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Chernihiv, the city that once rivalled Kyiv


Probably, every great city has a sort of a shadow, a town that at some time in history was either a rival or a pretender to the same status. We can say that Ravenna was a shadow of Rome, Vladimir was a shadow of Moscow, and Chernihiv was a shadow of Kyiv. But woe to the vanquished! The chroniclers stop writing about them, their inhabitants forget the long-gone moments of glory, and they, these towns, seem to freeze in time, and if they do develop, this development is painfully slow. But it is in these towns, languishing in the past, that history is more acutely felt.


The Reverend Andriy VLASENKO shares his impressions of Chernihiv, an ancient Ukrainian city, once a rival of Kyiv.


Chernihiv used to be a powerful rival of Kyiv. It has retained some of its ancient traditions and some of its ancient culture. The first written mention of Chernihiv dates to 907, but conclusive archaeological evidence points to much earlier date of its foundation. Chorna Mohyla, the tomb of the legendary founder of the city of Chernihiv, Prince Chorny, right in the centre of town is a visual reminder of the antique roots of Chernihiv.

It would be difficult to say now with any precision when Kyiv got the upper hand and established itself as an unchallenged capital city but Chernihiv finally did lose the race for supremacy with Kyiv and slipped into a subordinate position. They say that the impenetrable forests that used to surround the city of Chernihiv in the times of old, made it impregnable, but what if these forests that protected it from foes also prevented it from being accessible to friends and thwarted its development?

Chernihiv has several distinct features that make it easily distinguishable from any other Ukrainian town. Severely looking but gentle at heart locals and ancient Orthodox churches are two of such features. These old churches are like palimpsests in which the original is almost indiscernible. Some art and architecture historians claim that the sweeping reconstructions of the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, which drastically changed the appearance of the churches built in the eleventh-twelfth centuries, disfigured the originals, robbing them of the purity of line, and investing them with excessive Baroque lavishness, so uncharacteristic of early Rus-Ukrainian church architecture. But in Chernihiv you can see churches which have been stripped of their Baroque decorations to reveal their original purity  and to please those aesthetes who are such enthusiasts of purity of form. In Chernihiv, you will find almost all architectural styles of the past thousand years represented, from Byzantine to Bauhaus.


After the death of Grand Prince Volodymyr in 1015, the struggle for supremacy began between Yaroslav of Novgorod and later of Kyiv (the one who was later called The Wise) and Mstyslav of Tmutarakan and of Chernihiv (the one who was later called The Brave). This struggle turned into a strife of major proportions by the then standards, and in 1024 it ended with the lands of Rus-Ukraine being divided between Yaroslav and Mstyslav, the latter proving himself a better warrior.

Mstyslav was not only a superior war lord  he was also ahead of Yaroslav in starting the construction of stone churches. These magnificent architectural creations asserted the power and might of his Chernihiv Principality. In 1033, right in the centre of the Dytynets (fortified part of town) on a hill above the Desna River, Mstyslav began building a church, Spaska (Saviours), which at the time of his death three years later, in the words of a chronicler, stood as high as the head of a rider astride a horse. When finished, the Spasky Sobor (later, it was renamed Spaso-Preobrazhensky, or The Transfiguration of the Saviours Cathedral), became an architectural landmark, and now it is the oldest church among those that have been preserved to our days from the eleventh century in the lands of Rus-Ukraine (there were several other churches built earlier but they were all destroyed in wars or by vandalism). It was the first church in Eastern Europe to be devoted to the Saviour. The iconostasis to be seen in the church is of much later times and dates from the eighteenth century (Yaroslav, Grand Prince of Kyiv began building a major church, Holy Sophia, in Kyiv later, in 1037 to commemorate his victory over the pernicious nomads, the Pechenehi).

The three underground churches to be found in the Illinsky (Elijahs) Monastery which is situated on the slope of Boldyny Hory, also date from the eleventh century. The monastery was founded in 1069 by St Antony, the same monk who founded a cave monastery in Kyiv, the one that came to be known as Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery. St Antony chose natural caves to start the two monasteries, both in Kyiv and in Chernihiv; in fact, he was the monk who laid the foundation of monasticism in Rus-Ukraine. The caves in the Illinsky Monastery in Chernihiv were widened and linked with a system of underground passages; the three underground churches in the caves are the biggest of their kind in Ukraine. They have a unique feature too  the acoustics inside them are such that the sounds reverberate for several seconds before dying. So far it has not been established how this acoustical effect was created by the ancient builders of the underground churches.

There are five churches in Chernihiv that date from the pre-Mongolian times, that is from the centuries before the thirteenth when the Mongols invaded Rus-Ukraine and laid waste to its lands. This alone makes Chernihiv unique among other cities situated in the area devastated by the invaders (the twentieth century saw another scourge of the human racethe atheistic Bolshevik regime that vandalized or pulled down many an ancient church).


Construction of churches and secular buildings flourished in the Land of Chernihivshchyna in the twelfth century. The Borysohlibsky (St. Borys and St Hlebs) Church of the twelfth century is famous for its white stone decorations made in the style known as animalistic. The church treasures the Czar Gate (central gate) to the iconostasis which was made with the money donated by Hetman Mazepa (late seventeenth-early eighteenth century) from the silver idol of pagan times that had been discovered in the vicinity of the church.

The Pyatnytska Church in the Dytynets, a small one-dome building, set the model for construction of similar churches in Novgorod and in Moscow in Russia. The Borysohlibsky and the Pyatnytska Churches were badly damaged during the Second World War but recently they were carefully and completely restored.

The Yeletsky Monastery of the twelfth century is located opposite the Chorna Mohyla Tomb. It stands at the place where St Antony Pechersky saw an icon of the Virgin that miraculously appeared in front of him. It must have been an event that greatly impressed the people of Chernihiv, and the church of the monastery reflects the religious zeal that must have been inspired among the inhabitants of Chernihiv by the heavenly apparition. The white church of exquisitely balanced proportions looked as though it was about to soar heavenward, but in the late sixteenth century the exterior of the church was redone in the nascent Ukrainian Baroque style which completely changed the appearance of the church but luckily did not disfigure it.


There are quite a few churches and buildings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be found in Chernihiv. Among the more impressive ones are the majestic Troyitsky Sobor (Holy Trinity Cathedral) with wonderful frescos of the eighteenth century; the Voskresenska (Resurrection) Church which was designed by the Ukrainian architect of a great artistic talent Ivan Hryhorovych-Barsky, and the House of Colonel Lyzohub, a rare landmark of secular architecture of the seventeenth century.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Cherniviv remained a major cultural centre, with an extensive artistic production and its own printing shop that printed books on various subjects in considerable number of copies.

One of the prominent figures in Chernihivs history, Colonel Vasyl Dunin-Borkovsky, a philanthropist and patron of art and of the church of the 17th century was buried in the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral. His portrait hung on the wall of the church close to the tomb for about 150 years and then was removed. In the picture one could also see the icon of the Virgin Mary that was revealed to St Antony. The colonel was said to be particularly fond of this icon and donated money for an expensive frame to be made for it. But in the local lore the colonel was known as a vampire, a sort of Chernihiv variation of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story. Another portrait of him, in which the colonel was presented as an evil creature, was said to have hung side by side with the other, magisterial portrait of the man. A historian of later times, Mykola Markevych, wrote down one of the versions of the macabre story about Vasyl Dunin-Borkovsky. A little excerpt from it runs like this: When this vampire died, he was buried in a monastery. But the next day he was seen riding in a carriage drawn by six black horses across Chervony Bridge. The driver, the postilion, the lackey and three other persons in the carriage were all devils the carriage fell into the River Stryzhen The tomb was opened, the coffin pried open and the body in it looked red and blue, the eyes open. Then the body was pierced through the heart with an aspen stick One of the possible explanations is that the colonel did not die but fell into a deep sopor which was mistaken for death. A more romantic approach leaves some room for imagination  what if we are dealing here with a supernatural phenomenon?

Above the River Stryzhen stands a church, St Mykhailo and St Fedirs, which used to belong to the local seminary. The church is designed in the neo-Byzantine style which was popular in the mid-nineteenth century. A pupil of the seminary, Pavlo Tychyna, used to sing in the choir of this church. Later, this pupil became one of the remarkable poets of Ukraine of the twentieth century. He was a man of a tragic destiny  a poet of a great poetic talent, Tychyna was forced by the Bolshevik regime to choose between being arrested and dying in a concentration camp or serving the regime. He chose to live and to serve, but his early poems bear testimony to his prodigious poetic talent.


The river is running, splashing and playing,

She changes seasons as though dresses.

You are crying, your heart is breaking,

Man is beastly.


But dont you worry that much, my loved ones.

If man is beastly, than whose Love lives in your heart?

All of you are paths to the Church overgrown and forgotten

That meander through the holy groves.


The Museum of History and the Museum of Art in Chernihiv were established in 1902 after the distinguished Ukrainian patron of art Vasyl Tarnovsky Jr. left his collections in his will to the city of Chernihiv. His collections contained over a hundred thousand items  old Cossack sabres, maces, utensils and tools, icons, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits of Cossack leaders, paintings of the twentieth century plus a lot more  and fifty thousand books into the bargain. During the Second World War about two thirds of these collections were destroyed in bombing raids and artillery shelling.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko, one of the most remarkable Ukrainian movie directors of the twentieth century, happened to be in Chernihiv in September 1944. An entry from his diary reads: A cellar under the museum, kept under lock and key, was the place where the treasures of the museum  an imprisoned museum, were kept: seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits of hetmans and colonels, of metropolitans and wives of Cossack leaders, all painted by excellent masters. The lock with a seal  not to be broken. The portraits were being destroyed by time and the darkness of the prison I had a vision  all these people in the portrait step out of the frames and talk to each other Once in a while someone came to check whether all the imprisoned portraits were in their places. It always happened when a new curator of the museum was appointed. When those new curators and those who appointed them came to have a look, the portraits could hear the lofty talk about history, politics and art Then the doors were swung close again and the heavy eighteenth-century lock was locked again, and the darkness and silence filled the cellar. [Hetman] Bohdan [Khmelnytsky] kept peering at [Hetman] Ivan [Mazepa], and Ivan kept staring at Bohdan for quite a few years, but one day they were all torn to pieces by a German bomb and the pieces were consumed in a conflagration Let them burn, said the local [communist] party boss laughing with glee and addressing his sidekicks and toadies, dont even try to put the fire out! And he burst out laughing, happy to see the priceless paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth century turning into smoke


The war ended, the semblance of normal life was restored, but it took many more years for the soviet regime to collapse. The attitude to the national Ukrainian cultural heritage is changing, a new mentality is being formed.


Photos by Oleksandr Horobets


Chernihiv Fortress in the 18th century. Modern reconstruction.



This promenade attracts a lot of people in practically every season.
The promenade runs on top of what used to be the Fortress Wall.


Newlyweds enjoying the sunshine.


The Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral (of Our Lords Transfiguration)
that dates from 1033 is the oldest surviving church not only
in Ukraine but in the whole of Eastern Europe.


A monument to Taras Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian bard
of the 19th century who was also a painter in his own right
and painted architectural landmarks of Chernihiv.


The reliquary with the Imperishable Relics
of St Feodosy of Chernihiv in the Spaso-Preobrazhensky
Cathedral. The relics of this 17th century saint
are much revered by the faithful.


A view of the interior of one
of the old Chernihiv churches.


The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus;
the painting in the Troytsky Cathedral.


One of the icons in the collection of Kolehium,
a former religious school; the collection contains
icons dating from 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.


One of the churches of Chernihiv that reveal
some Russian architectural influences.


A view of the interior of the Troytsky (Holy
Trinity) Church; the iconostasis and lamps
that can be seen in the picture are recent
creations; the originals were destroyed
during the atheistic campaigns of the Bolshevik
regime in the 1920s and 1930s.


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