-Rus. Although the church is in a dilapidated state and may not be
much to look at, inside it holds a special treasure.
In one corner along a wall, nearly hidden by layers of paint and countless
renovations, is part of a symbol of power from its glorious past: a flying
dragon, otherwise known as a Griffith. Although it was a widespread
symbol in the Byzantine Empire, very few are so visible and well preserved
Count yourself lucky if you get to see it.
By Natalia Feduschak, The Kyiv Post, Kyiv, Ukraine, April 24, 2003
For personal and academic use only