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St Volodymyr’s — a hurch that stands at the place where Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv was baptized
The Rev Andriy VLASENKO tells the story of a church in a twenty-six-century old town of Chersonesus on the Crimean Black Sea coast.
To most of the European nations, Ukraine included, Christianity was brought by a spiritual or secular leader who was later beatified or sainted. In Ukraine it was Prince Volodymyr, the ruler of vast lands of Kyivan Rus, who at the very end of the tenth century chose Orthodox Christianity to be his state religion and proceeded to turn his hitherto heathen subjects into Christians. In later centuries, he was not only canonized as saint for his Christianizing effort, but also he received an appellation of “Great, Equal to the Apostles.” There were and are many churches in Ukraine dedicated to St Volodymyr, one of which is to be found in the museum town of Chersonesus in the Crimea, a couple of miles from Sevastopol.
The city of Chersonesus was founded in about the sixth century B.C.E. by the Greeks. Under the Byzantine Empire it was a flourishing place, both a stronghold and trade centre. The Slavs who called it Korsun, had a small merchant colony there, and the Kyivan merchants stopped in Chersonesus on their way to Constantinople and on their way back.
Prince Volodymyr, once he had decided upon turning Orthodox Christian, devised quite a devious plan to undergo baptism his way. He wanted to receive baptism from Byzantium, but not as a junior asking for a favour, but as an equal to be respected. Besides, he was eager to marry the Byzantine princess Anna, and what better way there was for a suitor to prove he was eligible than to show his strength in war? Besides, there was still another reason for waging war — Volodymyr helped the Byzantines deal with an insurrection and it was before he rendered armed assistance that he had asked Princess Anna, the emperor’s daughter, in marriage. He was promised she would — to her horror — marry him, but the promise was not kept. The breach of the deal was to be punished.
And he sallied forth from Kyiv at the head of a strong army. The city surrendered to his superior force. The trembling princess arrived but her fears turned out to be groundless — the northern “barbarian” proved to be quite gentlemanly, courteous, manly and good-looking. But the proud conqueror was stricken with a strange affliction — he went blind. The princess who thought he was thus afflicted because he tarried with conversion to Christianity, urged him to go ahead with baptism. Volodymyr gave his consent, and the local bishop, together with priests who accompanied Anna, administered baptism. The moment he was pronounced converted, the sight returned to Volodymyr — anyway, it is what the chronicler says happened. The church he was baptized in was St Basil’s, right in the central square of Chersonesus.
Anna, much impressed, did not object any longer to the wedding taking place as soon as possible, and they were duly wed. Volodymyr, who waxed magnanimous, returned the conquered city to the Greeks.
In the fourteenth century Chersonesus was ruined by the nomads, and it was never revived. Only separate columns, and parts of the wall are all that has been preserved from an ancient city.
In the early nineteenth century, archaeological excavations began and in 1827, half a century after the Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire, right in the centre of what used to be a flourishing Chersonesus, foundations of three churches were discovered, one of which proved to be the site where the church of St Basil used to stand, the church where Volodymyr received baptism.
The archeological digging was initiated by Admiral Graig, the then Russian Black Sea Fleet commander. The admiral had, two years previously, submitted a report to Tsar Alexander I, describing the circumstances attending the baptism of Prince Volodymyr, and “loyally suggesting” that if the monarch so desired, a church be built in Chersonesus to commemorate the momentous event.
But even if “the monarch so desired,” over three decades elapsed before another tsar, also Alexander but the Second, got the things going. In fact, it was the emperor himself, accompanied by his imperial spouse, who went down to the Crimea, to the ruins of Chersonesus, and laid the corner stone of a new church which was to be dedicated to St Volodymyr. The emperor urged all the members of the imperial family to donate a ten-rouble gold piece (a lot of money at that time) towards the construction of the church.
Three more decades passed though before the construction of a magnificent church was completed. The architect Grimm who was commissioned to design the church, followed rather closely the general Byzantine pattern, cruciform in plan, with a huge central dome topped with a big gold-plated cross. Whatever had been preserved of the original church was incorporated into the new one, to maintain the continuity of tradition. A marble slab that stood at the entrance of the church carried an inscription which said that the ancient foundation was indicated on the floor with white marble tracings.
The church was described as “very impressive in its beauty and majestic appearance.” Variously coloured marbles and other building materials, some of which had been queried in Italy, and some in the Crimea, were used in the construction of the church.
Several painters, well-known at that time (I. Maykov, V. Neff and P. Riss among them) were commissioned to decorate the interior and paint icons for the iconostasis. The murals showed the baptism of Volodymyr and baptism of the Kyivans in the river. The floor was decorated with mosaics of ingenious patterns (to decorate the floors of churches with mosaics was the usual practice in Byzantine).
An unusually large-sized icon (5 by 9 metres) graced the central apse; it was painted in oils on linoleum, then still a rarely used, recently created material, by O. Korzukhin, who also was responsible for other icons, Baptism of Christ, and St Methodius and St Cyril, among them. The interior of the church was dominated by a marble iconostasis; the walls were faced with multi-coloured Carrara marbles, and the columns were made of dark marbles, with the capitals and bases being of lighter colours which created a magnificent, contrasting colour scheme. The colour display was further enhanced by the stained-glass in the windows which created a mysterious, scintillating atmosphere. Archbishop Nikonor described his impressions in this way: “Verily, those who walk into this cathedral, can exclaim, exactly the way St Volodymyr’s envoys did when nine hundred years ago they entered the Holy Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople for the first time, ‘Being in this church we could not help imagining we were transported to Heaven!’”
St Volodymyr’s of Korsun had relics donated to it — an icon of the Virgin Mary which was believed to have curative properties; 115 pieces of relics of various saints (among which there were some of Clement, the Roman pope who died the death of a martyr in the Crimea, and of St Volodymyr himself), a piece of the Cross, on which Jesus Christ had been crucified, and which was believed to possess miraculous properties. These relics, the magnificence of the cathedral, the majestic beauty of the religious services attracted worshippers from as far as Sevastopol and other outlying places.
In 1924, several years after the power had been seized by the militantly atheistic Bolsheviks, St Volodymyr’s was shut down; the last liturgy was held there in July 1926. The church was henceforth used for purposes which had nothing to do with religion, and later it was made part of the Archeological Preserve Chersonesus.
During the Second World War, the Crimea was occupied by the Nazi Germans, and in the battles that raged in the peninsula, the Cathedral of St Volodymyr sustained much damage. In the exchanges of artillery fire, stray shells hit the church, causing the central dome to collapse. Most of the interior murals were destroyed too. But even the ruins of the cathedral preserved some of its former majesty.
In the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet empire in 1991, a religious revival began, and most of the surviving churches were returned to the religious communities. In 1992, religious services were resumed in St Volodymyr’s, and in January 1994, the use of the church was officially transferred to the local Orthodox community. Restoration was badly needed and the donations towards it came from the rank-and-file faithful and from public and government organizations alike. It was the Kyiv City State Administration that made the biggest contribution. The restoration that took several years to complete, re-created the original appearance of the cathedral, both the exterior and the interior.
The continuity of tradition that goes back to Prince Volodymyr’s baptism, broken for several decades, has been re-established.