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The Hustyn Monastery revived
The Ukrainian Orthodox Priest Andriy VLASENKO doubles as a journalist (with hundreds of in-depth and excellent articles to his name). This time he takes us to the Hustyn Monastery in the Land of Sumshchyna.
It would be difficult to count how many attempts have been made to erase the text that keeps being written by God’s hand on the Ukrainian land — the text which is at the same time the chronicles of the forests and rivers, of the churches and monasteries, of the people and their faiths. Even when part of the text does get scratched out, the remaining letters form words which in turn combine into sentences, and which in their turn group together into chapters. New chapters keep being added, sometimes in a convoluted hand, but all of these texts have one and the same central theme — the everlasting Ukrainian spirit. As a result what we have is a true and magnificent palimpsest.
If you happen to drive along the road — Kyiv-Sumy Highway — that leads to Hustyn in a heavy rain or fog, you may easily miss the sign that shows where you have to turn to get to the Hustyn Monastery. Neither would you be able to see the monastery itself from the road because it is obscured by a stretch of a dense forest. One of the ways to learn where to go is to stop and listen to the silence which, if you are lucky, will be punctuated by silvery tintinnabulation that spreads wide and soars high, much-much higher that the low, grey, overcast sky.
The Hustyn Monastery and the whole place around it are permeated with quietude and peacefulness. There are quite a few places like this in Ukraine. But it was not only seclusion and quietude that attracted the monk Ioasaf who returned to Ukraine in the Year 1600 from a monastery on Mount Athos, the site of the most venerated monastic community in the Orthodox world. He must have felt there was God’s grace spread over the place that he chose for the future monastery — the grace that keeps a gentle leaf suspended in the air and that makes the heart stand still. He and several other monks erected a cross right there in the middle of the forested island on the small river Uday, thus founding a new monastic community, “a citadel of spirit” in the turbulent world.
The only building material was timber, and the defensive walls — those were cruel and violent times — all the buildings, including the church which was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, were built of wood. The second abbot of the monastery, Isaya Kopynsky, a prominent ecclesiarch and theologian, received confirmation from the “most highly born” Prince Mykhaylo Korybut-Vyshnevetsky of the monastery’s right to hold the land on which it was situated (the island since that time has ceased to be an island, the isthmus that formed gradually developed into a wide stretch of land and now if you did not know it, you would not be able to tell that the monastery once sat on an island). Money donations that poured into the monastery made it possible to reinforce the walls and build a new refectory church, Uspenska, complete with a section with cells for monks. The enterprising abbot founded two other “subsidiary” monasteries, Ladansky and Mharsky, both of which later grew into fully-fledged monastic communities of wide renown.
They say that God put the most virtuous to the hardest tests. Fires and Tartar raids destroyed practically all the original buildings of the monastery, but neither the monks nor the locals who lived in the vicinity despaired and kept rebuilding what had been destroyed. In their labours they were supported, and not only morally or spiritually, by the top church hierarchs of that time. In 1621, Feofan, Patriarch of Jerusalem, the ecclesiarch who had given his direct support to the Ukrainian Orthodox clergy at the time when it had suffered hard blows because of the agreements to unite the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Ukraine, paid a visit to the Hustyn Monastery. In 1639, it was the Metropolitan of Kyiv Petro Mohyla (who played a distinguished role in the cultural history of Ukraine in the seventeenth century), who visited the Hustyn Monastery. He chose the site for a new church to be built at. The new church, also wooden, was consecrated in 1644. This five-domed church excited admiration of Paul of Aleppo, a traveller who described his travels in his books. He came to the monastery together with the Patriarch of Antioch Macarius in 1654. Paul later wrote: “In the Monastery of the Holy Trinity… we entered the holy church where we saw the most magnificent iconostasis. Neither the grandiose iconostasis of the Holy Sophia Cathedral nor the iconostasis in the church of the Pechersk Monastery can hold a candle to the iconostasis in the church of the [Hustyn] monastery… I have never seen anything more perfect or glorious. No human words can adequately describe its perfection, its shining majesty of gold and icons.” It was written by a person who travelled far and wide and had seen many wonders in many lands.
In the seventeenth century some of the wooden churches built in Ukraine were amazing creations of the art of architecture, both in size — up to forty metres in height — and in the elegance of style. It is a great loss that none of those churches have survived. The wooden Holy Trinity Church of the Hustyn Monastery has not come down to us either.
Chronicles and Baroque churches
In the first half of the seventeenth century, a monk who has remained anonymous, wrote a chronicle, “About the Founding and Creation of the Hustyn Monastery.” The chronicle asserted the role of the monastery in maintaining the Orthodox Christian tradition at the time when militant Catholicism was exercising a hard pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Another chronicle was written in the 1620s whose author could have been Zakhariya Kopystensky, a prominent church figure and historian. There are two extant versions of this chronicle; one of them tells the story of Ukraine, starting from the ancient times down to 1597. The author calls upon the readers to come to know the history of their nation and pass their knowledge on to the generations to come — “It is very necessary for everyone to read history books.” “And love God, Church and Ukraine,” he adds.
In 1672, after another fire that swept through the monastery, a new church was begun to be built. It was destined to become one of the most remarkable creations of the architectural style that later came to be known as “Cossack Baroque.” This time it was to be a stone and brick church. The money for the construction was donated by Hetman Ivan Samoylovych who also initiated the construction of other churches, the most notable among them being the ones in Chernihiv and in the Mharsky Monastery.
The stone Trinity Church in the Hustyn Monastery was described as “a delicate, refined and elegant creation.” Its interior was richly decorated but unfortunately neglect and atheistic zeal of later epochs robbed it of the magnificent iconostasis, murals and bronze lamps. But even these losses have not diminished the church’s divine architectural beauty.
In several decades that followed the construction of the Trinity Church a number of other buildings was erected in the monastery which can be viewed now as a unique complex of Ukrainian Baroque architecture. Taking a walk inside the monastery and around it, you can see how harmoniously the architecture fits the Ukrainian landscape. It calls to mind the Heavenly City described by St Augustine.
Hetman Ivan Mazepa, a major political figure and generous patron of art, and Colonel Dmytro Horlenko promoted further construction at the monastery by their charitable donations. The new Uspenska Church, which also served as a refectory, was built thanks to the donorship of Mazepa (in 1845, after the Governor General of Malorosiya — that is Ukraine — Mykola Repnin was buried in this church, it was rededicated and consecrated as the Resurrection Church). With the money provided by the enormously rich and pious colonel three churches were built in the 1690s– 1710s (Church of St Nicholas; Church of St Peter and St Paul, and Church of St Kateryna the Martyr).
Later renovations and reconstructions saw St Kateryna’s Church turned into the Church of St Varvara; linden and maple trees were planted along the paths and the walls were once again reinforced. One of the young monks, a scion of an old Cossack family (their tomb was in the crypt of the Trinity Church) who took walks along these paths was to become a prominent ecclesiarch, Ioasaf Bilhorodsky.
It was not only money that was donated to the monastery — among the rich presents were forests, fields, fisheries, and even villages and little towns with all the adjacent ponds and gardens. The monastery was granted the right to buy land and other real estate. Gradually, it became one of the wealthiest monasteries in Ukraine, with extensive plots of land owned in the Lands of Poltavshchyna, Sivershchyna and Slobozhanshchyna.
It should be mentioned here that the revenues that the monastery received were used for various purposes which included promotion of education, book publishing and aid to the poor peasants.
In the eighteenth century Ukraine lost the last vestiges of its independence; the Zaporizhzhya Sich of Cossacks ceased to exist. The Russian Empress Catherine II issued an ukase in 1786 sanctioning secularization of the monasteries’ property. The Hustyn Monastery, deprived of everything it owned, was closed down in 1793. Only the Trinity Church was allowed to be used for religious services attended by the local population.
Years of neglect and ruination lasted until 1843 when the Synod (the secular body that was in charge of church affairs in the Imperial Russia) granted the permission, following a request filed by the Archbishop of Poltava Hedeon, to revive the monastery. In 1845, the poet Taras Shevchenko, the iconic figure of Ukrainian culture, who was then a member of an archaeological committee, visited the Hustyn Monastery. Shevchenko painted several watercolours with views of the monastery. Three of these watercolours are extant and in them we can see not only the scenic beauty of the place, as it looked back in the mid-nineteenth century but also the evidence of the restoration and reconstruction work that was gong on in the monastery at that time. Later, Shevchenko mentioned the Hustyn Monastery in his novel Muzykant (Musician).
The monastery became a centre of pilgrimage with pilgrims coming from afar. In the town of Pryluky which is situated not to far from it, the monastery set up a hotel, a church school, an orphanage and a refectory, and had a church built.
The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the Bolshevik coup created a social upheaval of enormous proportions. For a couple of years, the monastery served as a place of refuge for many of those who were dislocated and fled the revolutionary terror and excesses of civil war.
In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks launched their highly aggressive anti-religious campaign and the Hustyn Monastery, together with many others, was closed down. The monastery was used then as an orphanage for homeless children of whom there were innumerable hordes after the civil wars. The management of the “colony” as it was called did not discourage the embittered children from vandalism and whatever could be vandalized in the monastery was. Even the trees were not spared. Later, the colony was transformed into a mental institution which led to further deterioration of the architectural landmarks in the monastery.
In the early 1930s, the Bolshevik authorities declared an intention to raise the monastery to the ground and it was only thanks to the heroic efforts of Professor Mykola Makarenko, an archaeologist, and his friends that the monastery, an outstanding architectural landmark of Ukrainian Baroque, was saved from utter destruction. There was a tragic personal touch in this for Makarenko — his son Orest died in an accident during the examination of one of the dilapidated churches of the Hustyn Monastery. The young man was buried in the crypt of the Resurrection Church.
It was Mykola Makarenko who attempted to save the Golden-Domed Monastery of St Michael in Kyiv — but failed. For his attempts he was arrested and put into a concentration camp. In 1938, he was executed by a firing squad in the city of Novosibirsk in Siberia.
In 1943, the nuns of the Ladansky Convent turned to the local authorities with a request to grant permission for reopening the Hustyn Monastery. The permission was granted and the monastery was transformed into a nunnery. In 1959, the nunnery was shut down in another fit of the communist atheistic zeal.
The dark age of militant Bolshevism came to an end in the late 1980s, and in 1991 Ukraine regained its independence. Among the things that immediately began to come back to life after independence was religious life. In December of 1993, the religious services were resumed in the Hustyn Monastery. The state allocated money for the restoration, and the combined efforts of the monastic community and the state support revived Hustyn.
The bells tintinnabulate again, the words of prayers resound again, the liturgies are recited, the pilgrims come to worship and get water from the blessed source — a new page is being written, another layer to the palimpsest has been added.
Photos by Yury BUSLENKO
The iconostasis of the Church of Christ’s Resurrection.
The Church of Christ’s Resurrection
The Church if St Michael Nadbramna
Part of the remaining mural on the wall
The Church of St Peter and St Paul Nadbramna
The house of the Hegumen (Father Superior)
The road that leads to Hustyn runs
Dark age — Hustyn vandalized and neglected